Billy Graham Is Frail, but Mission Is Strong

Times Staff Writer

He is 86 now and suffering from Parkinson’s disease, a progressive nervous disorder that makes it difficult for him to write by hand. He is using a walker as he recuperates after two falls earlier this year that broke his pelvic bone in three places. The voice that thundered with righteousness speaks more softly.

But 55 years after his first crusade in Los Angeles launched him into international prominence, evangelist Billy Graham opens his four-day Greater Los Angeles Crusade at the Rose Bowl on Thursday night with a Christian Gospel message of salvation that has remained unchanged.

When asked during a recent interview about speculation over several years that each of his crusades would be his last, Graham smiled.


“I don’t know I can say this is the last one, because we’re now having some thought about going to New York next June,” he said. “If the Lord gives me the strength here, it will be an indication that I can go there.”

Graham has preached before an estimated 210 million people in 185 countries -- more, his staff said, than any single person in history. In years past, the podium became a mere prop as an untethered Graham, lithe and lean, would stride across the platform, Bible in hand and an exhortation in his voice. This time at the 93,000-seat Rose Bowl, he will likely remain in his seat as he extends “the Invitation,” to make a “decision for Christ.”

Crusade organizers said 1,400 churches have signed on as co-sponsors of the $5.4-million crusade, which ends Sunday. Nearly 20,000 volunteers -- including a 6,000-member choir, counselors and ushers -- have signed up. Over the course of the revival, services will be translated into a total of 26 languages via 17,000 low-power AM radio receivers and headsets. Giant television screens will be located throughout the bowl. All this to bring what Graham calls the simple themes of God’s love and forgiveness.

Graham, who celebrated his birthday Nov. 7, smiled gamely as he used an aluminum walker to shuffle into a room for an interview in Pasadena. He wears a hearing aid. The trademark glint in his blue eyes and his statements of faith remain as clear as the day he opened the Los Angeles revival in 1949 that catapulted him from a 6,000-seat “canvas cathedral” at the corner of Washington Boulevard and Hill Street to become a confidant of presidents.

“What did he see in that cup?” Graham asked, not passing an opportunity to retell the “old, old story of Jesus and his love,” as a beloved Protestant hymn says. Graham was referring to Jesus’ prayer asking God to spare him before his arrest, scourging and crucifixion.

“He had to make a big decision,” Graham said as he sat in a raised wooden chair with wheels. “He said, ‘not my will, but yours be done’ and he looked into the cup.... What was in that cup? Our sins. All the sins of the world were in that cup. He had to take that, and I think his real suffering was that spiritual suffering that he had to endure. It’s a tremendous thing to believe that.”

Vintage Graham. Unalloyed belief.

This will be Graham’s ninth crusade in Los Angeles, and his followers know it may be their last chance to see him in person. Even a rabbi confided recently that he might also come, not to be converted, but to experience a religious phenomenon.

Graham said he had come to Southern California at the invitation of local church leaders, especially Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest. “I had to do a lot of praying in accepting an invitation here,” Graham said, “especially a place like the Rose Bowl, which is so huge. I don’t know that we’ll come anywhere near filling that, but maybe a few thousand will come.”

As he ages, Graham said, he has had plenty of questions about life, including his declining health and its effect on his ministry. Because of his health, he said, he was unable to keep a commitment to preach at President Reagan’s funeral. Since his arrival in Los Angeles, he said, he has spoken with former First Lady Nancy Reagan, whom he described as “a very remarkable woman.”

But, he presses on, like 84-year-old Pope John Paul II, whom Graham called an evangelist at heart.

“In fact, I’ve thought a number of times, the pope is going on with his message to the world at his age. I can go on at my age with the Gospel I’ve preached all over.”

Services will be at 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday and 3:30 p.m. Sunday. A children’s program will be at 10 a.m. Saturday and a youth concert at 6 p.m. Saturday. Admission is free, but there will be an offering. For more information, call (626) 793-8000 or see website

Graham is scheduled to preach at all events except the children’s program. Michael Reagan, the late president’s son, will speak Sunday afternoon. Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn, the sister of the mayor, is to give her testimony Thursday night. Graham’s longtime crusade partners, music and program director Cliff Barrows and vocalist George Beverly Shey, also will participate.

“We needed a spiritual awakening in Los Angeles and in Southern California,” the Rev. Lloyd Ogilvie, a former Senate chaplain and pastor emeritus of First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, said Tuesday. He called Graham “the greatest evangelist since the Apostle Paul.”

Graham’s visit here occurs in the aftermath of President Bush’s reelection, which divided the nation and for which many evangelical Christians took credit. At the same time, a controversial war in Iraq continues to take its toll. But like Graham himself, crusade leaders said they would steer clear of politics.

In years past, Graham was closely identified with various presidents. He privately encouraged Dwight D. Eisenhower to run for president. He prayed at eight presidential inaugurals. Graham all but endorsed Richard M. Nixon’s campaign and preached at the graveside service for Lyndon B. Johnson. He once said the media had gone too far in probing President Clinton’s personal life.

In 1972, when Graham was visiting Nixon in the White House, he was secretly taped as telling the president that Jews had a “stranglehold” on the media.

When the tapes were released in 2002, Graham issued a public apology.

“I cannot imagine what caused me to make those comments, which I totally repudiate,” Graham said. “Whatever the reason, I was wrong for not disagreeing with the president, and I sincerely apologize to anyone I have offended.”

Graham has said he had come to regret overly identifying with political figures. In the interview, he declined to comment when asked if the war in Iraq was morally justified, but said the wounded and dead had served their country. “The only real comfort is the comfort that God gives,” he said.

As for the war itself?

“I can’t answer that at this point. It’s too political right now and I’m trying to, hopefully, reach people of all persuasions with the Gospel in my job as a presenter of the Gospel of Christ,” he said.

Graham did say that he is a friend of President Bush and that he had called to congratulate him after the his reelection earlier this month. “But I never told anybody who I voted for,” Graham said.

Born in Charlotte, N.C., Graham grew up in a family of Scottish Presbyterians. As he felt the call, he was later compared to one of the first preachers he ever heard, Billy Sunday. He was baptized again by a lay Southern Baptist preacher, and in 1939 ordained by a Southern Baptist Church so that no Baptists would question why a Presbyterian was preaching in their churches.

He graduated from Florida Bible Institute (now Trinity College) in Dunedin, Fla., in 1940, and received a bachelor of arts degree from Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill., in 1943. He married his wife, Ruth Bell Graham, in 1943. Since 1950, they have lived in an Appalachian log home they built near Asheville, N.C.

Although he had begun preaching in earnest by 1939, media exposure here set him on a path to fame. Legend has it that William Randolph Hearst, a powerful newspaper publisher of the day, had ordered his papers, including the now defunct Los Angeles Examiner and Los Angeles Herald-Express, to “puff Graham.”

Graham said he believed the story was true after talking with Hearst’s two sons. He said they told him they believed their father came to the 1949 Los Angeles revival in disguise with his then girlfriend, Marian Davies, and then ordered his papers to promote Graham.

“I never met [Hearst] and I never corresponded with him. I should have written him and thanked him, but I didn’t do that in those days,” Graham said.

Other big-name preachers have come and gone. Several succumbed to scandal. But Graham has endured, despite what Time magazine once called “his proximity to the shattering temptations of power.”

Part of his motivation to continue, Graham said, is to offer positive alternatives to youth.

“The entertainment industry has put out such extreme, extremely shallow, things and vicious things,” Graham said. “I’ve seen the ads of some of these motion pictures and it’s very disturbing if you are a parent. I have 19 grandchildren and 27 great-grandchildren, so I think about the impact it has on them.”