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Faithful Are Expected to Flock to Evangelist's San Diego Visit

Many followers of the Rev. Billy Graham believe health problems and age may make next week's mission event his last appearance in area.

May 03, 2003|Steve Hymon | Times Staff Writer

The praying won't stop until something happens.

That's the slogan for "Mission San Diego," which is expected to draw 200,000-plus Christians next week to hear the Rev. Billy Graham.

Because of health problems and age, many followers believe the mission will be the last time the fiery 84-year-old preacher appears in Southern California, where his evangelical career began.

Graham has been in the public eye since 1949, when he set up a tent on a downtown street corner in Los Angeles and for eight weeks pleaded with crowds to accept Jesus Christ.

Since then, he has won legions of followers who praise his unwavering dedication. Graham has preached to more than 210 million people in 185 countries, according to his organization.

Last year, more than 15,000 people stood in a parking lot and listened to Graham after they couldn't get into an already jammed football stadium in Dallas for one of his missions.

Graham has been on a farewell tour of sorts for the last few years. Each of the previous seven missions that Graham has attended has been billed by some as his last.

The minister has Parkinson's disease and hydrocephalus, commonly known as fluid on the brain, among other health problems.

"It's amazing. He's 84. Most mass evangelicals who travel like he has don't live past 60 because the travel is so hard on them," said the Rev. Jim Garlow of the Skyline Church in the San Diego suburb of La Mesa.

Graham is scheduled to preach each night of the San Diego mission.

The sessions are free to the public and are expected to mostly fill the 67,000-seat Qualcomm Stadium for four nights running, from Thursday through May 11.

Members of about 670 churches representing at least 66 denominations are expected to attend, according to organizers. The Saturday night program features a Christian rock concert for teens.

Graham's work has brought him prominence. Days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush chose him to deliver the sermon at a national prayer event. A few months later, Queen Elizabeth II dubbed Graham an honorary knight of the British Empire.

"Someone once said he preaches with a Time magazine in one hand and a Bible in the other," said A. Larry Ross, his longtime spokesman. "Mr. Graham has been able to show how the Bible speaks to the problems we face personally and as a whole in society."

At times, he also has been a controversial figure.

Last spring, for example, a newly released tape of a 1972 Oval Office conversation with President Nixon revealed Graham making anti-Semitic remarks. Many were surprised, as Graham had long enjoyed a solid relationship with Jewish leaders. Graham quickly issued a public apology.

Graham's son, the Rev. Franklin Graham, who is also a well-known evangelist, was criticized by Muslims after he called Islam "a very evil and wicked religion" during a television appearance in 2001. Franklin Graham's relief organization, Samaritan's Purse, has said it plans to offer humanitarian aid in Iraq while also trying to spread the Gospel to Muslims.

Many of Graham's followers said they are compelled by their faith to proselytize.

Youths are being encouraged to attend the San Diego mission and to bring friends who may not yet be believers in Christ, said Michelle Livingston, the associate director of high school ministry at the College Avenue Church in San Diego.

Thousands of teens are expected to attend and at one point to encircle the stadium while holding hands and praying. Livingston said teens are often more comfortable in church than at home or in school because church is a place they can "ask the hard questions and be forgiven."

"We're always encouraging kids to build relationships with those who don't know the Lord," Livingston said. "I think, with Billy Graham, so many of our believer kids are starting to catch on to the vision that they need to love their friends enough and care for them enough to introduce them to Jesus."

At times, the proselytizing has caused problems, said the Rev. Geoffrey Brown, of the Fletcher Hills Presbyterian Church in El Cajon.

"We have to admit that at times we're impolite," Brown said. "Rev. Graham's intent is to address those who haven't given their lives to the Lord Jesus, so Christians who already have can at times be aggressive because they want to share the chocolate cake."

Although the Christian rock concert is a modern addition to Graham's missions, much about the events will be unchanged from Graham's missions of previous decades.

There will be testimony by people in the crowd and an invitation period for them to come forward and accept Jesus. There will also be a large choir -- more than 4,500 singers have volunteered -- and the mission will be syndicated to television stations around the world.

A sports bar near the stadium has been tapped as a gathering place for those attending the missions to gather for supplemental prayer sessions.

Brown said that it is Graham's relentless drive to deliver a simple message about Christ that continues to draw thousands to his missions.

"He's holding the same message year in and year out that Jesus is the way we come to God," Brown said.

"In the midst of a cultural time that is so filled with abundance, he's offering something supernatural in the midst of an American people who are internally wired to receive from God."

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