FRESNO, Calif. (BP)–California’s agricultural heartland yielded a harvest of souls Oct. 11-14 as evangelist Billy Graham preached on God’s love and the Second Coming of Jesus Christ during a record-setting “outreach” in Fresno.
Undeterred by a broken foot and unprecedented security precautions, Graham launched the four-day event at Fresno’s Bulldog Stadium exactly one month after terrorist attacks struck New York and suburban Washington, DC. The preacher known as “America’s Pastor” referred to the tragic events each time he spoke.
“Something about what happened on Sept. 11 caused people to think about spiritual things for maybe the first time in years,” Graham said. “We are living in a different world, which will be felt in every area of our society for years to come.
“We are in troubled times. We’re going to have to rethink our lives,” Graham continued. “But in the midst of all that, there is one hope, that Jesus Christ said he is coming again. Without hope our nation will not go on.”
Graham, 82, broke his foot in three places while in his Fresno hotel room two days before the campaign began. He arrived on the platform each night in a wheelchair, accompanied by his son Franklin Graham, CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. When it came time to preach, the senior Graham walked slowly to the pulpit aided by his son or another associate and wearing a brace on his injured foot.
Graham seemed to grow stronger each night of the campaign.
“The Bible teaches that we need to have faith and believe things we don’t understand,” the evangelist declared. “I don’t understand why those hijackers hit those two, great buildings in New York, or hit the Pentagon. I don’t understand that, but I accept by faith that there is a sovereign God.
“Maybe God is speaking to us,” Graham continued. “Maybe God is saying, ‘It’s time for you to repent and get right with God and change your way of living and change this state and this country.'”
Thousands responded to Graham’s nightly call to repentance. They streamed down from the bleachers and gathered in front of the high-tech stage erected for the mission to pray to receive Christ. Immediately, trained counselors recorded each decision and distributed Christian literature to the new believers.
“I just joined the group!” an excited convert told the California Southern Baptist after he prayed with nearly 3,000 others crowding the stadium floor.
Campaign organizers reported 14,731 spiritual decisions registered during four evening services and a Saturday morning children’s program. Nearly all were reported to be first-time professions of faith in Jesus Christ.
A Graham spokesman said attendance totaled 201,000 in five sessions including a stadium record-shattering 62,000 on hand for a Saturday night “Concert for the Next Generation.” An overflow crowd numbering 15,000 packed a neighboring baseball complex equipped with a giant video screen while 47,000 people jammed the Fresno State University stadium. The stadium crowd alone eclipsed an attendance record set during a game featuring the nationally ranked Fresno State Bulldogs just weeks earlier.
The youth-oriented concert featuring Kirk Franklin, dc Talk and Gamaliel Ruiz also drew the one-millionth young person to attend one of the Graham campaign events.
Stepped-up security procedures combined with capacity crowds delayed entrance to the stadium by as much as 90 minutes for some attending the event. Police used mirrors to examine the underside of every vehicle entering stadium parking lots while security officers searched handbags and used metal-detecting wands to scan every visitor.
More than 500 churches from 54 denominations and some 20,000 volunteers helped stage the four-day campaign in the heart of California’s San Joaquin Valley. The event, more than a year in the planning, originally was called the Central Valley Billy Graham Crusade, using the term made familiar during Graham’s evangelistic meetings spanning 52 years.
Citing sensitivity to other religions, however, organizers decided to abandon the term “crusade” in favor of “outreach,” “mission” and “campaign.” Most speakers complied with the change, but even Graham sometimes reverted to the more familiar term.
Fresno Mayor Alan Autry, a former actor and professional football player, helped kick off the outreach. Autry played with the Green Bay Packers before turning to acting. His best known for his role as “Bubba” in the long-running television series, “In The Heat of the Night.”
Despite his success in sports and entertainment, however, Autry said he felt “emptiness” inside. He described how that feeling led to a struggle with alcohol — a battle that ended the night he dropped to his knees in a bar and prayed to receive Jesus Christ as his savior.
Autry said Graham’s “message of salvation has never been more wanted or needed by this country.”
Charles Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship, shared the platform with Graham on the final night of the California gathering. Colson said he became a Christian 28 years ago when a friend spoke to him about Jesus. That friend, Colson noted, had been saved during a Billy Graham outreach.
“I surrendered my life to Christ and nothing has been the same since; nothing can ever be the same again,” Colson declared.
Colson said churches around the world are “packed full of people asking questions” and dealing with uncertainty and fear following the events of Sept.11.
“Sometimes fear leads to despair,” Colson noted. “It’s easy to succumb to despair. But Christians must never, ever succumb to despair; it is contrary to everything that the gospel teaches us.”
Colson, a former aid to President Richard Nixon, served time in prison for his part in the Watergate scandal. Out of that experience, he founded the prison ministry that now has chartered organizations in 95 countries.
At a news conference before his platform appearance, Colson said 5 percent of the nation’s inmates are housed within a 90-minute drive of Fresno. Operation Starting Line, a prison outreach his organization helped conduct in connection with the Graham mission, recorded more than 4,400 commitments to Christ. Additionally, all of the 200 juvenile offenders attending Saturday’s youth event made “either a first-time decision for Christ, a rededication, or a commitment to future ministry,” a Graham news release reported.
“Two guards attending with the teens also made faith commitments,” the release stated.
Praise songs of and hymns of assurance featured prominently in the Graham meetings, as a 3,500-voice choir opened each evening service with “The Lord’s Prayer.” Long-time Graham associates Cliff Barrows, 78, and George Beverly Shea, 92, also were featured.
A diverse lineup of musical performers included Latin singers Fernando Ortega and Damaris Carbaugh, Samoan boy-band “The Katinas,” gospel rappers “dc Talk” and Kirk Franklin, and country music’s “Charlie Daniels Band,” which has appeared in seven Billy Graham crusades.
In his closing sermon, Graham noted the Second Coming of Christ is mentioned in the New Testament more that 300 times. Still, he said, many do not believe Jesus will return.
“Some don’t want to believe it because Christ hasn’t come so far,” Graham said. “A lot of people don’t want Jesus to come because they’re too comfortable living the way they are now. Materialism in a way has become our religion. We want to eat, drink and be merry without interference in our selfish way of life.
“Now we’re faced with a new kind of war and we don’t know what the end will be. The intensification of war in my opinion is one of the signs that the end of time is near,” Graham said.
Commenting on the cultural diversity of the region, Graham said he was trying to confirm that decisions were recorded among more than 100 language groups during the Central California outreach. And he expressed hope that his visit would improve relations in the region’s diverse population.
“One thing I’d like to see out of this crusade is a new love between the ethnic groups in this area,” Graham said on the final night of the mission. He noted that pastors and other leaders of many ethnic communities had “worked together during these many weeks of preparation.
“We ought to be together at the workplace, wherever you work, at home, in meetings like this, in church. We ought to be prepared for the coming of Christ.”
The Central California campaign was Graham’s final mass rally this year. His next scheduled outreach is the Greater Cincinnati Northern Kentucky Billy Graham Mission, to be held June 27-30, 2002 at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati. And while in Fresno, Graham received an invitation to hold another mission next October at Texas Stadium in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex.
Daniel Sanchez, professor of missions at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, and three Texas pastors meet with Graham before one of the services in Fresno. Sanchez said Graham agreed to pray about the invitation. Meanwhile, hopeful of a favorable response from Graham, the Texas group reportedly has already reserved Texas Stadium.