Midtown festival this weekend to feature Oregon-based evangelist Luis Palau

Nathaniel Herz

A well-known Christian evangelist backed by more than 100 Southcentral churches and sometimes referred to as the "Billy Graham of Latin America" will headline a religious celebration this weekend in Anchorage's Cuddy Family Midtown Park.

Luis Palau, an Argentina-born evangelist based in Oregon, will appear with Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan and other political, community and religious leaders at a Wednesday press conference before speaking at the Love Alaska festival this weekend. Gov. Sean Parnell is scheduled to deliver welcoming remarks, a spokeswoman said.

Palau will round out his Alaska experience on a fishing trip in Bristol Bay with his wife and some friends.

"I'm here to catch fish and to catch a few souls, also," Palau said in a phone interview Tuesday.

He wouldn't say how many people he hoped to draw to the weekend festival, which also features nationally known Christian musicians, BMX bicycle demonstrations and a giant slide. Palau wants to show that evangelicals are "not a bunch of fuddy-duddies," he said.

The festival will have a big footprint, with a $750,000 budget that also helped cover an associated community service campaign earlier this year. Organizers are paying the city more than $10,000 to use the park, according to local officials.

"I'm not sure Anchorage has seen anything like this in my lifetime," said Adam Legg, a spokesman for ChangePoint Alaska, a nondenominational evangelical church in South Anchorage with more than 2,500 people in its congregation.

ChangePoint is one of 174 churches that organizers say are participating in the Anchorage festival and community service campaign. A parallel event is scheduled for Fairbanks.

Jay Pullins, an executive pastor at ChangePoint, said a group of local pastors first invited Palau to Alaska after visiting one of his festivals in Sacramento two years ago.

Since then, Palau and organizers have recruited support from local leaders like former Lt. Gov. Loren Leman, who's one of the Alaska campaign's co-chairs, and Parnell, who is on the campaign's board of reference.

The Rasmuson Foundation also contributed $25,000 toward the companion community service campaign, which was designed to encourage churchgoers to volunteer.

Palau, 79, said his message at the festival will be targeted at young people, appealing to them "to surrender, to come back to God, to come back to Jesus Christ."

He was born in Argentina and worked as a banking industry executive "while preaching the Gospel on weekends on the streets of his hometown," according to his online biography.

Ultimately, he moved to the United States and built his own organization that reported 80 employees and $10.3 million in revenue in 2012, according to filings with the Internal Revenue Service. Palau earned $242,000 in annual compensation, the filings said.

The organization's mission, according to the filings, is to "proclaim the Good News, mobilize the church, and equip the next generation."

In 2012, it held events in Tanzania and Paraguay, where it recorded more than 19,000 "decisions for Christ." It also reported that radio broadcasts in Spanish and English by Palau and one of his sons were heard on 3,500 outlets in 48 countries.

In Anchorage, the related "season of service" campaign during the winter and spring preceded the festival scheduled for this weekend.

Participating churches asked congregants to do community service work in an effort that was modeled on a past campaign in Portland, where Palau's followers have worked to fix up and support public schools.

In April, as part of the campaign, ChangePoint sent 30 of its congregants to install smoke detectors in a South Anchorage mobile home park, then recruited 50 students to help scrape and repaint a statehood monument, Legg said.

Palau said he hopes to see those types of efforts continue for years. The festival, meanwhile, is a shorter "celebration," he said.

He said the signs and graphics advertising the festival, some of which simply read "love Alaska - Luis Palau," were designed to be a little mysterious both to get people talking and to avoid scaring them off.

"If you say, 'Hey, come out and be converted to Christ,' people will say, 'Are you nuts?' " Palau said. "What you're trying to do with the public is hopefully awaken people's interest, and hopefully whet their appetites to come."

"We're trying to get people's attention," he added.

Reach Nathaniel Herz at nherz@adn.com or 257-4311.