The opening day of DC Festival, a Christian evangelical gathering on the Mall two years in the planning, was undercut by bad weather yesterday as heavy rain forced organizers to cancel many events and truncate their spiritual outreach.
The $3.4 million, two-day festival, which represents the Washington debut of evangelical preacher Luis Palau, drew a fraction of the 100,000 that organizers had hoped to attract. Early in the evening, festival officials estimated the crowd at 5,000 but increased the figure to nearer 10,000 by the time the festival ended about 8:30.
"I'm not discouraged. I'm perplexed that the Lord would allow this rain to come and despite all our prayers -- it's still coming," Palau, 70, said in a midafternoon phone interview from the Mall. "I do not doubt the goodness of God. When we get to heaven . . . we'll find out why this happened."
Festival spokesman Craig Chastain said officials would decide early today about additional changes in the scheduled program and announce them on radio stations and the festival's Web site, www.dcfestival.com.
"With God's grace, we'll be able to do the whole package," Chastain said.
The youthful, multiethnic crowd of corporate executives, college students and families with small children stood on the grass of the Mall clutching umbrellas and wearing raincoats. Some sat in lawn chairs. They seemed oblivious to the almost continuous downpour.
"Rain is not going to stop God's power," said Emily Dahlkamp, 20, a junior at George Mason University. "There will be blessings out of this no matter how many people are gathered here."
Many said they came to show their faith in Christ and help others transform their lives. "I believe the message of Jesus Christ changes lives," said Loretta Inoni, 27. "The cause is way too important to worry about rain."
Palau's perplexity was perhaps understandable considering the time and effort his ministry put into preparing for the festival. Two years ago, his son Andrew Palau moved to Annandale with his family to begin laying the groundwork by contacting Washington area churches.
More than a year ago, a core group of area congregations formally invited Palau to stage his festival and promised to assist by supplying volunteers, moral support, publicity and financial aid. The festival eventually gained the backing of 899 area churches.
Palau also tapped former U.S. Navy secretary John H. Dalton to be festival chairman and to help with fundraising. As of Friday, almost all the event's $3.4 million cost had been raised from area churches, individuals and corporations. Chastain said he expected the $80,000 balance to be raised this weekend.
In a new approach to Christian outreach, DC Festival is modeled on outdoor musical concerts to attract young people unconnected to any church. The aim of this "festival evangelism," pioneered by Palau, is to create a spiritual atmosphere without such religious trappings as clergy, hymns, robed choirs and long-winded praying.
Born in Argentina, Palau has long had a large following in the Latin world. Since dropping the old-style crusades and adopting festival evangelism in 1999, he has become increasingly better known outside the Latin world. Early in his career, he worked with mentor Billy Graham.
Many in the crowd appeared to be hard-core faithful rather than the unconverted. "It's important for me to let the world know that God is having an impact on our lives," said Mary Seale, 20, also a George Mason University junior. She and roommate Dahlkamp are members of their university's Campus Crusade for Christ chapter.
Officials of Palau's ministry, based in his home town of Portland, Ore., were disappointed at the meteorological setback, but like their leader, they put their frustration in a spiritual context.
"Luis is at peace about it," Chastain said. "It has been his dream of coming here for 40 years, and there's a level of disappointment. But it's not going to steal our joy. We've always approached what we do, not through numbers but by people making a decision for Christ. For Luis, if one person raises his hand, it will be time well-spent."
The day's early events, including a health fair, presentations of the children's program "VeggieTales" by actors and performances by Christian athletes in such extreme sports as skateboarding and BMX biking -- which would have included the athletes' personal faith stories -- were canceled.
The official program opened an hour later than scheduled and ended 90 minutes earlier. After videotaped greetings from President Bush and former president Bill Clinton were played, Palau prayed for hurricane victims.
Palau preached for 37 minutes, although the schedule called for him to be onstage for an hour. In his sermon, he said God allowed the storm and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks "to wake up the nation -- to say, 'You'd better remember me, because without me you can do nothing.' "
When he asked the crowd to raise their hands if they wanted to embrace Jesus Christ, several dozen people lifted their arms. As about 30 counselors stood near the stage ready to speak with them, Palau urged them to move to tents, where they could pray and get Bibles.
The crowd increased, especially as the rain tapered off, eager to hear the night's performers. Toward the end of the evening, people in the energetic crowd were dancing, swaying and chanting along with the lyrics of the Christian band Toby Mac.
Palau later said he was "disappointed" and that "the weather killed us." A large percentage of the crowd, he added, was already deeply Christian. But, he added, "I got the message out."
Despite the soaked-out event, Palau earlier said he was encouraged that "close to 1,500 people have given themselves to Jesus Christ" as a result of his evangelistic outreach at pre-festival events over the past two weeks.
At one point in the afternoon, members of the Nation of Islam, wearing T-shirts and jeans, surveyed the area where the festival was occurring -- the same spot where a huge crowd is expected to convene next week for the 10th anniversary of the Million Man March. Said one Muslim: "We are just checking things out."
Staff writer Hamil R. Harris contributed to this report.
Natasha Roman, center, and her sister Julie, right, of Dumfries yell their appreciation for Christian rock group Kutless.