AMSTERDAM, Netherlands (RNS)--Roger Hartmann, a 26-year-old furniture-maker from Germany, converted to Christianity after hearing the Rev. Billy Graham preach in Essen seven years ago.

So when he heard that Graham was inviting young evangelists from all over the world to a conference designed to teach them how to spread the Christian faith, he filled out all the applications with the hope he would see what he called his "spiritual father" once again.

"When you hear Billy Graham talk, you know he's a person who knows life," said Hartmann, who lives in Braunschweig. "He's rich in experience. I feel like he knows what's he's talking about."

But Hartmann and 10,000 other evangelists from every corner of the globe never got to see the white-haired evangelist with fierce blue eyes and chiseled chin.

Graham announced more than a week ago he was too weak to make the trip to Amsterdam in person. A planned greeting via satellite was canceled at the last minute, too. A statement from his publicist said he lacked the strength to speak to a camera from Rochester, Minn., where he has been an outpatient at the Mayo Clinic, receiving therapy for a condition in which fluids collect on the brain.

His son, the Rev. Franklin Graham, filled in with a previously prepared statement from his father. But the cancellation foreshadowed an organizational succession that has been expected for years. The 81-year-old Graham may still preach one day, but the conference offered the first clear signal that his era has come and gone.

Even without Graham as its star vehicle, the nine-day conference opened Saturday (July 29) with the fanfare befitting an ambitious event five years in the making at a cost of $40 million. An African children's choir sang and danced. Photos of people around the globe flashed on giant video screens. And representatives from each continent got up on the stage to tell moving stories of how Christianity had changed their lives.

Some 10,000 participants who had assembled here, mostly from poor developing countries, said they were not disappointed.

"We really appreciate that Billy Graham managed to pull this off even though he wasn't feeling well," said Munetsi Jeki, a 32-year-old church deacon from Zimbabwe. "We might never have had a chance to attend such a relevant conference. We are all praying for him that he gets better."

In the days leading up to the conference, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association proved once again that when it comes to putting together a world event, few groups can match its organizational skills and its commitment to mobilizing the world Christian community.

The association is not only paying the way for participants traveling from developing countries, but its staff and volunteers also met them at the Amsterdam airport, bused them to the conference center and registered them with an efficiency that would impress business schools.

At the conference center in the southern part of Amsterdam, each participant received a plastic, hospital-like wristband with the Amsterdam 2000 logo, a zippered black tote bag with a program folder, and two white, button-down shirts.

Many evangelists, particularly those who cannot afford hotels, were then routed to a makeshift dormitory 25 miles away in Utrecht. Medical teams met them at the site and used clothes were donated to them, courtesy of Samaritan's Purse, the international relief organization run by Franklin Graham.

Participants said they came because they hope to learn practical ways to make the Christian faith attractive to a new generation.

"The world is changing," said Abilio Silva of Portugal, a 30-year-old electrical engineer who works with several churches. "How do you say `Jesus loves you' to a person who lives only with computers? I want to learn to be more effective."

Others said they were struggling with regional problems particular to their corner of the world. One man from Zambia said he needed advice in opening a Christian center for poor single mothers and street children. Another man from Myanmar (Burma) said he needs help in spreading the faith among the country's 135 ethnic groups.

And Baiju Gavit of Bombay, India, said it was nearly impossible to talk about Christianity among fundamentalist Hindus who portray it as a corrupt Western religion.

"I'm hoping some kind of breakthrough can be spelled out here in evangelism and missions," said Gavit, who serves as a bishop in the Church of North India, a union of the major denominations there.

They all agreed that as Christians their first obligation is to focus on evangelism -- that is, spreading the faith to non-believers. Most said they needed to evangelize because Jesus made it a priority during his life and asked his disciples to do the same. Others said they were convinced Christianity was society's only hope.

"Whatever evil we experience in the world today is the result of the sinfulness of man," said the Rev. Reuben Ezemadu, a participant from Nigeria. "The only way to change that is from the inside. What we're talking about is the inner conviction that can bring about a changed society. The gospel is the vehicle."

That statement is one with which Graham himself might have heartily agreed.

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