But 55 years after his first crusade in Los Angeles launched him into international prominence, evangelist Billy Graham opens his four-day Greater Los Angeles Crusade at the Rose Bowl on Thursday night with a Christian Gospel message of salvation that has remained unchanged.
"I don't know I can say this is the last one, because we're now having some thought about going to New York next June," he said. "If the Lord gives me the strength here, it will be an indication that I can go there."
Graham has preached before an estimated 210 million people in 185 countries -- more, his staff said, than any single person in history. In years past, the podium became a mere prop as an untethered Graham, lithe and lean, would stride across the platform, Bible in hand and an exhortation in his voice. This time at the 93,000-seat Rose Bowl, he will likely remain in his seat as he extends "the Invitation," to make a "decision for Christ."
Crusade organizers said 1,400 churches have signed on as co-sponsors of the $5.4-million crusade, which ends Sunday. Nearly 20,000 volunteers -- including a 6,000-member choir, counselors and ushers -- have signed up. Over the course of the revival, services will be translated into a total of 26 languages via 17,000 low-power AM radio receivers and headsets. Giant television screens will be located throughout the bowl. All this to bring what Graham calls the simple themes of God's love and forgiveness.
Graham, who celebrated his birthday Nov. 7, smiled gamely as he used an aluminum walker to shuffle into a room for an interview in Pasadena. He wears a hearing aid. The trademark glint in his blue eyes and his statements of faith remain as clear as the day he opened the Los Angeles revival in 1949 that catapulted him from a 6,000-seat "canvas cathedral" at the corner of Washington Boulevard and Hill Street to become a confidant of presidents.
"What did he see in that cup?" Graham asked, not passing an opportunity to retell the "old, old story of Jesus and his love," as a beloved Protestant hymn says. Graham was referring to Jesus' prayer asking God to spare him before his arrest, scourging and crucifixion.
"He had to make a big decision," Graham said as he sat in a raised wooden chair with wheels. "He said, 'not my will, but yours be done' and he looked into the cup.... What was in that cup? Our sins. All the sins of the world were in that cup. He had to take that, and I think his real suffering was that spiritual suffering that he had to endure. It's a tremendous thing to believe that."
Vintage Graham. Unalloyed belief.
This will be Graham's ninth crusade in Los Angeles, and his followers know it may be their last chance to see him in person. Even a rabbi confided recently that he might also come, not to be converted, but to experience a religious phenomenon.
Graham said he had come to Southern California at the invitation of local church leaders, especially Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest. "I had to do a lot of praying in accepting an invitation here," Graham said, "especially a place like the Rose Bowl, which is so huge. I don't know that we'll come anywhere near filling that, but maybe a few thousand will come."
As he ages, Graham said, he has had plenty of questions about life, including his declining health and its effect on his ministry. Because of his health, he said, he was unable to keep a commitment to preach at President Reagan's funeral. Since his arrival in Los Angeles, he said, he has spoken with former First Lady Nancy Reagan, whom he described as "a very remarkable woman."
But, he presses on, like 84-year-old Pope John Paul II, whom Graham called an evangelist at heart.
"In fact, I've thought a number of times, the pope is going on with his message to the world at his age. I can go on at my age with the Gospel I've preached all over."
Services will be at 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday and 3:30 p.m. Sunday. A children's program will be at 10 a.m. Saturday and a youth concert at 6 p.m. Saturday. Admission is free, but there will be an offering. For more information, call (626) 793-8000 or see website www.billygraham.org.
Graham is scheduled to preach at all events except the children's program. Michael Reagan, the late president's son, will speak Sunday afternoon. Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn, the sister of the mayor, is to give her testimony Thursday night. Graham's longtime crusade partners, music and program director Cliff Barrows and vocalist George Beverly Shey, also will participate.
"We needed a spiritual awakening in Los Angeles and in Southern California," the Rev. Lloyd Ogilvie, a former Senate chaplain and pastor emeritus of First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, said Tuesday. He called Graham "the greatest evangelist since the Apostle Paul."
Graham's visit here occurs in the aftermath of President Bush's reelection, which divided the nation and for which many evangelical Christians took credit. At the same time, a controversial war in Iraq continues to take its toll. But like Graham himself, crusade leaders said they would steer clear of politics.