NEW ORLEANS (BP)–In what he called his last sermon, Billy Graham voiced a message of thanks and encouragement during the March 11-12 “Celebration of Hope” at the New Orleans Arena.
[Click on photo gallery to view a collection of images of the Celebration of Hope in New Orleans.]
“This is probably the last evangelistic sermon I’ll ever preach,” the 87-year-old evangelist told an overflow crowd of 17,800 people on Sunday. “But it’s been wonderful to be here. Thank you.
“I’d like to thank my friends George Beverly Shea and Cliff Barrows for all these years we’ve been together,” Graham continued as he sat on a special chair that raised him to the wooden pulpit’s appropriate height, as thousands of cameras flashed throughout the arena.
“I look forward to a big reunion one day in heaven,” Graham said. “God bless you all.”
Graham’s last visit to the city was a six-week crusade 52 years ago. This time, he delivered a single 22-minute message of hope to a city desperately in need of encouragement.
Graham said he watched in shock as Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans’ levee system, flooding much of the city.
But days later, he said, “We saw the great men and women who helped carry people [to safety] in helicopters … and we knew the God of love was watching over us. God loves you.”
More than 215 New Orleans-area churches, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Samaritan’s Purse sponsored the Celebration of Hope to offer hope to victims of Katrina.
In addition to Billy Graham, his son Franklin Graham delivered the Saturday evening message. Officials estimated attendance for the two-day outreach at 30,500 and they counted 1,432 people who either had accepted or rededicated their lives to Christ.
Also featured was high-energy music by country artist Ricky Skaggs, contemporary Christian music’s Point of Grace and Nicole C. Mullen, American Idol finalist and New Orleans native George Huff and New Orleans’ Franklin Avenue Baptist Church choir.
Sgt. Greg Hauk appeared via a video testimony, recounting how he and 479 others rode out Katrina as floodwaters filled a St. Bernard Parish school. Six days later, they were rescued off the school’s rooftop.
“I asked Jesus to give me the strength and courage and the wisdom to get through what I was about to go through,” Hauk recounted. “For the first time in my life, I felt Jesus in my heart. He entered me and I felt it.
“I learned that with Jesus, all things are possible,” Hauk said. “I turned to Jesus and He was there for me.”
In his message, Franklin Graham reminded people that God loves them and has not abandoned them in this time of crisis.
“The Bible tells us God loves us so much that He sent His Son Jesus Christ to earth,” Graham said. “Tonight you can have hope.”
Since Katrina devastated New Orleans, countless people have asked Graham if the storm was God’s judgment on the city.
“The hurricanes were not God’s judgment,” he emphasized, noting that churches were destroyed during the hurricane’s aftermath. “Sometimes, people are quick to blame God, but you know there is the devil.
“The Bible says he’s the liar,” Graham said. “He wants to destroy not only the Gulf Coast, but your life.
“And he wants your soul,” he continued. “Tonight, there’s a battle taking place in this arena for your soul.”
Among those who attended the crusade was Jean Johnson, who was at Billy Graham’s 1952 crusade in New Orleans.
“We not only hope this celebration brings hope to this devastated area, but that a lot of people know Christ as their Savior,” said Johnson, who traveled by van to the arena with 50 fellow members from Williams Boulevard Baptist Church in Kenner.
“We really need the message of hope,” Aleyda Heaton, a member of Williams Boulevard Baptist Church, added. “We need to hang on to God. Without God, we can do nothing.”
Ken Schroeder, pastor at First Baptist Church of Mandeville, believed the crusade represented an opportunity for a fresh start in New Orleans.
“That comes by building a relationship with Christ,” Schroeder said. “Without Christ, your life is without hope. You can pretend you have a good life and have all the answers, but without a faith in Christ, you don’t have a future.”
Brian Blackwell is a writer for the Baptist Message, newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention, on the Web at www.baptistmessage.com.