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Billy Graham: The mission never ends

The venerable preacher is 83 and frail, but he takes his evangelistic crusade on the road, as he has since 1947.

October 21, 2002|Bob Baker | Times Staff Writer

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 old man was saying the same thing he said when he started these rallies back in '47. The same thing he said in '49 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 '57 when he held them spellbound in 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 Assn. 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. "God makes you innocent," he encouraged them. "He places you in his sights as though you'd never committed a sin."

His frailty made this moment bittersweet -- sad, yet a chance to appreciate a lifetime. Imagine if there had been a way for conservatives to wave goodbye to Ronald Reagan before his gifts were stolen by age, to watch him deliver one last muscular bromide. Imagine a stadium basking in a message and a voice that had brought such comfort for so long. This was Texas Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys, savoring a man who has been nicknamed everything from the Pope of Protestants to the Elvis of ecumenical evangelism.

"There's been a lot of talk among the clergy that this is the end of an era, that this is like seeing Cal Ripkin break the iron-man record [for consecutive games played] or Barry Bonds break the home-run record," said the Rev. Don Holliday, a pastor at Scofield Memorial Church in Dallas, one of about 50 area pastors who earlier in the week prayed over every seat in the stadium.

"It makes people want to turn out for this. It's a sense they are watching history in the making."

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.

"It's poignant for me now because I'm responsible for 9,000 counselors to do what somebody did for me 31 years ago," he said. "And my sons are now about the same age as I was, and while they've already chosen to surrender their lives to Christ, it's a lot of fun watching it through their eyes."

A simple message

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