By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 26, 2005
NEW YORK -- The half-mile walk from the subway to the grounds of Billy Graham's crusade in Queens starts near Shea Stadium, winds past that famous World's Fair globe in the middle of Corona Park and ends at a bustling stage. Along the way, you hear a whole lot of hate.
"Billy Graham is just one of many false teachers," says Darwin Fish, who swears that his real name is Darwin Fish and who flew in from Los Angeles, where he is a member of something called A True Church. He is holding a cardboard placard, attached to a pole, that says "Graham Leads to Hell," which is a pretty nervy position in any context but an especially nervy one here, on the first night of a three-day event, one expected to draw as many as half a million faithful. But Fish has more than mere gumption on his side -- the man has rock-solid proof.
"For example, he was asked recently on Larry King's show -- I don't know if you saw that -- if he believes Buddhists and Muslims and Jews end up in Hell, and Graham said, 'I can't judge that.' Now that reveals he's on Satan's side. It shows he does not believe in the Bible." No Jesus, no Heaven, it's as simple as that, says Fish, and it says so right in the New Testament.
A hundred yards away, a woman named Shirley Phelps-Roper is holding a pair of placards, one reading "Thank God for 9/11," the other "America Is Doomed." She and her family, who hail from Kansas and who apparently picket pretty much full time, believe the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as well as the death of every American soldier in Iraq, are God's retribution for tolerance toward -- see if you can guess -- gays. That's right. Stop coddling homosexuals -- she uses a more derogatory term -- and this country has a chance. Phelps-Roper will explain the liturgical basis for this, which has something to do with dog references in the Good Book, but you ask for clarification at your peril.
Wait, it says no dogs in Heaven in the Bible?
"That's a metaphor!" she shouts. "Are you too stupid to understand a metaphor ? Or do you just want to stand there and ask disingenuous questions like a dumbass?"
The latter, to be honest. But what's odd about these little pockets of hostility is how utterly familiar they seem. Public discourse about religion has had a toxic, us-vs.-them tone for a while. Which is why the Greater New York Billy Graham Crusade, as it's officially known, seems quaint to the point of old-timey. Billed informally as a farewell wave, the three-day event, which ends today, returns the ailing 86-year-old preacher to the pulpit for what is likely to be his parting bow.
His message is most striking for what it is missing. There are no threats of damnation, no politics, no command to write your senator. True to the themes he has preached since rising to national prominence in the '40s, Graham remains the avuncular and unthreatening face of evangelical Christianity, one committed to keeping church at arm's length from the state. Though he is famous for befriending every president since Eisenhower, Graham has steadfastly refused to jumble matters of faith with an earthly agenda. He would like you to come to Jesus because he believes it will comfort you in the present and ensure you a seasonable setting in the hereafter, but he isn't going to denounce those who are indifferent to the Gospels.
"One of the defining characteristics of fundamentalists in the last 50 years is that they can't stand Billy Graham," says William Martin, author of the Graham biography "A Prophet With Honor." "He's not a dogmatic man. He is by nature an includer. He has always reached out and tried to understand other people."
The event in New York is so grand and complicated that it seems more like a foreign invasion than a revival. Some 1,400 churches are involved, plus 6,000 trained counselors. His sermon is translated, in real time, into 13 languages.
"We have 70,000 folding chairs out there," says Larry Ross, the 6-foot-8 spokesman for the Billy Graham organization. "The company that set them up said the largest order they'd ever had before was 40,000."
The scale of it all is a hallmark of Graham's unofficial tenure as "America's preacher." He started his career soon after World War II, as the leader of a group called Youth for Christ, which organized Saturday night events to keep young people -- mostly former soldiers -- out of trouble. He traveled tirelessly around the country, setting up similar programs, wowing fellow pastors, building an audience. The guy had charisma and passion and massive ambition, and by 1949 he had nationwide fame. That year he held a revival in Los Angeles and there were huge crowds, not to mention some high-profile conversions, including Stuart Hamblen, radio's first singing cowboy. By then, he'd caught the eye of William Randolph Hearst, who during that L.A. event telegrammed his editors with a two-word directive: "Puff Graham." The newspaper baron liked the evangelist's style and approach and also thought the guy would sell newspapers.
By 1952, Graham was big enough to play a role in persuading Eisenhower to run for the presidency. And there were his "crusades," all over the world. In 1957, Graham came to New York and he didn't leave until he'd preached 100 times, 97 of them in Madison Square Garden. Sixteen weeks, 2 million attendees, 55,000 people who made "the decision for Christ," as his publicity team put it. Graham mastered the art of super-scale service and he understood the power of television before anyone else in the business of religion. If he was selling soda -- or anything, really -- he would have made a fortune.
Graham never wavered from his core beliefs, and the closest thing to scandal came three years ago, when a newly released White House tape caught him lamenting what he called a Jewish "stranglehold" on the news media in a conversation with President Nixon. Confronted with the recording in 2002, Graham said he didn't remember any of it, but apologized anyway.
He is visibly weak now, hobbled by Parkinson's disease and prostate cancer, and he needed a hand to reach the podium when it was his turn to speak on Friday night. He opened by confessing his nervousness, and told a story about a man who babbled for so long during a speech that someone threw a gavel at him, which instead hit a woman in the front row. "Throw another," Graham quoted her saying. "I can still hear him."
For the first 10 minutes, it could have been a Chamber of Commerce address. When it came to matters spiritual, Graham did as he always has -- he preached through anecdote. At one point, he told a story about a man in an accident at sea, who thrashed around in the ocean for 10 hours, blood on his forehead, fending off sharks.
"A pilot spotted him and dropped a smoke canister and radioed a Coast Guard cutter. He said, 'Hurry, there's a guy down there surrounded by sharks.' So the Coast Guard went there, found the guy." Graham's voice is barely audible.
"You know, he didn't need a new technique, he needed outside intervention. And tonight you need outside intervention. That's what God will do for you. He'll bring a peace and joy to your heart that you've never known. He'll fill the void in your heart."
There was then the traditional call to come forth and accept, or re-accept, Jesus Christ into your life. Thousands of people streamed toward the stage.
"You may never have another moment like this in your life," Graham said, now sitting down. "You come now. Now is the time."
He never said goodbye or good night. He just turned, and with the help of a walker, he left. The many who had shuffled toward the stage were greeted, one at a time, by one of the counselors, who helped everyone fill out a questionnaire. ("Have you come forward to personally accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?" was the first question.)
There were some tears of joy here and there, but the whole thing seemed kind of measured and sedate. Maybe this is what happens when a blue state gets its red state on. Or perhaps events like this are the equivalent of those quiet PBS shows that you stumble across while channel-surfing through the hectoring wilderness of cable. If you're accustomed to the shrieking, everything else sounds mellow.