Sunday, June 30, 2002

Mission draws more blacks

By Kevin Aldridge
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Artreece Crum, 10, of Avondale screams to performer Kirk Franklin during his concert Saturday night.
(Brandi Stafford photo)
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        And on the third day, the crowds filled Paul Brown Stadium. An entertainment lineup featuring black, white and Hispanic artists boosted the Billy Graham mission Saturday evening with more people, more energy and more color.

        After two nights of smaller-than-expected, predominantly white crowds, the Christian music fest put an estimated 50,000 in the stadium, filling seats into the upper levels. Young people began lining up hours before the gates opened for the free event.

        “From this stage, it is good to see every color looking like brothers and sisters. It's beautiful,” singer Kirk Franklin, who is African-American, told the audience. “It looks like a big bag of Skittles!”

        The Rev. Mr. Graham's visit has been promoted as a “healing event” that could help reunite Cincinnati, which has struggled with riots, boycotts and race-relation problems since April 2001. But some African-American ministers admitted disappointment at the number of blacks attending the first two nights.

Kirk Franklin performs with dc Talk's Michael Tait.
(Tony Jones photo)
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        Saturday night was different, and Mr. Franklin made the most of it, asking white people in the crowd to “meet and greet three people” they'd normally be afraid to walk past on the street.

        Connie Crawford, 18, an African-American from Western Hills, said she “came down to see Kirk Franklin. I never even heard of Billy Graham before.”

        The Rev. Mr. Graham has included appeals for racial unity in each sermon. Saturday night, he said: “You may not like people of another race. You may not like people of another culture. But you can love them if you accept God in your heart. You can love them through him. You can make friends with people you never thought you'd be friends with. God is love.”

        Some black ministers said attendance may have been affected by sympathy for the downtown boycott called for by the Cincinnati Black United Front and other groups.

Germaine Hillard of Mount Auburn holds her daughter Nadia, 10 months, while they perform with the Kidz Gig choir.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
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        Boycott leaders had asked the Rev. Mr. Graham to stay away from Cincinnati, but he refused.

        Delmaro Dowell of Bond Hill said he was glad the evangelist was in the Queen City, but wished more African-Americans were in the crowd.

        “To some degree, it surprises me that there aren't more African-Americans here. But what a mostly white crowd says to me is that Caucasian people are also interested in equality,” he said.

Was boycott a factor?

        The Rev. Damon Lynch Jr., co-chair of the mission, had predicted better turnout Saturday night, especially with Mr. Franklin as a drawing card.

        The Rev. Mr. Lynch, whose son the Rev. Damon Lynch III is a leader of the boycott movement, said some African-Americans chose not to attend for the same reasons some whites do. Many are working, attending other events or simply uninterested in the Rev. Mr. Graham, he said.

        Several African-American ministers said black turnout was much higher than it was during the Rev. Mr. Graham's last visit to Cincinnati 25 years ago.

        “When he was here before, there were almost no people of color in the audience,” said the Rev. Rousseau O'Neal, pastor of Rockdale Baptist Church in Avondale.

        Richelle Thompson and Steve Eder contributed to this report.


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