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Billy Graham, amid New York’s human tapestry, continues to point toward heaven

NEW YORK (BP)–As he has for 60 years, Billy Graham ended his three-day New York crusade by offering about 90,000 in the crowd a glimpse of heaven Sunday night. But as in perhaps no other crusade in his long history of evangelism, New York provided heaven’s face.

Tucked into a corner of Queens where more than 130 languages are spoken each day, the June 24-26 Greater New York Billy Graham Crusade drew more than 230,000 people from every part of the world — whites, blacks, Asians, Hispanics, people whose families came to America generations ago and people so fresh they still marvel at this nation and its freedoms and opportunities.

The remarkable diversity reflects the host city, home to the sort of integration of God’s people Graham has advocated for all his evangelical career, and fitting for what many considered could be his last such gathering.

“Every nation on earth is truly represented on the sidewalks of New York City,” New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in his welcoming message on Saturday. “And they are all here tonight.”

Tall signs dotted the crusade’s corner of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, guideposts for Koreans, Urdus, Arabs, Indians, Russians, Portuguese, Chinese -– in Mandarin and Cantonese, Spanish-speakers and many of the other ethnic groups that make up the patchwork of people in New York. They answered Graham’s calls to salvation by the thousands, some 8,300 over three days.

“I see white Christians, Hispanic Christians, Asian Christians, Jewish Christians,” said A.R. Bernard, chairman of the New York crusade’s organizing committee and pastor of the Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn. “I see the body of Christ like it’s never been seen before.”

And even in that body, where small differences in teachings can lead to deep rifts, New York embraced all the differences as Graham preached that belief in Jesus as Lord and Savior unites all Christians as family.

Thelma Hardy grew up listening to Graham in Jamaica. In her 50s now, she said she wouldn’t have missed seeing him for the first time in person for anything.

“He is a Godsend for New York for such a time as this,” she said. “Even before he started preaching, New York had already been touched by him. Just look around, people of all races have been encouraged by his visit.”

For Roman Hernandez, who moved to New York from Mexico just a few years ago, listening to the evangelist preach in person was “one of the most beautiful experiences of my life.”

“It’s a great honor for all the people who will make their way here this weekend,” he said. “It truly is like heaven will be.”

As MercyMe, a Texas-based band of white musicians performed “I Can Only Imagine” on Saturday, a tall young Hispanic man held his New York Yankees cap in his right hand, his fists clenched in emotion, as he sang along.

Nearby, an Indian woman sang too as she steered her young son and daughter to a spot along the fence fronting the stage so she could take their picture with MercyMe vocalist Bart Millard’s face providing the backdrop on the large screen behind them.

At Saturday’s gathering, the South African band Tree 63 had played its first few notes when hundreds of young people of every color rushed to the stage –- arms outstretched, dancing, clapping, singing along to the group’s best-known song, “Blessed Be Your Name,” and thousands of voices carried the chorus across the vastness of the park.

Small children clapped with joy from perches on their daddies’ shoulders. Moms and dads herded their families forward, their faces open and smiling and touched with joy. One young man stood in the midst of the crowd, eyes closed, head bowed in prayer as the music washed over him, then raised his arms in praise and joined Tree 63’s song of praise, “What Can I Do for You?”

And when it slid into the final words of “Amazing Grace” –- “’Twas grace that brought me safe thus far and grace will lead me home” –- many thousands in the crowd joined in that promise of faith.

Franklin Graham, who had earlier offered his testimony as a modern-day prodigal son who found satisfaction only in God, led his frail father to the large wooden lectern, a great effort for the elder Graham who responded to the cheers of the crowd with a small smile. Suffering from Parkinson’s, fluid buildup on the brain and prostate cancer, the 86-year-old evangelist shuffles with a walker, the lasting effects of a hip replacement and broken pelvis. Near him sat New York’s two senators, Charles Schumer and Hilary Clinton, and with her, her husband, Bill, the former president.

“I told [President Clinton] once that when he left the presidency, he should become an evangelist,” Graham said. “He had all the gifts. And he could leave his wife to run the country.”

Clinton called the evangelist an inspiration.

“He’s the only person I know who has never failed to live his space,” the former president said. “Hilary and I are honored to be here tonight, 46 years after I attended my first Billy Graham crusade.”

That first crusade for Clinton came at the peak of the segregation battles in his native Arkansas and the rest of the Old South. And when Graham was invited to lead a crusade in Little Rock, he refused until the organizers agreed the events would be fully integrated, Clinton said.

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

Though he no longer delivers his message with the fire of his youth, and his last New York crusade seems an impossible distance from the 100 nights he preached at Madison Square Garden in 1957, Graham’s commitment to his core message never wavered, and thousands heard his voice and came forward.

“My old friend George Beverly Shea is 96. I’m 86, on my way to 87. I know it won’t be long before both of us are in heaven,” Graham said. “But the Bible tells us to be prepared, and we look toward death.

“You may have many more years, but you never know,” he told the crowd. “But this might be the last day of your life. And there comes a time when it will be too late.”

In New York, Graham went a long way toward bringing revival to the city, the crusade’s stated goal. But he only hinted at his own future, and left the question of whether this was his final crusade unanswered.

Others offered hints. Singer Bill Gaither mentioned that he was first a part of the Billy Graham Crusade 20 years ago, when he introduced a song he’d recently written, “Because He Lives.”

“So it’s an honor to be here at the last Billy Graham crusade to sing it again,” Gaither said.

Cliff Barrows, longtime crusade associate who leads the choir, said on Friday that his evangelist friend is convinced he could keep going.

“But Billy would be the first to say that over the years we’ve experienced many physical difficulties,” he said. “It would have to be God’s indication to go overseas. Billy has the heart and the desire and the message, but the physical capability needs to be there, too.”

And Barrows mentioned that Graham is hesitant to leave his wife, Ruth, and their family.

“He has said goodbye to his family all his life,” Barrows said. “He’d like to spend time more time with them. And I think he should.”

But on Sunday, after Graham had thanked his two longtime associates who have been with him almost since the beginning, he also needled them a bit about the future.

“This is not the end,” he said, patting their hands as they stood beside him on stage. “They may think so, but I don’t.”

He continued, saying that he was asked just the other day whether this is the last crusade.

“I said, ‘It probably is — in New York.’ But I also said, ‘I never say never.'”

And as Graham introduced others on the stage, he mentioned one gentleman from London.

“We’re going to talk about going to London for a crusade,” the evangelist said. “But after being here, he may decide he doesn’t want us.”

And then he smiled.

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  • Berta Delgado-Young