Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The Rev. Will Graham, the 31-year-old grandson of evangelist Billy Graham, took the stage in Gastonia, N.C., last night to lead his first U.S. crusade.

With an estimated 5,000 people nightly expected to attend the Greater Gaston Celebration, turnout for Will Graham’s U.S. debut will be modest, compared to the crusades of his 87-year-old grandfather, the world’s best-known evangelist, and his father, Franklin Graham, also an international evangelist.

“Franklin just did a crusade last week in South America, which drew 150,000 people in two days,” said the Rev. Austin Rammell, who attended Liberty University with Will Graham and invited him to speak at the Gastonia event, being held through tomorrow in a minor league baseball stadium.

“But this is a significant event for Christians, since it is Will Graham’s first-ever crusade in this country, and the name, Graham, is to crusades what Microsoft is to finance,” Mr. Rammell said yesterday. Will Graham previously has led crusades in Canada and one in India.

“Whether I am speaking to 10 or 10,000 people, I’m just excited to tell them about Jesus,” Will Graham said yesterday. “We’ve all sinned, but sins can be forgiven. I want to give that message of hope to people.”

Mr. Rammell said one of his colleagues on the board planning the Greater Gaston Celebration suggested Will Graham lead the crusade after hearing him speak last year at a Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Nashville, where the young evangelist gave what he described as a “powerful” address.

Mr. Rammell, pastor of Hardin Baptist Church in Gaston County, told the board that Will Graham was a “college buddy” of his. Asked by others organizing the event whether he considered Will Graham a good speaker, Mr. Rammell replied, “I promise you that neither Will nor I would want anyone to judge our speaking ability, based on speeches we gave in college.”

Mr. Rammell describes Will Graham, 31, as a “low-key, down-to-earth, normal blue-collar kind of guy.” During their college days, he said, Will Graham’s main aspirations were to “get a new hunting rifle and go to Alaska every summer, where he was a hunting and fishing guide.”

“He has been a Christian all his life and at age 15, really felt the call to give his life to God and become a full-time minister,” said Erik Ogren, a spokesman for Will Graham and for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

After earning degrees at Liberty and Southeast Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., he joined the staff of a Baptist church in Raleigh, N.C., and subsequently helped start a new church in Wake Forest, where he served as a pastor before becoming assistant director of the Billy Graham Training Center in Asheville, N.C.

Mr. Rammell said he thinks it’s tougher for an evangelist starting out today than it was when Billy Graham first made headlines with his crusades in the 1940s and ‘50s.

“It’s harder. The culture has changed,” Mr. Rammell said, noting that fewer than half of Americans attend church regularly. “And there have been so many quacks out there whose motives were money and ego, that people have become a lot more skeptical.”

As for Will Graham’s skills as an orator, Mr. Ogren said, “Will will tell you he’s a fairly mellow speaker, who is more laid back like Billy is today in his advanced years than Billy was when he started out.”

Will Graham and his wife, Kendra, are the parents of three children, ages 5, 3 and 1.

Frequently told he sounds like his father and grandfather, Will Graham typically responds: “We’re from western North Carolina. We all talk like this.”

In his statement yesterday, Will Graham said those who attend his crusades will hear “the same message” that Billy Graham delivered in his more than 400 crusades and that Franklin Graham delivers in his in this country and abroad.

“That’s the great thing about the Bible,” he said. “It never changes.”

• Researcher Amy Baskerville contributed to this report.

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