Thousands flock to Oklahoma City for Billy Graham crusade

Friday, June 13th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ The Rev. Billy Graham's voice boomed as he told thousands of faithful that ``Jesus is living'' and asked them to pray for the war-torn Middle East on Thursday night, the first night of a four-day crusade that could be the last for the 84-year-old evangelist.

Graham walked to a wooden podium on the arm of his son, who placed a chair behind him in case he needed to sit as he preached. Graham said he contemplated God's power the night before as he watched a violent Oklahoma thunderstorm.

``People ask why does he allow such terrible things to happen in the world,'' said Graham, whose dark jacket contrasted with his snow-white hair. ``I don't understand all of it, honestly.

``God is not only the creator but God is a spirit. He's unchanging.''

Graham asked the crowd of 29,000 to pray for victims of AIDS, SARS and monkeypox, and for soldiers and residents in the Middle East.

``Tonight our world is in terrible turmoil,'' he said. ``The situation in the Middle East, in my judgment, has no answer except the coming of Christ.''

Graham, who has Parkinson's disease and underwent brain surgery in 2001, said he thought two years ago he might die.

``The Lord spoke to me and I spoke to the Lord,'' he said. ``All of my sins came before me, dating back to childhood. Then there came the verse that God has wiped them all out. A wonderful peace came into my heart.''

Graham said he feels in ``excellent condition'' except for numbness that sometimes affects his walking and talking.

``I know that at my age I don't have much longer to live,'' he said.

Thousands of people, some from the far reaches of Oklahoma and even other states, poured into downtown to see Graham preach the gospel. When the Ford Center was full, volunteers sent 11,000 people to the Cox Convention Center to watch via circuit television.

More than 800 people rose from their seats when Graham called them to accept Jesus Christ and his blessing.

Charlie Daniels' fiddling in ``I'll Fly Away,'' fired up the crowd before Graham came on stage.

Mayor Kirk Humphreys _ chairman of the executive team for Graham's mission _ told the audience he grew up going to church, but didn't surrender himself to Jesus until college.

``I tried to live with one foot in the world and the other foot in the church,'' he said. ``I finally realized that I either had to get on or get off.''

Now, he said, his faith affects his relationships with his family and friends, and even the way he deals with complainers at City Hall.

``My relationship with Jesus Christ affects every area of my life,'' the mayor said.

The line to get in the Ford Center started forming by noon, and by late afternoon it stretched a mile. Downtown streets were jammed as drivers hunted for parking spaces and mobs of people walked toward the stadium.

The Ford Center was nearly full an hour before the revival began with a 3,000-strong choir singing ``Lord, I Lift Your Name on High.'' As they waited, people munched on french fries and soda. Others flipped through Bibles they brought from home.

``He's an awesome man and he probably won't ever be back here,'' said Debbie Willis, who drove 75 miles from Weatherford and stood outside in 80-degree weather for more than two hours.

Michele and Les Rambousek of Treynor, Iowa, planned their vacation around seeing the evangelist. They stopped in Branson, Mo., then headed to Oklahoma City, where they waited outside the stadium for two hours under the shade of a black umbrella.

``I used to watch him on TV when I was a kid,'' Les Rambousek said.

Billboards with Graham's picture went up weeks ago, and hundreds of churches put up giant posters advertising the mission. About 450 Oklahoma City area churches representing 49 denominations raised $1.9 million to pay for advertising and stadium rental. Volunteers collected donations in white buckets Thursday night.

All meetings are free.

It's Graham's fourth visit to Oklahoma City.

Graham held crusades here in 1956 and 1983, then returned in 1995 after the federal building bombing. At the Oklahoma City National Memorial, his words from the 1995 service are engraved around the lone tree to survive the blast: ``The spirit of this city and nation will not be defeated. Our deeply rooted faith sustains us.''

Graham visited the memorial last weekend with the mother of one of the 168 victims.

The mission continues Friday night with music from The Katinas and Wintley Phipps, and testimony from former Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Neal McCaleb. Saturday night is aimed at teenagers, with music by the Christian rock group dcTalk's TAIT.

Graham, who says he has preached Christianity to 210 million people in more than 185 countries, has cut his missions back to about two a year in recent years. This will be his second this year _ the first was in San Diego last month.

He has no other missions scheduled.