Billy Graham brings his crusade to Louisville

LOUISVILLE - Billy Graham -- preaching a vintage message of a world that's changing and a God with eternal answers -- has kicked off a four-day crusade in Louisville by saying the world needs Jesus and racial reconciliation.

Speaking Thursday night, June 21, to a crowd of 37,500, the 82-year-old evangelist who’s been revered for more than 50 years, spoke of the racial tension “smoldering underneath” American cities today. “The only answer to the race problem is love,” Graham said — and God is love. He later told the crowd he hopes a lingering impact of this crusade is that people will begin to love and reach out to people of other races and ethnic groups, that “we need to start it in our homes, not just at work,” that he does too — and a woman in the crowd responded by shouting, “Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Amen!”

Although he has been slowed by health problems — first Parkinson’s disease, then hydrocephalus, a buildup of fluid pressure on the brain which affects his balance and has caused him repeated hospitalizations in the last year — Graham is vowing “to preach as long as I live.” Graham has the power “to help our church grow — like a mother feeding a baby,” said William Vittitow, a volunteer usher and counselor at the crusade.

Although many in the crowd Thursday night were already Christians, “the attendance here will be a witness to the rest of the world,” said Lana Lausman, who came with two friends. “To me, he is the epitome of integrity. You know how they search for bad things about people? He’s been around for 82 years and they haven’t found anything . . . I have looked forward to this forever. I would rather see him than the pope.”

Because of his health, the Louisville crusade is the first Graham has preached at in seven months — since he drew about 55,000 a night for four nights straight last November in Jacksonville, Fla. After Kentucky, the next Billy Graham crusade is scheduled for Fresno, Calif., on Oct. 11-14.

On Saturday night, Graham is expected to preach to a crowd of young people — an amazing juxtaposition of the now-white-haired evangelist speaking to those too young to remember him when he was anything else. It’s being billed as the “Concert for the NeXt Generation,” and will feature Christian rap and rock music — and the octogenarian preacher, giving his standard, unchanging message about eternity.

“To have an 82-year-old with Parkinson’s breaking stadium attendance records with young people — go figure,” said A. Larry Ross, who’s in charge of public relations for the Minneapolis-based Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. The crusade also is using a polished new advertising campaign — billboards, flyers, posters, TV ads — geared towards the unchurched. The crusade is being held at Papa John’s stadium — named for the Louisville-based Papa John’s pizza chain. “If God exists, you’ll be glad you came,” reads one billboard. “If he doesn’t, there’ll be pizza.”

No question where he stands on salvation

Whatever the audience, though, Graham doesn’t pull any punches when talking about salvation. “Is there another way to heaven except through Christ?” he asked — echoing one of the questions raised at the 213th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) “The Bible teaches there’s only one way,” through Jesus Christ.

And while the world has changed, “the Bible has not changed,” nor has its authority, Graham said — although “some of the church assemblies discuss it as though it is debatable.”

Paul Detterman, who has been pastor of Calvin church in Louisville since last September and worked on the PC(USA)’s national staff before being called to that position, was on the executive committee in charge of planning Graham’s Kentucky crusade and offered the closing prayer Thursday night, asking God to open the hearts of those who were ready and to give those who weren’t a little more time. Graham’s appeal through the decades, Detterman said, lies partly in his honesty and his humility.

“With Billy Graham there’s no glitz, there’s no hype — what you see is what you get,” he said. “He is absolutely sincere, you can tell this man believes every word he says. And it’s not promoting Billy Graham — it’s promoting Jesus Christ.”

This is not Graham’s first crusade in Louisville. In 1956 — pushing with the full steam of youth then, he preached at 26 services over four weeks. And some whose lives were transformed by his message 45 years ago are returning to this crusade — some of them pastors now, bringing their own flocks; some as volunteers, hoping Graham can bring the message of salvation to a new generation.

Edgar Ritchie, a member of Calvin church, said his life was turned around by that 1956 crusade. “I’d been a church officer, deacon, elder, but you can be all those things and still never have accepted Christ as Savior and Lord,” Ritchie said. One night in September 1956, touched by the urgency of Graham’s call to get right with God, Ritchie walked forward and made that commitment. This time around, Ritchie took a five-week series of Christian Life and Witness classes in preparation for working as a volunteer at the crusade.

“It’s a class really that every church member ought to take . . . because, as Mr. Graham says, we’re not after decisions, we’re after disciples,” Ritchie said. “It really equips a church member, in a non-threatening way, to lead a person to commit to Christ as Lord and Savior. Not beat them over the head with a Bible, not getting in their face and asking ‘Are you saved?’ ” but learning how to have a conversation about faith, so someone can understand what it means to be a follower of Christ.

In Louisville, the crusade has drawn tremendous ecumenical support — involving nearly 600 churches from 53 denominations — and leadership ranging from the pastor of Southeast Christian Church, a nondenominational megachurch, to Southern Baptists and black Baptists, to Presbyterians, Methodists and Episcopalians.

After Graham leaves town, volunteers from those churches will continue working, setting up Bible studies and following up with those who come forward at Graham’s invitation — an estimated 1,700 the first night, filling half a football field — to commit their lives to Christ.

“One of the ways the crusade could be a colossal failure is if we have four nights when the stadium is filled with Christians,” Detterman said. “The whole point of the crusade is to fill that stadium with skeptics.”