Under threatening night skies, the Rev. Billy Graham kicked off his 413th crusade Thursday in a San Diego stadium, preaching the same simple message he’s delivered for more than 60 years: Jesus loves you.
A crowd of 54,000 came to see the North Carolina pastor for perhaps the last time at a crusade. Graham, 84, has been in failing health in recent years because of Parkinson’s disease and other maladies, making his audiences keenly appreciative of a chance to witness the most famous Protestant preacher of the 20th century. A 5,000-member choir clad in royal blue robes roused the audience in Qualcomm Stadium, as did Christian bands. Rolf Benirschke, a former player for the hometown Chargers who recovered from a near-fatal intestinal disease, talked of his own slow acceptance of faith.
“I stiff-armed Jesus, and I know he wept,” the place kicker said. It was Graham’s fourth appearance in San Diego, his first since 1976.
“Just mentioning Billy Graham’s name brings a smile across your heart,” said Carol Adams, 47, of San Diego, who was caring for several disabled people in wheelchairs brought by her church, Horizon Christian Fellowship.
“This may be one of the last chances we have to hear his message,” she said.
Indeed, Graham, who was helped across the stage by son Franklin, spoke of the fleeting nature of life in a sermon that touched on the war in Iraq and the suffering of its people, the pneumonia-like disease SARS, and tornadoes disrupting the Midwest. “Not in my lifetime have I seen so many problems,” he said.
Clad in an overcoat against the chill night, his distinct Southern accent strong and unwavering, Graham stood for the entire 30 minutes. The evening’s highlight, as always during a crusade, was when Graham made an “altar call,” inviting those in attendance who hadn’t accepted Jesus as their spiritual savior to come onto the field. Do that, Graham told them, and their sins would be wiped away and they’d be with God for eternity.
Before he did so, however, he spoke of his invalid wife and told the crowd, “I’m going to die, not too far into the future.... I look forward to it.... We are so thrilled with the opportunity to see Jesus.
“And this is God’s moment for many of you,” Graham said.
For 10 minutes, thousands of worshipers poured onto the outfield, then Graham recited a simple prayer. The converts were counseled individually by one of thousands of local volunteers who took a five-week course on explaining Christian life to new believers.
The event attracted volunteers from more than 600 Southern California churches representing 66 denominations. The four-day mission, or crusade as it was once known, will continue nightly through Sunday.