After a long and storied life as an evangelist preacher, Billy Graham plans to make one final stop in New York next June, ending more than 55 years of crusades in 185 countries promoting Christianity through the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
Graham’s livelihood as a preacher came full circle with his just-completed crusade in Los Angeles, where in 1949 he held his historic tent meetings that catapulted him onto the national scene.
Over the course of four days in late November at the 92,000-seat Rose Bowl, Graham attracted crowds totaling 312,500. And as is the practice with all of Graham’s crusades, more than 14,000 people committed their lives to Jesus Christ.
The crusade in Los Angeles was Graham’s ninth there, making it his most frequently visited city. It also marked the 28th crusade in California.
Changing times haven’t changed Graham’s message. He still preaches to uncommitted individuals with the hope that they will forge a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and become active in a local church.
In today’s culture, where moral values weighed heavily on voters on Election Day, Graham’s message appears to be getting through. During the eight-week crusade in 1949, about 350,000 listened to Graham’s message in Los Angeles, but just 3,000 people committed their lives to Jesus Christ.
This year, more than four times as many chose to make the commitment, a trend that wasn’t lost on Graham. “He has seen an unprecedented search for purpose and meaning, especially among young people,” said A. Larry Ross, the director of media and public relations for Graham.
Graham’s appeal to youngsters was evident in Los Angeles, when 90,000 packed the Rose Bowl on November 20 for the biggest crowd of the four-day event. Graham started reaching out directly to youths during a 1994 stop in Cleveland. Since then, Ross said there have been 24 “youth nights,” many of which have set stadium attendance records.
“To have an 86-year-old evangelist with Parkinson’s setting stadium attendance records on youth night, with crowds primarily made up of teenagers, that’s a man bites dog story in a way,” Ross told HUMAN EVENTS. “But it also confirms the search for meaning and purpose that he finds everywhere he goes.”
Graham’s crusades consist of more than just his daily sermons to thousands of listeners. While in Los Angeles, more than 1,400 churches from various denominations joined together to sponsor the event and undertake a number of community service projects.
More than 40,000 boxes of food and hygiene items were collected from attendees, which were distributed to churches and the nearly 20,000 people who attended various “feasts of faith,” where people in need were fed meals. The program, called Love-In-Action, played an important role in the Los Angeles crusade, Ross said.
Another event brought more than 6,000 underprivileged individuals to the Rose Bowl on November 20 for In-N-Out hamburgers and special VIP seats at the stadium.
“There are more homeless and needy people in L.A. than in any other city in the country. I think 1.5 million fall into that category,” Ross said. “There was a tremendous local need there, and the crusade really geared up to make a difference in that area.”
Similar efforts are already under way in New York for next June’s crusade, which will take place at Madison Square Garden. Local churches have already met to discuss preparations for Graham’s final crusade and his seventh in the New York area.
Graham has called the first New York crusade in 1957 a turning point for his ministry. Plans for an initial six-week crusade were extended to 16 weeks to meet demand. In total, more than 2 million people attended, including 30,000 during a Wall Street rally, more than 120,000 at Yankee Stadium and 125,000 for the closing festivities in Times Square.
Graham’s last crusade in New York, which took place 13 years ago in Central Park, set records for the largest religious gathering in New York and the largest one-day crowd at one of his crusades. More than 250,000 people attended.
Next June’s crusade is expected to draw large crowds as well. Not only will Graham be venturing to a city with more than 8 million people, but he will also be bidding farewell to his followers.
But even after Graham retires, his legacy promises to live on through his son, Franklin, who conducts his own “festivals,” which are similar to the crusades. Franklin Graham already serves as the president, first vice chairman and chief executive of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.