Evangelist Billy Graham delivers his message of hope to the largest North American crowd of his career.

An estimated 250,000 New Yorkers turned out last month in Manhattan’s Central Park to hear evangelist Billy Graham, creating what many believe to be the largest single evangelistic rally in North American history. The September 22 event, billed as “An Afternoon in the Park with Billy Graham,” came together on a picture-perfect Sunday on the park’s Great Lawn, where an ethnically and culturally diverse crowd was treated to a three-hour program of music, testimonies, and the 72-year-old Graham. “New York is a world capital,” he said with a vigor that masked his years. “But … New York is a place of desperate spiritual need.”

In a city renowned for its cynicism toward religion, a record 200 reporters packed into the press area. The New York Times featured a front-page photo and glowing 2,500-word article. And local radio, TV, and news dailies found enough significance in the rally to give it at least equal billing with Donald Trump’s latest tryst and the Yankees’ current slump.

“In a city that realizes it is dying morally and spiritually, people looking for hope came out of the woodwork in search of something different,” said Manhattan pastor Gordon MacDonald.

Street Level

The carefully planned event was unlike any previous Graham endeavor. “Everything we did was different from a typical crusade,” said Graham staff member Dan Southern, who directed both the New York rally and the Northern New Jersey Crusade, held two weeks prior to the Central Park engagement. “The three-hour program was a concept designed by our local pastors to bring a crusade to street level.”

Music included songs from Sandi Patti, Johnny and June Cash, the Grammy-winning a cappella group Take 6, and numerous others. Several people, including The Cross and the Switchblade’s Nicky Cruz and television host Kathy Lee Gifford, gave testimonies. Graham spoke twice, first describing the wonders and woes of the Big Apple, and then energetically delivering a gospel message, one indicating a new hope that Graham holds for a city he once likened to Sodom and Gomorrah.

“If there is one thing I want you to take from the park when you leave here, it is this—God loves you and God is interested in you,” he said in a message built on the familiar John 3:16.

Though the crowd was among the largest ever gathered in Central Park, the police reported no incidents. “In a city known for racial division and tension,” said V. Simpson Turner, pastor of Mount Carmel Baptist Church and chairman of the rally, “there was total unity. This was a day of miracles.”

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In the past 40 years, Graham has spoken to more than 3 million people across the state of New York. He has preached human rights in the streets of Harlem and the gospel in Times Square. He has comforted mourning students in Syracuse following the explosion of Pan Am flight #103. And he has packed Yankee Stadium (1957), Madison Square Garden (1957 and 1969), and Shea Stadium (1970).

The Central Park rally was the culmination of a three-year outreach known as Mission New York State, which began in Buffalo in 1988, and last year included Albany and Long Island.

Graham’s week-long Northern New Jersey crusade, held just across the Hudson River, also received significant local support. A Friday night crowd of 31,300 in the Meadowlands stadium exceeded, by more than 10,000 people, the previous attendance record there, set by rock singer Bruce Springsteen. As part of the crusade, a food drive collected 18.5 tons of nonperishable goods. In addition, the crusade committee dedicated $50,000 of its budget to Christian social-service organizations.

Ethnic Involvement

Graham’s efforts in the area, and especially the New York City rally, were supported by unprecedented ethnic involvement, organizers said. “The Afternoon at Central Park was very clearly driven by the ethnic congregations in the city,” affirmed MacDonald, pastor of Trinity Baptist Church. “This [event] went far beyond skin color,” he said. “Hispanic joy, black soul, Asian intensity, and charismatic exuberance set the tone for the concert of prayer and other prerally meetings.”

Rally planners translated promotional materials into 16 languages. Local radio stations provided simultaneous translation of the meeting into Korean, Spanish, and three Chinese dialects.

“The rally will have an ongoing impact within our minority communities,” said rally chairman Turner. “There’s no doubt that God honored the prayers of his people, and the moral and spiritual tone of the city will be upgraded.” Among the follow-up benefits, Turner said, are “the souls won to Christ, the lukewarm people who were brought back in the fold, … and the training in evangelism that was received by hundreds and thousands of people in the minority community.”

Response at the Sunday afternoon meeting proved more difficult to measure than at other Graham crusades. Rather than being asked to come forward for counseling, inquirers were encouraged to raise their hands until a counselor came to them. Graham team member Dan Southern estimated that when the evangelist invited the audience to pray aloud the sinner’s prayer, about 45 percent of the crowd did so.

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Southern said he did not think the method cut down on the number responding. But counselor Craig Ellison said the system was not as effective. “The instructions were confusing, especially with so many people standing, moving around, or raising their hands for different reasons,” said Ellison, who was also a member of the general working committee for the event. “There’s no doubt that the response level was hindered.”

Although local churches promptly received lists of follow-up contacts, Southern said numbers of respondents were not available. “We want to develop a new format for reporting this kind of rally,” Southern said.

Message Of Hope

New York Mayor David Dinkins, who took the podium to affirm that Graham’s emphasis was exactly what the city needed, called the meeting the “largest multicultural revival meeting the world has ever seen.”

Representatives of the National Council of Churches and several mainline denominations headquartered on New York’s Riverside Drive attended both the New York and New Jersey gatherings as special guests, but otherwise had little involvement in the campaign.

Archbishop John Cardinal O’Connor of New York, Bishop Thomas V. Daily of Brooklyn, and the Most Reverend Theodore McCarrick, archbishop of Newark, strongly endorsed Graham’s visit. Clerical collars and rosaries indicated a strong Catholic presence in the Central Park audience. And while Jewish leaders did not endorse the preaching campaign, neither did they speak out against it.

In the weeks preceding the rally, a $650,000 promotional campaign, placed by the advertising firm Saatchi & Saatchi, featured ethos-capturing electronic and print ads: “You’re born. You suffer. You die. Fortunately, there’s a loophole” and “Is the whole world going to hell? Or is it just you?” The bottom line of each message was hope for what Graham called the loneliest city on earth.

“If only society could mirror in macrocosm what happened at Central Park in microcosm,” said Larry Ross, a spokesman for the Graham organization. “Imagine what it would be like if the whole city were like a sunny day in the park.”

By Warren Bird in New York City.

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