Listening In: Luis Palau

WARREN SMITH, HOST: I’m Warren Smith and today you’re listening in on my conversation with evangelist Luis Palau.

Luis Palau was certainly one of the best known evangelists of the 20th and early 21st century. Billy Graham gave him his start, and became his mentor, and that led some to call Palau, who is from Argentina, the “Latino Billy Graham.” Indeed their approaches were similar, and their respect for each other was lifelong. But Luis Palau eventually followed his own path – with the blessing and financial support of Graham – and eventually presented the Gospel in 75 countries to more than 30 million people. 

But his earthly journey came to an end last week. He died of cancer on March 11, at age 86.

I interviewed Luis Palau in 2019, when a movie about his life was released. But for reasons that even now I can’t fully explain, I lost that interview. A few weeks ago, when I heard that Luis Palau was likely in the final stages of his life, I renewed my search, to no avail. It was only when I reached out to one of my producers, Johnny Franklin, who meticulously saves everything, did the raw audio for that interview turn up. 

So the interview you are about to hear is almost two years old, but it has never been aired before, and I can now say that it being lost, while it was a frustration at the time, is – I can now see – a mercy, a result of God’s good providence, even an excellent metaphor for the Gospel message of being lost and found that Luis Palau preached. And what he has to say about his sickness and death has even more power today than what it might have had two years ago. 

Luis Palau spoke to me from Portland. I was in my home studio in Charlotte, NC.

You got your start in your home country of Argentina, but you got your start in this country, at least in part, with Dr. Billy Graham. Is that accurate?

LUIS PALAU, GUEST: You got it. Yes, absolutely. I came to the USA when I was 24 to get a year of graduate studies at Multnomah University and met my wife. And then I was always dreaming of doing large outreaches, shaking cities, speaking to nations. And then I was asked if I would interpret for Dr. Billy Graham in California. They had a central California Crusade based in Fresno and the Valley is full of Latinos. So, I interpreted for him into Spanish. We became acquainted, it opened doors. He became a mentor and it just gave me a great vision of what can be done and how to do it. So, the Lord really used Mr. Graham to get me going in mass evangelism as it’s sometimes called. So it was. You got it right, yes.

SMITH: Well, you know, one of the things that I learned in the movie that I don’t think I knew from reading other accounts of your life was that you originally had planned to go back to South America, back to Argentina and be based there, but it was meeting your wife. Is that what kept you in this country?

PALAU: Well, yes. I met my wife at the Multnomah and she wanted to be a missionary all her life anyway, but she was thinking more of Taiwan or the Philippines. And I just changed directions for her in the name of the Lord. And we went together. She studied Spanish in Costa Rica for a year, did well. And so I was ministering. We had twin boys who are now middle-aged men, and then we moved to Colombia and Andrew was born there. Then we went to Mexico and our youngest son was born there. And so together the Lord developed the passion for the lost and speaking to large cities. And my wife had a passion. She’s not as much a public speaker though, she’s spoken to women at retreats and that kind of a thing, but the passion for the loss as the thing that got us going. And so, yeah, that’s how it started.

SMITH: Well, you know, one of the things that I find, I think, maybe moving is even the right word to use about your story is that you were interpreting for Billy Graham, but you had this passion, this fire, this calling on your life to do really what he was doing, to preach to large numbers of people. And Dr. Graham didn’t see that at all as a threat. In fact, he sent you out with his blessings. And if I understand the story, right, a little bit of money as well. Is that accurate?

PALAU: Absolutely. Not only that, one of his closest friends became a member of our board of directors. He kept counseling me along the way. He gave us a significant amount to get our team going. And then, you know, he used to have these conferences. I don’t know if you ever went to some of them in Europe, you know, and Holland and so on. And Switzerland. And he set me up. I was a youngish guy and he put me up there to speak, you know, to pastors, to evangelists, to church leaders. And it just opened doors for the world. It opened doors for the cities. By his backing, the Holy Spirit used it to get people to trust me, because I think people thought if Billy Graham trusts this guy, he must be all right. That’s my evaluation. You know? So I owe him so much and I praise the Lord for his godliness and humility and the way he opened doors. So, yes, you got it right. It was of the Lord. You couldn’t have maneuvered that if you tried, you know?

SMITH: Well, to me, what I find moving about that is just what a model it is for ministry that, you know, the fields are wide unto harvest, and we should pray that the Lord of the harvest sends more workers. And whenever the Lord actually honors that prayer and brings more workers, sometimes we get competitive. Sometimes we get jealous. Sometimes we don’t do what Dr. Graham did, which is to be open-handed. And it’s what you have done in your ministry as well, or at least try to do. Is that accurate?

PALAU: Oh, absolutely. And he gave me such good advice. I tell you, anybody would love to have a man of God like Mr. Graham to give you advice and counsel. He was intellectually clear. He was knowledgeable. He was very biblical, very theological. People think of evangelists as just shouting John 3:16 and nothing else, you know, which is not the worst thing you can do, but he knew the Bible. He knew theology and he lived by it. And his integrity was one of the things that honored the Lord and a whole 50 year history of his ministry. And so we learned a lot about organization and integrity and openness and being humble, but at the same time, authoritative and so on. And it was a great example. And he gave me advice. He said, look, one of the biggest mistakes I made was to put partner evangelists on my team. He said evangelists need to be on their own, led by the Holy Spirit. When you go on, he said, don’t add people to your team. Let them go on their own. So we followed that advice and we have a thing that we call Next Generation Alliance. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. And we have like 800 American traveling proclamation evangelists, and we encourage them, giving them the vision that Billy gave us, we try to give to them integrity: organization, financial integrity, sexual integrity, truthfulness, humility, you know, all the attributes of an evangelist that honor the Lord. So, and now this year 2020 coming up, we are doing it worldwide. And yes, I learned the glory of encouraging fellow evangelists, especially younger ones, to dream great dreams, to plan great plans, to pray prayers, to obey the great commission. And I think the Lord is doing a wonderful thing around the world. Evangelists are necessary, as you know too well, Warren, that we need to win them to the Lord. And then the church takes over and disciples them. That’s the dance between the evangelists and the local church.

SMITH: Well, let me drill down into a couple of new or different aspects of your ministry, Luis. One of the things that I’ve also been fascinated with is that your ministry and you personally have—even though you travel the world—you also have dug down in your local community, in Beaverton, in Portland. You’ve put calm a good neighbor, a good citizen of that community. Can you say more about what is driving that impulse and some of the things that you guys are doing in the local area?

PALAU: Oh, I’d love to, I’d love to. Yeah. Well, I owe it in a great measure to our oldest son, Kevin. I had the vision too, but he kind of made it happen. The thing is we realized that there was a confrontative approach to the community that wasn’t necessary. There are times where you have to confront and you have to speak truth that isn’t agreeable to both sides. But, on the other hand, in Portland we were having a situation—Portland, Oregon—where people were just attacking each other. The secularists attacking the Christians, the Christians retaliating, and it was not a pleasant picture. So we began to say, how can we get the church to show what we really are like. We love the community. We are part of the community. We shop in the same malls. We send our kids to the same schools. We travel the same roads. We vote for the same politicians, for goodness sakes. We need to let the city know the Bible, believing Christians are not some jungle tribe that absolutely refuses to integrate with the community. So, we began. The churches were ready for it. I tell you, we were so surprised. The pastors all came together, Warren, and they said, this is a great idea. Let’s serve the schools. Let’s serve single moms. Let’s serve homeless people. The government pitched in. The police were for it. The politicians, we had our mayor who was the first gay mayor of a major United States city. And the churches decided we are going to show respect to the mayor even though he knows that we know that we disagree on the ethical side of things, but the city was impressed. The Holy Spirit used it, Warren. And, as a result, there is such a much better attitude. There’s a hearing for the gospel. People are coming to the Lord for most unusual backgrounds, I want to tell you. And so it was all of the Lord to be what the scripture says: You’re the salt of the earth. You’re the light of the world. The light, I see more as proclamation. The salt as living daily and sowing the salt. So that’s the general picture, but I’m sure you have other questions.

SMITH: Well, yeah, I mean, I do because I could see this happening in a place like, I don’t know, maybe Atlanta or Nashville, Tennessee or Dallas, Texas. But Portland has something of a reputation. I mean, there’s even a whole TV show called Portlandia about just how kind of wacky and crazy and politically correct Portland is. And I think one of the things that I find interesting about what you just said and what you guys have done there over the last 10 or more years is that it really says to the rest of the world, especially to those of us who are Christians, without criticizing us, you have basically said, if we can do it in Portland, why aren’t you doing it in Des Moines or Memphis or Knoxville or Charlotte? I mean, am I getting you right on that?

PALAU: Absolutely right. Absolutely right. And, you know, the response of the cities is amazing, Warren. It really is. I mean, it’s like the younger generation, but not only the younger generation, I was pleasantly surprised that guys who are old timer pastors and denominational leaders said, we need to do this. Why should we be afraid? What do we have to back down off? We believe in the truth. We love it, but we don’t have to be offensive. We just proclaim the truth. We live the truth. Let’s bring the body together. So, what they call gospel movements now is people coming together and it’s happening in both the Bible Belt, East Coast, everywhere, Warren. It’s an undercurrent that is going to one day surface suddenly. And the nation is going to say, wow, where did this come from? Because it’s evangelism. But at the same time, it’s really involvement in the community. Education, societal poverty, homelessness, abandoned children, you know, all the great problems. And the churches have a lot to offer. And the Holy Spirit has seen fit to do it. Portland is weird. We have a bumper sticker that says, Keep Portland Weird. We have a thing that I’ll bet you most of the nation won’t believe, every year about 10 to 12,000 people bike around Portland stark naked, Warren. Stark naked. Did you hear that? If you’re one person naked, you go to jail. But if 12,000 Oregonians do it, they appear in the press. They’re applauded and considered very up to speed. That’s Oregon for you. You’ve got it back right. But the interesting thing is people are open to the gospel and people are coming to know the Lord from some circles that you’d be quite surprised.


SMITH: Welcome back to the program. I’m Warren Smith, and you’re listening in on my 2019 interview with evangelist Luis Palau. Let’s get right back to that conversation.

You’ve had this amazing career born in Argentina, coming to the United States as a young adult, being associated with Billy Graham, who some would say is the most famous evangelist of the 20th century. And then, as your career has gone, you’ve had these various pivots where you’ve really dug down into Portland and really tried to be a good neighbor and a good citizen there. So, now this kind of new phase and in your life, and that is that you’re the subject of a movie. First of all, how did the movie come about and how did you feel about it? I mean, did you want to be the subject of a movie? Did it feel strange or weird, or did it feel like something that you really felt like that God was calling you to do?

PALAU: No, no, the movie I had nothing to do with it. The funny thing is a businessman that God has blessed with money found out, and he decided I want to do a movie on this guy. How can God take a young man from the Southernmost country in the world, from a small village, take him to the world and use him to reach millions? And, on the other hand, how can we use this movie to lead many who don’t know Jesus Christ to know him as Savior? So they came up, they did it, we gave some input, but basically we didn’t do it. You know, I would have never thought of doing a movie on my own life, you know? And say, Hey, Warren, come and see a movie about me, you know, humility. But we decided, okay, it’s being done. And you know, the Lord has seen fit to use it in a tremendous way, Warren. People have come to know the Lord in English and Spanish. What we’re praying is that many young people will say yes, if God can take a guy from South America and send him to nation after nation to proclaim the gospel to leadership and important people, as well as the masses, he can do it with me. So it all happened through one self-motivated by the Lord, it seems, businessman. And then it’s been going around. It’s still in the early stages and we think it is going to continue to be used. But it was embarrassing. I mean, my family knows too much about the story to say, well, you’re missing this and you’re missing that. Or this one wasn’t so important, you know, all those kinds of things. So, it’s a bit embarrassing to have a movie made about your life. In my case, quite embarrassing. And I always thought what a boring subject, you know? But apparently the Holy Spirit has chosen to use it. So we thank God and we thank the businessman who did it and the producers and so on who put their heart into it. So, we tried to glorify the Lord and tell the story to his glory and for the good of young people and for evangelism.

SMITH: Well, you know, Luis, obviously I know that whenever a movie is made of a person’s life, you know, you can’t telescope 85 years down into 85 minutes or, in this case, about a hundred minutes. I mean, you’re obviously going to have to leave out things and change things. But I did want to ask something about the movie and about your life. Your father was a very strong influence on you, it appears. And the fact that you guys, your family was an evangelical family in Argentina, in a country that at least my limited understanding of your native country is that it is overwhelmingly Catholic. Were those as important factors as they seem to be in the movie? That A) your father’s strong, strong influence on you, even getting you started in street evangelism in Argentina. And secondly, the fact that you were in some ways a very small minority, because you were actually an evangelical in that country. Is that accurate? 

PALAU: Yep. You got it right. You got it right. The missionaries who came, I am a strong believer in honoring missionaries. In fact, we put a book following the movie, and one of my main goals was to honor the missionaries. They brought us Jesus Christ. They brought us the Bible and nothing else. I always emphasized that. I think that’s the role of a missionary. Everything else can flow from their coming. My mother was the organist at the local parish church. She was hungry for peace with God. Mr. Rogers and Mrs. Rogers came, gave her a New Testament. She read it on her knees. She found peace with God by reading the beatitudes, of all things. And then putting two and two together from the mass, you know, about Jesus Christ, the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. She found peace with the Lord. My dad was a businessman. The Lord honored him. He was obviously very sharp. He died at age 34, when I was only 10 years old, but he left that impression on my life that I never forgot. He was faithful. In town they made fun of him, but he was probably the most important businessman in that town outside of Buenos Aires, the capital. And he was faithful. Mr. Rogers and he decided every year we’re going to plant a local church in a town that doesn’t have a Bible preaching church, which none of them did in those days. And so they planted nine churches in nine towns. They were going to do number 10 when the Lord took him home suddenly from Bronchopneumonia and there was no medicine for him. So, to me, it left me an imprint. My dad died singing, clapping his hands, pointing up to heaven and quoting Philippians chapter one. I’m going to be with Jesus, which is better by far. And as a 10 year old boy, I thought, Oh man, this is a way to die. Clapping your hands, singing and quoting the Bible and, boom, you go to be with the Lord. And I’ve preached about that for 65 years. And then two Christmases ago, suddenly the doctor tells me you’ve got lung cancer. That’s incurable. Get ready. By next Christmas, you’ll be wherever it is you’re going. He is not a believer. And so that’s where I am now. But you’re right. And there was the example of my dad, faithful as a businessman, generous in an enormous way. My mom, believing the promises of God, like a child. And I’ve lived that way all my life. And that’s what the Lord honors, you know? Just stick with scripture, minimize other reading, emphasize the word of God.

SMITH: Well, I want to ask you, Luis, about your health and about sort of ending well and dying well as a way to kind of close our conversation. But before we get there, I want to ask one more question about the movie that I found fascinating. And that is that at least in the movie—and I don’t know whether this is true or not, in fact, that’s what I want to fact check a little bit with you—is that you were actually engaged in some street evangelism, some street preaching. And a pastor from the United States, Ray Stedman, who saw you and that was really the proximate cause for how you came to the United States. Ray Stedman was able to arrange for you to come here. And I mean to me when I, of course, I’ve met Ray Stedman, at least I did. He’s obviously no longer with us. He’s with the Lord now. But a very famous pastor. And I just think this is either a wild coincidence or truly God’s providence at work for him to encounter you in that way. Is that the way it happened?

PALAU: That’s the way it happened. When I look back, that’s why the last book I wrote, I said, before I go to heaven, I want to write a book that honors the Lord and honors all the people in my life, that somehow led by the Holy Spirit and their apparently godly life came into my life. It was Mr. Rogers, the missionary. I said, my dad and mom, they were absolutely devoted to the word, the promises of God, obedience and evangelism, church planting, Bible teaching. So, then here comes Ray Stedman, visiting Argentina. I was probably 21, maybe 20, 21. He saw me. And somehow later I asked him, before he went to be with the Lord, Ray, why did you invite me to come to the States? You had no idea who I was. And you know, he was a very balanced fellow, expository. He was not a fly by night excitable guy. He said to me, I felt the Holy Spirit saying to me, bring this boy to America. So I did it. And boy, it revolutionized my life. Opened doors that never would have been open, if he hadn’t brought me to the States. The doors to the rest of the world would have never happened. So from Ray then comes Billy Graham then comes Major Ian Thomas, maybe you heard of him in the old days. And, you know, God used all these people in my life and the Bible says honor to whom honor is due. And in the movie I tried to really push heavy. And in the last book, which is called Palau: A Life on Fire—Zondervan created the title, not me and I’m all for it, but I didn’t create it—and so the fire of wanting to lead people to Christ and bless the church. The missionaries who brought us the gospel truly were biblical, but they also believed in the oneness of the body. And in Latin America, one of the accusations against Bible-believing Christians was you are all divided into hundreds sects. So, we felt, no, we are one in Jesus Christ. We’re under the banner of Jesus. And that has honored the Lord. And I think you know a lot about church history and contemporary history, Latin America, the Lord has just got thousands upon millions, really, of believers. And partly it’s that emphasis on the oneness of the body, the proclamation of the gospel shamelessly and the total confidence in the word of God. So you got it right. You picked it up very well. 


SMITH: Welcome back. You’re listening in on my interview with Luis Palau. Let’s get right back to that conversation. 

Well, Luis Palau, I’d like to maybe shift gears in our conversation as we come to a close here and ask you two different series of questions. One is about your health.  You mentioned a few moments ago that you discovered that you had stage four cancer not so long ago. And I want to ask you  a couple of questions about that. Number one is how are you doing? How’s your health? Because as you have already alluded, whenever I first found out about this, I guess, probably shouldn’t admit this especially to you that I was like, Oh my, he doesn’t have long to be with us. Stage four cancer is really, really, really serious. And so how’s your health? How are you doing and what have you learned? What has this experience taught you about yourself and about this God that you say is a good God, and then you’ve been preaching for all these years.

PALAU: Absolutely. Oh man, you really go deep when you discover something like this. For all these 65 years, I’ve always preached about heaven, eternity, the second coming, the resurrection because it’s all biblical and did it joyfully. Suddenly when the doctor says you have got probably—by now, that was supposed to be last Christmas—he said I was supposed to be gone from planet earth after heaven, I informed them. And so it happened. It was a total surprise. I want to tell you, Warren, I had not been in a hospital one night in my life. I never took any medicines, only a few probably in 60 years. I bet you I didn’t have 50 aspirins. I mean, literally by God’s grace never was sick. My wife said, you’ve never gone through pain or sickness, now it’s your turn, which was really nice. And so it was my turn and it was really—it’s shocking. You know, you suddenly say, Oh my soul, everything I’ve been preaching now, let’s see how it works. And, by God’s grace, it’s glorious. I mean, you have peace with God because you know that all the truths the Bible has taught you and that you’ve seen in scripture and that you’ve heard godly teachers teach is real. The presence of the Holy Spirit, the assurance that absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. That I’d rather depart and be with Jesus, which is better by far. We leave behind the tent, which is the body—II Corinthians 5. And then the whole idea that when it says in John 11—well, I could spend an hour with you, Warren—but one of the deep things that I learned, John 11 used to always intrigued me when Jesus says about Lazarus’s resurrection. “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though, he were yet he shall live. Whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” And I thought, wait, there’s a contradiction here. I think I’ve come to this conclusion. The contradiction is not a contradiction. What happens is when a believer dies, it’s an instant in which you leave the body behind and you go straight into the presence of the Lord, the body waiting for the day of resurrection. Bu., to me, it was so joyful. I tell you, and I began to read every line of the New Testament afresh about heaven, and believe me, Warren, there’s more passages in the Bible about heaven than we imagine. I was so surprised—in a way I should have known better. I studied Hebrews a lot. The book of Hebrews probably talks about heaven more than any book, except Revelation. It’s amazing. And as beautiful. The transition from leaving the body behind, you go body, soul, and spirit. You go into the presence of the Lord. At the day of resurrection, our bodies will be transformed into our spirit, a body that will resemble the Lord. Jesus. And I tell you, I’ve got about 30 points, super points from the New Testament. Some of whom I’ve known, some were a fresh revelation, so to speak. It’s been very good. You think very seriously. There’s times when you tremble and you say, well, how am I going to face it? And I felt, no, I’m going to face it just like I’m falling asleep in the Lord’s grace. 

The one thing that was new, and I don’t know if you have time for this is Satan attacks you. And that surprised me. When the Lord Jesus was turned over to be crucified, the night before, remember that he said to the disciples at the upper room discourse, and then they went to the Garden of Gethsemane, he said that the Prince of this world is coming, but he’s got no grounds in me. And I thought, wow, if Jesus, Satan had the audacity to come and attack Jesus the night before he’s going to be crucified, he’s sure going to attack Luis Palau. And he did. And he attacked me. And I felt like him saying, ha ha ha, so you’ve preached the gospel to millions of people, but are you really one of his disciples? Are you really a child of God? It was hard, Warren. It was like Satan laughing in my face and saying, what if you’re one of those that says, Lord Lord, we preached about you in the parks. We did miracles in your name, but he says to you depart from me I never knew you. Man, it makes you tremble. But then I went back to the book of Hebrews 7, 8, 9, and 10. And I said, I am a child of God. I’m covered by the blood of Christ. I’ve got eternal life. I know where I’m going. Satan, get out of here, in the name of Jesus Christ. I say that because I think people are kind of shocked, but it was real. And I thought if he attacked the Lord Jesus on the night of his betrayal, he sure will attack you and me. I mean, we could go on that one for a long time.

SMITH: Wow. Well, that is a really good word and encouraging word and a helpful word for those of us who are undoubtedly going to face such moments in our future, if we are not facing them now. So, thank you for that. And you know, Luis, just a couple of more quick questions before we go. One is—and I may be able to even anticipate the answer to this just based on what you’ve said and because it just sort of oozes out of you, your love for God and  your passion for people and to be a part of them hearing the gospel. But I often ask folks who are near the end of their life and careers on this question. How do you want to be remembered? How do you want the world to remember Luis Palau when you’re gone 10, 20, 50 years?

SMITH: Well, I always used to say it not flippantly, but I used say I hope my boys on my tombstone put my dad wasn’t perfect, but he sure loved Jesus Christ. That’s what I hope, that people would remember that I love Jesus Christ because of what he did for me. And that’s what I would like, you know, just honor Jesus Christ, even on my tombstone, you know, that he had done so much for me. My life has been a blessing from beginning to end. All the promises of God are real. And therefore I just would like my boys and grandchildren and whoever else cares to remember that Jesus Christ is the Lord, that he is amazing, that he fulfills his promises, and that they are glorious. And I’ll leave you with this verse, which was a fresh one for me. I Samuel 22:31 and it’s also in Psalm 18. It says, “As for God, his way is perfect. The word of the Lord is flawless. He is a shield to all who take refuge in him.” And, to me, that hit me so strongly. We know it. We know from scripture, but when it’s reality, the Lord, his way is perfect. I don’t understand why I got cancer. I don’t need to understand that. He’s my father. He loves me. He cared for me all these years. He’ll take care of me when I go over the river, over to the other side, you know? And so to me, that verse should be engraved in every person’s mind. “As for God, his way is perfect.” Don’t question it. Don’t allow sincere people who challenge you or who say, Hey, if you were walking with God, you wouldn’t be sick. Well, the Lord Jesus died at age 33. He wasn’t an old man. He was only 33 when the Lord, finally he ascended into heaven. So a long life is not necessarily a better life. And J. Vernon McGee used to say, I heard him or read him in a booklet, a brief life is not an incomplete life when a child dies. So, as for God, his way is perfect. I’m preaching at you, Wa

SMITH: Well, Amen. Thank you. It’s a good word. So, I appreciate you preaching. And it’s just been such an honor for me to be on with you today. I’ve been an admirer of your life and career, your ministry for many, many years. And to have this opportunity has just been a real blessing. So thank you for being on the program.

PALAU: Thank you, Warren. And I read you in WORLD Magazine. I still read it. Keep on writing. The Lord is using you.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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