NEW YORK – Marking a milestone moment for American religion and world evangelicalism, the Rev. Billy Graham (search) Sunday preached what could be his last revival sermon.
Toying with the situation, Graham told thousands of people gathered in Queens that he hopes "to come back again someday," and said he told journalists who asked if this is the end of his revival career, "I never say never."
His sermon appealing for decisions to follow Jesus emphasized that nobody knows the hour of death. Noting his own advanced age, he said, "I know it won't be long."
Graham's voice was strong despite various infirmities, but he spoke for only 23 minutes before issuing his telltale invitation to listeners to come forward and publicly demonstrate commitments to Jesus as savior.
About 90,000 people flocked to Flushing Meadows-Corona Park (search) despite blistering afternoon heat to hear his sermon. The expectation this would be Graham's last revival meeting hovered over the event all weekend.
"We are celebrating the end of 60 years of ministry with Billy Graham," said the Rev. A. R. Bernard (search), crusade chairman and pastor of Brooklyn's booming Christian Cultural Center.
But out in the throng, Ismael Rivera, a New York City firefighter, didn't want to believe it was really the end. "Hopefully, praise God, I'm sure he will go on."
Joe Lin, a graduate student from Singapore, said he wanted to see Graham preach one last time. "This is a historic moment," he said. "Nobody has had such impact on the people."
Graham, 86, is suffering from fluid on the brain, prostate cancer and Parkinson's disease. He uses a walker due to a pelvic fracture and is largely confined to his home in Montreat, N.C. He had said previously that the three-rally meeting "will be the last in America, I'm sure."
The man known as America's pastor is considering a request to hold a rally in November in London, but Graham says chances are slim that he'll accept. His son, the Rev. Franklin Graham, said the elder Graham does not like to be away from his wife, Ruth, who is also in ill health. But an Anglican rector from London was present in New York to coax Graham into visiting.
Graham waited to go on in an air-conditioned tent, with aides nearby in case of a medical emergency and the stage shaded by a massive canopy. His pulpit had a movable seat hidden from view, so he could sit down if he felt unsteady.
Sociologist William Martin, Graham's biographer, traveled from Rice University to witness the weekend. He said he expected to see a largely white turnout but was struck by the diverse crowd. "I wonder if a crowd this large and this diverse has ever assembled," he said.
Martin recalled that in 1953, Graham ended racially segregated seating at his crusades in the South, even before the Supreme Court's school integration ruling.
"There he took the ropes down. And now all the barriers seem to be down," he said.
The staff said that among an estimated 140,000 people attending Friday and Saturday nights, 5,582 went forward to register Christian commitments upon Graham's invitation. Sunday's total of inquirers was to be announced later.
The program was emceed by Cliff Barrows, 82, and mixed contemporary Christian bands with a nostalgic "How Great Thou Art" sung by George Beverly Shea, 96. Barrows and Shea have appeared continually at Graham's meetings for decades. Graham called his colleagues up for a round of applause and said he's grateful "they put up with me. Sixty years we've been together."
Graham has preached to more than 210 million people in 185 countries. He has been sought out for counsel and friendship by U.S. presidents and leaders worldwide and, more than any other religious figure, has come to represent the American evangelical movement.
Appearing at the Saturday night rally, former President Bill Clinton called the evangelist the only person he has known who has always lived according to his faith.
"God bless you friend," Clinton said. "Bless you."
Graham said Sunday he had forgotten to thank Mayor Michael Bloomberg and U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer for also attending the Saturday meeting.