Baltimore hears Graham's call

Ailing evangelist thrills tens of thousands at Maryland Metro Festival


The would-be converts streamed out of the stands at Camden Yards yesterday - adults and children, men and women, black and white, flowing down the aisles and flooding the outfield grass.

The Rev. Billy Graham, making what will probably be his last visit to Baltimore, coaxed them along.

"You may be young; you may be old," said the 87-year-old evangelist, his rich voice husky with age, but still clear and strong. "Whoever you are, you come and say yes to Jesus. Let him bring his peace into your heart and give you a new start in your life."

For more than half a century, the invitation - the moment when nonbelievers are called on to make a commitment to Christ - has been the signature of Graham's ministry. Patricia Allen, sitting in the first-base section, said the sight was beautiful to behold.

"It's a wonderful, life-changing experience for people who don't know the love of Christ," said the Edgewood woman, a member of Mount Pleasant Church in Baltimore. "This is going to be truly a blessing for a lot of people today."

More than 35,000 people crowded Camden Yards for what many expected would be their last opportunity to see Graham preach. The evangelist, who led what he said would be the last of his crusades last year in New York, spoke at the invitation of his son, the Rev. Franklin Graham, headliner of the Maryland Metro Festival.

The event, which also featured music by Randy Travis, Andrae Crouch and Newsboys, drew more than 83,000 over its three days. Some 1,800 dedicated their lives to Christ on Friday and Saturday, organizers said; at least 1,400 more responded to the call yesterday.

"This entire event is covered in prayer," said Craig Allen of Finksburg, a member of Sandy Mount United Methodist Church there. "That makes a real difference."

Franklin Graham, who has succeeded his father as president and chief executive officer of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, was invited to Baltimore by a committee of more than 650 churches. Local Christians brought family and friends; some were trained as counselors to pray with fresh converts. Organizers said they would help the new Christians connect with local congregations.

"The exciting thing is seeing thousands of people come forward to ask God to come into their lives," said the Rev. Angel L. Nunez, pastor of Bilingual Christian Church of Baltimore. "This weekend, this baseball stadium has become a house of salvation, a house of resurrection, a house of hope."

Many came yesterday to hear Billy Graham. In more than 60 years as a preacher, he has spoken to more than 210 million people in 185 countries and territories. He brought crusades to Baltimore in 1949 and 1981.

Arriving on a golf cart and using a walker yesterday, and preceded on the program by longtime cohorts Cliff Barrows, 83, and George Beverly Shea, 97, the evangelist spoke about mortality.

"Unfortunately, I'm getting too old to do this," Graham said from a pulpit erected over second base. "I thought on the way out that this may be the last time I'll have an opportunity to preach the gospel to an audience like this."

But he said that he wasn't the only one who should be concerned about dying.

"Are you ready to die?" he asked. "Whether you're a young person here today, or an old person like me, you'd better decide for Christ here and now because you never know when your time is coming to leave this world."

Graham quoted from the Gospel of Matthew and from Paul McCartney.

"You are going to die," he said. "I'm going to die. And after that, there will be a judgment. `Every idle word that man shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the Day of Judgment,' the scripture says. When you break a law, you pay the price. You've broken God's law. We've broken the 10 commandments. If you've broken one of the commandments, you've broken them all. And we're all sinners. And we're all under the threat of judgment.

"There was a popular song years ago: `I won't stay in a world without love.' You don't have to. Because God loves you. No matter what your sins or background, you can't do anything outside the love of God."

Kathleen and Vern Annis, former Baltimoreans who now live in Hanover, Pa., drove here to see Graham.

"He carries something from God that not many people have," Kathleen Annis said. "He brings the grace of the Lord."

Vern Annis, a retired Baltimore County police officer, met Graham when he led a crusade at old Memorial Stadium here in 1981.

"He just has this very kind way about him," Annis said. "It's just great to be here in a place where God seems to be dealing with people's lives."

Art Bailey has spent the last year in Baltimore working with local churches as festival director for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

"There are going to be churches that will be infused with new believers," he said. "What we're seeing is not an end, but a new beginning."

The Rev. Clifford M. Johnson III, assistant pastor of Mount Pleasant Church in Baltimore, said the Maryland Metro Festival had exceeded expectations.

"This is a stake in the ground for the word of God in Maryland," he said. "This state will never be the same."

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