Thousands of area residents are expected to pack the Washington Convention Center on Sunday as The Greater Washington Billy Graham Crusade opens in this city for the first time since 1952.
The eight-day crusade culminates a year of planning by a local committee and Graham organizers. The effort included recruiting thousands of volunteers, mobilizing a bus brigade to bring worshipers from inner city and suburban churches each night and raising $1.5 million to pay for the event.
A group of local ministers, led by the Rev. Ernest R. Gibson, executive director of the Washington Area Council of Churches, invited Graham to come to the District.
The Washington crusade is Graham's first this year. Crusades, which usually last five to 10 days, are held only at the invitation of local ministers, according to Larry Ross, press spokesman for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, whose headquarters are in Minneapolis.
During a typical crusade service, which includes music by some of Graham's gospel soloists, the evangelist invites members of the audience who are uncommitted to God "to come forward." They are met by volunteer counselors who have attended training sessions and will talk to them about their religious experience.
During a follow-up period, counselors contact those who were not church members to see if they have joined a church or need any advice. In addition, many church members come forward to rededicate their lives to Christ.
The organizing begins months before Graham walks on the stage to launch the first service. A team from the Graham headquarters is usually sent into a city to help organize the local event.
The Rev. Norman Sanders, one of the Graham organization's black evangelists, was the first to arrive in the District. He set up temporary headquarters a year ago in the Capitol Hill Metropolitan Baptist Church, Sixth and A streets NE. Unlike Graham's last District crusade, this time the organization has reached out vigorously to include blacks and whites in both inner-city and suburban congregations, according to local ministers.
Graham's efforts to come to the city in 1973 failed because the crusade did not have the support of black pastors.
"There has been an involvement of churches -- that crosses races and denominations and includes inner-city and suburban, small and large congregations -- on every level of organizing," said the Rev. Henry Gregory, minister of Shiloh Baptist Church, one of the city's most prominent black churches.
In 1973, the black Baptist preachers charged Graham with "insensitivity" on racial issues, saying Graham organization had bypassed most inner-city black pastors, drawing instead on sympathetic southern congressmen and suburban pastors in organizing the crusade.
This year, Gibson invited Graham and is serving as vice chairman of the crusade's General and Administrative Committee. Former D.C. mayor Walter E. Washington, now a lawyer, is the chairman of the crusade's steering committee.
During the past year, Graham and members of his team have met with black ministers, visited black churches and dropped in on inner-city activities such as a free breakfast program for the homeless.
"I know there has been a serious attempt to create dialogue with members of the black community," said Gregory, who acknowledged that many blacks are still undecided about whether to support Graham's crusade.
"Billy Graham has made a lot of changes in his life, and I'm glad, but I can't really support this," said a black minister of the United Church of Christ, who asked not to be identified. "Nothing will have changed when the crusade leaves. It will still be left up to those of us here to change things and meet the needs of the community."
On a visit to Shiloh in December, Graham told the congregation that he had changed his opinions on some social issues. "He indicated that he has been very much against apartheid and said he stated that some time ago," said Gregory. "This was an issue that myself and other black ministers were concerned about.
"His relationship with the civil rights struggle is one that has been of some concern to black men and women who were involved in the struggle in the '60s," said Gregory. "He had not been as visibly a part of that as some ministers and other people had hoped. But that could be part of the evolution he spoke of."
Local organizers, guided by the Graham team, have been successful in recruiting thousands of volunteers, both black and white. When throngs step forward to commit, or rededicate themselves to Christ, they will be greeted by more than 3,000 volunteer counselors.
"We were looking for a sense that God has been leading the church leaders across the entire community to feel this is the time for a crusade," said the Rev. Sterling W. Huston, director of Graham's crusades in North America. "Some of the leaders we talked with this time said Washington has never been more ready for the crusade than it is today."