Can a Billy Graham crusade restore one's faith? That is what Kevin Murray and his girlfriend from New Hyde Park, Long Island, wanted to know on Saturday night. "I have lost a lot of faith," Murray said as he waited for Graham to appear. "I am Catholic. When my girlfriend and I talk, we ask ourselves, How could the priests not have known about the child abuse scandals? I don't go to church anymore."
Murray is like a lot of folks I interviewed this past weekend in New York. They had heard of Billy Graham and decided to check him out as a last pit stop before they lost hope.
President Bill Clinton also came to the crusade that night to tell what Billy Graham has meant to him. Clinton told the audience that he had visited several Graham crusades, starting 46 years ago. As a 9-year old boy, he was impressed with Graham's insistence on preaching to an integrated audience in Arkansas right in the midst of a bitter fight over school desegregation. "I'll never forget it. I've loved him ever since," the former President said. "He's about the only person I know who I've never seen fail to live his faith." Clinton asked his wife, Hillary, to attend the crusade with him. From South America, he faxed his wife (in South Africa at the time), urging her to return to see Graham. Arriving at the crusade, the former President declared, "I want to tell you what an honor it is to be here as a person of faith with a man I love."
On this greatest stage in the world, New York City, Billy Graham demonstrated that he is still a man of singular importance in bearing Jesus Christ's message of love and hope. Hobbled by multiple illnesses, the 86-year-old Graham seemed to gather strength as his three day crusade in the 1964 World's Fair grounds in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park of Queens brought people from around the globe to pay tribute to what the evangelist means in their lives. At the end of the Sunday evening crusade he told the 90,000-person crowd, "I'm not finished yet!" During six decades in public ministry, Graham has counseled 11 Presidents and conducted 417 evangelistic crusades in 185 countries.
According to New York City police and park officials, 230,000 people attended the three days of meetings. Graham officials totaled about 9,400 people coming forward to the evangelist's invitations to commit to Christ.
To accommodate the large crowds, all 93 acres of the park grounds were transformed into one main crusade venue, with three overflow areas equipped with Jumbotron screens. At the last moment, Graham staff brought in 25,000 square yards of Astroturf and matting to cover the ground that was growing more dusty as the weather grew hotter.
Nearly 20,000 volunteers helped to minister to the crowds. The volunteers ranged from off-duty cops acting as security to church leaders distributing crushed ice to the sweltering crowd at the hot Sunday afternoon service. More than 1,400 churches of 82 denominations provided volunteers. Musical performers like Jars of Clay, Salvador, Nicole C. Mullen, Michael W. Smith, and Steven Curtis Chapman created a rock festival atmosphere at each event.
The media also converged on the crusade. The Graham organization granted 700 press credentials to reporters from around the world. The national television networks gave Graham good coverage. Talk-show hosts Sean Hannity, Joe Scarborough, and Chris Matthews broadcast live from the crusade.
Back in 1957, Graham approached New York City with "fear and trembling" before launching what turned out to be the historic 16-week crusade at Madison Square Garden. The churches in the city told him that they were "discouraged and frustrated." The 1950s church growth that the rest of the country had experienced had passed the city by. Graham said that if he failed in media-rich New York, all the world would know it. Further, there were some critics who hoped he would fail.
That same year was also a time of decision for Graham and evangelicals. Graham decided to take on the fundamentalists in the spring of 1957, warning the National Association of Evangelicals at their annual meeting that took place in upstate New York that they "could slip into extreme ultra-fundamentalism." But fundamentalist leaders like Bob Jones Sr. said Graham had "sold out to the modernists" by inviting all churches to participate in his services.
On the other side, many liberal mainliners were not any kinder to Graham. Union Theological Seminary's Reinhold Niebuhr, for example, attacked Graham relentlessly and refused to meet with the evangelist.
Graham also put evangelicalism on the side of civil rights and integration in 1957. He invited Martin Luther King to lead a prayer at one of his crusades, praising the African American's Christian love, and reiterated his earlier declarations that his crusades would not have separate seating for whites and blacks. Southern fundamentalists were beside themselves, the most extreme railing against Graham as a "negro lover." King wrote Graham, "You have courageously brought the Christian gospel to bear on the question of race in all its urgent dimensions." King encourage Graham to continue: "God has certainly done marvelous works through you in this great crusade."
Graham's biographer William Martin concluded that "the New York crusade made the breach with the fundamentalists permanent."
By the end of 1957, Graham's national prominence was secured, anchored by a crusade marathon that started in Madison Square Garden in the late spring and ended with a monster rally in Times Square in the fall. Participants remembered it like a ride on a Coney Island Rocket. Graham told a press conference shortly before the 2005 crusade, "I ran out of sermons. So, I preached them over again." Song leader Cliff Barrows told CT that he remembers that the escalating success left everyone exhausted but thankful. "Lots of times, we were running on empty." Graham lost 18 pounds and says he felt that every night was a spiritual battle. Graham said, "Since I was 22, I have prayed for New York City."
Many older people at the 2005 crusade remember how Graham's 1957 crusade changed their lives. Bob Johansson, the founder and principal of the thriving Evangel School in Queens, remembers how Graham moved him from the use of emotionalism to trust on God for converting people. "I was raised in the charismatic stuff," the educator said. So, he didn't expect much to happen at Graham's rallies which were relatively tame. "At the altar call Graham leaned back with his arms crossed." There was no emotional tugging at people's hearts. Johansson remembers thinking, "Oh God, he is just standing there! This is going to be a disaster." Yet, hundreds of people walked past Johannson to the altar. "I just started to weep. Then, I really knew that God works by the Spirit." Johannson was one of the two pastors who went down to North Carolina bearing a call from city pastors for Graham to come to New York again.
Jewish and Roman Catholic New Yorkers called Graham a kind of living history example of evangelicalism. He helps non-evangelicals understand what evangelicalism is about. Also, several prominent evangelical leaders came from across the nation to see Graham, lend their support, and take part in the crusade services.
At the crusade, Graham opened with his trademark, "God loves you!" He spoke with a strength and vibrancy of a loving father. The evangelist's message is a simple one of sin and love, destiny and salvation, loneliness and hope. Graham's elemental message sounds out the DNA of the evangelical movement.
One Chinese American woman told me she "felt revival and refreshment by going back to the basics." Mega-bestselling author and pastor Rick Warren, who flew into New York to be with Graham, said that the impact of Graham's message on him has been profound. "Billy Graham taught me to keep the message simple. He taught me never to lose my focus on Christ," he said.
Graham's simple message has a power to unify people around Christ regardless of denominational lines. "The genius of Billy Graham is that when you get a maximum number of people connecting on the simplest common denominator you have explosive impact," said Warren.
But very few Roman Catholic leaders showed up at the crusade itself. In an April 12 letter to the Graham campaign, the bishop of Brooklyn said that the Catholic Church was busy with its own plans for an evangelization campaign, mass rally, and television broadcast in the fall. However, the bishop offered a liaison to the Graham organization for any specific requests they had.
People from the around the world who came to hear Graham speak said that his message travels well also because Graham lives a simple life free from sexual and financial scandal. Crusade attendees said the crusade washed away their cynicism and disillusionment with established religion, the sex abuse scandals in churches, and high-living preachers.
Graham's son Franklin explained that some of his father's popularity was his decision to set up a standard of accountability. "Evangelists were known by leaving the unpaid bills behind. An evangelist would take up a love offering and then leave town." The elder Graham put a limit on his salary and dedicated the rest of the monies to ministry. "Daddy gave a really good name back to evangelicalism."
Franklin says his father's example focuses on relevance and integrity. "We are coming back to that [perception of evangelicals as shysters]. We have a lot of monkey business in the evangelical world today."
Graham also defines evangelicalism as a movement that reaches over racial, ethnic, denominational, and political lines. All of the leading New York Democratic officials turned out to greet Graham despite evangelicals' perceived ties to Republicans. Graham himself (a registered Democrat) eschewed political statements during interviews before the crusades. "If I get up and talk about some political issues, it divides the audience. What I want is a united audience to hear only the gospel," he said at his press conference.
Interestingly, Graham did somewhat depart from his "no politics" declaration, but no one picked up on it. Asked what he thought the greatest problem in the world was, Graham declared, "Poverty is the greatest problem."
Graham's organization was a much-studied aspect of the event. A.R. Bernard, who is pastor of the largest church in New York City, says, "We are learning a lot about how to do things by watching how the Graham people operate." Even before the crusade ended the Graham organization was cleaning up and packing. By 1 a.m. Monday, all the decision cards were computerized. By 8 a.m. Monday, the crusade director was calling people to raise additional funds.
As the crusade tents were being folded, Graham himself flew off the Mayo Clinic to get the okay to accept the invitation to hold a crusade in London. Graham has been weakened by prostate cancer, fluid on the brain, failing hearing, and a broken hip and pelvis. Doctors put in a shunt to drain the fluid in his brain. It has significantly lessened the evangelist's shaking movements that were attributed to Parkinson's. Consequently, he has been more energetic in recent months. And the crusade energized him more. Before he left the stage, he told the New York City audience that he might even come back to the city. "I never say never," Graham confided. Graham said that he was inspired by the example of how the late Pope John Paul II faced death by continuing ministry.
And now, Murray, the disillusioned Catholic New Yorker, says, "Look at the Holy Spirit moving! People are rising. Me too!"
Tony Carnes is senior writer for Christianity Today.
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For newspaper reports on the Graham crusade, see yesterday's Weblog.