Fifty-five years after his evangelistic career took off during a tent revival in Los Angeles, Billy Graham overcame age and infirmities to open a crusade Thursday night at the Rose Bowl before about 45,000 exultant followers with a prayer that they turn their lives to Jesus Christ.
The 86-year-old Graham, one of the most recognized religious leaders in the world, was brought into the stadium on an electric golf cart out of view of most of those present and then raised to the stage by a hydraulic lift. From there, frail but smiling, he moved to his chair with the help of an aluminum walker.
The crowd began to applaud, then rose to its feet as a crescendo of cheers rose from the 93,000-seat stadium.
Soon, Graham was his old self, preaching the need for confession and repentance. "Do you feel your life has been a failure? Is your life turned upside down? Do you wonder which way to turn? The choice you make tonight will affect your whole life. It will also affect where you spend eternity," Graham said. "Where will you be 100 years from now? You won't be here," he said. Then he added, "The cross guarantees a future life."
About 2,500 people, some smiling, many with tears in their eyes, approached the stage in response to Graham's sermon. They were to be connected with local churches to lead them more deeply into religious life.
Graham preached from a custom-built walnut pulpit shipped in from his headquarters in North Carolina. The pulpit allows him to sit, if need be, because of injuries suffered earlier this year in two falls that broke his pelvic bone in three places.
The stadium, usually the scene of sporting events, pop concerts and swap meets, was transformed into an open-air church complete with a 3,000-person choir for the first of four consecutive days of Rose Bowl services. Graham presided on a fully equipped entertainment stage reminiscent of rock concerts, with lights, giant screen TVs and a band.
Several times, the evangelist referred to Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." He mentioned a scene in the film in which Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane before his arrest.
"He saw the sins of the whole world. He saw murder, war, racial prejudice, adultery, lying, fraud, and people asked the question, 'Well, what is sin?' Sin is coming short of God's righteousness. God is a righteous and holy person. He cannot look upon sin," Graham said.
He likened unseen sin to a diamond. "A diamond may be perfect to a natural eye, but you take it to a specialist and he looks at it through a glass and sees a defect in it. And God looks at us that way," Graham said.
Though the Rose Bowl was not filled, audience members were enthusiastic.
Among the choir members was Evelyn Harrison of San Dimas, who said she attended Graham's 1949 revival when she was a teenager. "It went on for eight weeks. I'm just really excited about this," she said. "We've been looking forward to it for so long."
Gordon Solomon of Los Angeles was among 6,000 counselors who assisted those who walked onto the field in response to Graham's call to conversion.
"One of the things that thrills me is to see people come to know the Lord," Solomon said. "This is indeed a privilege for me to come here and help people, just to feel the glow and glory of God as people come to know the Lord."
In the parking lots outside the Rose Bowl, knots of people held tailgate parties.
Lindy Loya of Sierra Madre said she was reared as a Roman Catholic and remembered seeing Graham as a girl. "I would sneak and watch him on TV," she said. She called her participation in the choir Thursday night an honor.
"I love singing. I love praising the Lord, and I love Billy Graham," she said.
The opening night of the Greater Los Angeles Billy Graham Crusade brought the evangelist full circle since his seminal 1947 tent revival at the corner of Hill Street and Washington Boulevard. He then expanded into what became a worldwide ministry and developed friendships with presidents, prime ministers and kings.
Among the 1,400 sponsoring churches for this week's events was the Church on the Way in Van Nuys. Church staff members said they were sending 40 buses with 2,500 people to the event during its four-day run, which ends Sunday afternoon. They said church telephones were busy with calls from people who wanted to get on one of the buses, but the seats were filled. The church started a waiting list.
This crusade is Graham's ninth in Los Angeles and his 416th worldwide. Since he began preaching in the late 1930s, Graham has spoken live to more people, his staff said, than any other person in the world -- 210 million people in 185 countries.
The Los Angeles crusade was originally planned for last July. But when doctors said Graham would take longer to recuperate from a fall in May, the crusade was rescheduled for this week.
Hours before Graham's appearance Thursday night, his son, evangelist Franklin Graham, said his father had set stadium attendance records in the last decade.
"The crowds are bigger than you'd think for an 86-year-old man," said Franklin Graham, who took over daily operations of their organization five years ago and will succeed his father as its head.
Raised a Presbyterian and ordained as a Southern Baptist, Graham this week said he wondered whether the Rose Bowl could be filled.
"We will be here rain or shine, empty or half-empty. If we have 5,000 people, we'll be happy. If we have 50,000, we'll be happy," he told reporters.
Larry Ross, a spokesman for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Assn., said crowds could be expected to build as the four-day crusade moves into Saturday and Sunday.
But from the beginning, Graham and organizers said they hoped to bring a "spiritual reawakening" to the city.
"Don't presume that the sophistication of our culture overrides a fundamental hunger and need of the people of our city," said Jack Hayford, senior pastor at the Church on the Way in Van Nuys and a co-chairman of the event. "There is a God-shaped vacuum in every heart that only he can fill."
Graham's longtime music and program director, Cliff Barrows, drew laughter when he said, "I wouldn't say the sins of Los Angeles are any greater than any other city, except there's more of it."
Times staff writer Teresa Watanabe contributed to this report.