Tuesday, June 25, 2002

Graham visit helped Louisville

Reconciliation still taking hold

By Richelle Thompson, rthompson@enquirer.com
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        LOUISVILLE — Each Friday for six months, the women clasped hands at a local church, bowed their heads and prayed for the Rev. Billy Graham.

        They asked God to open hearts to the message of salvation and prayed the Greater Louisville Billy Graham Crusade, held last June, would transform their community. One year later, the women say their prayers were answered in many ways.

        But the work continues.

        As the Rev. Mr. Graham opens his four-day mission in the Tristate on Thursday, a trip 100 miles down the river to Louisville offers a glimpse of how a visit from the world's best-known evangelist affects a city long after the last altar call.

        Although Louisville's metropolitan population of 1 million is about half the size of Cincinnati's, the two cities share similar demographics and religious backgrounds. Also in common: Both cities have grappled with racial tension and problems with police-community relations.

        The Graham visit wasn't a panacea for Louisville. It still faces problems of racial strife and interfaith bickering, but the Graham crusade gave momentum to reconciliation projects and nudged others to acknowledge the benefit of working together.

        “The Billy Graham crusade creates the opportunity to build bridges across denominational lines, across racial lines and socioeconomic lines,” says the Rev. Dr. Leslie Hollon, pastor of St. Matthews Baptist Church in Louisville, which has 1,500 active members. “Every community has to decide what they're going to do with that opportunity.”

        The impact of a Graham crusade is like a ripple effect, moving from individual to churches to community, say faith leaders and volunteers from Louisville.

        Some black and white churches reached beyond their own pews to develop or re-affirm partnerships with each other. They have sponsored joint outreach and music programs. These relationships carry over into cooperation on other projects in the community, supporters say.


Life-changing event

        Linda Otterback knows firsthand the ripple effect of a Billy Graham event.

        A member of a women's prayer group, Mrs. Otterback was 12 in 1956 when she attended a Graham crusade and heard the evangelist ask people to commit their lives to Jesus.

        Answering the altar call began a life of service to the church and community for Mrs. Otterback. When the 57-year-old woman heard that the Rev. Mr. Graham was returning to Louisville, she jumped at the chance to help. She stuffed envelopes, trained to be a counselor and sang in the choir.

        She prayed with the women in the Friday morning group. She also decided to organize a bus trip from Fleming-Neon, two old mining camps in eastern Kentucky.

        Of the 53 people on the bus trip, only a handful had ever left the hills of their community. One woman wept during a meal because she had never eaten from china or on a tablecloth.

        Everyone from the Fleming-Neon group walked to the field of Papa John's Cardinal Stadium for the altar call.

        “These 53 people have changed totally,” says Lynn Davis, also a Louisville crusade volunteer and member of the women's prayer group. “Just by them coming to a Billy Graham crusade. They work to help each other. They're more open to prayer. The skepticism is gone.”


“New face of God”

        The Rev. Edward Moore was tired of seeing young black people die.

        A minister at Genesis United Methodist Church, with a black congregation in the west end of Louisville, he believed the deaths were rooted from a feeling of hopelessness.

        In 1998, after a year when Louisville recorded 68 homicides, the Rev. Mr. Moore started a racial dialogue with another, white, United Methodist church on the other side of town.

        “When we began doing ministry with white congregations, our community saw white churches coming out of their affluent communities to help build and provide ministry programs,” says the Rev. Mr. Moore. “They saw a whole new face of God. It helped to reconcile some of the hopelessness.”

        The partnership established a recording studio at Genesis and held after-school tutoring and computer programming classes.

        In 2000, the Rev. Mr. Moore was instrumental in bringing an African-American evangelist, Tony Evans, to Louisville. That crusade laid the groundwork for discussion about racial reconciliation, the Rev. Mr. Moore says.

        Billy Graham provided more momentum, attracting a broader audience.

        “They are a reconciliation machine,” says the Rev. Mr. Moore of the Graham crusade team. “They do a lot of work before Billy comes, bridging gaps between churches who never would have worked together otherwise ... Billy is a dynamic person, but if it was about that one night, then my goodness, nothing would have happened.”

        More churches have partnered since the Graham crusade last year. Some have held pulpit exchanges; others sponsored mission trips and joined together for a reconciliation service.


“Better cooperation”

        St. Matthews, with a white congregation, and St. Paul Missionary Baptist churches already were working together before the crusade. But their pastors say the Rev. Mr. Graham served as a catalyst for them and other congregations to deepen their relationships.

        “I'm not able to measure it statistically,” says the Rev. Lincoln Bingham, pastor at St. Paul and an executive board member of the Louisville crusade. “But better cooperation is happening among us.”

        White people have joined his mostly black church, and he sees blacks attending primarily white services — crossing the color lines during what the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called the most segregated hour of the week.

        “When you have 56,000 people in the Papa John's stadium, inclusive of black and white, you see a reflection of the body of Christ,” says the Rev. Mr. Bingham. “It has shown people that this mosaic illustration; this Christian variety is attractive and representative of what God wants.”

        Just as the shock of the Sept. 11 terorist attacks on America has faded with time, so, too, has some of the spirit of cooperation and reconciliation in Louisville, some say.

        Some churches have moved on to other issues. Some people have forgotten their personal commitments to Christ or never followed up with the hard work that comes after the simple decision to ask for forgiveness.

        But Louisville is different since the Billy Graham crusade, says the Rev. Dr. Hollon. There's a lighter spirit, more generous sharing of faith. The crusade gave the opportunity for people to rally around a cause and see what they could accomplish together.

        Supporters here say Cincinnati should be undaunted by the task of transforming a city. A community changes one heart at a time, they say.

        “Get ready, Cincinnati,” says the Rev. Mr. Moore. “God is ready to do a new thing. God has plans for Cincinnati, and it involves a plan, a process and a promise. Our prayers are with you.”


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