Ottawa, as Billy Graham observed during his recent visit to Canada's capital city, is like a house divided. The geographical division of the Ottawa River between the province of Ontario and the province of Quebec is symbolic of the country's "two solitudes"—English on one side and French on the other.
The church is not exempt from that division. Traditionally, Anglophone Canadians have been largely Protestant, while Francophones have been Roman Catholic. Suspicion of each other has often prevented the two branches from cooperating.
But in the months preceding the June 25-28 Billy Graham mission to the national capital region, an area of about one million people, the barriers between Catholic and Protestant—and to an extent, between French and English—began to dissipate. Out of the 470 area churches that supported the campaign, 60 were Catholic. The Catholic involvement was the most significant of any Graham evangelistic crusade ever.
LONG TIME COMING: Graham's visit to Ottawa marked the first time in 92 years—since Chicago evangelist R. A. Torrey preached—that the city had hosted a major interdenominational outreach.
Mission chair Allen Churchill, a United Church minister, said Christians had been praying about such a unifying event for three decades. "God pulled the blinkers off our eyes," Churchill said.
Division among Protestants constituted a major obstacle in itself, according to Doug Ward, a Baptist pastor on the executive committee. But the greater issue facing the committee concerned determining whether Protestants could work with Catholics. "We crossed that line," Ward said, "and then it was a go."
Receiving an endorsement from the region's Roman Catholic archbishop, Marcel Gervais, helped. In a pastoral letter, Gervais said he supported the evangelism meetings "based on the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church, the spirit of Vatican II, and the teachings of Pope John Paul II."
In the early 1960s, the council of Vatican II, meeting in Rome, concluded, among other things, that the Catholic church should seek increased dialogue with other denominations. Gervais told Graham that Catholics "need to get back to the Bible," and "people are hungry to know what the Bible says and what its message is."
DEEPLY HELD RESERVATIONS: Despite the fact that Gervais is a Francophone, French-speaking Christians—both Protestant and Catholic—expressed reservations about involvement. For the French, the division between Protestant and Catholic is historic and not easily reconciled, explained Richard LaPointe, pastor of a French Pentecostal church and the mission's cochair. French Protestant pastors spoke of reluctance to join the mission if new converts attending would wind up in a Catholic church, which some did. LaPointe said some Catholics "see Protestants as the enemy."
In Quebec, where church attendance has fallen to less than 10 percent of the population during the past 40 years, Protestants are still considered cultic by some Catholics. Yet LaPointe is optimistic about closing that ecumenical divide. As many as 400 people, representing 50 different French-speaking churches, participated in the Christian Life and Witness classes that preceded the Graham crusade. "There were small groups of people from most of the French churches represented in the area, even though the pastors as a whole didn't get involved," LaPointe said.
DIPLOMATIC SPECIALIST: Graham, ever the goodwill ambassador, made sure the bridge-building also reached the top level of the country's decision makers, spending a private hourlong meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, who is a French-speaking Catholic, and attending a reception with opposition leader Preston Manning, an English-speaking evangelical.
Mission organizers took care to represent both French and English during the four nights of meetings. Speakers offered greetings and prayers in both languages. Some of the guest musicians, such as noted tenor Ben Heppner, sang in both French and English, as did Lena Di Paolo, a popular French singer who is largely unknown in English Canada. And to broaden the cultural spectrum represented, the committee also invited Susan Aglukark, an Inuit pop star who sang in both Inuktitut and English.
Audiences averaged 23,500 each night to hear the 79-year-old evangelist at the 18,500-seat Corel Centre (overflow crowds watched a JumboTron in the parking lot). The largest crowd came the night of a "Concert for the NeXt Generation," featuring Christian musicians Jars of Clay and Michael W. Smith. In all, 8,634 people made salvation decisions.
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