In a community with more than 100 language groups—and houses of worship for seven different world religions within a four-block radius—Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens was a venue perfectly suited for the Greater New York City Billy Graham Crusade to reach the world with the message of Jesus Christ. Over the three-day event, 242,000 people heard the Gospel message live, and 700 media representatives reported on that same Message to countless others across the United States and around the world.
Medical student Elijah Kim leaves his New York University dorm at 6:45 on a Saturday evening, armed with three Billy Graham Crusade banners and a fistful of Crusade invitations. He meets a friend, medical resident Michael Rhee, and the two board a bus bound for Union Square.
Kim and Rhee are on a mission to tell as many people as possible about the Greater New York Billy Graham Crusade June 24-26 at Flushing Meadows Corona Park–and about the Good News of Jesus. At Union Square, a Manhattan park frequented by college students and other young people, Kim and Rhee hang two of the Billy Graham banners and invite passersby to the Crusade.
Then they board another bus and head to the place Kim calls the crossroads of the world: Times Square, with its towering lighted signs, theaters, stores, nightclubs and restaurants. Kim and Rhee thread their way through the whirlwind of cars, buses, street musicians, camera-clicking tourists and hurried locals. On Broadway, between 45th and 46th Streets, Kim and Rhee hang their final banner. Then they each take a stack of Crusade invitations and begin to talk with people.
“Billy Graham invitation?” Kim says as he approaches people. Some take the invitations readily; others are not so willing.
One man tries to hand Rhee a card advertising a strip club. Rhee declines but asks if the man would like an invitation to the Crusade. The man takes it, and Rhee moves on. Meanwhile, three men engage Kim in a serious conversation. They invite Kim to explain his beliefs about Jesus. Then they pepper him with questions that Kim, praying constantly, does his best to answer.
After an hour, the invitations are gone. Kim says, “Going home tonight, we are going to lift up these souls in prayer and say, ‘God, may You be known here. May these people recognize the precious gift of salvation that You have offered to them.'”
Reaching the World
Not unlike Kim and Rhee, thousands of people in the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut mobilized to pray, work and witness with a yearning to see God touch not only New York, but the world.
Christian leaders in New York point out that, in a sense, the world is represented in the population of New York, and particularly in the population around Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens, where the Crusade was held.
“The significance of being here in Flushing [a Queens community] can be understood when you realize this community is probably the most religiously plural neighborhood in the world,” said Mac Pier, president of Concerts of Prayer of Greater New York. Pier added that people from more than 100 language groups live near the park. “The Church in New York City is the most international Church in human history, so when the world looks on this week, they will see the Body of Christ in all of its international diversity.”
Like Pier, Robert Johansson, chair of the Crusade’s pastors committee, recognized the significance of the array of nationalities in such close proximity to the park. “What could this mean,” Johansson asked, “but ‘for God so loved the world …’?”
Flushing Meadows Corona Park has played a unique role in world events. Twice–in 1939-40 and in 1964-65–the World’s Fair was held at the park. The United Nations met in a building at the park for the first five years of its existence, and the vote to create the State of Israel took place in that building in 1948.
Crusade organizers commented that choosing the Crusade venue had been a daunting task. “New York City is a tough place–it’s a thousand cities,” said Johansson. At different points in the planning process, Madison Square Garden, Central Park, Shea and Yankee Stadiums had all been considered but had proved prohibitive with their seating capacities and other restrictions. Also, several venue options would have excluded large parts of the population because of their location. But Johansson marveled at God’s providence: “God knew better.”
Indeed, the final Crusade meeting welcomed 90,000 people to Flushing Meadows Corona Park.
Three States of Outreach
In the months leading up to the Crusade, more than 1,400 churches mobilized to lift up the name of Christ in their neighborhoods and to invite people to the Crusade. Here are some stories of how churches in the tri-state area worked to reach their communities.
Connecticut: Lush trees canopy the portion of Merritt Parkway that rolls out of New York into the Stamford area of Connecticut, one of the wealthiest zip codes in the nation. In Fairfield County, homes have two-acre zoning laws, and many are owned by presidents and CEOs who work in New York City, said Robert Childs, pastor of Long Ridge Church in Stamford.
Reflecting on the community, Daryl Driscoll, a member of Long Ridge, said that people who are wealthy and successful often don’t think they need God. “People are into themselves and pleasures,” she said. “They work hard and want to play hard–they don’t want to think about their spiritual lives.”
Driscoll signed up to be the congregational leader at her church for the Crusade after she attended a Billy Graham School of Evangelism last summer in New York City. A few years ago her church would never have thought to hire buses to take unchurched people to the Crusade, she said, but the Crusade preparation effort was like a “vitamin shot in the arm for our church.” From the church of about 100 people, 26 took the Christian Life and Witness Classes, and 18 became Crusade counselors. Church members moved out of their comfort zones by visiting more than 200 homes with Crusade invitations, Driscoll said. “People saw that they can go out and talk to strangers–this helped ease them into talking to someone about Jesus. They realized that even if people weren’t accepting, it was OK. They survived and no one bit or hurt them,” Driscoll said with a laugh. “This emboldened people–it emboldened me.” Now Driscoll and her pastor are discussing plans not only for follow-up with new believers, but also for how to keep the enthusiasm for evangelism at their church going and growing.
Driscoll observes that the executives who control the companies in New York City can have an influence on the world. “I used to ask God why He had me living in this materialistic place–but I know now that I am here for a reason,” she said. “I have met wonderful people here.”
Hoboken, N.J., is a bedroom community, and many residents ride the train into New York City each morning and evening. At 7:30 on a Wednesday morning, Nancy Michael, Frank Kempf, Rich Gautier and Pastor Paul Krause, of Hoboken Evangelical Free Church, took up positions at the top of the stairs leading to the train.
As a constant flow of commuters streamed past, the four church members offered invitations to the Billy Graham Crusade. Some ignored the offer; some reached out and took an invitation. One said, “You’ve got to be kidding” and tore up the invitation. But others were interested. One woman took an invitation, walked a few steps farther, then came back and asked Michael how to get to the park.
Gautier, 73, said he committed his life to Christ at age 62. When he attended the Christian Life and Witness Classes, he began to think, “This might be Billy Graham’s last hurrah, and it might be my last, too.” He realized that God was calling him to counsel. “The Spirit was moving me, telling me I am supposed to obey God,” Gautier said. “I determined that I was going to do this.”
“Loving people of other cultures and skin colors is what I do,” said Neal Frey, pastor of Huntington Assembly of God, in Huntington on Long Island. Frey’s congregation of 150 people represents about 20 nationalities.
The youth group at Frey’s church follows his lead.
Meeting in the church parking lot before going out to invite people from the neighborhood to the Crusade, a small band of young people gathers in a circle to pray. Before they disperse to different locations, youth leader Nicolas Myhre encourages them, “Say a prayer with every flyer. Smile. Don’t be flippant about this.” Victoria Smith, 14, who is Costa Rican, just arrived from working at a rescue mission before coming to distribute invitations. “I have a heart for this. Living in this community I see how much potential there is here to reach the people,” she said. “I see people who have nothing and are looking for that last little bit of hope–and that’s something we can give.”
Half of the group walks a block from the church to the entrance of a grocery store frequented by Hispanics. Smith’s friend Joash Jacob, 15, who is Indian, asks her for help with his Spanish. “I don’t want to mess this up,” he tells her. “Dios … le … bendiga” (God bless you), Smith gently instructs. Jacob tries to mimic her words. “Spanish isn’t a second language in India, you know,” he says with slight exasperation.
Jacob says that the death of his friend at school opened his eyes to the importance of sharing Christ with people. “I don’t have a lot of time. After [she died] I realized that time is short and that I need to go out and help people find the Message.”
The sky over Staten Island grew threatening on the Wednesday two days before the start of the Crusade. Salem Evangelical Free Church had planned a cookout and evangelistic outreach at a housing project called Steuben Street Apartments, but just before the scheduled start of the cookout, a severe storm moved into the area. Pastor Eddie Cole and others discussed the possibility of canceling the event or holding it indoors.
But before long the heavy rain and wind began to subside, and the event, though delayed, went on. Church members, assisted by 22 people on a mission trip from Higher Ground Baptist Church, in Kingsport, Tenn., served hot dogs and hamburgers to residents. The event included games, skits, an evangelistic message and an invitation to the Billy Graham Crusade. Eighteen people accepted Christ that night, including a teenager named José.
As Cole shared the Gospel, he inserted José’s name in John 3:16: “For God so loved José that He gave His only Son …” José was the first to respond to the invitation. He said, “Man, I have never seen anything like this.”
The next day, church members went door-to-door at the Parkhill Apartments, another subsidized housing project, to invite people to the Crusade. Moses Teah Jensen, a church member who moved to Staten Island from Liberia and now lives in the projects, said of the outreach: “We’re taking the Church to the people, to reach the people. That’s how we do it in Africa.”
On the sidewalk along busy Fulton Street in Brooklyn, a table with a red “Prayer Station” banner is tucked close to a church building out of the way of scurrying pedestrians. Evangelism team members from the Brooklyn Tabernacle wear red vests that say “Prayer Changes Things.” They spread out in the vicinity, asking pedestrians if they have a prayer need and offering invitations to the Crusade.
James Sloven, leader of the evangelism team, says that there can be a callousness associated with merely handing out literature, but that offering a prayer “puts a personal touch to evangelism.” Sloven says that team members have prayed with people of different religions and that prayer has often paved the way for fruitful discussions and commitments to Christ. One day 150 people requesting prayer had filled out cards, which were then passed on to the church’s phone ministry for follow-up. “Everybody has a need,” said Sloven. He recounts a time when a woman got off a bus and walked back to the prayer station. “I really need prayer,” she said. “I’m anxious about so many things in my life.”
Evangelism team member Sherill Hampton prays that the Lord will make her sensitive to the prayer and the word of encouragement that a specific person needs. She observes that the people who staff the prayer station have a role similar to that of the counselors at Billy Graham’s Crusade. “Mr. Graham gives the message,” she said, “but it is the individual believers that make the connection with people and help to seal the commitment in their heart.” Hampton’s desire is that those who are prayed with on Fulton Street will remember the day–when they were probably not even thinking about God–when God said, “Hey, I want to talk to you.”
Manhattan Bible Church, at the far northern part of Manhattan Island, put most everything else on hold for the Crusade. “I would say that for the last four or five months, we have done nothing except our regular services and be involved in the Billy Graham Crusade,” said Pastor Roy Mansfield. Some 150 people participated in Operation Andrew, and 120 attended the Crusade’s Christian Life and Witness Classes. On the final day of the Crusade, the church offered free bag lunches and subway passes to guests who were going to attend the Crusade. Following the morning church service, close to 50 members and guests streamed out of the church building and rode trains to the Crusade.
At Liberty Plaza, in the financial district of Manhattan, diagonal from Ground Zero, scents of steaming kabobs, gyros, jumbo franks and savory falafels waft through the air. Pigeons scuttle across the plaza as downtown workers, many in their khakis, ties, suits and polished shoes, clutch silver-foiled lunches. Some sit alone, others chat with each other or on their cell phones. Skyscrapers encompass the city block plaza–save the northwest corner where blue sky and a bank of white clouds fill the void left by the World Trade Center.
At the plaza a handful of young evangelists join Franklin Meyer, a New York City street/subway evangelist who helped to mentor the group the week prior to the Crusade. He has instructed them about how he proclaims Christ in public settings and encourages them to jump in at any point during his message to those on their lunch breaks in the plaza.
“We look for how to lose weight, how to make our teeth whiter, how to keep our hair in our head and how to have better sex, and we don’t care about our soul–but our soul is the most important thing,” Meyer proclaims. “One day you will meet God face-to-face as a Savior or as a Judge. If you go to Jesus, you will find forgiveness.” Meyer fields comments and questions from plaza diners, the curious and the angry alike.
David Moerschel, a young evangelist finishing seminary in Louisville, Ky., lifts his voice from the crowd: “The fact that you reject what he is saying doesn’t negate what [he says]. You will face God. … That’s why we’re urging you to place your faith in Christ and turn from your sins and ask God to have mercy on you. He will forgive you.”
Kevin Shaner, another evangelist, also takes a stand: “Isaiah says that the Lord’s arm isn’t too short to be our Savior. … God is present right here, and He wants to reach out to you. … God knows your pain and He loves you. He wants to wash away your sin and take away the pain of what happened right here [at Ground Zero].” Throughout his brief message, Shaner pleads compassionately with his hearers.
Later, Shaner explained how, before he addressed the crowd, he had been overcome with emotion at the sight of Ground Zero. “I saw [the events of 9/11] on TV, but when I saw the cross there today–God showed me the pain … ,” he said. “He broke my heart. I want these people to know that God can save them and heal their hearts.”
Moerschel and Shaner were two of 13 young evangelists who have a demonstrated call of God on their life for proclamation evangelism and who came to New York for hands-on training from BGEA. Nick Hall, of Fargo, N.D., said, “When you bring people together and you proclaim the Name of Jesus, the Scripture says that God’s Word will not return void. This New York City Crusade opens the doors for us because people hear and see that proclamation evangelism is still relevant.”
In New York, the evangelists preached at the plaza and in the subways. Some also had the opportunity to preach at local churches. They all took the training to be counselors at the Crusade and had several sessions with BGEA leadership where they could ask practical questions about holding evangelistic events. During their “free time,” they witnessed in Central Park, Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Times Square, Manhattan’s financial district, in restaurants, on sidewalks, in slum neighborhoods–anywhere and everywhere they went.
In Central Park, benches encircle a large, open area with the word “IMAGINE” tiled in the concrete that serves as a memorial to former Beatle John Lennon. On the benches and around the park, evangelists engaged with people, directing conversations to the saving power of Jesus Christ. “I Get by With a Little Help From My Friends” rang out as another, who brought his guitar along, strummed Beatles songs with a man who regularly sings and plays his guitar at the Lennon memorial. Another evangelist and his wife spoke at length with a boy with a yarmulke on the crown of his head. As the sun set over Central Park, dozens of people were engaged with the saving truth of Jesus Christ.