NEW ORLEANS (AP) – In his first public sermon in nine months, evangelist Billy Graham delivered his message of repentance and salvation Sunday to an overflow arena crowd in this city slowly recovering from devastation.

The 87-year-old required a walker to get to the podium but was greeted with a standing ovation and screams from the capacity crowd of 16,500 inside New Orleans Arena. Another 1,500 people watched on a large screen on a concourse at the neighboring Superdome – an evacuation center where flooding and rancid conditions reigned the week after Hurricane Katrina hit Aug. 29.

Graham told the crowd he watched television with shock as it became clear that Katrina and the broken flood system had destroyed much of the city and caused so much suffering.

“I had no idea the punch it had,” he said.

But he also said he watched in awe as rescue personnel and others came to the aid of distressed residents. That, he said, was when “we knew the God of love was watching over us.”

Sunday’s message was his first evangelistic sermon since June, when he led his final revival meeting in New York City. He was in New Orleans for a two-day event organized by local ministers and his son, Franklin Graham, now the leader of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

Graham’s 20-minute sermon included an altar call – an invitation to accept Christ as savior that is a hallmark of his evangelism. “If you’re not sure of your relationship to God, if you’re not certain and you’d like to be certain, I’d like you to come,” he said.

Graham has preached to 210 million people worldwide in a ministry career that spanned more than six decades. But in recent years he has suffered from Parkinson’s disease and prostate cancer. Four years ago, he had a series of brain surgeries – the remnants of which still cause him pain.

On Wednesday, Billy Graham toured some of the neighborhoods hardest hit when Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, unleashing torrents of water and chaos on the city.

He addressed a gathering of ministers on Thursday, saying no one could say why something like Katrina happened, but that he believes the city of New Orleans has the foundation for a spiritual revival.

On the Net:

Billy Graham Evangelistic Association:

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.