CHARLOTTE, N.C. – When the Rev. Billy Graham begins his 417th crusade today in New York, he’ll share the promise he first made nearly a half-century ago in Grand Rapids, Mich.:

God loves us.

But that promise isn’t all the Christian world will note when the ailing evangelist commands the crusade stage for perhaps the last time, preaching to some 100,000 at each of three services this weekend. Many who will pack Flushing Meadows Corona Park are coming to see a man who has stuck to the core message of God’s love while avoiding the sorts of temptations that have tainted other American religious figures.

When he stands before the crowd, he’ll stand, as always, behind the Christian conviction that got him there. But at 86, his voice is weakened by illness and his fire-and-brimstone softened by age. He talks now of seeing the world through mellower eyes. And so, this weekend, many will see him as a changed man reluctant to judge others.

And that, perhaps, is the most extraordinary dimension of an unparalleled story.

“My calling is to preach the love of God and the forgiveness of God and the fact that he does forgive us,” Graham said recently. “That’s what the cross is all about, what the resurrection is all about, that’s the gospel. And you can get off on all kinds of different side trends, and in my earlier ministry, I did the same. But as I got older, I guess I became more mellow and more forgiving and more loving.”

Said Graham biographer William Martin of Houston: “In his head he’s not, but in his heart he’s a universalist. He doesn’t want to shut people out, and he hopes God wouldn’t either.”

Graham is largely out of the public eye now, living quietly in Montreat in the North Carolina mountains with his wife, Ruth, who is virtually bedridden by illness. They require a staff to care for the two of them round the clock. But with Graham acknowledging that this weekend’s crusade will “probably” be his last, the spotlight again has shone his way – if only for this landmark weekend in a career full of landmarks.

The world, though, won’t be reintroduced to the electrifying, almost threatening, evangelist who galvanized New York in 1957. His crusade was scheduled to run six weeks but ran 16, catapulting him to fame. They won’t see again the conservative friend to presidents who joined in making anti-Jewish comments with Richard Nixon 30 years ago. Last week in an hourlong CNN interview, Graham said he should have crawled to Jewish leaders, begging for forgiveness.

Instead, younger Americans who know little of Graham will see an evangelical giant take a different tack than today’s contemporary, conservative Christian leaders.

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At the April dedication of his ministry’s new headquarters near the Charlotte, N.C., airport, Graham reminisced about his friend, the late Pope John Paul II. His words of affection made squirm some evangelicals who are uncomfortable with Catholicism. On CNN, he spoke kindly about Mormons and Roman Catholics, and distanced himself from anti-Islam comments made by his son, Franklin, who runs the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

“Well,” Billy Graham told CNN, “he (Franklin) has his views and I have mine. And they are different sometimes.”

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When asked what troubles him most today, Graham doesn’t mention homosexuality, abortion or any of the other hot buttons that rally conservative Christians.

He mentioned poverty in the world.

Evangelist Leighton Ford of Charlotte, N.C., said Graham’s answer reflects his yearning to unite people. Poverty, said Ford, is one of the few issues that can bring conservatives and liberals together.

Ford, who is Graham’s brother-in-law, has seen this long journey up close. He was just out of seminary in 1957 when Graham appointed him head of the church relations efforts for the New York crusade that ended with a Times Square service.

Now, 48 years later, he sees another sort of preacher.

Ford said Billy Graham is no universalist who celebrates all faiths equally, referring to the term used by biographer Martin. Graham still believes some people will go to hell because they reject God’s grace, Ford said, but he’s also not a preacher quick to condemn or exclude.

This weekend in New York, thousands will flock to the park to savor the hallmarks of a Graham crusade: George Beverly Shea singing “How Great Thou Art,” the sermon and the traditional altar call ending it all.

Graham has promised he’ll preach from the Bible, sharing the simple yet powerful message of salvation through Christ.

But he’ll stop there, Ford said, because the modern world’s best-known religious figure is content now to leave the judging to God.



(c) 2005, The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.).

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PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Billy Graham

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050622 Billy Graham

ARCHIVE CARICATURE on KRT Direct (from KRT Faces in the News Library, 202-383-6064): Billy Graham

AP-NY-06-23-05 1253EDT


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