NEW YORK (AP) – With all the talk about whether this weekend would be the Rev. Billy Graham’s final American revival, the 86-year-old evangelist spoke strongly and clearly in the scorching summer heat Sunday, flubbing only once when he said the D-Day invasion was in 1945, not 1944.

However, Graham’s sermons each day were noticeably short. He spoke for only 23 minutes Sunday before his energy appeared to flag and he abruptly issued the invitation for people to come to Jesus.

For many of the 90,000 people in the audience, this was a sign.

“It’s a little bit sad if this is the last one,” said usher Bertha Astor.

The expectation this would be Graham’s last revival meeting hovered over the event all weekend. His sermon Sunday appealing for decisions to follow Jesus emphasized that nobody knows the hour of death.

Noting his own advanced age, he said, “I know it won’t be long.”

“We are celebrating the end of 60 years of ministry with Billy Graham,” said the Rev. A. R. Bernard, crusade chairman and pastor of Brooklyn’s booming Christian Cultural Center.

But Graham seemed to toy with the crowd over the question, saying he hopes “to come back again someday” and that he previously told journalists who asked if this was the last Graham crusade, “never say never.”

Graham is suffering from fluid on the brain, prostate cancer and Parkinson’s disease. He uses a walker due to a pelvic fracture and is largely confined to his home in Montreat, N.C.

The man known as America’s pastor is considering a request to hold a rally in November in London, but Graham says chances are slim that he’ll accept. His son, the Rev. Franklin Graham, said the elder Graham does not like to be away from his wife, Ruth, who is also in ill health. But an Anglican rector from London was present in New York to coax Graham into visiting.

Out in the throng Sunday, Ismael Rivera, a New York City firefighter, didn’t want to believe it was the end. “Hopefully, praise God, I’m sure he will go on.”

Joe Lin, a graduate student from Singapore, said he wanted to see Graham preach one last time. “This is a historic moment,” he said. “Nobody has had such impact on the people.”

Graham waited to go on in an air-conditioned tent, with aides nearby in case of a medical emergency and the stage shaded by a massive canopy. His pulpit had a movable seat hidden from view, so he could sit down if he felt unsteady.

The total turnout for the three New York meetings was 230,000, Graham’s staff estimated, with 5,582 registering Christian commitments the first two nights. Sunday’s total of inquirers was to be announced later.

Sociologist William Martin, Graham’s biographer, traveled from Rice University to witness the revival. He said he expected to see a largely white turnout but was struck by the diverse crowd. “I wonder if a crowd this large and this diverse has ever assembled,” he said.

Martin recalled that in 1953, Graham ended racially segregated seating at his crusades in the South, even before the Supreme Court’s school integration ruling.

“There he took the ropes down. And now all the barriers seem to be down,” he said.

The program was hosted by Cliff Barrows, 82, and mixed contemporary Christian bands with a nostalgic “How Great Thou Art” sung by George Beverly Shea, 96. Barrows and Shea have appeared continually at Graham’s meetings for decades. Graham called his colleagues up for a round of applause and said he’s grateful “they put up with me. Sixty years we’ve been together.”

Graham has preached to more than 210 million people in 185 countries. He has been sought out for counsel and friendship by U.S. presidents and leaders worldwide and, more than any other religious figure, has come to represent the American evangelical movement.

Appearing at the Saturday night rally, former President Bill Clinton called the evangelist the only person he has known who has always lived according to his faith.

“God bless you friend,” Clinton said. “Bless you.”


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AP-ES-06-26-05 2027EDT

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