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Grand Rapids CityFest 2018: The perfect religious event that provides cover for wealth, power and privilege

September 6, 2018

Over the past few months there has been a tremendous amount of marketing being done for the Grand Rapids 2018 CityFest.

There are billboards on all the highways running through the city, yard signs, radio advertising and tons of online promotions for the event that will take place this weekend.

When I went into my local Lake Michigan Credit Union this week, there was a stack of promotional tickets by the coffee for CityFest as well. These tickets featured musical guests, a Family Fun Zone, FMX Demos and featured speakers Luis and Andrew Palau.

So what is CityFest, who are entities backing it financially and why is important for people to pay attention to what this event means for West Michigan?

Financial backing for CityFest

There are numerous entities backing the 2018 CityFest, including businesses, Christian radio stations and Christian schools like Calvin College, Cornerstone College and Spring Arbor University. However, the two entities backing this religious gathering that should grab our attention are the Acton Institute and the Doug & Maria DeVos Foundation.

Many of the sponsors who are backing CityFest are clearly known for their support and promotion of conservative religious values, but having the Acton Institute and the DeVos family involved raises even more questions about what the real purpose of such an event is.

CityFest 2018

According to its own promotional material, CityFest is:

a major region-wide campaign focused on serving the region and proclaiming a message of hope. And it all culminates on September 8-9 as we celebrate with great music and Good News at Ah-Nab-Awen Park. Produced by the Luis Palau Association, this event is in partnership with hundreds of local churches, businesses, and non-profits.

CityFest is not your typical religious revival, but it does have all the trappings of the traditional come to Jesus events. CityFest is a hip, contemporary tent revival that seeks to be a family-friendly event, combining sports and music as a pretext to bring people to hear main message from the Palau family.

In addition, CityFest includes what is called the One West Michigan message. Check out this video for the One West Michigan effort.

So, One West Michigan wants to mobilize people to do charity work around affordable housing, racial equity and education. While this is what they call their focus areas, in looking at the three areas and what they are advocating, it is clear that what the One West Michigan effort and CityFest is all about is getting people to do charity work, which is to say don’t question the system.

Much of what the One West Michigan project seeks to accomplish is to channel people into doing religious work, mostly through non-profits. In the area of housing, they direct people towards the Inner City Christian Federation, but they don’t raise questions about why so many people can’t afford the skyrocketing costs of housing. The affordable housing section states: Safe, stable, and affordable housing is crucial for families working their way out of poverty. People are not working their way out of poverty, people are experiencing poverty based on an economic system that rewards greed and excess.

The Racial Equity section, use the same old West Michigan Nice rhetoric, such as the need to provide more opportunities for people. There is no analysis of systemic or structural racism and a deep history of white supremacy in West Michigan.

In the area of Education, the One West Michigan entity wants to insert more Christianity into schools, get pastors to partner with principals and to direct people to groups like National Heritage Academies, a national for profit Charter School organization run by J. C. Huizenga.

This brings us to the features speakers, Luis and Andrew Palau. 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?

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.

Palau and his activities have been reported in dozens of article in Christianity Today during the past 40 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 false.

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.

All of this is to say that Luis and Andrew Palau fit the message and mission of the those who have the real power in West Michigan. As father and son, the Palau’s can deliver a message of prosperity that not only masks the systems of oppression at play in West Michigan, it provides additional cover for the Grand Rapids Power Structure to make sure that their power is not scrutinized, allowing them to continue to expand their wealth and influence throughout the community. CityFest 2018 allows them another great opportunity to do just that.

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