PASADENA, Calif. — The nation was still recovering from World War II when a little-known Baptist preacher from North Carolina pitched a tent over a sawdust floor in downtown Los Angeles and began preaching a powerful message of salvation through a personal faith in Jesus Christ.
The Rev. Billy Graham’s eight-week revival led 3,000 people to make professions of faith and launched a decades-long career that would reap millions of converts, sparking a boom in evangelism worldwide.
Fifty-five years later, Mr. Graham has returned to Los Angeles for a four-day crusade. Organizers say the crusade, which began yesterday, will be his last in California, with his final revival scheduled for June in New York City, the scene of another early triumph.
Mr. Graham, 86, will speak to his followers in the 92,000-seat Rose Bowl — one of the biggest stadiums he has booked.
Greater Los Angeles has changed dramatically since 1949, when Mr. Graham first preached here. The region of 5 million, framed by barren hills and orange groves, is now a sprawling metropolitan grid packed with 16 million people who speak hundreds of languages.
Mr. Graham says his message endures.
“I’ll be preaching some of the same sermons I preached in 1949,” he said. “The Gospel hasn’t changed and people’s hearts haven’t changed — they’re still in need of the affection the Gospel can give.”
Mr. Graham’s followers are pondering the future of evangelism without their charismatic leader, who has Parkinson’s disease, broke his hip and pelvis in the past year, and was treated for fluid on the brain in 2001. He uses a walker and has doctors and emergency substitute preachers on call during his appearances.
About 1,200 churches from nearly 100 denominations have contributed more than 20,000 pastors and volunteers to plan the California reunion.
Mr. Graham confesses that filling the cavernous Rose Bowl is daunting. “I’m a little bit old for it; the stadium is a little bit big for me,” he said.
Organizers say Los Angeles’ size cuts both ways: The market has a lot of potential, but it is limited by language barriers, weeknight traffic and a lifestyle that can crowd out time for worship.
“We’re busy here, so who wants to think about religion?” said Jack Hayford, president of the International Foursquare Church in Los Angeles and the crusade’s co-executive chairman. “There’s no other city in this country — and maybe in the world — where it’s more difficult to communicate than L.A.”
Language plays a large part.
The crusade has spent $1.4 million of its $5.4 million budget on advertising, most of it in media other than English-speaking. Organizers have trained up to 12,000 volunteers in 19 languages to counsel non-English speaking converts who come forward to receive Christ. Audience members can listen in real time on 17,000 radios that will carry translations in 26 languages — the most ever at a Graham crusade.
Mr. Graham’s first Los Angeles revival addressed a much different city.