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Spreading Word on farewell tour

- The Washington Times - Friday, November 19, 2004

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.

The young preacher set up in what is now an industrial district sandwiched between two highways. He planned to speak for three weeks. When famous personalities such as 1936 Olympian and war hero Louis Zamperini and mobster Mickey Cohen showed up, the event caught the nation's eye and Mr. Graham kept going. Soon, the Baptist preacher from North Carolina was big news. One early visitor was William Randolph Hearst, who listened to a sermon from his car parked at the edge of the crowd. He sent a message the next day to his chain of newspapers -- newspapers bigger and more powerful than now -- "Puff Graham."

Mr. Graham's long absence from Los Angeles and limited appearances elsewhere have diminished his name recognition.

Meanwhile, up-and-coming evangelists from South America, Africa and Southeast Asia attract crowds of 20,000 to 80,000 -- but none has yet matched Mr. Graham's star power. His son, Franklin, has taken over the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and conducts revivals.

Billy Graham biographer William Martin expects less dependence on one-time, blowout events, partly because weekly church attendance is swelling.

"Evangelism is so much larger and more diverse that it's difficult for anyone to dominate it in the way he has," says Mr. Martin, a Rice University sociologist. "Churches are so much more robust; there's the question of why they should put so much time and money into something when they don't need to be rescued."

But those who have experienced one of Mr. Graham's stadium-style crusades say there is no way to replace the spiritual passion of a revival tens of thousands of people strong.

Willie Jordan, who attended every day of the 1949 revival as a 16-year-old, says she will never forget the preaching that led her to God.

"Every night, that tent was packed. I remember the crowds of people -- you could see them coming for miles," says Miss Jordan, who leads the Fred Jordan Mission on the city's Skid Row. "It was a greater sight than any of us had ever witnessed before. It was clear that God had placed his hand on Billy for something special."