NEW YORK (BP)–They flooded into Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, a sea of students in khaki shorts and celery-green T-shirts, energized about taking part in such an historic event even in the blistering heat of a New York City summer. The 200-plus students from the student choir at Prestonwood Baptist Church near Dallas had spent three days all over the city — in the Bronx, Manhattan and Queens — doing servant evangelism, taking in some sights and doing some shopping.
But it was the Greater New York Billy Graham Crusade that had brought them here, and on Sunday, the final day, everything seemed much more magnified.
“On the subway coming over here people were singing together, praising the Lord,” said Chris Rogers, 18. “It was incredible. Today is different. There’s a different feeling.”
He was right. Because the 86-year-old evangelist had said this would be his final crusade, at least in North America, and because Sunday was the final day of that seemingly final crusade, the atmosphere on the 93 acres of park land in Queens was electric. And in a way, the sun-burnt, sweat-soaked students in the choir had a little something to do with it.
Most passengers on the 7 Line subway that drops off near Shea Stadium and Flushing Meadows eventually made their way past the corner of the park where the Prestonwood students were set up with risers and speakers. The students, led by Rick Briscoe, associate minister of music and worship of the 24,000-member church, waylaid thousands of crusade-goers, some for a few minutes and others for much longer with music that ran the gamut from “God Bless America” to the stirring “My Hope is in the Lord” to the soulful “Smile Again.”
“This is joy to me,” Gloria Austin said as she swayed to the sound of the still-tender voices. “I grew up in the church in Barbados and was involved in a youth group, so seeing them at a young age praising the Lord with all they have brings happiness to me. When you have these kind of praises going up, the enemy can’t touch us.”
Ten-year-old Priscilla Gonzalez inched up as close as she could, her eyes wide open as she watched students standing on the risers singing and others kicking up dirt line dancing in complete synchronization.
Some crusade-goers, like Rachel Cruz, danced along. Others, like Biju George, raised their hands in praise.
Fortunately for the audience, they could take in the concert in shade, shielded from a fierce sun by towering trees.
The students, however, felt every bit of the 90-degree temperature.
“You get out there and you know it’s hot and you know you’re going to sweat, so you just do it,” Chris said.
“It’s hot out here today,” said Joseph Ballentine of Brooklyn, who spent almost an hour watching the concert. “But they’re working hard.”
Maribel Chusan said she felt badly for the students because of the heat but appreciated what they were doing.
“I’m from the city and there’s so many lost, young souls out there,” the young mother of a sleeping 3-year-old said. “It’s nice to see them standing up firmly for their faith.”
The students had the chance to minister to many of those lost souls. The pre-crusade concerts offered the Prestonwood choir its greatest visibility, but those were only a part of the teens’ full days in New York.
The students were divided into “family groups,” 17 groups made up of about a dozen students and two or more adult leaders. On a warm Saturday morning, group No. 17 managed an hour or so of shopping along the cultural bazaar of Broadway as it slices through artsy Soho. Then they took the subway back to their rooms at Pace University, emerged again a few minutes later with their drums, crusade fliers and best evangelical attitudes to talk with the weekend crowd at Union Square — everyone from the homeless to dog walkers to trendy young city dwellers looking for a patch of green in the New York canyons.
Led by Carter Morris, minister of student discipleship, and Danielle Bookter, the students teamed up in two’s and three’s, never out of their leaders’ watchful eyes. While some set out to invite people to the crusade, a handful participated in a drumline that caught the attention of young and old.
Three of the boys were confronted by a man who wanted to engage in a debate. They spoke of a just God; he countered that God was unjust.
“It didn’t matter what we said, he wanted to refute it,” said Ryan Minnie, who will attend Liberty University in the fall. “But we just have to remember that it’s not our job to save them. It’s our job to plant the seed.”
Kelly Peterson said that although it is difficult to see people turn away, she doesn’t get discouraged.
“It almost makes it easier to go to someone else,” she said. “You think, ‘OK, they turned me down so maybe the time I didn’t spend with that person has given me more time to spend with someone else.'”
Most of the kids had been trained by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association to serve as decision counselors at the June 24-26 crusade, key players Saturday when the crusade lineup was aimed squarely at younger seekers. With 70,000 seats laid out at the park — 30,000 in the main area and 20,000, 10,000 and 10,000 in other areas aided by Jumbotrons and powerful speaker systems — the students helped all over the venue those who were making decisions for Christ.
On Sunday, in the main area just 40 yards from the stage, about 50 of the students and a handful of adults stood at the ready when Graham made the final plea to the 90,000 in attendance to come to Christ. The students sat on the Astroturf, listening intently to the sermon on what could someday be considered a historic and bittersweet day if it proves to be the final moments of Graham’s last crusade.
“This may be the last day of your life, you never know,” Graham said in a soft, gentle voice. “This may be the last opportunity you’ll ever have to say, ‘I want Jesus in my heart.'”
Choir members Cody Novak and Ty Robinson couldn’t believe their good fortune, sitting just yards away.
“It is awesome getting to be in the presence of Billy Graham, seeing the end of his 60 years of ministry,” said 18-year-old Ty.
“I was blessed to hear and experience it,” said Cody, 14.
Ted Foster, 16, counseled a young man named Alfonso. Ted helped Alfonso understand what his decision meant and then they prayed together.
“It’s great getting to know people and knowing they’re accepting Christ,” Ted said. “It’s one of the most amazing gifts you can give. This is an experience I’ll never forget.”