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RELIGION / JOHN DART : Mass Crusade Coming to Valley, but Format Disappoints Latinos

As the first mass evangelism crusade ever held in the San Fernando Valley approaches, some local Latino Christian leaders are disappointed that organizers are downplaying the potential appeal of evangelist Luis Palau to the area’s large Spanish-speaking population.

Palau will preach in a Spanish-language service at Van Nuys’ 3,500-seat Church on the Way next Saturday night. But that is four days before the widely promoted crusade itself, which will run June 1 through 5 at Birmingham High School’s football stadium in Van Nuys, where up to 15,000 people may sit in the stands and on the field.

“We were hoping for (another) five days in Spanish, but it didn’t work out,” said Robert Lozano, executive secretary of the crusade’s Hispanic Organizing Committee. “We were disappointed, to be honest, but we appreciate what we have.”

The Argentine-born Palau, a U.S. citizen for three decades and a popular evangelist overseas, also had hoped to do more preaching aimed at the third of the Valley’s population with a Latino heritage.

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It is a familiar quandary for Palau. The evangelist is a scandal-free, congenial and articulate Christian seen by many U.S. evangelical leaders as a natural successor to Billy Graham. But because of his Spanish surname, Palau’s aides and the coalitions of largely Anglo evangelical churches that ask him to lead crusades in their cities want to make it clear that he is preaching in English.

Roughly the same format--in which one small Spanish-language rally is held separately--was followed over the last two years by Palau crusades in Phoenix, San Antonio and Fort Worth, Tex., cities that also have high Latino populations.

“We are always trying to keep the Spanish part low-key and publicizing it on the Spanish media,” said Palau, 59, interviewed this week by telephone from his home in Portland, Ore.

“I had hoped we could find a way out of this dilemma with a more effective communication to the many people who prefer Spanish as their first language,” Palau said.

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During the five-night Valley crusade, simultaneous translations in Spanish (as well as Korean, Japanese and other languages) will be available for people who remember to bring radios and earphones. “That should be just as effective,” Palau said.

Evangelist Raimundo Jiminez of Granada Hills, a member of the local crusade’s large executive committee, was less optimistic. “Very few people want to be at the crusade with something stuck in their ears,” Jiminez said.

Yet, Lozano, Jiminez and Palau himself said in interviews that they have accepted the reasons for the format given by the local organizers and Colin James, the crusade director for the Luis Palau Evangelistic Assn., based in Portland.

James said that if even one Spanish-language rally were to be held at the same venue--either just before or just after the English-language nights, as Jiminez and some others suggested--there would be confusion in the public whether the other nights were partly or wholly in Spanish as well.

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Thus, large posters, lawn signs and bumper stickers promoting the June 1-5 crusade are all printed in English. As of this week, only small flyers in Spanish were available, and they described only next Saturday’s Spanish-language rally.

James said that if Anglos saw identical posters in Spanish about next month’s crusade, they might conclude that everything was in Spanish.

“We have to keep everything utterly, clearly simple so everyone can figure out what we are trying to do,” James said.

Another consideration, James added, was that “we found many Hispanics do not want to be segmented.”

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A larger outreach to Spanish-speaking Christians in the Valley might have materialized except that “the first meetings with the Hispanic committee last summer was slow and response was not strong,” James said.

“Quite frankly, the Hispanic organization lagged behind the Anglos’,” he said. “If we don’t get organized by a certain time, we can’t support it financially.”

Plans for the crusade were announced last July with the impetus and leading personnel coming largely from the 8,000-member Church on the Way. Crusade Executive Director Lawrence Hoke, a Litton Industries vice president for finance, announced a crusade budget of more than $300,000. Entertainer Pat Boone and Galpin Ford’s Bert Boeckmann were named honorary co-chairmen of the crusade. Hoke, Boone and Boeckmann are members of Church on the Way.

At that time, 130 churches and church-related organizations, primarily in the Valley, had promised to support the five-day crusade with volunteers and donations. That list has grown to more than 200 today. Participating congregations will be asked to collect offerings for the crusade at their services Sunday.

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Palau said that his organization hopes to work out schedules that will accommodate Spanish-speaking residents at future crusades in Miami and Chicago. “We are working on the idea that next year in Miami we will have three days in English followed by five days in Spanish,” he said.

In the Valley, Latino Christian organizers are hoping that they might bring back Palau sometime for an all-Spanish crusade in the Los Angeles area.

“We’re dreaming of a five- to seven-day event with two days here, two days in Orange County, two in Ventura County, then a big rally in Los Angeles,” said Lozano, who heads the crusade’s Hispanic committee and owns a Spanish-language Christian bookstore in Arleta.

Meanwhile, Lozano predicted that there would be “a full house” next Saturday for the Spanish-language rally and music festival, which starts at 6 p.m. at Church on the Way. The sanctuary seats about 3,500, and another 1,000 could watch the rally on closed-circuit television.

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Jiminez said he would be promoting both the rally and the five-day crusade on his Spanish-language talk show, produced by World Television in Hollywood.

Latinos in Southern California are mostly Roman Catholic. But a 1991 Los Angeles Times Poll in the San Fernando Valley showed that of the Latino adults who grew up as Catholics and live in the Valley, only 60% said they were still Catholic. The rest said they identified with another religious body or no faith at all.

“We do not allow attacks on the Catholic Church,” Jiminez said. “We just present the positive Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

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Palau echoed Jiminez’s approach. “Through 30 years of preaching, I have never, never attacked the Catholic Church, because I am convinced that changes come in people’s behavior and spiritual habits when you come to Christ and read the Bible for yourself.

“I try not to be divisive,” Palau said. “I seldom have received attacks from people of other convictions, nor have I been accused (by evangelical Christians) of compromising the Gospel.”


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