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Looking back: Our coverage of Billy Graham’s last crusade

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published this story June 25, 2005, after sending Bo Emerson to New York City to cover what would turn out to be Billy Graham’s last Crusade.

The evangelist died Wednesday at age 99.

New York —- In his early days, evangelist Billy Graham roamed the stage, delivering his well-practiced homilies in staccato bursts that outpaced stenographers. Author William Martin described him as “God’s Gatling Gun.”

Friday evening in New York City, Graham, 86, spoke in slow, measured tones, and he used a walker to move across the stage of his last American crusade. But his blue eyes flashed as of old, and his message still stirred the soul.

“After all this music and all that you’ve read and heard,” he said, “I’m probably an anti-climax.”

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In this photo from 2005  Rev. Billy Graham speaks at a news conference about the upcoming Greater New York Billy Graham Crusade. It would be his last. (Photo by (Mario Tama/Getty Images)) (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

A field full of followers cheered their difference of opinion.

Under clear skies and bathed in sultry temperatures, a crowd estimated at 60,000 saw one of the most influential preachers of the modern era give his farewell to the large outdoor evangelical meetings that he turned into a worldwide phenomenon.

Participants in the first night of the three-day event assembled on folding chairs Friday before a soaring temporary stage and two video screens in Corona Park in Flushing Meadows. The setting was within sight of the Unisphere, the 12-story schematic globe constructed for the 1964 World’s Fair. Also nearby, the Mets played the Yankees at Shea Stadium.

“The Yanks are not doing too well,” Graham joked. “They and the Mets need your prayers.”

The crowd was old and young, saved and unsaved, including:

Michael Porterfield, 29, of Savannah, member of a small band of Christians called the Twelve Tribes who live communally, grow their beards long and travel in a triple-decker bus.

Sally and Elizabeth Kim, members of a Korean Presbyterian church on the Upper East Side, who declared they came because “It’s Billy Graham!”

Omana George, who, when she moved to New Jersey from Kerala, India, wanted only to see three things: Oral Roberts, the Empire State Building and Billy Graham.

While Graham has spread the Gospel to the ends of the earth for more than 50 years, the multicultural setting in the borough of Queens allowed a cross-section of nations to come to Billy Graham.

“This is probably the most ethnically diverse area in the United States,” said Greg Mergian, pastor of the Armenian Brethren church in Hackensack, N.J. Mergian served Friday as a translator, broadcasting the service in Armenian to participants wearing headsets. He represented one of 20 different languages offered by interpreters, including Tamil and Urdu.

Friday night, the music included hymns from 96-year-old vocalist George Beverly Shea and the salsa-inflected Spanish-language tune “Montana” by the praise group Salvador from San Antonio.

Cliff Barrows, who has directed the choir for Graham’s missions since 1946, said the newer music was “not his [Graham’s] favorite, nor my favorite.” But hip-hop and rock speak to the generation they want to reach. “We’ve got enough grandchildren to know it appeals to them and they respond to it,” he said.

After the sermon —- based on the story of Nicodemus and the value of being born again in Christ —- Graham asked those who had decided to invite Christ into their hearts to come forward to the stage. Thousands streamed through the aisles.

“You come now,” said Graham.

“There may never be another moment in New York like this.” The 1,500-member choir sang “Just as I Am.”

Ed Wildermuth wanted to come for the last opportunity to see Billy Graham preach, but he hung back at the end of the sermon. Wildermuth, 50, lives in Huntington, N.Y.

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After a few minutes, though, he made the decision, and went forward.

“I’d heard a lot about Billy Graham, what he’s done in the past, how he’s spoken with presidents. I thought he might have something to say to me also.”

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