When they tried first to book Madison Square Garden for his coming to New York this weekend, his advance party quickly saw a problem: the indoor arena was not going to be big enough. When they then asked permission to hold their event on the Great Lawn in Central Park, it was the city that demurred. Again, there would be too many people. Finally, they settled on an even bigger park in Queens.
If you begin to see that this is a megastar who draws no ordinary-sized crowds, know that he will be making not just one appearance, but three - the first scheduled for yesterday evening, and the remaining two for today and tomorrow. By the weekend's close, hundreds of thousands will have basked in the whisper of his age-weakened voice. Many will leave with a pledge to change the course of their lives.
This man is Billy Graham, the evangelical Christian leader, who, it is said, has preached to more souls than anyone in the history of the world. For more than five decades he has been the pastor-in-chief of Protestantism in the United States, befriending every US president since Dwight Eisenhower and leading at least one of them - George W Bush - from the wilderness on to the path of righteousness. Moreover, the ministry of Graham has lasted without once succumbing to the taint of scandals that have tripped so many other famous American evangelists - most famously, Jim Bakker - in the big-bucks telethon-for-Jesus age.
But this weekend's pilgrimage by Graham to Corona Park in Queens, the setting for the 1964 Worlds Fair, will be more than just another of his outdoor celebrations or, as his disciples call them, his "crusades". (Over the years, Graham has preached to 200 million people in 180 different countries.) He is returning to the city that first catapulted him to international fame. More poignantly, it will almost certainly be the last crusade he ever leads in the United States and, probably, anywhere in the world - although it remains possible that he will travel for one last gathering in London in November.
That the 86-year-old Graham is near the end of his mortal days is neither a secret nor a source of distress to him. So grave are his various disabilities there was some doubt, even until last night, that he would be able to fulfil his promise to take the podium and speak to his flock for 35 minutes at each of the three gatherings. Standing by, just in case frailty vanquishes determination, was his son, Franklin Graham, who has assumed the leadership of the worldwide Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
His death, he told reporters last week, "could happen any day". Graham is suffering from ailments that include hydrocephalus, or fluid on the brain, prostate cancer and Parkinson's disease, only recently diagnosed. He uses a walker due to a pelvic fracture last year and is expected to sit during his sermons this weekend on a chair, invisible to the congregation below. The hair has long-ago whitened to a wispy snow and the once familiar baritone of his voice has faded almost to a breeze in the reeds.
In talking about death, just as in his preaching, Graham inspires many through his straightforward style. The sermons he will deliver this weekend will, by his own admission, be little different from those he gave when he first came to the city in 1957 and he went on to deliver around the world - the simple lesson, as he puts it, that "the Gospel of Christ is the answer, not part of the answer, but the whole answer" and that we can all be saved.
"I look forward to death," Graham said at a news conference ahead of the three-day New York crusade. "I look forward to seeing God face-to-face." And he expressed confidence that, in spite of his evident weariness, when the moment comes to step to the microphone the necessary strength will come to him. "When I stand up and touch that podium the Holy Spirit comes, I believe, in power to help me. If it weren't for that I would not have attempted to do these three nights," he said. "I'm just totally dependent on the Lord and the prayers of thousands of people."
If his body is frail, his mind is still supple. He has been at pains to eschew political comment, a characteristic that sets him apart in a country where evangelical Christianity is often linked to right-wing conservatism. Attempts by journalists this week to draw political observations from Graham came to nothing. Asked whether he preferred Bush over his predecessor, Bill Clinton, he replied: "I like them both and I love them both." Clinton, a Baptist, once described attending a Graham crusade in Arkansas as a child. It left a mark on him, he said, because in those days Graham was alone among preachers in refusing to allow racial segregation in his congregations. Bush has often recalled that his conversion to born-again Christianity began with a walk with Graham on his family's estate in Kennebunkport, Maine, on a summer afternoon in 1985.
Officials in the Graham organisation claim that, influenced by his preaching, 3.2 million people have taken the decision to take in Christ and be born-again. Bush is not part of the statistic because he did not hand in a born-again "decision card" at one of the Graham crusades, in the way thousands are expected to this weekend.
While, over the years, he has drawn some criticism for his political caution - he turned down, for instance, a request from Martin Luther King to join his historic rally in Washington DC - Graham has always been saluted for reaching across racial lines and beyond the boundaries of his evangelical base. "He's a person who transcends the categories we try to inflict on people in theology," said Harvey Cox, a professor of divinity at Harvard University. "Certainly he belongs within the evangelical camp, but he's an exemplary Christian figure as a statesman. He has never been exclusivist in his views."
But neither Bush nor Clinton or any political figure can expect a mention in Corona Park. (Although Clinton was among those invited - and may or may not attend.) "If I get up and talk about some political issue it divides the audience - and what I want is a united audience to hear only the gospel," Graham explained, refusing also to address the controversy surrounding gay marriage. Talking to Larry King on CNN, meanwhile, he distanced himself from criticisms voiced in 2001 by his son, Franklin, about Islam, calling it a "very evil and wicked religion". He told King, "He has his views and I have mine."
Some of those views, expressed in the past, threatened to haunt Graham this weekend. As he prepared to meet his flock, memories were stirred in particular of anti-Semitic remarks made by Graham, caught on tape during a visit to the Nixon White House. As The New York Times reported yesterday, Graham was heard agreeing with a Nixon claim that the Jews dominated the news media, while adding, "They're the ones putting out the pornographic stuff." He went on: "A lot of the Jews are great friends of mine. They swarm around me and are friendly to me because they know that I'm friendly with Israel. But they don't know how I really feel about what they are doing to this country. And I have no power, no way to handle them, but I would stand up if under proper circumstances." He has repeatedly apologised for the comments and healed the rift with the Jewish community by often voicing his support for Israel.
If he harbours nervousness about this weekend, it was no different when he first arrived in 1957. Reflecting Gotham's reputation as America's least God-fearing of cities, he dared compare it to Sodom and Gomorrah. No city, he told his audiences was "more ripe for judgement or closer to catastrophe" than New York. But that first foray to the city became a wild success. He had been booked in for a six-week run at Madison Square Garden - already a significant stretch - but ended up preaching there for 16. "I ran out of sermons after the first week or two," Graham recently recalled. "Somebody said, 'What are you doing?' I said, 'I'm preaching them over and over again'." Because many of the Garden gatherings were broadcast coast to coast, his 1957 crusade established Graham as America's first television evangelist. Also that summer, he preached to 120,000 people in sweltering heat in Yankee Stadium and jammed his disciples into Times Square. Graham returned to Gotham in 1991, drawing the largest crowd ever to an evangelical meeting on the lawn in Central Park. "God loves New York and he hasn't given up on you," he boldly declared.
It was after the terror attacks of 2001, that protestant leaders in the city approached Graham at his mountain retreat in North Carolina - his wife, Ruth, has been confined there and largely bedridden for several years - about coming back one more time. Their argument was apparently compelling: New York had just suffered the loss of nearly 3,000 lives. Moreover, the spiritual landscape of the city, they said, had matured and deepened. While still home to multitudes of Jews, Muslims and those of many other faiths, it has seen a steep climb in evangelical Christian residents. A recent study of the city found no fewer than 7,000 churches in the five boroughs that described themselves as evangelical, meaning they stick closely to the doctrines of the Scriptures and place special emphasis on personal conversion. Another survey suggested that, in a metropolitan area of 9.1 million people, about one million are evangelical, Pentecostal or charismatic Christians. A very large proportion is composed of immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa.
It is no wonder then that the turn-out in Corona Park is expected to be so large. All last week, an army of volunteers and church officials were preparing for the three-day festival. There will be musical acts alongside the sermons, provided by Christian music stars such as Latin Grammy Award winner Marcos Witt and the bluegrass legend Ricky Scaggs. The crowd, meanwhile, is expected to reflect the ethnic diversity of the city and of Graham's followers. In what will be an outdoor United Nations of Christian faith, 10,000 headsets will be distributed to visitors hoping to catch the words of Graham interpreted into 20 languages. For the very large number of Korean evangelical Christians, many of whom are concentrated in neighbourhoods not far from the park, there will also be the opportunity to follow the services in their own languages on Korean radio in the city.
"No other city in America - perhaps in the world - presented as great a challenge to evangelism," Graham wrote in his memoirs, looking back to his first visit to the Garden in 1957. If this weekend indeed proves to be his last crusade ever - for the record, it will be his 417th - he is perhaps hoping to make a final point. That even New York was saveable in the end.
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