Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Billy In Philly -- Recalling Billy Graham's 1992 Philadelphia Crusade

By Ralph Cipriano

America's most famous preacher was tall, 6-foot-3, with a regal mane of silver hair and bright blue eyes. And he seemed frail and unsteady as he walked across the spongy Astroturf at old Veterans Stadium.

Twenty-six years ago, I was standing in line to meet Billy Graham, who was about to launch a historic five-day crusade at the Vet.

I was a 38-year-old reporter  for The Philadelphia Inquirer who had wound up on the religion beat as a fluke. And I was not all that thrilled about meeting Richard Nixon's favorite preacher. But in person, the 73 year-old evangelist disarmed me by how gracious he was.

When it was my turn to greet him, Billy grabbed my hand, held it, and thanked me for all the wonderful stories I had written about him. I wondered if he was kidding, but he seemed so sincere about it, and went out of his way to be kind.

“Why I never knew you were so young and so handsome,” Billy gushed. Ok, he may have been a bit corny, but one on one, this world-famous celebrity would much rather talk about you than himself. I was struck by his humility. He made me wish I’d been kinder to him in print.

My experience with the 1992 Billy Graham Crusade began a month earlier, when I met Nelson Diaz, who had just been named crusade chairman.

Diaz was a former gang member from Harlem who went on to become Pennsylvania’s first Latino judge. He told me he used to worry about his day job, but that was before he was named crusade chairman. 

Billy wasn’t due to arrive in Philadelphia for another month, the judge said, but already, the crusade had changed his life.

Judge Diaz, a perfect stranger, told me how he woke up every morning at 5, got down on his knees and prayed for two hours. Then he went to work. “I never realized God could ever be that important in your life,” the judge said. “I just can’t get enough.”

Diaz said his prayer time changed his outlook on life. He was the administrative judge of Philadelphia’s Common Pleas Court, but said, “I don’t feel I’m indispensable anymore. . . Hey, if they want to get rid of me tomorrow, fine, I’ll find something else to do. I don’t have to prove myself to anybody but God.”

It was a remarkable declaration from a public official, published June 2,1992 on the front page of the metro section of The Philadelphia Inquirer. But Diaz seemed almost blasé about it. He was one of eleven male members of a crusade executive committee that had been meeting every two weeks for the past six months. The group consisted of the judge, a Billy Graham crusade official, and nine local pastors. (Women leaders had a separate prayer group). 

The judge said that during the two-hour prayer sessions, men broke down and cried and asked one another to forgive the sins of prejudice and misunderstanding. The prayer group was bringing together blacks, whites and Latinos, city dwellers and suburbanites.

“Prayer is an unbelievable resource,” the judge said. “If you’re praying to the same God, that’s when you break the walls down.” 

The sessions became confessionals. "We pray for each other,” the judge said. “We are asking each other for forgiveness. We are pretty much in tears.”

Diaz introduced me to his “soul brother,” the Rev. William B. Moore, a black Baptist minister. 

The real nice thing about this crusade is that people have put aside their theological differences and have come together around a cause,” Rev. Moore said. He admitted that a decade earlier, he would have never gotten involved in a Billy Graham crusade. But Billy had become more inclusive, Rev. Moore said, and so had he.

White pastors had their own confessions. The Rev. Glenn Blossom, a suburban pastor, said the prayer sessions “showed me my prejudices. . . It humbled me at that point, and made me a servant to the poor, the homeless. It made me more like Jesus Christ.”

I was glad the crusade leaders were excited about Billy’s upcoming visit, because it gave me something to write about. And my editors, even the non-believers, were hot on Billy. Amazingly, they wanted lots of stories. 

But I was not enthusiastic about Billy coming to town on my watch. I wasn’t a fan; I thought Billy was a tired act. I did not want to have to sit and listen to him for five straight nights at Veterans Stadium. Whenever I saw Billy on TV, I always changed the channel. There was something in his voice that bugged me; I also didn’t care for his politics.

But my editors wanted me to write several previews about the upcoming crusade, so I dug into the Inquirer library vaults and read up on the Rev. Graham’s last crusade in Philadelphia. 

Billy came to Philadelphia in 1961 at the request of mostly white, suburban pastors. But in 1992, it was mostly urban and minority preachers who invited him, because they said the aging evangelist was the best hope to unite the city.

I had my doubts. In the old newspaper clips, Billy came across as a real right-winger. 

When he visited Philly in 1961, Billy attacked Communism as a religion and described Nikita Kruschev as “The Power of Evil.” He compared America to Rome just before the fall of the empire.

“We as a nation are deteriorating,” he said. “I have never seen such gloom, such pessimism, as today. We are like the people of Noah’s Day – laughing, drinking and making merry. The flood is about to descend.”

Billy advised mothers not to work, and he told women, “Your job is to make yourself attractive to your husband . . . Is it any wonder some men don’t want to come home at night?” When I asked Billy about those comments in a phone interview before the crusade, he said, “I’ve changed my mind in many ways’ on working moms. Some mothers have to work.”

I asked Billy about other comments he made in 1961 in Philadelphia about the Rev. Martin Luther King, whom Billy had accompanied on a trip to Brazil. Billy charged that King was giving comfort to Hanoi by tying the civil rights movement to anti-Vietnam demonstrations. 

“I think Dr. King is making a mistake,” Billy said back in 1961. When I asked Billy about it, he said he didn’t remember. “It must have been a top-of-the-head remark.”

I wasn’t impressed by Billy’s answers, but I was struck by how polite he was, and gracious in answering the questions from yet another left-wing member of the media. It was obvious that Billy was used to taking shots. 

In another crusade preview story for the Inquirer, I interviewed Billy’s critics on the Christian left and right. It was like batting practice.  

Father Michael Doyle, a Catholic priest who went to jail for destroying draft records during the Vietnam War, said he wouldn’t be in the stands at the Vet when Billy came to town.

“It’s not my cup of tea,” Doyle said in his Irish brogue. Father Doyle was upset by Billy’s friendships with a succession of U.S. presidents. 

“He seemed to somehow align himself with whoever was in White House,” Father Doyle said. “You’ve got to take these boys on sometimes. . . Christianity is supposed to be a kind of thorn in the side of Caesar.”

The Protestants were just as negative. Rev. Ted Loder criticized Billy for presenting the gospel as “really half the loaf.” Graham talks about personal salvation, but he doesn’t address “the issues of justice,” Loder said. 

Other Protestants charged that Billy had watered down his message over the years to include too many groups, especially the Catholics, who were co-sponsoring the upcoming Graham crusade. “He has paid a high price for being inclusive,” said the Rev. John Greer, who told me he was boycotting the crusade.

But the crusade volunteers I interviewed had a different view. The Graham crusade was bringing together people from all races, they said, at a time when the nation was polarized, and preoccupied with the videotaped police beating of Rodney King.

Wendell Harris was a laborer in the city streets department who spent his days riding a trash truck, and his nights singing for his Savior. Harris was one of a thousand singers who packed Zion Baptist Church in North Philadelphia for choir rehearsal. 

The singers -- black, white and Latin – were from different religious denominations all over the city. But inside the church, the only distinctions that mattered, according to the overhead signs, were baritones, altos and sopranos.

“I see the beginning of something,” Harris told me just before he took his seat to sing “Amazing Grace.” 

“The people are coming together,” Harris said. “And it won’t just die out when Billy Graham leaves. Some things are gonna go on.”

The day after he met the press at Veterans Stadium, Billy made a few personal appearances, speaking at a prayer breakfast before 2,500 civic and business leaders.

Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell, in a boorish move, snubbed Billy by skipping the prayer breakfast. But when I asked him about it, Billy wasn’t going to make a fuss. 

Then Billy was chauffeured in a rented Buick to Esperanza Health Center in North Philadelphia. The famous evangelist was limping badly. He was so unsteady on his feet that his staff wouldn’t let him climb the steps by himself.

Next, Billy and Judge Diaz paid a call on My Brother’s Keeper, a Christian home in Camden, N.J., for recovering alcoholics and drug addicts. One of the men at the home was a burly ex-con with a dragon and panther tattooed on bulging arms. 

Judge Diaz recognized the guy with the tattoos and was horrified: he was the judge who put the guy away, sentencing him to five years in prison.

“I never expected to see him here,”  the judge said, looking rattled. But all the ex-con did was smile and sing Christian hymns. Then he shook the judge’s hand, and said thanks for sending me to jail. That’s where he got saved. 

Hallelujah, the judge said, and the two men hugged.

Billy told the men at My Brother’s Keeper that he didn’t have any prepared remarks, “I’ve come here to learn,” he said. 

He asked how they had been transformed from drug addicts and alcoholics to Bible-reading Christians. “We fast, we pray,” one man told Billy. Others said they read the Bible three times a day.

The founder of My Brother’s Keeper, Miquel Torres, thanked Billy for being a good example of a Christian by leading a long, and scandal-free life.

“It’s an honor for me to have a man of God so big in our midst,” Torres said, as he hugged the evangelist. But Billy seemed embarrassed by all the fuss.

It rained the first night of the crusade. Umbrellas sprouted all over the Vet. Billy stood under a canopy in a makeshift pulpit behind second base. He talked about foreign genocide and domestic problems such as homelessness, drug abuse and divorce.

“We’re broken,” he said. “We need fixing. . . You and I have a disease. It’s called sin. Satan wants you to believe your problems are too big to solve. . . but Christ loves you.”

Billy quoted John 3:16, which he described as a “25-word Bible.” He said his mother taught him the verse back on his parents’ dairy farm in North Carolina, while he sat in a big tin tub and his mother scrubbed out his ears. 

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

“Many of you here tonight are spiritually dead,” Billy said. “You can come to this meeting in the rain and go home a new person.” 

He invited people to come forward and publicly make a commitment to Jesus. Because He hung on a cross and died publicly for you, Billy said. 

As the choir sang “Just As I Am,” about 2,000 people started walking down the aisles on their way to the field to accept Billy’s invitation.

Billy had to cut his opening night address short because of the weather. He woke up in his hotel room at 5:30 a.m., and he was fretful. 

I talked to him hours later on the phone and he complained that the sound system at the Vet was too loud. Then he talked about things that couldn’t be fixed.

“Physically, I’m getting a little too slow and too weak to speak in these big stadiums,” Billy confessed. At age 73, he said he was thinking about retirement, but “I’m going to put it off as long as possible.” 

Billy said there would be no farewell tour; he would leave that to the rock stars. But Billy said he was thrilled by the crusade attendance, which would top 250,000, and feature the highest percentage of minority partners ever at a Graham crusade.

I wasn’t scheduled to work every night of the crusade, but I found I couldn’t stay away. The voice that once repelled me now held me captive. I sat near Billy, typing on an electric typewriter while he preached. His cadence was so measured, so majestic, I could type along just about word for word. 

Billy seemed curious about my rapt attention. One night before he went on, he glanced over at me, a look of concern on his face. 

“Are you getting anything out of this?” he said. Yes, I said. I didn’t tell him this, but I was finally able to see and appreciate the faithful way that Billy served his Savior.

The crusade that began in a steady downpour ended under a scorching sun. Billy strode to the pulpit in shirtsleeves, without an introduction. 

He seemed to be getting stronger. “I feel like a Southern preacher,” he said. It was so hot on the Vet stadium’s artificial turf that it reminded Billy of an old joke. 

“I remember in Texas a dog was chasing a rabbit,” he said, pausing for effect. “And they were both walking.”

Billy’s last message for Philadelphia was a plea for racial unity. “How long has it been since you’ve been to the home of a person of another race?” he asked. “We need to come together, and we need to come together in Christ.” 

Billy was wistful as he surveyed the crowd of 56,000, the biggest yet. “I wish we could stay on at least two weeks. I believe were seeing a touch of revival these days.”

After Billy left town, his people disclosed that the famous evangelist was being treated for the early stages of Parkinson’s disease.  Local crusade leaders said they saw plenty of signs that Billy was faltering. 

Billy had told them he was old and tired, and he had asked the preachers to pray for him. “This guy basically was putting out as much as he could,” Judge Diaz said. “He was giving us as much as he had.”

The Inquirer gave my crusade stories great play, but when it was over, I found out why my editors were so hot on Billy. They wanted to please the boss. It turned out that Robert J. Hall, publisher of the Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News, was on the front of Billy’s bandwagon.

I discovered that Hall had given the crusade a gift: deeply discounted ad rates. I shouldn’t have been surprised. The first time I met the crusade leaders, they had just left a meeting in Bob Hall’s office. Their attitude was, get on board the train son, before it runs over you.

I decided to see how far I could push freedom of the press. I wrote a story for the Inquirer about the business side of the crusade, and how crusade leaders had taken a shoestring media budget of $237,000 and turned it into a million-dollar publicity campaign. 

George R. Gunn Jr., a marketing executive who donated his time, explained that the crusade was bathed in prayer. The people who ran the crusade prayed before they met with newspaper publishers, hotel executives and Vet stadium officials, Gunn said. And they came away with big discounts.

Crusade officials expected to get the Inquirer’s already discounted religious advertising rates. But Bob Hall gave them an even bigger bargain, the newspaper’s public service ad rates normally reserved for nonprofit charities such as The American Red Cross, the United Negro College Fund, and the United Jewish Appeal. 

So the Billy Graham crusade paid $8,213 for a full-page ad in the Sunday Inquirer that would have normally cost any other religious group in the city $13,144. Crusade officials took the Inky’s discounted rates to a dozen other area newspapers, and after some jawboning, “They all fell in line,” Gunn said. “And it all started with The Philadelphia Inquirer.”

I wanted to interview the publisher, but my editors said he wasn’t going to talk to me. So I was reduced to quoting a newspaper public relations official. He said the Inky had dropped its rates because the Graham crusade was free, open to the public, and was deemed “a positive activity for the community at large.” 

That sounded nice, but I wondered if the Muslims would have gotten a similar deal.

An advance copy of the story had to be driven over to Bob Hall’s suburban home before it ran. But not a word was changed, and it ran on July 8, 1992 on the front page of the Inquirer metro section, under the headline: “Discounts Boosted the Graham Crusade/Local Firms Cut Their Rates.”

After Billy left town, I found out that during the crusade prayer meetings, the pastors had been praying for me regularly. And they believed it had paid off. “Those stories couldn’t have been any better if we wrote them ourselves,” Judge Diaz said. Billy was also happy, and, as always, gracious.

"My dear Ralph," he wrote in a letter on June 27, 1992, from his home in Montreat, N.C. 

“Words cannot express my appreciation for the wonderful articles you wrote about the crusade. They were absolutely terrific. I think the committee and the churches that participated are deeply in your debt."

"I hate to leave the city -- I have fallen in love with Philadelphia all over again!"

"I believe there is hope for the future of this city, and I wish I could stay here much longer . . . I shall look back on this 1992 Crusade in Philadelphia with the warmest and fondest memories."

"Most cordially and gratefully yours, Billy.”


  1. It would be great if you could enlist "skinny joey " to write obits for this blog.

    You always refer to the religious beat as a dark period in your career.
    If he could tap into your energy and enthusiasm, his inner talent might emerge and another soul might be saved.

  2. What about Graham's anti-Semitic comments captured on Nixon's audio tapes? It's easy to hate people that financially and fundamentally support you until it becomes publicly known. known.

  3. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could all speak the truth and be thanked for it, instead of being told what the truth is by the media.

  4. When you have a religious pastor/figure like Graham, Olsteen, etc. there will always be a cloud of suspicion for motives. Accusations of greed, taking advantage of religion, etc. The fact is, men that take on national pastoring/preaching like Osteen and Graham know that they are serving a bigger cause and block out the negative chatter and noise. Much of what Ralph recalls from the crusade could be reused today. "When was the last time you were in the home of someone of another race". I had to think about that. We all get comfortable in our bubbles, our friends, our groups, etc. Look at where that is getting us. We look at our phones which "connect" us to more people; but do they make us more accepting of others or more critical of others because we now have a platform to post our opinions? I think it is not coincidence that Graham left us during this time as a reminder to some of his teachings, as Ralph recalls here. Look around at what our news covers every day. Russia Collusion, even after it was proven there was none. Still going hard on that story. Sexual Harrassment... who's today's assaulter? Its sad. We need more men and women like Graham to spread the good word. Good word being humility, compassion, and acceptance not necessarily forcing Christianity and the bible on all.

  5. ABACUS:SMALL ENOUGH TO JAIL is the moving documentary of the Sung Family from Chinatown NY who own a bank that was formed to aid the Chinese community, when other banks would only take their money but not lend money to them.

    Abacus was the only bank in the country the government came after during the savings and loan scandal. Hence the name as big banks were said to be too big to jail. This is a must see documentary which has been nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary. The director Steve James who directed the critically acclaimed film Hoop Dreams.

    This should appeal to everyone in Philadelphia who know all to well what it is feels like being the underdog, as well as multitudes of mortgage brokers should take note. This shows what NY DA Cyrus Vance, Jr. did to deny the employees a fair trial, he handcuffed them all together and paraded them in front of a frenzied media, no one could receive a fair trial after that humiliating treatment. No one deserves that treatment and the media should know better than to be complicit in eroding a defendants rights.

    Every member of the viewing public needs to see this film, it should be required viewing prior to jury duty. NY DA Cyrus Vance Jr, who also drew controversy for deciding not to press charges against public figures accused of crimes, when others would certainly have gone to jail, including Harvey Weinstein, Ivanka Trump, Donald Trump Jr. after receiving contributions from their attorneys, Vance who plays himself, a pompous ass prosecutor.

    Its about time we start thinking for ourselves and not letting the government think for us or for that matter the media.

  6. I was part of the crusade choir. I remember the amazing feeling of being a part of an over five thousand voice choir. What and experience. He was my mothers favorite.


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