News Editor Edward E. Plowman last month traveled to Hungary to cover the series of meetings at which evangelist Billy Graham preached. It was the evangelist’s first official visit to preach in a Soviet-bloc country. The following account is the second of two reports written by Plowman. The first one appeared in the September 23 issue.
“I’ll never forget Hungary,” said evangelist Billy Graham several times during his week-long preaching visit to that country last month.
The people of Hungary who met and heard the 58-year-old American preacher will not forget him either. That was evident at Graham’s final service in Hungary. It was held in the Sun Street Baptist Church at the height of the Friday evening rush hour. Some 2,000 people filled the church and overflowed into the courtyard, where the service was broadcast on loudspeakers. It was a farewell service: emotions ran high, and there were tears and embraces. Graham preached on a topic from the Book of Hebrews: “Things That Change.”
It was a fitting topic, for a lot of changes had been noted throughout the week. According to pastors, hundreds of lives had been changed through encounters with Jesus Christ, whose death and resurrection Graham had proclaimed everywhere he preached.
Without elaborating, the evangelist said his thinking had undergone some changes. He said that his outlook now encompasses the entire world, and he indicated that his attitude toward Eastern Europe is more open. Also, he stated that he now places more emphasis on the Christian’s social responsibility than he did in earlier years. In a press conference, he said he was surprised by Hungary’s industrial progress (“the traffiic jams remind me of America”), by the material well-being of the people, and by the degree of religious freedom he found.
It was not stated in any press handouts, but it was nevertheless obvious that some changes had taken place in attitudes toward Graham on the part of government and church leaders. They seemed impressed by his personal warmth and sincerity, by his genuine interest in Hungary, and by his concern for the total man in his preaching.
Already there is talk of a return visit to Hungary. Nothing is official at this time, and no details have been discussed, but it is likely that a future Graham visit will get much broader church support and smoother government clearance.
In all, the evangelist preached to an estimated 27,000 persons, including more than 12,000 at a rural church camp some twenty-five miles north of Budapest. The Sunday morning open-air service received little advance publicity other than by word of mouth, yet local church leaders described it as the largest gathering for a Protestant religious service since before World War II.
Graham preached to overflow crowds twice at the Sun Street Church (once with sound piped to two other crowded churches) and at Baptist churches in Debrecen and Pecs. Additionally, he addressed hundreds of pastors, seminarians, and church workers in two convocations in Budapest.
Nearly half of those at the jam-packed meeting in Pecs, a bustling city of 150,000 in southern Hungary, were young people. They marked their Bibles and took notes as Graham preached. One teen-ager in the choir wept openly as singer Archie Dennis, a black from New Orleans, sang, “How Great Thou Art.”
Prior to the service, Graham conferred with Roman Catholic bishop Jozsef Cserhati of the Pecs diocese. Bishop Cserhati, a leader in the ongoing church-state dialogue in Hungary, said that only five million of the country’s supposed seven million Catholics can be accounted for, and that only three million of these practice their faith. However, said he, there are spiritual stirrings among young people, and many of them “are coming to Christ.” Without Christ, added the Catholic leader, there can be no hope of creating the new man for the new society.
Later in the week the evangelist conferred with Deputy Premier Gyorgi Aczel, the theoretician of the ruling Hungarian Socialist Workers Party who represents the government in the church-state dialogue. Aczel briefed Graham on church-state relationships, and the evangelist explained his belief in Christ. Graham also asked Aczel to relay greetings from President Carter to Party Secretary Janos Kadar. The pair agreed that the world needs to find a way to achieve and maintain peace.
Also at the meeting was Imre Miklos, who heads the State Office for Church Affairs, the government agency that oversees religious matters. Both Aczel and Miklos seemed interested in pursuing conversation about issues of faith and society.
In an earlier meeting, Graham and Miklos engaged in a sort of mini evangelical-Marxist dialogue. Both men explained and discussed their convictions about life. Miklos, who extolled the Bible as a book “full of wisdom,” said he feels that Communists observe better the Ten Commandments—except for the first one—than many Christians. Graham acknowledged that churches have often failed at this point, but he said a great revival of “living by the Bible” is going on, and many Christians are trying to obey the Lord and his commandments.
The evangelist met several times with U.S. ambassador Philip Kaiser, and the ambassador hosted the Graham party, Miklos, and Hungarian church leaders at a reception at the U.S. embassy. Singer Dennis and pianist Tedd Smith presented a short concert.
Four of Graham’s aides—Cliff Barrows, John Akers, T. W. Wilson, and Denton Lotz—preached to large church audiences during the week, and the evangelist’s wife Ruth visited with residents of a home for the elderly operated by Seventh-day Adventists.
There were light touches, too: at a collective farm Graham donned a heavy shepherd’s coat and was coaxed to pose for photographers atop a large horse whose saddle was not strapped. En route to Debrecen a stop was made to sample authentic goulash. Meanwhile, Mrs. Graham visited a Budapest department store, and the Graham party toured a light-bulb factory.
One of the most important persons in the Graham party was Alexander Haraszti, an Atlanta-area physician who is a leader of Hungarian Baptist churches in America. A linguist and ordained minister as well as a doctor, he served as Graham’s interpreter, and his skill won the admiration of many Hungarians. Haraszti can be admired for his persistence, too, for he spent many hours and thousands of his own dollars in travel and telephone expenses over the past five years arranging for the Graham visit. The person with whom he worked the closest was Sandor Palotay, president of the Hungarian Council of Free Churches (CFC), an alliance of Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal, Seventh-day Adventist, and other small denominations. The official invitation to Graham came from Palotay and the CFC. Palotay played the key role in obtaining government permission to invite the evangelist.
On his last full day in Budapest, Graham told some three dozen reporters at a press conference that his goals in coming to Hungary had been fulfilled:
• He had come to preach the Gospel, and he had done so in five services, with hundreds having made decisions for Christ.
• He had wanted to meet with the leaders of the churches, and this aim was achieved in meetings with leaders of the Catholic, Reformed, Lutheran, and smaller Protestant denominations. Graham, who also visited with Jewish leaders, said he had not met so many of a country’s religious leaders in so short a time as in Hungary. He also met with several Soviet Baptist leaders, including Alexei Bichkov, who is president of the European Baptist Federation.
• He had come to see how churches exist in a socialist society. He said he found freedom to worship and to preach. There are problems, he said, “but I can report that the church is very much alive in Hungary.”
• He had come to “get a perspective” on life in a socialist society. He said that he had learned a lot but that it would take a long time to digest everything before he can make a complete evaluation.
• He had hoped to “build bridges,” and some had been built. Citing one example, he said that Bishop Tibor Bartha of the Reformed Church had accepted his “challenge” that more emphasis needs to be placed on evangelism in the churches of Hungary, and that he in turn had accepted Bartha’s challenge to become more active in seeking reconciliation between churches and between the peoples of the world.
Until the night before Graham’s arrival, Bartha—a Graham critic in past years—had refused to be among those giving official welcome speeches at the opening service in the Sun Street church. He finally gave in, and he uncorked one of the warmest public welcomes of the entire week. Later, he confessed that he had gained a new appreciation for Graham and his ministry through close-up contact with the evangelist.
In response to a question with delicate political overtones, Graham said Christians in the East and in the West both live in societies that are secular and materialistic, and they face similar problems.
One reporter wanted to know what changes in thinking Graham had undergone in Hungary. “I have not joined the Communist Party since coming here, nor have I been asked to,” replied the evangelist, prompting laughter among both Hungarian reporters and Western news people. “I think the world is changing, and we on both sides are beginning to understand each other more,” he remarked.
An estimated 65 per cent of Hungary’s population is Roman Catholic, and 25 per cent is Protestant. Of the latter, about two million are members of the Reformed Church and 500,000 are Lutherans, according to church leaders. The Baptists are the largest of the small groups.
On the way to the Budapest airport early on the Saturday of departure, the Graham motorcade passed a stadium that seats 110,000.
A pastor in the front seat of one car turned to a Western reporter in the rear seat. With a wink and a smile he pointed to the stadium and said: “The next time Billy comes to Budapest.…”
Raising the ‘Dead’ In Europe
“When you speak of evangelizing Wales,” asked a British Broadcasting Corporation reporter, “aren’t you flogging a dead horse?”
The question was directed at Latin American evangelist Luis Palau, who replied, “Oh, it may be dead all right, but Jesus Christ has resurrection power. He can raise any dead horse.”
Palau went on to crisscross Wales, speaking in a variety of situations to cumulative total audiences estimated at 60,000. During his month in the British principality some 1,500 people registered decisions for Christ with the Palau team.
Climaxing the visit was an eleven-day crusade in Cardiff Castle. The last evangelist to conduct meetings inside that fortress was John Wesley two centuries ago. The last united evangelistic campaign in the city of Cardiff was conducted in 1904 by American R. A. Torrey, and over the years it has gained a reputation as a “hard city” for such efforts.
Despite early fall rains and chilling winds, the Cardiff meetings attracted record crowds. The Western Mail, the leading morning paper in Wales, described one of the castle services as “the largest religious gathering in Wales.”
Palau was not the only evangelist from across the Atlantic getting a warm welcome in Europe at summer’s end. Nicky Cruz, the former New York gang leader born in Puerto Rico, preached in seven cities in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Denmark, and Finland. Cumulative attendance was estimated at 28,000, with 1,240 decisions for Christ reported. After the tour Cruz said he plans to undertake missionary ventures in South America, Europe, and the “American ghettos” in the future. He explained, “I want to go where the Gospel has never been preached, instead of convincing the already convinced.”
European evangelicals who assisted with the meetings indicated that many of their countrymen are unconvinced and that the Latin evangelists are welcome to come back to tell many of them for the first time of the power of the Gospel.
Atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair and her two sons filed suit in federal court in Austin, Texas, in an effort to have “In God We Trust” removed from American currency. The slogan is unconstitutional, said Ms. O’Hair, because it “compels plaintiffs to subscribe to and affirm a belief which is antithetical to plaintiffs’ most deeply held convictions.…” Because it is necessary to handle money, notes the suit, the plaintiffs are thereby compelled to disseminate religious symbolism with which they disagree.
The suit was filed during a break in Ms. O’Hair’s cross-country debate tour with evangelist Bob Harrington (see August 26 issue, page 34). That tour, arranged by a promoter, is scheduled to hit dozens of cities by the end of the year. It has recently encountered some unfavorable press coverage, however, and pastors and church leaders are increasingly speaking out against it.
Mike Pigott, a Nashville Banner reporter, followed the pair to five cities in three states. He reported that all of their debates were alike, that they made the same speeches, that they walked on and off the stage on cue, and that they set each other up for the same one-liner comments in city after city.
Just before arriving in Raleigh, North Carolina, Harrington’s band, “Little Richie Jarvis and Our Brother’s Keeper,” abruptly quit, charging that the debates were theatrical and money oriented.
Harrington was also criticized by some pastors for accepting from porno publisher Larry Flynt (Hustler) a $155,000 luxury tour bus with a custom interior.
In response to all the criticism, Harrington denied that the debates are rigged. He said repetition occurs because there are only a few ways to make the same point or state the same message. He said he had to dismiss the band members because not enough money was coming in to pay them adequately. As for the bus, he said that it can be used in the ministry, and that the love of money, not money itself, is evil.
Audiences are given envelopes in which donations can be designated to either Harrington or Ms. O’Hair, and Harrington sells “Victory Kits” containing albums, books, and other literature (in some cities he charges $10 for the kit, in other cities $20). He also collects names and addresses for his mailing list. So far, say the O’Hair people, the tour has been a financial and public-relations success for their side. Harrington, who pays all the bills, insists he is barely breaking even. He estimates that rental and promotional costs run about $5,000 per rally.
A band member disputes Harrington, however. He says Zonnya LaFerney, Harrington’s business manager, told him that the average donation is between $3 and $5 (she and two assistants count the offerings), and the average crowd size is 2,000 to 3,000. She was also quoted as saying the crowd in Dekin, Illinois, purchased 300 kits at $20 each.
A poor turn-out of about 1,000 greeted the atheist and the evangelist in South Bend, Indiana, last month, and both were heckled.
In a major editorial, the Nashville Banner said the whole thing is “deplorable.” The paper called the debate series “a debasing performance” that shows “contempt for honest views of those in the crowd who have taken the bait—and baiting.… It is show biz. It is bunk.”
Still, many Harrington supporters feel he is doing the country a service, and they say that if he has been tarnished it is only because he has been willing to get into the arena and take on the forces of atheism in close combat that is bound to leave some battle scars.
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