NEW YORK — “Jesus Christ,” said the guy with the dark green Robert Hall suit and matching Midwestern twang, “I can’t find him anywhere. We’d better go to the Garden.”
He slammed down the mint phone receiver in the plush staff suite and huffed out to the 28th floor express elevator to the velvet lobby of the Penn-Garden Hotel and out into the heat of 7th Ave. where the heavens hung heavy with whimpering clouds.
He darted the group buses on 31st St. and took the plaza steps two at a time to the main entrance of the new Madison Square Garden. He zipped past the women in the white blouses and long black skirts and the gray hair in buns, and the men in the baggy black suits and the white socks and he did not stop to hear what they were saying.
“I hear there are a lot of protesters around the other side,” one of the shorthairs told a cop. “I think we ought to box them off and throw hand grenades at them.”
The guy in the dark green suit kept flashing his staff pass at the security guards all the way up to the first promenade and into the Crusade office where he found his man.
It has been 12 years since Billy Graham, evangelist, had been in New York, the sin capital of the Western World. Time had made things curiouser and curiouser.
“The other night I walked through Times Square,” Graham said later, “and I was stirred and angry at what I saw.”
Graham had to come to the Garden to help clean New York up. On the opening night of the Crusade, about 25,000 believers and seekers showed up to have their souls sweat by a new broom.
Graham, his wavy golden-gray hair sitting on top of an iron face of pancake makeup, was overwhelmed at the welcome.
“It’s one of the largest, if not the largest response we’ve ever had on a first night,” he said.
Overwhelming was the word for the whole thing. There was a 2,000-voice choir, pared down from 3,000 applications. There was someone in every seat in the place and some in places where there weren’t seats.
There were old men and women after their last salvation. There were young men and women seeking the right road, seeking a spiritual saviour.
“HE’S HERE,” one of their buttons said.
Indeed, he was.
Cliff Barrows, Crusade music and program director, warmed the crowd up with a fast hymn from the Official Billy Graham Song Book (only 50 cents at an usher near you) and then introduced Graham.
“. . . and now, here is God’s spokesman for these meetings . . .”
Graham walked forward to the thunder of the crowd. He stood before the bullet-proof podium smothered with artificial flowers and green snowball bushes — a true believer amidst the foliage of an artificial Garden of Eden. The organist played on.
“The music is accepted in most Protestant churches,” press aide Gil Striklin said, “a lot of it is even accepted in Catholic churches now.”
Graham drew inspiration from the music. He stood there tall at the podium, behind him the 2,000-voice choir and a giant blue and white banner with a quote from the Book of John, 14:6. “Jesus said: ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life.’ ”
The television cameras focused on Graham, who glowed in the wattage of the color lights. In the control room, the tape machines were rolling, clocking the footage that would be broadcast all over the Eastern Seaboard later that night. Graham was killing time so they could get their readings right and so the news photographers could click their stills.
Graham told a couple of stories to the crowd. They were not very funny stories, but Graham smiled when he told them so the crowd laughed because it is not often that you see a dream talking.
Graham tells the crowd why he has made his second coming.
“If ever any city needed a spiritual revival,” Graham says, “it is New York.”
He quotes Jim Bishop, his favorite writer, as saying that unless we do something drastic soon, the world will end in five years. That is why Graham has come to New York.
He introduces the guests of honor on the platform.. There is Ethel Waters, the well-worn spiritual singer. There is a red-faced Marvin Watson, who used to be Postmaster General of the United States when Lyndon Johnson was President.
Then Graham brings up the subject of money. It is
the first real mention of that subject, since all seats in the Garden were free.
“We have figured out,” Graham says, “that the rental of this Garden is costing us approximately one dollar per seat per night.”
The ushers, the ones with the white buckets in their hands, start to comb the aisles.
“Please give generously and remember,” Graham says, “the Lord loves a generous giver.”
Graham bows his head in prayer and the organist plays a hymn and all over the Garden you hear money rustling and the buckets are filling up. Graham’s prayer is answered and he sits down for now and Cliff Barrows gets up again to lead the givers in song. Their voices are one now. Up in the rafters, a chorus of about 25 deaf mutes is singing with their hands.
Cliff Barrows tells them how to get a free Billy Graham book. The book is called “How to Be a Christian Without Being Religious.”
George Beverly Shea leads “Faith of Our Fathers” as a warmup to Graham’s sermon. Graham reaches under his seat and takes a shot of something from a little paper cup. He has put a lot of work into this one,
“After each meeting,” Gil Stricklin said, “he goes back to the hotel and reads the Bible. He says his devotions and then he studies tomorrow’s sermon.”
“We’ve not come to New York to put on a show or entertain you,” Graham says, “we’ve come to listen to the word of God as it is written in the Bible.”
A black kid in a plaid shirt gets up out of his seat and walks along the aisle and starts to whistle very loudly. The cops grab him and pull him off.
“The Apostle Paul,” Graham says, “walked through Athens and was appalled at the decadence.”
Graham, like Paul in Athens, had walked the streets of New York, He was stirred and he was angry.
“I can walk down Times Square,” Graham says, “and see the filthiest, dirtiest pornography you could ever see in the movies and on the newsstands. And unless we clean it all up, unless this city and this nation turns to God, they will not be spared the judgment of God.”
Graham is worked to a spiritual frenzy now. He enunciates every syllable. He rolls the words around in his mouth and his eyes are fire and he spits the words out. He spits them out over the bullet-proof podium and his words water the artificial flowers.
“We call it the ‘new morality’ today,” he says. “There is nothing new about it, it is the old immorality.”
There is a big, leafy Bible in his left hand and he is holding it up to the crowd, open to the word of God, and he waves his arms and the Garden echoes as he screams.
“God says, ‘I command you to repent.’ Mist is alive! He is coming back again and this time) he will judge. I want all of you who believe in Jesus to come forward now and to stand in front of this podium in front of Jesus and openly and publicly commit yourselves to him. Don’t be ashamed to walk forward, don’t be afraid of what people will say. There are those who called Christ a lunatic and he was the Saviour.”
They come. They come from the seats in front and from the aisles on the side and from the rafters. There are hundreds of them, maybe thousands. The organist is playing another hymn and Graham is bowing his head in prayer and the Garden is so quiet you could hear a dollar bill drop.
Then, from the side, there is a crash. A man, an older man in a worn navy blue suit and a big brim gray felt hat and a crutch under his right arm. He is running up to the podium and he is waving his crutch at Graham.
“I am the apostle,” he screams. “I will save this country.” They grab him.. “I’m no lunatic,” he yells. “Let me alone. I will save this country.”
Billy Graham does not look at the man who says he is no lunatic. The ushers grab him by the left arm and they force him off, his lone crutch waving futilely in the night.