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The final altar call

The final altar call

By Julia Duin

June 27, 2005

NEWYORK -- New York -- and America -- said goodbye to Billy Graham yesterday in a three-hour tribute of music and preaching that drew 90,000 people to see and hear the evangelist's last U.S. crusade.

Making their way through packed subway trains and traffic jams that were backed up more than three hours beforehand on the Long Island Expressway, crowds braved broiling sun to hear the 86-year-old evangelist speak for 25 minutes during a midafternoon rally at Flushing Meadows Corona Park.

They stood and cheered as the white-haired evangelist, accompanied by his eldest son, Franklin, slowly made his way to the stage with the help of a walker. Although his large, wooden pulpit included a chair in case the elderly preacher needed to sit, Mr. Graham stood throughout his 25-minute sermon.

Although he held open the possibility of a fall crusade in London, the evangelist took time to say several farewells -- including to his longtime music director, Cliff Barrows, 82, and soloist George Beverly Shea, 96.

"They have put up with me so many years," Mr. Graham said. "They are two of the greatest men of God I have ever known."

His final sermon was vintage Graham: The Old Testament patriarch, Noah, and the Second Coming of Christ.

"You've come to this crusade expecting to live many more years, but you never know," Mr. Graham said. "The Bible says today is the accepted time, today is the day of salvation. ... But there will come a time when it will be too late for you."

During a three-day period, as many as 242,000 people came to see the evangelist, including 12,000 who attended a children's crusade Saturday morning.

The crowd nearly equaled the 250,000 that Mr. Graham drew during a one-day 1991 rally in Central Park.

Speakers who preceded Mr. Graham to the stage repeatedly referred to the evangelist's departure from a public life that began 60 years ago at the close of World War II. Mr. Graham suffers from Parkinson's disease, prostate cancer and other ailments.

One speaker, the Rev. Rob Johannson of Queens, called yesterday's event "a historic moment."

"May we take up the torch of evangelism that Dr. Graham is laying down," he said.

Country music star Ricky Skaggs said evangelical Christianity has many teachers "but few fathers." He added, "We want to honor someone who's been a father to the body of Christ. A father to the nation of evangelists."

Crusade officials said 9,413 adults and children registered "faith commitments" during the crusade, which organizers said yesterday was still short of its $6.8 million budget. Figures were not available last night on how much was given on the last day, but going into yesterday, only 45 percent had been donated, meaning that yesterday's crowd had to donate more than $3 million to help the crusade break even.

Those who came all showed a tremendous reservoir of good will toward the world's most listened-to evangelist, with about 210 million people in 185 countries. Listeners included two Franciscan nuns from the Bronx, garbed in long grey habits in the wilting heat, who arrived on the subway.

"We've come to pray for unity," said one, with a rosary.

Nadege McDonald, a Haitian-born mother living in Queens, coaxed her husband and two small children to come for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

"We've never heard him before, and my church has been doing a lot of talking about him," she said.

Miro Samwil, an Arabic-speaking counselor with the crusade, said his Jersey City church had concentrated on bringing nominally Christian children of Egyptian immigrants.

"They are brought by believers," he said. "A lot of Arabic speakers think they're coming to hear a concert."

"We wanted to bring our children here so we could worship together," said Meng Mui, a Brooklyn mother seated with her three small children in one of the five overflow sections.

"We're all Christian, but this is a big thing for us."

Daphne Bernard, a Flushing resident, said she became a Christian years ago when she heard Mr. Graham in Jamaica.

"Probably, this is the last time to hear him," she said. "He preaches the truth about the Gospel."


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