Reprinted from The FUNdamentalist (November 1994)
To many, Grand Rapids, Michigan is known as the City of Churches. With a population of just over 190,000, Grand Rapids boasts an astonishing 650 churches. That’s roughly 1 church for every 300 people. These ecclesiastical statistics, however, are not the only thing that this Michigan City can boast. Grand Rapids is home to the Christian Reformed Church’s North American headquarters and its largest college in the country, Calvin College. More importantly the city is also a veritable breeding ground for religious right zealots. We have numerous churches, especially Assemblies of God, who host Operation Rescue rallies that have given birth to significant violence directed against local women’s clinics and Planned Parenthood. Zondervan Publishing Co., which has produced books by Ollie North and Dan Quayle, resides here. Another publisher, Baker Book House, recently released a book by Nicaraguan Minister of Education Humberto Belli, an anti-Sandinista intellectual who had his first book financed by the CIA and the Puebla Institute. For the more high-browed Christian we also have the Acton Institute, a sister organization to the Washington based Institute for Religion & Democracy (IRD), that promotes the marriage of capitalism and Christianity. Last, but not least, Grand Rapids is also the home stomping grounds for the “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” Amway cofounders Rich DeVos and Jay Van Andel, whom Forbes magazine listed as tied for 5th place as the wealthiest MEN in the US. With this line-up of conservative Christians it is no wonder and no surprise that in September some 500 churches and several local businesses invited Argentine-born evangelist Luis Palau to town for a crusade.
Next to Billy Graham, Luis Palau is possibly the most globally known evangelist today. Latin America is his area of high notoriety, but in the past 2 decades he has made significant inroads in the US, Europe and even the former Soviet Union. So why would Christians in West Michigan, an area that is staunchly Christian/conservative, bring this Oregon based evangelist to town?
I went to hear him one of the nights he was in Grand Rapids and I must say that I was not impressed. Palau is not a flashy preacher nor particularly good with words. He does not strongly play on your emotions, therefore not attracting a large Pentecostal crowd. In fact, I found Palau to be down right boring, but that did not deter an average 8,000 people (mostly White) per night who came out to hear him. In many ways the event was purely entertainment, with a 100 head choir, a tonight show type band and an MC who got people excited by asking who was gonna win the football game that weekend. They had a “Blind” section for the visually impaired, as well as book displays and other tables by groups such as Compassion International. What was important about Palau, I believe, was that he represented the world vision of the power structure of West Michigan.
Palau is “clean” by certain evangelistic standards. He has no publicly known past sexual blemishes, nor has he been investigated for fraud or tax evasion. Palau even states that he is disgusted with the type of TV evangelists that have given his work a black-eye. Palau is an evangelist in the traditional Christian bible believing sense. He believes that accepting Jesus as your personal savior is paramount, but he also believes in capitalism and nurturing political connections when serves his purposes. Thus, more than anything, Palau affirmed the status quo attitudes of many West Michigan residents, especially in business and political circles.
The other reason that Palau may have been invited to the area was to theologically help assimilate the growing Latino/a population. West Michigan has one of the largest migrant populations in the country. Every year thousands of migrant workers come the area to work in the fields before heading back to Mexico or some other southern USA state. While Palau was in town he had 2 exclusively Spanish crusade nights out of 10 days here. As someone who has worked with Central American refugees in the area since 1987, it is quite probable that the conservative majority Christians here do not want their city infected with liberation theologies from base Christian communities that are in exile or traditional non-Christian religions that many from Latin America still practice. Surely we welcome their cheap labor, but we do not want any bothersome and disruptive ideologies.
The local coverage in the Grand Rapids Press certainly seemed to reflect the status quo message of the crusade. Their headlines gave an uncritical, almost applauding posture; “Ambassador with a commission arrives in GR”, “America desperately needs God’, Palau tells crowd”, “Palau crusade achieved most of its goals”. Again Palau was portrayed as nothing more than this unblemished evangelist bringing the message of the gospel. Nowhere in the GR Press articles is Palau’s deeper political connections touched on, and on only one occasion does the local monopoly paper refer to Palau’s overseas adventures.. Palau and his activities have been reported in over a dozen article in Christianity Today during the past 20 years. During that time Palau was in Somoza’s Nicaragua, where, unlike the community of Solentiname, a Nicaraguan Christian based community under persecution, he was welcome with open arms. In 1977, Palau was greeted and accompanied on his crusade by Colombian president Alfonso Michelsen, not particularly known for being a human rights advocate. Also in the 70’s Palau visited Bolivia with the help of an organization known as Food For the Hungry (FFH). According to Sara Diamond’s book Spiritual Warfare, FFH “argues that poverty is rooted in individuals’ belief systems and by extension, in cultures supposedly conducive to underdevelopment and poverty.” (Diamond pg 226) The founder of FFH, Larry Ward, was also with Palau on that trip. Ward, a former overseas director of World Vision “was known to have a close relationship with South Vietnamese and US military leaders.” In 1982, Palau brought his crusade to Paraguay, under the brutal dictatorship of Alfredo Stoessner. According to recently released documents there was massive execution of civilians during Stoessner’s reign. (see Covert Action Quarterly, Fall 1994). Stroessner’s government gave Palau his approval to distribute 100,000 bibles and study courses to children nationwide.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Palau was crusading in the Soviet Union. In 1989, Palau was said to have brought the first open-air evangelism of its kind. The Christianity Today article quoted Kent Hill as a Soviet specialist who was pleased with the outcome of Palau’s crusade. Kent Hill is with IRD, who I mentioned earlier. In 1992, Palau was in Mexico and was given the title “Distinguished Visitor” by Mexican neoliberal president Carlos Salinas. In Mexico that title has previously been given only to the Catholic Pope and the Dali Lama.
Probably the most revealing article was a May, 1983 interview that Chritianity Today did with Palau. In my mind it clarifies the theology and politics of this crusader. Palau had just returned from Guatemala when this interview was conducted. Christianity Today asked Palau “How much control does President Rios Montt have of the army? (Palau) To turn a nation around as he has, knowing Latin Americans and how independent we are, that has got to be the helping hand of God. Generally, it appears he’s given the right instructions urging the people to do the right thing, and putting it on the basis of righteousness. In the first weeks in office he said, ‘I will not lie, I do not cheat, and I do not abuse my powers.'” For anybody who knows anything about the history of Guatemala this statement is utterly scandalous.
Efrain Rios Montt became president in 1982 via a military coup. During his 18 months in power Montt presided over a genocidal campaign waged against the Indigenous and poor of that country. Americas Watch documented the atrocities in which women were frequently raped and children were bayoneted to death or smashed against rocks. Even one of Montt’s supporters in the church El Verbo said, “The Army doesn’t massacre the Indians. It massacres demons, and the Indians are demon possessed; they are communists.” (Diamond pg. 166)
Some of Palau’s connections have also helped to further these repressive policies in Guatemala and elsewhere. Frequently when Palau travels he is accompanied by a representative from Bible Literature International (BLI). In the early 1980’s BLI helped to distribute hundreds of thousands of bibles to army personnel and civil patrol units in Guatemala, for what was known as “Operation Whole Armor”, another counterinsurgency tactic developed by Rios Montt. BLI, which began in 1923, has been distributing bibles and bible literature throughout the globe as an attack communism, most notably in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. In El Salvador they are said to have sent bibles to everyone in the Salvadoran telephone directory. As former president of Overseas Crusades, one of the largest US-based missionary organizations, Palau was able to utilize their connections as well. According to Sara Diamond, Overseas Crusades “said that at one time virtually all of its personnel were being debriefed by the CIA. Debriefings included questions by the CIA on the internal politics of remote Third World regions and detailed questions on Indigenous religious and political leaders.” (Spiritual Warfare pg. 207) So much for being a clean evangelist.
On the 100th anniversary of Protestantism in Guatemala (1982), Montt invited as the main speaker Luis Palau, who predicted that Guatemala would be the first majority Protestant country in Latin America. In many ways that was not just a prediction, but a promise. More than any other Latin American country Palau and his ministry team works diligently to spread their message in Guatemala. Guatemala is the distribution center for Palau’s radio and TV shows in Latin America. At least 17 radio stations and one TV station runs Palau’s message within the country. Palau also has a newspaper column in one of Guatemala’s largest dailies La Prensa Libre, where it is published twice a week. Palau also publishes 2 magazines Cruzada and Continente Nuevo. This all has a tremendous impact on the rise of evangelical and Pentecostal churches in Guatemala. Some estimates say that 35-40% of the population is now Protestant. Many analysts attribute this rise to what is referred to as salvation theology, a theology that focuses on personal salvation and hopes for a better life in the next world. In many ways much of Guatemala is ripe for this type of theology. In a country that has one of the worst human rights records in the Western Hemisphere this type of theology has a certain emotional and psychological appeal. As a way of dealing with the incredible pain and suffering that so many Guatemalans have endured, it is quite understandable that huge numbers of people would embrace this pie in the sky world-view. But lets not kid ourselves about the role that the US funded Guatemalan military has in helping this process along.
During the scorched-earth campaign under the regime of Rios Montt many “model villages” were set up as an attempt to pacify the areas that had been traditionally more sympathetic to the guerrilla movement. Many of the Palau-type evangelicals were invited in to help pacify the people, often using USAID food to win them over, in what Montt called his “Beans and Guns” program.
In the recent elections in Guatemala, Rios Montt was elected to Congress (only 20% of the population voted). He attempted to change the law that would have allowed him to run for president in the Nov. 1995 elections. At present the Guatemalan constitution bars anyone from running for president who has participated in previous military coups. Montt was unsuccessful in his attempts to change the law, but ran a candidate that finished second in the voting with the slogan “Portillo for President, Montt to Power”.
For me all this background on Palau harkens back to my reasoning for bringing Palau to Grand Rapids. He could preach a gospel of passivity and tolerance to structural injustice to the Latino/a community. In the end Palau fulfills his role as a modern day crusader. Unlike the crusaders of old who butchered you on the spot if there was rejection of their plan, Palau has sophisticated his approach of theological imposition and imperialistic control. Palau’s invitation and huge support is in sharp contrast to the visit by Adolfo Perez Esquival, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and author of Christ in a Pancho, who came to town in 1983 and received a marginal welcome. I guess you need to be an endorser of mass murder to gain the approval of the larger religious community here in Grand Rapids.