A frail Billy Graham speaks from a full heart

Simply powerful
A frail Billy Graham speaks from a full heart
The Associated Press, Oct. 26, 2002

IRVING, Texas – The rainstorm poured through the half-open roof of Texas Stadium and hit the blue tarp so hard it almost drowned out the old man’s words, and yet the faithful, 34,000 of them, were rapt.

The tall white-haired man was saying the same thing he said when he started these rallies back in 1947. The same thing he said in 1949 when a three-week Los Angeles crusade exploded into eight weeks, catching the nation’s ear for the first time.

The same thing he said in 1957 when he held them spellbound in New York’s Madison Square Garden for 16 weeks, a phenomenon so stunning it was covered by national television. The same thing he’d said to more than 200 million people in more than 180 countries.

He makes it so simple, the faithful reflected gratefully, as the Rev. Billy Graham held his 412th – and possibly last – crusade. He boils it down: God loves you. Accept Christ as your savior and your sins will be forgiven. You will be with God for eternity. No threats. No evil enemy. Almost no reference to hell. Simply surrender to God.

He will be 84 in a couple weeks. He hobbles to and from the lectern with the assistance of his son, the Rev. William Franklin Graham Jr., who has already replaced him as chief executive officer of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. He suffers from Parkinson’s disease and underwent a series of brain operations to drain fluid two years ago. That began the last-crusade speculation, but he kept going – to Jacksonville, Louisville, Fresno, Cincinnati and, last week, North Texas, which had not seen him since 1971 and did not expect to see him again. No further crusades are scheduled.

“I know that death is going to come to me in the near future,” Graham said late in his half-hour address Friday night, the second of four scheduled evenings. “But, by God, because of what Jesus did on the cross I’m ready – and happy to go.”

He said it the way he says most things, in a calm, dignified North Carolina accent, with none of the florid exclamations associated with so many evangelists, yet with the confidence of someone who was an all-star Fuller Brush salesman before he was a preacher. He was focusing, as he usually does, on those in the audience who might be “good” people, who might go to church but who had not formally accepted Christ. He wanted them to leave their seats and walk down toward the field, where they would be met by one of thousands of counselors trained for this moment.

His frailty made this moment bittersweet – sad, yet a chance to appreciate a lifetime.

Drew Dickens, a volunteer in charge of training and coordinating the counselors for the Dallas crusade, could not help but think of the unbroken circle. Dickens had been in this stadium as a seventh-grader in 1971 only because it was new and he wanted to see it, especially the funny hole in the roof that kept the field open while protecting the spectators. Yet he was so moved by Graham that he joined the hundreds who walked down from their seats to make a commitment to Christ. Today he runs his own ministry.

* * *

Billy Graham, the son of a dairy farmer outside of Charlotte, N.C., was 16 when he committed to Christ while watching a fire-and-brimstone Baptist preacher. Ordained as a Southern Baptist minister in 1940, he took over a radio show and caught fire, then quit a pastorship for full-time evangelism around the country. Radio made him bigger still during a series of tent rallies in Los Angeles in ’49. Others had used advertising, publicity campaigns, staffs of specialists and singers to refine revivalism, but Graham is credited with perfecting it. The accessibility of his message has led to mutually beneficial relationships with every U.S. president since Harry S. Truman.

Even in his twilight, Graham spoke powerfully at the National Cathedral in Washington on a national day of prayer after the Sept. 11 attacks. Weeks later a Gallup poll found that he was America’s fifth-most-admired man, behind President Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell, then-New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Pope John Paul II.

“He is an icon essential to a country in which, for two centuries now, religion has been not the opiate but the poetry of the people,” wrote Yale University professor Harold Bloom, author of “The American Religion.”

Graham’s power, Dickens suggested, lies in two things. First, the simplicity of his message: “As Christians, we have made this overly complex. Christ’s message was simple – of love, of starting over.”

And second, the mechanics of the Graham crusade, in which each person who steps forward is greeted by a counselor who keeps tabs on him or her in the weeks ahead. “It’s not mass evangelism. It’s actually personal evangelism on a mass scale.”

After decades of televangelists caught up in hypocrisy or political or social campaigns and the more recent Roman Catholic Church abuse scandal, Graham fulfills a nostalgic fondness for purity that transcends his Southern Baptist roots. He split with much of the religious right, for example, by denouncing the violent tactics of faith-based anti-abortion groups.

His Minneapolis-based organization has kept its financial records open to the public for the last half-century. Organizers of the North Texas events made a point of saying Graham received none of the funds raised from them. Offerings were requested in a low-key manner to defray the $3 million cost, and a big-screen video sought donations of cars, bicycles and bus passes to aid local residents with transportation problems.

“His message is so sincere,” said Skip Carwell of Richardson, a Dallas suburb, who had seen Graham here in 1971. “I think his presentation is honest. It’s from the heart. It’s … ”

” … God-led,” continued his wife, Francene Carwell. “With his whole ministry, he’s been very honest about what his ministry does. He doesn’t keep secrets.”

* * *

Much about this Billy Graham crusade was different from that in 1971. For one thing, the word “crusade” has been replaced by “mission” in advertising after Sept. 11, out of sensitivity to Muslims (given that the Crusades of the Middle Ages were military campaigns to seize Jerusalem and a large swath of the Middle East from Muslims).

The gospel music had a glossy, sophisticated pop feel. The preacher who used to speak for hours at a time and plant himself in the heart of a city for months was rationing his energy, standing at the lectern with a chair behind him for support, gesturing only occasionally and with only one hand.

What had not changed was the way Graham gracefully led his flock to the evening’s lone moment of drama, when he challenged them to make a profound choice. He was doing nothing more than telling homespun stories and quoting the Bible about sin, hardly trying to craft applause lines, when suddenly he wondered about all the images of the cross people use and wear without thinking about what they mean.

Quickly he connected the dots:

“The cross, first of all, means that God sees the depth of our sins The Bible says you have to repent sin and seek Jesus in your heart.”

He asked the audience if they’d ever broken a commandment.

And then he asked those sinners who had yet to accept Christ as their savior to leave their seats, to join him in surrender.

“You’re standing at the crossroads tonight, many of you. … The choice you make tonight will affect your whole life.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday October 31, 2002.
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