NEW YORK (BP)–Was it or wasn’t it Billy Graham’s final crusade?
For months, the Greater New York Billy Graham Crusade in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park was billed as likely his last, or likely his last in North America, or his final “planned” crusade because of talk of an invitation from London. But, as always, the 86-year-old evangelist wasn’t ready or willing to provide a definite answer.
On Sunday, he said he’d been asked if this was his final crusade.
“I said, ‘It probably is — in New York,” he said in his southern drawl. “But I also said, ‘I never say never.'”
Graham, now in fragile health with Parkinson’s, prostate cancer, water buildup on the brain and the effects of a hip replacement and broken pelvis, has always said that evangelists don’t retire. But others hinted that this could be it.
If so, there were plenty of high-profile attendees over the three days to witness the event that many called historic. Former President Bill Clinton and his wife, New York Sen. Hilary Clinton, joined Graham on stage one night. Country singer Vince Gill and his wife, Christian artist Amy Grant attended. Mystery writer Patricia Cornwell was there. Evangelist and California pastor Greg Laurie and fellow California pastor and best-selling author Rick Warren attended all three days. And Anne Graham Lotz, the daughter Graham has called “the best preacher in the family,” attended with more than a dozen family members and close friends.
Cliff Barrows, who, along with 96-year-old soloist George Beverly Shea, has been an associate of Graham’s for 60 years, called this crusade an emotional one for the trio.
“We’re all a little overwhelmed,” the 82-year-old music director and master of ceremonies said. “It’s hard to believe that this phase in our lives is coming to a close.
“But the mantle has fallen on those who are younger.”
And several of those on whom the mantle has fallen just happened to be in attendance, including the son, Franklin Graham, daughter, Anne, and the two Californians, Laurie and Warren.
Franklin Graham, the prodigal son who took over the reins of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association a few years ago, leads crusades called “festivals” all over the world. Since 1989, he has preached to more than 4 million people. The son accompanies the father on the stage at every crusade, tenderly helping him to and from the pulpit, a short walk for which the elder Graham requires the use of a walker.
Lotz, president of AnGeL Ministries, is a popular speaker and author whose revivals such as “Just Give Me Jesus” have drawn tens of thousands over the last few years.
Lotz considered it critical to be in New York for the crusade.
“I just wanted to be here at this special moment,” she said, after her father delivered a message to youth and young adults Saturday night. “I haven’t been able to see Daddy since I’ve been here but he knows I’m here.”
She said he sounded strong, adding that “he can still communicate the Gospel so well.”
“Ministry took Daddy away from the family for many years,” Lotz said. “But I’m grieving a little bit for him and for us and this era that is coming to a close. Evangelism is not coming to an end but big mass crusades by Billy Graham are. It just means that others have to take the baton.”
She was pleased to know that Laurie and Warren were both there.
Laurie, a member of the BGEA board, has attended about 20 crusades over the years.
But New York, he said, was special “because it may be his last.”
“Of course, they’ve been saying that for a decade,” said Laurie, who brought along a camera this time. Though he knows Graham well and is good friends with Franklin, Laurie snapped away like someone seeing an icon for the first time.
But even if New York isn’t Graham’s final crusade, Laurie said, “at almost 87, there isn’t much longer he can go.”
“It’s bittersweet, because he’s been raised up by God in a singular way for many generations,” said Laurie, who pastors Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, Calif., and leads the worldwide Harvest Crusades.
At each crusade, Laurie places a particular focus on young seekers, a lesson he learned from Graham.
“Most people make a commitment to Christ before they’re 19, so it’s a big thing to reach them by then,” he said. “I always admired Dr. Graham for setting aside a day in his crusades for young people.”
Warren, author of the mega-bestseller “The Purpose-Driven Life,” has always admired Graham’s integrity and says he’s just one of many who consider him a role model and mentor.
“When you listen to Billy Graham, you’re listening to his life,” said Warren, who pastors Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif. “It’s what I call incarnational preaching. Sixty years of ministry without scandal speaks to people.”
As credible as the message needs to be, so does the life of the person delivering it, Warren said.
“He kept it simple,” he said. “It’s not about religion, it’s about a relationship with Christ.”
Warren rearranged his schedule to be at the crusade because after Graham’s crusade in Los Angeles last year, he believed New York would be the closing chapter.
“He was so weak in L.A.,” Warren said. “But after seeing him here, I just don’t know. It was classic Graham.”