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Franklin Graham anticipates emotional final U.S. crusade for his father

NEW YORK (AP) _ As the Rev. Billy Graham opens his final American crusade Friday in New York City, the man with the best seat will be his son and successor, Franklin Graham.

The younger Graham says he has not dwelled on the significance of the revival meeting _ advertised on posters around the city _ but says when his father's ministry ends it may be ``the saddest day of my life.''

Graham, 86, plans to preach 35 minutes on each of three nights in a park near Shea Stadium in Queens, despite many infirmities that have diminished his powerful voice, damaged his hearing and forced him to use a walker. He said the rally ``will be the last in America, I'm sure.''

Franklin Graham, 54, who took over leadership of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association about five years ago, said he was too busy handling last-minute details of the crusade to mull its importance. Tens of thousands of people are expected to turn out each day at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park _ many drawn by a final chance to see the man known as America's pastor.

But the younger Graham anticipates his mood will change Sunday, when his father makes his trademark appeal for people to come forward and accept Christ, likely for the last time before a mass audience.

``Sitting on the platform, at the invitation, with the people in front, I think maybe that's when it's going to sink in on me and hit me,'' Franklin Graham said in an interview Thursday with The Associated Press. ``I think it will be a very reflective moment Sunday for me.''

Billy Graham is considering a request to preach in November in London, but Franklin Graham said his father, after six decades on the road, no longer adjusts well to time zone changes and does not like to be away from his wife, Ruth, who is also in ill-health.

They are both largely confined to their home in Montreat, N.C., and Billy Graham rarely gives interviews. But signaling the importance of this final U.S. crusade, the elderly preacher has been speaking with reporters and this week held a news conference in New York.

The rally had originally been planned for Madison Square Garden, but organizers moved the event to accommodate the crowds. Seating will be available for 70,000, with room for overflow.

The younger Graham will step in and preach in case of emergency at the New York rally; the pulpit has a movable seat hidden from view, so Billy Graham can sit if he feels unsteady.

But Franklin Graham said speaking before a crowd energizes his ailing father.

``He was born for this,'' Franklin Graham said. ``When he stands at that pulpit, God created him and I think made him for such a moment. When he's standing at the pulpit, I'm not worried one bit.''

Yet about 10 years ago, Billy Graham was worried. He wondered whether he was still reaching people with his message of salvation through Christ and asked Franklin Graham to ``love him enough'' to tell him when he should step down. The elder Graham has spoken before 210 million people in 185 countries and has been sought out by U.S. presidents and leaders worldwide.

Franklin Graham said there have been times when he considered suggesting his father stop, but changed his mind watching him ``still able to connect.''

In a sign of the elder Graham's continued influence, Franklin Graham said many public figures have asked to appear with the preacher on the crusade stage this weekend. However, Franklin Graham said he rejected their requests, because he wanted the focus to stay on the Gospel. He declined to say who had asked.

When the elder Graham does retire or die, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association will continue for a time using video recordings of his preaching as part of its outreach, Franklin Graham said. The organization already sends tapes of Graham's sermons abroad, dubbed into local languages, for in-home use so people can spread Christianity among their neighbors.

Franklin Graham also envisions his father continuing to speak, perhaps giving the final address at a Franklin Graham rally, and maybe training other evangelists _ work he could from his house.

By choosing New York for his last crusade, Billy Graham is returning to the site of one of his greatest triumphs. In 1957, he held a revival meeting in Madison Square Garden that proved so popular, it was extended from six to 16 weeks. It was his longest rally ever.

The day he ends his preaching forever, ``will be maybe the saddest day of my life,'' Franklin Graham said. ``This is a chapter that is coming to an end.''
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