- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Evangelist Billy Graham, who has preached to more people than any man in history, returns to New York this week for his 417th crusade, a 48th anniversary celebration of his 1957 crusade in Madison Square Garden.

This time, which Mr. Graham said yesterday will be his last in the United States, the venue is Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens, the site of the World’s Fair in 1939 and 1964.

“While I leave the future in God’s hands, I know that my days of preaching must soon come to an end,” he said in Manhattan. “I look forward to death with great anticipation. I’m looking forward to seeing God face to face. That could happen any day.”

The three-day crusade, which begins Friday, will have a supporting cast of 1,300 churches, 111 denominations, 15,000 volunteers and its chairman, the Rev. A.R. Bernard, 51, who heads the city’s largest church, the 21,000-member Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn.

The Panama-born Mr. Bernard, a former member of the Nation of Islam, is evidence of the remarkable ethnic diversity — 130 languages spoken among 9.1 million residents in the New York metro area — that has challenged crusade organizers.

The leader of the crusade is a man who has preached to 210 million people in 185 countries. Eighty-three million of them actually attended a crusade in person, and the rest listened via satellite broadcast.

Mr. Graham agreed to do the crusade soon after a committee of New York pastors approached him after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to say New Yorkers need spiritual revival.

He says this crusade will be his eighth in New York and his last in the United States. There have been overtures for him to travel to London this fall, but no decisions will be made until after the New York event.

The June 24-26 meetings will be at 7:30 p.m. Friday, 6 p.m. Saturday and 3:30 p.m. Sunday. A children’s crusade, featuring a caped “Bibleman,” who is actor Robert Schlipp dressed as a superhero who dispenses Bible verses and some light kung fu, is scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday. The latter is part of the crusade’s outreach to an estimated 2 million young people ages 18 and under throughout metropolitan New York.

The event will be studded with several contemporary Christian music stars and bands: Salvador and Steven Curtis Chapman on Friday; Tree 63, Nicole C. Mullen and Jars of Clay on Saturday night and Marcos Witt, the Gaither Vocal Band, MercyMe and Michael W. Smith on Sunday afternoon.

The sermons at the event, budgeted at $6.8 million, will be translated into 20 languages. Thousands of seekers are expected, especially those living around the highly Asian-American enclave that that section of Queens has become. The whole event will be simulcast on local Korean-language radio.

It will include an outreach to the poor for which congregants are asked to bring packages of new socks to each meeting. These will be distributed through local agencies and missions to the homeless.

Even if they already have heard and believed the salvation message, New Yorkers may come to see, perhaps for the last time, a living legend.

New York, 1957

Billy Graham was 38 when he went to New York the first time in 1957. Booking what he thought was a six-week run at Madison Square Garden, he stayed 16 weeks, attracting 2 million people. Even though he preached judgment — no other city in the world was “more ripe for judgment or closer to catastrophe than this city,” he told the multitudes — the people kept coming.

That crusade was further notable because of the black clergyman Mr. Graham invited to the podium to offer a prayer: Martin Luther King. Mr. Graham had long since refused to allow segregated seating at his crusades, which was standard practice for public gatherings in many parts of the country until 1954.

Even that simple gesture outraged some of Mr. Graham’s fundamentalist friends in the South, according to “Great Souls: Six Who Changed the Century,” a 1998 biography of Mr. Graham and five other 20th-century religious figures by former Time magazine correspondent David Aikman. Not only that, Mr. Graham’s invitation to hold the 1957 meeting was issued by the Protestant Council of the City of New York, a mainline Protestant group, which irritated his more-conservative backers.

Roman Catholics were told by their priests to stay away. Nevertheless, one meeting was held in Yankee Stadium to accommodate the crowds and a final rally was held in Times Square, where the evangelist used marquees from nearby theaters as illustrations for his message.

No Catholic churches are among the 1,000 congregations involved in this weekend’s event, a crusade spokeswoman said, nor are Catholics among the thousands of volunteers who have signed up as counselors, ushers or choir members.

This month’s event originally was scheduled for the 19,673-seat Madison Square Garden, but with the large number of churches involved, organizers quickly switched it to a larger venue. Mr. Graham returned to the Garden in 1969, then preached at Shea Stadium in 1970. In 1991, he drew more than 250,000 to a service in Central Park, an enormous turnout even by New York standards.

“Perhaps no other individual in the history of the Western world in modern times has been more tempted by the rewards thrust in front of him by a success-worshipping culture,” Mr. Aikman wrote. “It is little short of astonishing, especially considering the scandals affecting some evangelists of the 1980s, how entirely Graham avoided any major moral or ethical lapse throughout his career.”

Failing health

Billy Graham’s Sept. 14, 2001, remarks at the National Cathedral — closely following September 11 — thrilled millions who watched the service on television, but he has been beset by health problems since then.

A variety of ailments confines him to his Montreat, N.C., home: prostate cancer, hydrocephalus, Parkinson’s disease, poor hearing, increasingly bad vision and, last year, a broken hip and pelvis. Those who see him in New York will see the 86-year-old evangelist approach the speaker’s podium with a walker. A specially built stool has been designed that allows him to sit while preaching.

Nevertheless, when his biographer, Rice University religion and public policy professor William Martin has heard him speak in recent years, “I’ve been rather amazed,” he says.

“He’ll seem so weak when we talk, but when he preaches, he seems to fill up with spirit and is able to carry on. He can get his energy up to preach when he can do nothing else. That animates his preaching.”

Mr. Martin’s 1991 book, “A Prophet With Honor: The Billy Graham Story,” has been revised and reprinted several times.

“That’s who he is and what he does. He is the pre-eminent evangelist of our time,” Mr. Martin says.

Mr. Graham’s eldest son, Franklin, president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, will be standing by in New York in case his father is too ill to preach. The younger Graham has posted a plea for prayer on www.billygraham.org. “At 86 years of age, his desire is still to clearly and boldly communicate the Gospel,” the son writes.

This will be all Mr. Graham plans to talk about. Despite the large role he played in President Bush’s 1985 conversion to born-again Christianity, the evangelist has said many times he will not discuss politics from the pulpit. The walk the two men had that summer on a Kennebunkport, Maine, beach was instrumental in his faith, the president later wrote in his 1999 book, “A Charge to Keep.”

Because Mr. Bush did not register his decision at a crusade, he’s not part of the 3.2 million “decisions for Christ” the Graham evangelistic association estimates Mr. Graham’s career has produced.

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