NEW YORK – The Rev. Billy Graham (search), hobbled by age and illness, opened his final American revival Friday, greeted with a standing ovation as he used a walker to reach the pulpit.
Graham, 86, was supported while he moved onstage by his son and successor, the Rev. Franklin Graham (search), who then sat nearby, ready to step in if his father was unable to finish.
But Graham spoke for about 30 minutes, his once-powerful baritone diminished but clear, mixing his message of salvation in Jesus with anecdotes and humor. Noting the struggles of the New York Yankees and Mets, he asked the crowd to pray for both baseball teams.
About 60,000 people had filled a city park for a chance to see him for the last time on the first of three daily rallies. They came forward in large numbers as Graham invited them to approach the stage to accept Christ, an appeal that has become the centerpiece of his crusades over six decades.
"We are Christians maybe. We go to church. We've been baptized, we've been confirmed. But deep inside we need something else, and that something else can be brought about by Jesus," he told the crowd.
Graham made only an indirect reference to the end of his mass revival meetings in the United States, noting the event has drawn attention from around the world. He told the crowd he hoped his appearance would not be an "anticlimax."
Other speakers called the evening a historic moment and thanked Graham for his years of service. The Rev. A.R. Bernard (search), a New York pastor and lead organizer of the crusade, said, "Tonight, one of the most respected icons of Protestant Christianity in the 20th century is saying, in essence, farewell and close to 60 years in ministry."
Graham is suffering from fluid on the brain, prostate cancer and Parkinson's disease. He uses the walker due to a pelvic fracture and is largely confined to his home in Montreat, N.C.
Yet the evangelist known as America's pastor has vowed to preach on each day this weekend in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens. His pulpit has a movable seat hidden from view, so he can sit if he feels unsteady.
He noted Friday night that it had been months since he last preached and admitted he was anxious, comparing the moment to sermons he gave when he was just starting his career. "This is like my first night," he said.
The weather forecast called for temperatures in the 90s over the weekend, but the stage is shaded by a massive canopy. There also is an air-conditioned tent backstage, where Graham can wait to go on, and nurses are nearby if there is a medical emergency.
Graham has said this weekend's meeting will be his last U.S. crusade. He is considering a request to hold a rally in November in London, but Franklin Graham said his father 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.
Graham has preached to more than 210 million people in 185 countries. He has been sought out by U.S. presidents and leaders worldwide and, more than any other religious figure, has come to represent the American evangelical movement.
He is winding up his career at the city that gave him 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.
This weekend's event had also been planned for the Garden, but organizers moved the location to accommodate the anticipated crowds. Seating is available for 70,000. Graham's spokesman, A. Larry Ross, said attendance typically builds as a crusade nears its end.
Thousands of volunteers from more than 1,300 New York area churches have been organizing the event, which is free to the public and was being translated into several languages. Many in the audience arrived hours early to get a good seat.
"Since this is his last one, I want to be here to honor him," said Mary Jo Noia, a nursing supervisor from Brooklyn. "I hope that after he dies, his work will continue."