Last 'Altar Call' for Billy Graham?

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Organizers are setting up 70-thousand chairs in Flushing Meadows Corona Park for this weekend’s Billy Graham Crusade. For months, churches around the region have been getting ready for what Graham has said will be his final North American crusade – and possibly the last ever. WNYC’s Fred Mogul spoke with some of the people who will be there about what they hope to hear.

REPORTER: On a weekday evening at Resurrection Church in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Sunset Park, services are casual, yet intense. While a guitarist strums on stage, small groups of congregants huddle in the pews – praying, pleading and occasionally shouting. They’re asking for guidance and blessings for this weekend’s revival meeting with Billy Graham.

GRAHAM: Lord, we pray you will bring many new souls to experience your love this weekend…

REPORTER: Eileen Faughnan and her husband will be volunteering at the Crusade. They attended a special two-hour workshop – to help worshippers who approach the stage and pledge their faith, often through tears. For many, the experience will be overwhelming.

GRAHAM: It’s this massive group of people who have a void in their heart, and only Jesus can fill it. And just to know that their lives are going to be completely changed and just be more peaceful and happier. It’s just wonderful to watch.

REPORTER: The “altar call” is at the heart of the revival. According to the studious accounting of The Billy Graham Evangelical Association, in 12 New York appearances over the last half-century, 131,520 people have made, quote, “decisions,” to accept the Gospel. The city holds a special place in the historic rise of Billy Graham.

GRAHAM: Have you been longing for peace and joy and happiness? You need converting. You need converting from sin to Christ!

REPORTER: Earlier this week, Graham recounted what happened when he brought his crusade here in 1957.

GRAHAM: We didn’t know what to expect when we came to New York. We planned to stay three or four weeks and didn’t think we could ever fill Madison Square Garden. And it was filled every night except two or three during 16 weeks.

You need a change in your life, and you can have that change before this night is over. The Bible says you can have a new heart. You can have a change in your nature.

REPORTER: The 86-year-old Graham is frail. He has trouble hearing and uses a walker. Still, he sports a wide smile, a deep tan, and a full mane of silver hair. He says he won’t talk about controversial issues -- only about the Gospel and Love. He won’t even say what the issues are that he wants to avoid.

GRAHAM: If I get up and talk about some political issue and it divides the audience, and what I want is a united audience to hear only the Gospel. There are many times I went too far in talking about such issues, and I think this time I want to stick only to the Gospel.

REPORTER: Graham has always tried to cultivate the image of someone largely above politics – even while taking forceful positions on all the great post-War issues, from communism to civil rights to nuclear disarmament…and even while offering his spiritual services to a succession of American presidents, especially to Richard Nixon. Graham has long tried to avoid being seen as a partisan or activist in the mold of a Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson or James Dobson. Still, some observers say, even “sticking to the Gospel” is political in a way. Jeff Sharlet, writes about evangelical America for Harper’s magazine and is a visiting professor of Religion and the Media at NYU.

SHARLET: There’s this idea that Billy Graham is no longer conservative or has somehow transcended politics, because he says he’s not going to talk about politics. But that’s a really shallow understanding of what conservative theology is about and what Billy Graham’s conservatism has always been about. He no longer needs to talk about politics because the alignment of evangelicalism and the kind of politics he’s always supported has become so neat at this moment that he no longer needs to exhort people in the direction he feels is the right way.

REPORTER: Pastor Joseph Mattera from Brooklyn’s Resurrection Church does talk about politics in his ministry – at least in a certain sense. He has led protests against gay marriage and taken up many causes. Mattera says he and Billy Graham in different ways are both working for the same things -- the same transformations of society and of individual souls. Others might call it “politics,” but to both men, their beliefs are simply “Biblical Truth.” And if that affects who is elected and what policies are put into place, well, so be it.

MATTERA: Christianity transcends ideology and politics. We belong to something even greater than that, and we need to try to vote, if it comes to voting for somebody, based on principles and integrity, more than an affiliation with an individual party.

REPORTER: The Crusade has purchased 1-point-4 million dollars worth of local radio, television and billboard advertisements. An unscientific survey found a high awareness of this weekend’s events. Many people say they have no interest in attending, but others say they’ll go, just to see what it’s like. Church-goer Yohance Brown is hoping that sense of curiosity will help his friend Candace.

BROWN: I wanted her to come and hear the message in this setting, I’m sure she will very blessed by it, and I think she might respond and make a commitment to Christ. REPORTER: Does she know that’s what you want her to do? YB: I’ve invited her to church many times, and I’ve told her my intents, so I’m pretty sure she knows (laughs). REPORTER: You think maybe Billy Graham himself, the last Crusade – it might ‘tip the scales’? YB: Yes, I do. (laughs) REPORTER: Graham says his message in Flushing in 2005 will be the same as it was at Madison Square Garden in 1957: that the Gospel isn’t just part of the answer to people’s problems, it’s the entire answer. This approach to life has resonated with millions of Graham’s followers over the last six decades and undoubtedly will persuade many more to join him this weekend. And somewhere in Corona Park, while the crowds pray and sway and sing and weep, Yohance Brown will be watching his friend Candace closely to see if she is one of them.


» Billy Graham’s 1957 Crusade
» Billy Graham’s 2005 Crusade
» The Center for Religion and Media at New York University