When Billy Graham preached his last crusade

When Billy Graham preached his last Crusade, he was already old.

God wouldn't call him home for another 13 years, but time was taking its toll. At 86, the man who once stalked national stages like a prize-fighter in the ring, used a walker to make his way slowly to the lectern.

The AJC was there to see that Graham's charisma was undimmed. Some 60,000 followers filled the field in Flushing Meadows, Queens that warm June afternoon in 2005. Thousands streamed forward for the traditional altar call at the end of the service, committing themselves to Jesus Christ as the orchestra played "Just As I Am."

Credit: Mario Tama

Credit: Mario Tama

Many of them came to see the man described as the most influential preacher of the 20th Century, because they knew it might be their last chance.

Graham's failing energies had convinced him that preaching to arenas and football fields was no longer possible.

His going-away sermons, preached over three nights in this New York City borough, were delivered in style, with a full orchestra and a parade of warmup acts. A phalanx of reporters, assembled as if to cover the Super Bowl, were set up at tables near the front, outfitted with ethernet connections and power supplies.

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Graham’s use of the term “crusade”, with its history of religious wars, had come under criticism. But his audience was never more inclusive. The sermon was translated into 20 languages, and broadcast to participants wearing headsets.

“This is probably the most ethnically diverse area in the United States,” Greg Mergian, pastor of the Armenian Brethren church in Hackensack, N.J., told the AJC. Mergian served that night as one of the translators.

The outdoor revival was held on the grounds of the 1964 Worlds Fair, and almost within sight of Shea Stadium, where the Mets were playing the Yankees that Friday night. (The Mets won, 6-4, in front of a crowd slightly smaller than Graham’s audience.)

The buildup to Graham’s sermon was considerable. When he finally took the stage, he was self-effacing. “After all this music and all that you’ve read and heard,” said, “I’m probably an anti-climax.”

As the AJC wrote at the time, “a field full of followers cheered their difference of opinion.”