PASADENA, Calif. (AP) – The nation was still recovering from World War II when a little-known minister pitched a tent over a sawdust floor in downtown Los Angeles and began preaching a powerful message of salvation.

His revival led 3,000 people to embrace Christianity over eight weeks and launched a decades-long career that reaped another 3 million Christian commitments, sparking a boom in evangelism worldwide.

Fifty-five years later, a frail Billy Graham is returning to greater Los Angeles for a four-day crusade that organizers say will be his last in California, with his final one scheduled next June in New York City.

Graham, 86, will speak about 30 minutes a day Thursday evening through Sunday in the 92,000-seat Rose Bowl – one of the biggest stadiums he’s ever booked.

Greater Los Angeles has changed dramatically since 1949, when Graham first preached here. The region of 5 million framed by barren hills and orange groves is now a sprawling metropolitan grid packed with 16 million people who speak hundreds of languages.

Graham says his message endures.

“I’ll be preaching some of the same sermons I preached in 1949,” Graham said in a phone interview. “The Gospel hasn’t changed and people’s hearts haven’t changed – they’re still in need of the affection the Gospel can give.”

Graham’s followers are pondering the future of evangelism without their charismatic leader, who has Parkinson’s disease, broke his hip and pelvis in the past year and was treated for fluid on the brain in 2001. He uses a walker and has doctors and emergency substitute preachers on call during his rare appearances.

Some 1,200 churches from nearly 100 denominations have contributed more than 20,000 pastors and volunteers to plan the California reunion, substantial numbers but less than organizers wanted.

Graham confesses that filling the cavernous Rose Bowl is daunting. “I’m a little bit old for it, the stadium is a little bit big for me,” he said.

Organizers say Los Angeles’ size cuts both ways: The market has lots of untapped potential, but it’s limited by language barriers, weeknight traffic and a lifestyle that can crowd out time for worship.

“We’re busy here, so who wants to think about religion?” said Dr. Jack Hayford, president of the International Foursquare Church in Los Angeles and the crusade’s co-executive chair. “There’s no other city in this country – and maybe in the world – where it’s more difficult to communicate than LA.”

Language plays a large part.

The crusade has spent $1.4 million of its $5.4 million total budget on advertising, most of it in non-English media. Organizers have trained up to 12,000 volunteers in 19 different languages to counsel non-English speaking converts who come forward to receive Christ. Audience members can listen in real time on 17,000 radios that will carry translations in 26 different languages – the most ever at a Graham crusade.

Graham’s first Los Angeles revival addressed a much different city.

The young preacher set up in what is now an industrial district sandwiched between two highways. He planned to speak for three weeks. But when famous personalities such as 1936 Olympian and war hero Louis Zamperini and mobster Mickey Cohen showed up, the event caught the nation’s eye and Graham kept going. Soon, the Southern Baptist minister from North Carolina was big news.

More recently, the minister’s long absence from Los Angeles and limited appearances elsewhere have diminished his name recognition. Coordinators find that young congregants, and even many young pastors, see Graham as “Billy who?”

Meanwhile, up-and-coming evangelists from South America, Africa and southeast Asia attract crowds of 20,000 to 80,000 – but none has yet matched Graham’s star power. Billy’s son, Franklin, has taken over the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and also preaches revivals.

But Billy Graham biographer William Martin expects ever less dependence on one-time, blowout events, partly because weekly church attendance is swelling.

“Evangelism is so much larger and more diverse that it’s difficult for anyone to dominate it in the way he has,” said Martin, a Rice University sociologist. “Churches are so much more robust, there’s the question of why they should put so much time and money into something when they don’t need to be rescued.”

But those who have experienced one of Graham’s stadium-style crusades say there is no way to replace the spiritual passion of a revival tens of thousands of people strong.

Willie Jordan, who attended every day of the 1949 revival as a 16-year-old, said she will never forget the preaching that led her to God.

“Every night that tent was packed. I remember the crowds of people – you could see them coming for miles,” said Jordan, 71, who leads the Fred Jordan Mission on the city’s Skid Row. “It was a greater sight than any of us had ever witnessed before. It was clear that God had placed his hand on Billy for something special.”



On the Net:

Billy Graham Evangelistic Association: http://www.billygraham.org



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