My first in-person encounter with Luis Palau, the Argentinian evangelist many have dubbed “The Billy Graham of Latin America,” took place a few years ago in Edmonton, Alberta, following a large evangelism conference at which we both spoke. I was privileged to join him at a dinner table surrounded by Christian thought leaders I eagerly wanted to meet. As I said hello to Palau, I knew instantly I’d like him from his exuberant greeting and loud voice. Such are the staples of the Middle Eastern hospitality I grew up with. Ever the evangelist, he made a point of asking our waiter his name and how we could pray for him. And pray for him we did.
Not long ago, I was blessed to chat with him about his aptly named memoir, Palau: A Life on Fire. Palau has spoken to hundreds of thousands across the globe and continues to reach even more with global radio programs. Now in his 80s and living in Portland, Oregon, he endures a fight with terminal lung cancer. Yet his vibrancy remains palpable, indicative of a man who loves talking about Jesus as much as breathing. That’s no metaphor: Cancer makes breathing laborious for Palau. Yet he subdued his rebellious lungs as we spoke (for around 90 minutes) about his Savior—and the people who helped him preach that Savior’s message for decades.
Any Old Bush
A Life on Fire is an unusual memoir, in that the individual chapters aren’t really about Luis Palau. They focus, instead, on specific people who influenced his life and ministry.
“[The publisher] wanted me to write a book before I go off to a better country and a better city than Portland,” Palau joked. “And I said, ‘Not another biography!’” He would write the book only “if we can figure out a way where we honor the Lord and honor the people who built into my life. When I came down with this cancer, I went through some interesting soul searching. And one of the things the Lord seemed to say to me is, ‘I want you, during these next few weeks or months, to make much of the cross.’”
As a Middle Easterner whose culture values family lineage, I immediately noticed that Palau opens his book with a story about his mother’s faith rather than his own. As he explains it, with an affectionate laugh, “When they tell you that you have 4, 9, or 12 months and you are out of Planet Earth … [you begin] to look back and [think], Man, how much I owe to my mom. She taught us so well to be singing, quoting the Bible, getting on your knees, evangelism is number one—you know, all that kind of stuff.”
Palau grew up poor, especially after his father passed away when Palau was young. I asked him why he considered this a blessing, despite all the difficulties it entailed.
“Romans 8:38 was one of my mom’s many verses, that all things work together for good and therefore, you try to discern, ‘What’s the good of this,’ you know? I’ve always found myself going first to the poor. If there’s a crowd welcoming you, the first temptation is to go to the big shots, dressed up with nice suits, and so on. I always tended to go to the others because I know how they feel. They feel rejected. They feel useless. They feel, ‘Who am I? I’m a nobody,’ and you’re trying to tell them, ‘No, you are of great value to the Lord, and you have something to contribute.’”
As he answered, my mind immediately returned to that first dinner we had, when Palau took the time to speak personally to our waiter despite the other luminaries in the room who could have monopolized his attention. A line from A Life on Fire also sprang to mind. “Basketball players and musicians are not my heroes, they’re just gifted millionaires.”
“To me,” Palau said, “a hero is a person who does something heroic for the needy, for somebody in danger, for those in poverty. [Twentieth-century evangelist and Sunday-School leader] Henrietta Mears defines success by saying ‘Success is anything that is pleasing to him.’ God doesn’t want us to be a bunch of failures, but what is success? Make your children realize that missionaries are heroes. Their salaries will never be big. They’ll be lucky if they can retire in a cheap retirement home. And yet the world has been evangelized in the last 150 years by these humble, unknown, true heroes.”
In an age of polished speakers and celebrity pastors, Palau is refreshingly forthcoming about his imperfections. In A Life on Fire, he describes his first time preaching as a humiliating failure. Why, I asked, didn’t he just give up and concede that preaching wasn’t for him?
“Well, there’s an old saying,” he told me. “‘He who never made a mistake never made anything.’ And if you made a mistake, repent. Some mistakes are pretty serious. Some are kind of infantile but humiliating. I was in a little country church in the hills of Argentina. There were probably 35 people in the little joint, and I thought, ‘Oh, Billy Graham.’ I had watched him in a film, and he shouted his head off in those days, and he waved his arms and paced back and forth. I thought I’d do the same. I made a fool of myself. Thirty-five people and I’m shouting like [I’m in] a stadium without microphones.”
Many aspiring speakers have tried mimicking other impactful speakers while struggling to find their own God-given voice—surely they can relate!
In the memoir, Palau writes that while he was at Multnomah School of the Bible (which is Multnomah University today), he looked like a promising Latin American preacher on the outside, but inside he was struggling with arrogance and pride. Another of Palau’s unsung heroes, the 20th-century evangelist and Torchbearers International founder Major Ian Thomas, preached a sermon titled “Any Old Bush” that profoundly helped Palau deal with that side of his personality.
Laughing, Palau told me, “It was the revolution I needed and I didn’t even know it.” Candidly, he described his struggle with “something that just wasn’t quite right. I loved the Lord, I knew I had eternal life, I knew heaven was sure, but somehow there wasn’t the victory that I read in the Bible about.” He continued, “Some of my buddies were giving up, and I thought, ‘Man, either the gospel doesn’t really work or it doesn’t take with me.” But when Major Thomas explained that God could use any old bush to communicate his message—just as he did with Moses—he could and would use someone like Palau. “Oh my goodness,” he said. “I get it. This is it! I don’t need to be a pretty bush. I don’t need to be an educated bush. I don’t need to be a well-connected bush. Any old bush will do as long as God is in the bush.”
The lesson was clear: If any old bush would do, what room was there for arrogance to persist?
Two people in particular bubbled up in our discussion—and their levels of fame couldn’t be further apart. The first person is Palau’s wife, Pat. He never choked up except when he talked about her. As I remarked to him, “Your chapter about Pat was especially moving because it reminded me of my own wife. As an itinerant apologist, I travel often while she takes on daily life by herself. Many a pastor, I’m sure, can relate to that too. What would you describe as Pat’s enduring ministry?”
“She paid the biggest price,” Palau answered. “It shakes me up every time. In her heart, she wanted to go to the mission field when she was about 15. And she was committed.” After the two had met and traveled overseas for ministry, they ran into some unsafe encounters, prompting them to decide that Pat would stay in America.
“She was not happy, because she gave her life to live overseas. And then, when we came home, she devoted herself to the boys, bringing them up biblically, bringing them up as normal, balanced guys. She’s bright, very smart, hardworking, no show, no bragging. I mean, I think she’d like to brag sometimes, but she doesn’t have the heart for it. She wrote two books, [and] she could have become something [of a public figure], but for the sake of the kingdom, for the sake of the lost, and for the sake of the boys walking with God, she gave her life to it. And the boys, praise God, all honor the Lord, and it’s thanks to her.”
The second person who influenced Palau most deeply is nearly the polar opposite of behind-the-scenes Pat: the late Billy Graham. I asked Palau about the most important lessons he learned from the man he called “the lion with gentle eyes.”
“Mr. Graham?” (I love, by the way, that he called him that.) “Single-mindedness. When I came to the States, I watched him on Johnny Carson and many of these shows where basically he would take over the program,” Palau said with a laugh. “He would talk to presidents, military people, left wing, right wing, and just never quit.” Recalling a time when Graham was asked merely to give the benediction at the National Day of Prayer, Palau remembered feeling certain that Graham would find a way to preach the gospel. “I bet you he’s gonna lay it on,” Palau recalled thinking. And sure enough, “he gets up and he says, ‘Oh, God our Father,’ and for five minutes he preaches the gospel at God!”
Laughing, Palau reminisced, “And I thought that he has no shame, this guy!”
Still on Fire
As our time drew to a close, I felt compelled to ask Palau how he faces the sunset of his life. In A Life on Fire, he deals quite candidly yet encouragingly with his illness. I wondered what he might tell Christians in similar circumstances who might be tempted to fall into despair.
With a slight laugh, Palau said, “Now that I’m sick, I have more authority. I tell people I’m dying, and suddenly they listen to you.” A short while later, he addressed the issue head-on. “Every campaign, I always talked about heaven. So, to me, it is as real as flying to New York, only better. But the fact is that Satan attacks, and he’ll use all his stratagems to make you feel guilty or lose faith or despair. Be ready for that. I went back to Hebrews 8, 9, and 10 … all of those passages about this intercession for us, the assurance. Go back to that. Don’t read too many other books about heaven. Just read what the Bible says. Underline those passages. Take it to heart. Make notes to yourself that the One who is seated in heaven covered all your sins. Don’t let Satan lie to you that some sins are unforgiven. They’re all forgiven. They’re all cleansed.”
Perhaps it was cliché to ask, but I couldn’t resist: “It’s one thing to be passionate, starry-eyed, and eager in your 20s and 30s. But as you’ve aged and are now facing this possible closing of your life here, do you still feel that you are living a life on fire?”
“Yes. I am,” he said confidently. “The only regret is that the body won’t respond.” Ever the evangelist, Palau takes to the airwaves if he can’t be somewhere in person. For him, media interviews are “a chance to speak these wonderful truths one last chance [while] alive.”
“I’m still on fire, praise the Lord,” he said.
Looking at the example he’s leaving behind, he thinks of his sons, Kevin and Andrew. “So I’m at peace,” he says. “I can lay back and rejoice that the gospel goes on. We’ve got all these evangelists all over the world. It’s quite exciting.”
A Life on Fire isn’t merely a memoir. It’s a tribute to lives that shaped Palau into the fiery Latin American evangelist who continues to touch so many. Even with a failing lung, his energy is uncontainable. His memoir teems with that energy as well. His passion for evangelism continues to burn. His earthly life—for however long God may allow it to last—continues to be a life on fire.
Abdu Murray is a senior vice president of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries. He is the author of Saving Truth: Finding Meaning and Clarity in a Post-Truth World (Zondervan).