Ailing evangelist steadfastly keeps message on gospel, avoids politics
MONTREAT, N.C. – After more than five decades spent preaching to 210 million people in 185 lands, the Rev. Billy Graham is marooned in his log house on a mountaintop ridge.
The evangelist shuffles with a walker down a small ramp into his living room. He has prostate cancer, hydrocephalus and the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, and last year he broke a hip and his pelvis. He says he leaves the mountain only three or four times a year and cannot even remember his last time down.
“When you get to be 86 years of age, as I am, all of the world is passing you by,” he said, sitting on his front porch for a rare interview.
Nevertheless, Graham is now preparing to venture down the mountain to travel to New York City for another evangelistic crusade — a three-day outdoor revival meeting beginning June 24 in Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens.
“Maybe this will be the last crusade I’ll ever hold,” he said in a conversation on his porch of more than an hour, during which he reflected on his own mortality, his close attention to the funeral of Pope John Paul II, his son Franklin’s comments that Islam is an “evil and wicked” religion and his regrets, including anti-Jewish comments he made 30 years ago to President Richard M. Nixon that were tape-recorded.
For the last half-century, Graham has been the central figure behind the dramatic post-war resurgence of evangelical Christianity in America. His crusades delivered new believers to churches nationwide; his embrace of mass media paved the way for a generation of evangelists; and his magazines, training programs and the retreat center he founded helped shape many of today’s most prominent Christian leaders.
Now, at a time when other evangelical leaders plunge into political issues, Graham has set himself apart, steadfastly refusing to talk about politics, the evangelical movement or any of the issues important to evangelical conservatives, from abortion to homosexuality to stem-cell research.
“I feel I have only a short time to go, and I have to leave that to the younger people,” he said.
“I’m just going to preach the gospel and am not going to get off on all these hot-button issues,” he said when politics was broached again later. “If I get on these other subjects, it divides the audience on an issue that is not the issue I’m promoting. I’m just promoting the gospel. And after they come to Christ, they hopefully come to a church where they will learn more about their responsibility in society.”
Although Graham moved and spoke slowly, his blue eyes were sharp. He wore a bright blue blazer that matched his eyes, and pressed blue jeans. He said that every day from about 11 a.m. on, he goes numb over most of his body and especially in his face. “I don’t feel normal. It’s a neurological thing,” he said. “If I tell my hand to reach up, it’s a delayed action between my brain and what happens.”
His son Ned, who runs a missionary organization based in Sumner, Wash., now stays with his parents and helps care for them. Several assistants and nurses make the trek each day up the steep winding road, through two security gates to the top of the mountain. Recently, a storm swept through, downing trees and leaving the home without electricity for several days. A backhoe was still digging out the damage, and a wall of dirt blocked the view from the front porch.
In 1995, Graham named another son, William Franklin Graham III, as president and CEO of his organization, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. In 2002, Franklin Graham set off an international furor when he called Islam “a very evil and wicked religion.”
Asked about his son’s remarks, Billy Graham answered, “We had an understanding a long time ago: He speaks for himself.” Pressed further, he responded, “Let’s say, I didn’t say it.” Then he recounted how, while on a crusade in Fresno, Calif., soon after 9/11, he asked to be taken directly from the airport to the local mosque to show support for the Muslims there.
Asked whether he agreed with those who anticipate a “clash of civilizations” between Christianity and Islam, he quickly said, “I think the big conflict is with hunger and starvation and poverty.”
Graham’s last crusade was in Los Angeles in November. He has been invited to do another crusade in London, but he said he will not decide until he could assess how it went in New York.
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