"Now we have come to the preaching moment," the preacher said thumpingly. At the packed Shiloh Baptist Church, where Christmas floral decorations matched the spirited singing of the center- city black congregation, Billy Graham was being introduced as the speaker at the 11 a.m. Sunday service. The evangelist's sermon topic was "What Christmas Is All About."
If anyone knows, it is Graham. At 67, he is Christendom's preeminent advocate for salvation through Jesus. Biographers state categorically, and Graham agrees, that no one in history has preached the Gospel to more people. On the global circuit, about the only place that hasn't had a Billy Graham Crusade is Vatican City.
At Shiloh Baptist, a church known to be true to its mission of providing "a friendly welcome for all," Graham was among his doctrinal kin. Since September he said, he had spoken to Catholics, Pentecostals, Jews and the Eastern Orthodox. But "I feel at home today because I'm a Baptist!" If any hard-shells were in the pews, Graham softened them with 10 minutes of warm-up humor and stories. He told of preaching once in a Texas town that had a sign on the city limits: "Drive carefully, you may hit a Baptist."
Aside from the Good News of the Bible, Graham had some news of his own: He will be coming to Washington from April 27 to May 4 to preach a crusade. Being at Shiloh, he said, is "a marvelous experience" that is a "foretaste of the crusade at the Convention Center."
Graham delivered a 40-minute sermon that sang with the marvelousness of the Christmas season. He was the oratorical gift-giver who came with presents for all.
To the devout, he said, "If there's one thing that Christians can be sure of, it's that God loves us. We've broken God's laws, yet He loves us."
For those still thinking about the summit meeting, Graham said that "communism is not going to win the world, capitalism is not going to win the world. Jesus will win the world."
For the literary, Graham recounted a Bret Harte story, "Christmas at Roaring Camp": A newborn baby transforms a town of sinning goldminers into a community of the saved, the way the newborn Jesus came with a salvific mission for the world.
For those who wanted an update on how Baptists were holding up, Graham had a story of visiting a remote part of northern India where 75 percent of the population was Christian and out of that 100 percent were Baptists.
If anyone's tastes were overlooked, no one spoke up. Graham had still more -- references to old friends John F. Kennedy and Jomo Kenyatta, a tale of Queen Victoria, a Time magazine story about the Christian resurgence in China. Like a missionary traveling everywhere, he clutched his Bible throughout. He stayed true to the sermon. Christmas is about "the cradle, the cross and the crown."
The alliterative skills of Graham are in no league with those of another Baptist preacher, Jesse Jackson, but the Shiloh brothers and sisters, happy in the towings and tugs of the Lord's grace, appeared receptive to the cradle, cross and crown analysis of Christmas.
Critics of the salvation industry have had their go at Billy Graham since he came out of a fundamentalist Tampa Bible institute in 1940. He has been criticized as the high pastor to the powerful and as the court chaplain to the rich. In 1982, Sam Donaldson of ABC News, with a theologian's eye for the hidden sins of men, scolded Graham for the publicity of his visit to Moscow: "There are a lot of people, Dr. Graham, who are saying that you were not testifying for God, but you were testifying only for the ego of Billy Graham."
The accusation was denied, as were all the others of the past. If culpability has been present, Graham has been atoning. He is no longer a God-on-our-side nationalist. He warns about the "dangers" of political television preachers. He calls for "SALT 10" to eliminate all nuclear weapons. Graham is now aware of the world's hungry and homeless. He has been reaching out.
At the end of the sermon at Shiloh, Graham issued his altar call. An elderly woman came forward. Head bowed, she began weeping. She did not stop. Graham, as though hearing God's knell, left the pulpit and walked to the woman. He embraced her around the shoulders. The woman, becalmed by Graham's comforting, remained to pray. Graham returned to the sanctuary to finish the service. He had given another Christmas gift.