- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 25, 2005

NEW YORK CITY — The curious and the committed arrived by the thousands last night, the second day of New York’s three-day Billy Graham crusade, to hear the 86-year-old evangelist preach one of his last sermons to the world.

The event, in Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens, drew about 80,000 people, more than the revised official estimate of 60,000 for Friday night.

New York’s top Democratic leaders, former President Bill Clinton, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Charles E. Schumer, and New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, a Republican, appeared on the platform with Mr. Graham.

“I told [Mr. Clinton] he should be an evangelist,” Mr. Graham joked. “He has all the gifts, and he could leave his wife to run the country.”

Mr. Clinton informed the crowd he had attended several Graham crusades, starting 46 years ago.

“I want to tell you what an honor it is to be here as a person of faith with a man I love,” he said.

The crowd gave the Clintons a stronger ovation than they did for Mr. Graham, who, because of Parkinson’s disease and other ailments, is closing down his evangelistic career this year. Last night, his speech was barely 15 minutes long.

The evangelist geared the evening to young people, intertwining mentions of the rock group U2, St. Augustine and MTV. U2’s lead vocalist, Bono, visited him and his wife at their Montreat, N.C., home, he said, and composed a song for Ruth Graham.

“In his song, he said we are ‘estranged by sin and bones,’” he said. Young people are sidetracked by many distractions, he added, including loneliness and sex.

“Yes, there is pleasure in sex,” he said. “Sex is given to us. There is no harm in sex as long as it’s according to the Word of God, but you will not find answers in sex.”

High-voltage performances from the South African rock ‘n’ roll group Tree63, hip-hop vocalist Nicole C. Mullin and the pop group Jars of Clay also were geared toward the young.

Mr. Graham’s eldest son, Franklin Graham, now president and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, told the crowd of his wayward teenage days.

“I didn’t want God in my life,” he said. “I wanted to party. I wanted to have fun. I wanted to enjoy life. I wanted to experience it to the fullest.”

He was 22, he said, “when I asked Jesus Christ to come into my life. I went to church, but being religious is not going to save you.” Gesturing with a thin, black Bible in one hand, he added, “If you’re not sure where you’re going to spend eternity, be sure tonight.”

The thousands seated and standing in several overflow areas ringing the stage appeared to be from every ethnic and racial group imaginable. Rice University sociologist Bill Martin, Billy Graham’s official biographer, said this weekend appeared to be Mr. Graham’s “most diverse, polyglot gathering ever.”

Event organizers have presented the three-day revival as a last chance to hear in person a man who has preached to more people in live audiences (210 million in 185 countries) than anyone else in history. Event organizers said they counted 2,249 “faith commitments” Friday night.

“We’re here to hear one of God’s generals close out 60-plus years of ministry,” the Rev. A.R. Bernard, local crusade chairman, told thousands of listeners. “What better place than New York?”

“It’s truly an honor for our city to host this historic gathering,” Mr. Bloomberg said. “Every nation on Earth is truly represented on the sidewalks of New York City, and they are also represented here on this lawn tonight.”

Steven Curtis Chapman, one of the musicians picked to lead the worship Friday night, exhorted the throng to look ahead instead of to the past: “There’s a lot of talk about tonight being the end of an incredible era,” he said, “but God’s doing amazing new things.”

Still, the event had the trappings of a last great hurrah, which Mr. Graham referred to Friday night when he talked about a photograph for which he had just posed with about two dozen grandchildren. Mr. Graham’s second-eldest daughter, Anne Graham Lotz, said about 70 members of the Graham family, including spouses, had come to New York for the event.

“We are quite a mob,” she said. “We just wanted to be here to support him.”

A variety of other groups were drawn to the event, many of them passing out literature advertising various Christian ministries. Several groups of anti-Graham demonstrators — mostly Christian groups that disagree with his ecumenical stances — posted picket signs near the park entrance, which prompted shouting matches with others.

“That’s not right,” observed Greg Parker, who identified himself as a Jewish resident of Huntington, Long Island, who had come out of curiosity. “Billy Graham is a man of peace.”

Also present were several dozen Mormon missionaries clothed in their distinctive white shirts, ties and dark pants.

“A lot of people think we’re not Christians, so we decided to come,” said Elder Chase Cornett of Sammamish, Wash. “We’re here to answer questions. People here are clearly searching.”

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