NEW YORK — Thousands of people flocked to New York City's iconic Central Park on Saturday, to sway to the sweet sounds of Matt Redman and Mandisa and to have their hearts pricked by the preaching of Argentinian evangelist Luis Palau.
They stood for hours in defiance of the burdensome heat, leaned against gray metal railings and lay sprawled out on towels on the brilliant green grass. Some watched from yards away, eyeing the giant screens above and on either side of the stage while amplifiers carried melodies from Hezekiah Walker, Marcos Witt and Chris Tomlin through the air.
Others got as close as they could to the stage. Although it was closest to the stage that the sun seemed most brazen and should have been causing the most misery, the people there looked more elated than annoyed — apparently too caught up with the music or the messages for something as trivial as the sun to bother them.
According to Ingrid Ayala, a volunteer who offered to pray with attendees after Palau preached his message, she noticed, "A lot of people were touched. I saw a lot of people crying in the front."
But before they cried, they danced and leaped in the air, raising their hands and voices while singing along with Israel Hougton's "You Are Good," and other popular contemporary Christian and gospel songs.
They came from the Bronx and Brooklyn, Long Island and New Jersey, and there was a couple that even flew in from Panama to volunteer as spiritual counselors for NY CityFest, the name of the gathering on Central Park's Great Lawn on Saturday. The unusual event was organized in celebration of what 1,700 local churches have been doing over the last year to help meet the needs of their communities through service projects and school partnerships.
The Central Park CityFest, the last of three such major gatherings held this past week, was headlined by Palau, dubbed by some as the "Latino Billy Graham," and featured remarks by former Yankees pitcher Mariano Rivera, whose wife pastors a church in New Rochelle. Other musical guests included Argentinian rock band Rescate and TobyMac.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio also appeared on stage, where he was prayed for by Palau and several local pastors who oversee the CityServe "movement," as organizers prefer to call the $10 million-budgeted, three-year campaign. The 4 p.m.-10 p.m. Central Park event, like the ones at Radio City Music Hall and at Times Square, was free and open to the general public.
Joseph Ramos, who drove with a group of about 10 people from Upstate New York to Manhattan, said he was there to "hear God's praise and worship with God's people and listen to the speakers."
Ramos noted what many who spoke with The Christian Post also pointed out when he added, "It's just wonderful when God's people can all come together from all different nations and backgrounds."
Patrick and Dale Dowd were two among the dozens spotted among the crowd that elected to speak and pray with a counselor after Palau preached his message. Mrs. Dowd, who is "very involved" with her Long Island church and attends services weekly, said she simply felt moved by the message.
"I've never been to anything like this, and it was just very moving," she said. Mr. Dowd said he felt "almost exactly the same."
"It's probably one of the most amazing experiences, just because of the time we're living in. Most people don't want to speak out about being a Christian. You know, it's not the in thing to do. So to come to a place like this to see people of all ages and just such diverse backgrounds is a blessing," Mrs. Dowd added.
Henry and Cecilia were the couple that flew in from Panama to volunteer as counselors for attendees who wanted to pray or talk one-on-one after hearing Palau's message. Henry, who did not give his last name, was the counselor who prayed with the Dowds (shown center in the photo collage below).
"They've been married for 25 years and just rededicated their lives unto the Lord, and that's just a great thing. And I pray for the love of Christ to continue to be in their lives. Like how me and my wife are married, we pray for the same thing for them," Henry told CP.
As for Ceclilia, she explained that the young lady she had been praying with "was saved but she rededicated herself after Mr. Paula began to minister about heaven and hell."
The Panamanian pair shared that they originally met Palau when they lived in Florida and he visited the state. When they learned the seasoned evangelist was scheduled to appear in New York City, they decided to volunteer once more. After all, Henry added while gesturing to those around him, "We're family."
Cecilia emphasized, however, that she was mainly volunteering her time out of gratitude.
"One of the reasons that we came is that we were sinners before," she told CP. "We didn't know the Lord. We were out there, we didn't know it was OK. And when the Lord opened my eyes… I said, 'Oh my God.' I didn't know I was missing all of this, the love of God. I didn't know it was real."
Brad Davis, who stood leaning against a railing a ways back from the stage, said he and his wife were from North Carolina and visiting New York City to celebrate their second marriage anniversary. They had decided to attend CityFest after getting a hold of tickets.
"I find it's a blessing. It's amazing. With all the turmoil that's going on in the world today, I think this is amazing right now to see the coming of all these Christians in one central location. I think it's amazing," he said of the event on the Great Lawn.
Davis added that when he returns home, "I'll tell them about the goodness of what's taking place in New York City. I mean, a lot of people down there think New Yorkers are a bunch of rude, ignorant people, and my five days here so far has [sic] been nothing but a joy and I can go back and now tell them they're doing good things as well in the Christian aspect of things."
Organizers had been expecting a capacity crowd of 60,000 on the Great Lawn, and although figures were not available by press time, it certainly appeared that the turnout might have come close to expectations. But Palau, who has preached to millions around the world, insisted that had there not been capacity restrictions for the 55-acre lawn, at least five times as many people would have shown up.
"If we had a free place, there could have been 300,000, 400,000 people easily. But still, who doesn't rejoice to see a crowd like this, cheering the Lord, worshipping and standing for so many hours. But the Holy Spirit is at work in New York... There's a great hunger in New York. There is spiritual hunger," Palau told The Christian Post about an hour before taking to the stage to deliver his message to the masses.
Ann-Marie Meitlend, hailing from the Bronx, went for a walk through the park with several other ladies after spending some time at the CityFest. She said she thought it was "wonderful" to see so many Christians gathered in one place.
"We should have more of this. Because right now, I think Christianity needs to be more emphasized on a larger scale, because we are the children of not just God but of Jesus Christ and that this is what we intend to profess to the world, that He's a God who loves us, a God who is looking for souls, so I agree 100 percent," Meitlend said. "I welcome this anytime. The more we can have this, the better for us."
Cynthia Moncion, who lives in Queens, sat by herself on the green grass, shaded under a short-brimmed hat and sunglasses.
"A friend invited me to come and just check out Luis Palau," she said. "I really like his words. I went to one of his events two weeks ago. It was a breakfast for women, and he really inspired me to come today. So I'm here for him."
Moncion said what she found most impressive about the "beautiful," "really fun" and "very inspiring" event was the diversity represented on the Great Lawn.
"I think that's mostly what really wowed me when I got here, just seeing so many different ethnicities, so many different people, all ages. That's pretty much the wow factor of the day for me. I think it's beautiful, it's great for him to bring so many people together all in one place."
Wade, a young man from Long Island, did not attend CityFest to recommit himself to the faith or to simply listen to the speakers. He told CP, after praying with a counselor, that he decided to do so "because I want God to change my life."
"I serve God and I'm a regular churchgoer, but I came here because I wanted God to do something new in my life. And I believe He did just that," Wade, who did not give his last name, added.
Palau, 80, said he started dreaming about preaching in New York City after his mentor, the Rev. Billy Graham, held a record 16-week crusade at the old Madison Square Garden in 1957. A friend who was volunteering with the crusade sent him every few days bulletins printed by Graham's ministry that informed readers "about all the conversions." It was during that time that Palau decided, "One day I'm gonna preach in New York."
The venerable evangelist, popular among New York City's Latino evangelical community, compared the Big Apple to Buenos Aires (the capital of his home country). He called them both big cities that like to pretend they are very "self-sufficient," although, he added, the 9-11 attacks in New York City might have tempered that attitude.
Palau shared what he had learned by living in New York City for the past two months or so and visiting with local Christians over the past year, ahead of his big event at Central Park — where only Graham and Pope John Paul II have held worship services.
"Some, the minority churches, the Latinos particularly, but others also, have always felt a little isolated. I think now they feel more integrated, properly so," Palau said. "I think there's going to be in the future more working together. I hope the Latinos, senior people who have authority over congregations or denominations, that they will see that this is an opportunity to lead the Body of Christ, the Church, forward."
The evangelist was selective with his words when he commented on "those who kinda sat on the sidelines because they were too busy" to participate in NY CityServe-CityFest.
"Some that I thought have a reputation in town, but have not involved themselves I think have forfeited the authority over some...many, many currents of the evangelical movement and they've forfeited their authority and they'll never recuperate it," Palau warned without stating any specific names.
"I think the leadership of the evangelical movement of New York is gonna change hands. It was in hands that refused to use the authority that God gave them," he added.
Either way, Palau said that once he and his family return home to Portland, Oregon, he hopes that the 1,700 partner churches will "keep doing more of the same, multiplying the unity."
"This will now go on, God willing, for many years. The cooperation is growing among churches, the number of churches I think is growing," he added.
When Palau finally did take to the stage, he preached about Jesus coming to heal the brokenhearted and "to save that which was lost." He also spoke directly to the children present, telling them that Jesus wants them in his kingdom, too. And he spoke to the poor, telling them of the riches of God's kingdom and that God loves (them) "with an everlasting love."
Before delivering his sermon, however, Palau prayed for the nation and its leaders.
"O God our Father, thank You for this nation where You have placed us. Thank you, O God that You said happy, blessed, to be envied is the nation that fears God. O God, we pray that our nation may fear You reverently, that the leaders would be blessed and even of their will that they would do Your will on Earth," Palau prayed in part, before he and the thousands congregated on the lawn gave a hearty, "Amen!"