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June 21, 2005:

Billy Graham Is at It Again
by Jon M. Sweeney

At age 86 and suffering for years from Parkinson’s disease, Rev. Billy Graham has slowed down a great deal. He had surgery at least twice last year (hip and pelvis), and he is also hampered by prostate cancer. Today, Graham spends most of his time at home, in the North Carolina mountain retreat that he has shared for decades with his wife, Ruth Bell Graham. But this week, he is in New York City (Flushing Meadows Corona Park—adjacent to Shea Stadium) for what may be the last of his famous “crusades.”

For three nights—June 24-26 (Friday through Sunday)—he’ll be preaching in the city that helped launch his ministry to worldwide prominence and his name and image to international recognition. Los Angeles in 1949 (attended in person by 350,000 people) first brought his name to millions, but there’s nothing like New York to make one famous.

It was in 1957 when Graham first preached in New York. He preached for most of the summer at Madison Square Garden, perhaps the most famous sports arena in the world. 2.4 million people came out to see Graham during his stay in 1957, and Martin Luther King, Jr., led prayers one evening in July.

Graham’s supporters have been out in force for months, making preparations—as they always have—long before the great preacher arrives in the city. More than one thousand churches, both Protestant and Catholic, are helping to sponsor, or market, the evangelist’s visit. On a recent visit to New York, this writer saw dozens of placards and posters plastered all over the place announcing Graham’s coming.

He last preached in New York City in 1991, when people over-flowed Central Park. This will very likely be Rev. Graham’s last visit to the great city. The preparation, media attention, and anticipation feels that way, and Graham himself has mused that it may be his last “crusade” of all.

This is Graham’s 417th crusade—in which, for several evenings in a row, both the churched and unchurched come to a large arena to hear contemporary Christian music, “testimonies,” or personal stories of sin and finding faith in God, and then, of course, one of Graham’s trademark sermons.

The evangelist’s sermons usually hit on the same, basic themes: The universal sin of humankind, the death and “sacrifice” of Jesus Christ on the cross to save humans from sin, and the necessity of “accepting” that sacrifice of Christ by praying to God that Jesus might enter one’s heart and change one’s life. It is on this last point that millions of people have “come forward” to receive the invitation of God, at Billy Graham’s bidding, since the 1940s.

Despite these evangelical traits, Billy Graham remains an enigma to most self-described Evangelicals. In an interview published in USA Today two weeks ago, Graham confided that he was recently excluded from an important meeting of the nation’s Evangelical leaders. The newspaper quoted Graham as saying, “There are a lot of groups that feel a little bit strange around me, because I am inclusive. Evangelism is when the Gospel, which is good news, is preached or presented to ‘all’ people. If I took sides in all these divisive areas, I would cut off a great part of the people that I really want to reach. So I’ve felt that the Lord would have me just present the Gospel and stay out of all these divisive things.”

The Internet is full of Graham’s detractors. Christian fundamentalists call him a traitor—for leaving behind his fundamentalist roots (as a teenager, Graham quit the fundamentalist Bob Jones University); a deceiver—for “watering down” the message of the Gospel; and worse names on account of his friendships with political liberals such as Bill and Hilary Clinton, and prominent Catholics including the late Pope John Paul II.

His son has replaced him as head of the worldwide organization he once founded. Since 1995, William Franklin Graham (known by his middle name) has served as president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Franklin Graham has little of his father’s natural charisma and charm, although by most reports, the Association is very well managed.

The era of the great Christian evangelists is surely coming to an end this week.

For more information on this week’s crusade, visit the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s website.

—Jon M. Sweeney is a writer and editor living in Vermont. In August, Paraclete Press is publishing his next book, a memoir: Born Again and Again: Surprising Gifts of a Fundamentalist Childhood.

More by Jon Sweeney.

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