2016-07-27
JACKSONVILLE, Fla., Nov. 6, (RNS)--Bringing the last of his year's crusades to a close Sunday, ailing evangelist Billy Graham made it clear he wasn't ready to end his more than 50-year history of evangelism gatherings around the country. He also all but endorsed George W. Bush for president.

"I want to tell you this: as long as God gives me breath, I'm going to continue to preach," he said, drawing cheers and applause from 65,000 people in the Alltel Stadium for the last session of the four-day crusade.

Graham, who spent much of the summer in the hospital, said he would be meeting in the coming weeks with staff and committee members to determine "where we go next, what cities we accept."

He asked for prayers for the decision-making process as well as for those close to him, including his wife, Ruth, who is in painful recovery from numerous hip surgeries.

"We're all looking forward pretty soon to being together up there," he said, referring to heaven. "And we'll have new bodies.... So, to all of you we say au revoir, which is a French word, which means 'til we meet again, 'til we meet up there."

Earlier in the day, Graham, who turns 82 on Election Day, spoke of his beliefs about the more immediate future of American politics.

After a private meeting with Bush, the Republican presidential candidate, the evangelist spoke with reporters traveling with Bush on his campaign.

Graham's spokesman Larry Ross said that while Graham did not officially endorse candidates, "he has come as close to that now as any time in his life." Graham's remarks followed his mention on the crusade's opening night of his love for "the whole family" of Florida Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, who welcomed him to the state just days before his brother made a return campaign swing through Florida.

"He [Graham] said he believes in the integrity of [Texas] Gov. Bush, and that under a Bush administration the country would move forward," Ross said in a statement. "He added that when Gov. Bush is inaugurated, he will do all he can to make sure the new administration is successful."

But in his closing sermon, Graham stuck primarily to spiritual rather than political matters, comparing the materialism and pornography in the modern world to the idolatry and illicit sex of Sodom and Gomorrah of ancient biblical times. After speaking for 38 minutes, the evangelist urged people to make a Christian commitment.

"All you need to understand is that you're a sinner and you need a savior and Jesus is your savior and you're coming to him," Graham said.

For the second night in a row, so many people came forward Graham had to ask the crowd gathered on the floor to move a bit closer to the stage so others would have room after walking down from the upper decks of the football stadium. Once most had arrived, he led them in a prayer of commitment and urged them to read their Bibles, pray, witness to others about their Christian faith, and stay involved in a local church.

Over the course of the crusade, well-known Christian artists warmed up the crowds before Graham stepped to the podium. Many of the artists, such as Christian singer and songwriter Michael W. Smith, have performed numerous times with Graham, but on Sunday, Graham took a rare moment to share his musical talent with the crowd.

In an impromptu gathering around the mike, he sang "This Little Light of Mine" with longtime members of his crusade team, 91-year-old soloist George Beverly Shea and music director Cliff Barrows.

On Saturday, crusade organizers staged special events aimed at reaching children and teens. In the morning, a "Kidz Gig" featured "Psalty," a singing songbook character, and a children's choir and attracted an estimated 21,000 people. That night, an estimated 70,000--a record concert crowd for the stadium--gathered for a concert with gospel music acts dc Talk, Jars of Clay, and Kirk Franklin and One Nation Crew.

Graham's son, Franklin, who has been named the eventual successor to his father as leader of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, introduced his dad on Friday, kissing him on the side of the head before taking his seat.

Over the course of the crusade, Graham focused on the gospel, but also spoke of the need for reconciliation among races in the United States and between Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East.

Crusade organizers said attendance over the four days totaled 242,000, with 10,539 coming forward to commit their lives to Jesus, reaffirm their faith, or gain assurance or ask questions about salvation.

Well-known and grass-roots residents of the Jacksonville metropolitan area said they hope the crusade will influence the community far beyond the four days of meetings.

"It's been a wonderful experience for the city and it has set an atmosphere for evangelism in the city that will continue for days and weeks and months to come," predicted Jerry Vines, pastor of First Baptist Church of Jacksonville, a prominent Southern Baptist megachurch.

Patricia Miller, 29, her eyes still wet with tears after praying with a counselor about rededicating her life to Christ, said the crusade encouraged her to be a better Christian example for her three children.

During the time of the crusade, she gave away her secular, "very foul-mouthed" recordings and spent $150 at the crusade on music from Charlie Daniels, Kirk Franklin, and other groups performing during the gathering. Since she works on Sundays, she now plans to attend Wednesday Bible study at her Baptist church.

"I knew it was time for me to lead a Christian life instead of just doing what I want," she said.


Join Beliefnet Today!

more from beliefnet and our partners