Saturday, June 29, 2002

Audience relishes chance to witness historic giant

Graham: Seek salvation - don't delay

By Richelle Thompson,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The Rev. Billy Graham, with his son Franklin Graham, sits on stage before delivering his sermon Friday night.
(Brandi Stafford photo)
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        Chuck and Vikki Magoto traveled 90 miles Friday to hear the word of God at Paul Brown Stadium, but they also made the trip to witness history.

        As Billy Graham preached for the second night of his four-day mission, the Magotos knew that each trip to the pulpit could be the last for the evangelist, who is battling the ravages of age, Parkinson's disease and other health problems.

        That's why they brought their granddaughter, 3-year-old Jessica Rufus.

        “He's a real man of God,” said Mr. Magoto, 42, of Sidney, north of Dayton. “Someday, I'd like for Jessica to be able to say, "I was there. I heard Billy Graham.'”

Cliff Barrows, the Rev. Billy Graham's music director for more than half a century, leads the 4,000-member choir.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
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        She and roughly 37,000 others heard the evangelist preach a simple message, one that has been the cornerstone of his five-decade career: Seek salvation and redemption — and do not delay.

        “Sept. 11 reminded us all that none of us can count on tomorrow. Today's the day of salvation. All you have to do is open your hearts. He is knocking on your door saying, "I want to come in and change your life.'”

        Tragedy can strike anyone at anytime, the Rev. Mr. Graham emphasized. “Look at that St. Louis Cardinals pitcher (Darryl Kile, found dead in his Chicago hotel room a week ago) whose death has saddened us. ... There is no time. Come now.”

        A crowd similar to the 2,269 people who came forward Thursday night answered the altar call.

Nicole C. Mullen performs.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
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        They heeded the evangelist's call to not allow obstacles — such as concern about what others would say or such secret sins as lust and greed — to prevent them from following the teachings of Jesus Christ.

        “Then there is the problem of racism,” the Rev. Mr. Graham said. “I'm praying God is going to use this mission to help at least a little bit improve the climate of love and understanding.”

        Anti-semitism is another obstacle, said the Rev. Mr. Graham. Accused himself after tapes were released this year of a conversation with President Nixon that included negative comments about Jews, the Rev. Mr. Graham said all bigotry must be eradicated.

Courage revealed

        At 83, the Rev. Mr. Graham still is spreading the Gospel, long after other widely known evangelists have hung up their preaching robes. He has preached live to more than 210 million people all over the world — from the steps of the U.S. Capitol to Russia's Red Square. This visit to Cincinnati is his first here since 1977 and is his 411th mission.

Shannon George of Florence, Kathy Jones of Independence, and Patty Reed of Anderson sing along with the choir.
(Brandi Stafford photo)
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        Observers and religious experts are certain he is nearing the end of his career. During Thursday night's opening sermon, the North Carolina native even alluded to his near-death experiences.

        On Friday, he talked of his desire to find the eternal reward of heaven.

        “It probably won't be too long for me,” he said.

        Those in the crowd did not flinch.

        “It will be a great loss for everybody when he's not able to do this anymore,” said Brian Coates, 34, of Colerain Township. “I at least wanted for my kids to see him before it's too late.”

Darlene Oakes of Hamilton praises God.
(Brandi Stafford photo)
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        John Riley, 56, from Jamestown, Ohio, agreed: “The biggest reason why me and my wife came was that we thought it would be the last time we would be able to see him.”

        It takes “immense courage” for the Rev. Mr. Graham to continue preaching at a time when his health is not great, said Dr. Joel Carpenter, an expert on American religious history at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich.

        “He certainly has nothing left to prove, yet he stays with it. He has shown a singular focus on bringing to people the word of God.”

Still steady, just slower

        Despite the Rev. Mr. Graham's commitment to preaching, he is winding down his ministry after more than 50 years on the revival circuit. The Greater Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky Billy Graham Mission is one of only two scheduled; the other is Dallas-Fort Worth in October.

The Rev. Mr. Graham speaks.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
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        As he took the stage Friday, the Rev. Mr. Graham appeared steady and healthy during his sermon. But his white hair and deep wrinkles show his years. Even more telling is his delivery.

        As a young preacher, he was called “God's machine gun” for his rapid speech.

        “When he was 31 years old, he was so kinetic that he could not stand still,” said Dr. Carpenter. “He would take big, leaping strides across the platform and make all kinds of chopping arm motions.”

        When the Rev. Mr. Graham spoke Friday, he stood behind the podium, holding on to it on both sides. A stool sat beside him, in case his legs gave out.

        His speech was measured and much slower than the rat-a-tat of his youth.

Holly Manilla and her husband Chuck Manilla, both of West Chester, pray with counselor Linda Askren of Lockland during the altar call.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
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        At his peak in the 1950s and 1960s, the Rev. Mr. Graham had a brilliant combination of personal magnetism and think-on-your-feet intellect, Dr. Carpenter said.

        Paul and Deanna Linsley would have come to the mission even if it weren't one of the last chances to see him in person.

        His integrity and pastoral leadership is unparalleled, the Kings Mills couple said.

        “Whether he would say so or not, he's changed a nation for the better,” said Mr. Linsley, 61.

Targeting children

        Today's events geared for kids and young adults are relatively new additions to the missions. Started in 1994 in Cleveland, the events now often boast the biggest attendance. The Concert for the NeXt Generation is billed as “not your father's Billy Graham.”

        “At first, you'd think it was a rock concert, not a sermon,” said Dr. Lewis Drummond, the Billy Graham professor of evangelism and church growth at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala. “Then the Rev. Mr. Graham comes out, and it's like a hush falls upon them, and they listen to him so intently.”

        That's part of the Graham legacy, said Dr. Rhys Williams, a University of Cincinnati professor who studies American religion.

        “You don't become the longest-lasting without adapting to the times,” he said. “The Rev. Mr. Graham has successfully negotiated that balance of staying true to the message, yet adapting to new developments in society and culture for decades.”

       Kevin Aldridge and Steve Eder contributed to this report.

Click through photo gallery
- Audience relishes chance to witness historic giant
Excerpts of Graham's sermon
What you need to know about today's services
Young people find a welcome
Slow donations threaten shortfall
Star of Christian music hurts for her hometown
RADEL: Don't limit your prayers to stadium
Mission Memories
Stadium only one mission location
Bengals stadium shop does brisk business
Liquor stores, bars slow despite crowds
Complete Mission details in our special section