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Popular evangelist plans stop in tiny Northeast Oregon town

Kathy Aney

East Oregonian

Published on September 29, 2016 12:01AM

Last changed on September 29, 2016 10:11PM

Luis Palau, who speaks to huge crowds around the world, will come to Athena Oct. 15 to share his message.

Photo by Benjamin Edwards Photography

Luis Palau, who speaks to huge crowds around the world, will come to Athena Oct. 15 to share his message.

Evangelist Luis Palau speaks last summer in New York City’s Times Square.

Photo by Brad Person, First Day Photo

Evangelist Luis Palau speaks last summer in New York City’s Times Square.

Evangelist Luis Palau speaks last summer at Radio City Music Hall in New York City.

Photo by Brad Person, First Day Photo

Evangelist Luis Palau speaks last summer at Radio City Music Hall in New York City.


Evangelist Luis Palau, dubbed by some as the Latin Billy Graham, travels around the world, attracting millions of believers and non-believers alike with his enthusiastic, personal style. Last summer, the popular Argentina-born pastor, radio host and author drew 60,000 people to a festival in Central Park.

For about 40 years, Athena farmer Bob Johns has been pestering Palau to preach in his tiny Northeast Oregon town. Next month, Johns will get his wish when Palau appears in the Weston-McEwen High School gym. When Johns tells people about this, he gets looks of incredulity.

“They say, ‘You’ve gotta be kidding. Luis Palau in Athena, Oregon? No way,’” Johns said, grinning broadly.

The idea of Palau coming to Athena struck Johns in 1978 when he attended a leadership conference at Overlake Christian Church in Redmond, Washington, where he first heard Palau speak.

“The Lord leaned on my heart right then that Luis Palau was to come to Athena,” Johns recalled.

He phoned Palau’s Beaverton headquarters and requested an appearance. When they offered to send another evangelist, Johns insisted, “No, it’s got to be Luis.”

God, he insists, put the idea solidly into his mind and he was simply following the lead. The farmer waited patiently. When he wasn’t tending his wheat and pea crops, he often had his nose in one of Palau’s books.

Johns, a member of the Athena Christian Church, loves Palau’s preaching. You don’t get a lot of flowery proselytizing with Palau, Johns said.

“His message is simple and direct,” Johns said. “It sinks into your heart.”

In 1998, Johns found himself sitting beside Palau during a prayer breakfast in Washington, D.C. Eventually, Johns got around to sharing his vision of Palau coming to Athena.

“I told Luis ‘You’re supposed to come to Athena, Oregon,’” Johns said. “He just looked at me.”

Over the next 18 years, Johns continued to call and email the Palau organization with the message that “Luis is supposed to come to Athena.”

“Bob Johns has known Luis and the team for years,” said Colin James, a vice-president for the Palau organization. “He’s always kidded Luis that ‘someday you’re coming to Athena.’ Recently, he invited us again and this time it just kind of clicked with us.”

Finally, in January, Johns finally got the official thumbs up. Palau will speak at 2 p.m., Oct. 15 at Weston-McEwen High School. A BMX bike demo will precede the evangelist’s message, starting at noon. The day before, Palau will meet with area pastors at a gathering in Walla Walla.

Palau’s executive assistant, Jane Stradley, has known Palau for 50 years and worked for the organization for the last 27. She said the idea of the mega-evangelist going to Athena wasn’t outlandish.

“It doesn’t matter the size,” Stradley said. “Whether its Central Park or Athena, it doesn’t matter.”

She said the visit to such a tiny town isn’t the first for Palau. The evangelist downsizes occasionally and has spoken in Lakeview, Parkdale and other small places in the region as part of Operation Pacific Northwest.

“We wanted not to neglect our own backyard,” James said.

Doing things on a smaller scale means some change in the model, but the message is the same.

“Whether its New York City or Athena, Weston, Helix or Adams, it’s the same dynamics,” James said.

Johns can’t wait. He’s like the proverbial little kid on Christmas morning. Luis Palau was meant to come to Athena and now he is.

“I ask, ‘Why not?” he said. “Why not Athena?”

He hopes people will fill the gym, which seats 800. However, he said he’s not worried about the minutia.

“It’s the Lord’s work,” Johns said. “I’ll trust him to do what he’s going to do.”

The free event is sponsored by the churches of Athena, Helix, Weston and Adams and the Luis Palau Association.

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Contact Kathy Aney at kaney@eastoregonian.com or call 541-966-0810.





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