I knew this day was coming, but it’s still hard news to hear. Dr. Billy Graham is dead. Seeing that headline took my breath away. Dr. Graham invited many millions of people to encounter Jesus in a personal way. The last time he did that publicly was here in Baltimore. And, I was there.
Dr. Graham’s son, Franklin, was hosting a three-day Festival at Camden Yards in July 2006. The previous summer Dr. Graham had wrapped his final Crusade in New York City. After decades of traveling the world with his team of Cliff Barrows and George Beverly Shea, Dr. Graham knew it was time to end that chapter of his ministry. His final crusade was covered extensively by the media as the end of a very public and fruitful ministry. But, Dr. Graham was not done. A few months later Dr. Graham visited New Orleans and spoke to a city still recovering from Hurricane Katrina the previous summer. But, still that wasn’t the end. Dr. Graham had one more public sermon.
Baltimore. Camden Yards. Sunday, July 7, 2006.
It was hot that day. I arrived at Camden Yards early and set up in the media area just outside the Orioles dugout. I wondered how Dr. Graham would handle the heat. He was 88 and not in good health. The podium was directly over second base and I noticed they had arranged for cool air to be discreetly circulating where he would be sitting. That was a relief to see.
I think most people in the stadium that day realized this might be the last time Dr. Graham ever preached in public. The anticipation was building. Just before the service started, Dr. Graham appeared. He was in a golf cart that drove on to the field from the brick gate just behind home plate. He was driven behind the large platform where he slowly made his way to his seat near the podium. After a few other speakers, Dr. Graham was finally introduced by his son Franklin.
The applause was loud as Dr. Graham walked to the podium and then sat down in a seat they placed there for him. Gone were the days when Billy Graham would stand for his entire sermon as he preached with great energy. He sat now. His voice was steady, but slow. He thanked everyone for coming and spoke of his fondness for Baltimore. He joked about the Orioles, who weren’t very good in those days. He mentioned the Aquarium and then talked about the God he loved with his whole being. He explained how we are all separated from God because of our sin. He boldly told the crowd that Jesus came to bridge that gap… to pay for our sin with His death on the cross. And then he invited people to receive this forgiveness and begin a new life and relationship with our Creator. Dr. Billy Graham then invited people to respond by coming down on the field. And, yes, he said the buses would wait.
Hundreds of people made their way on to the Camden Yards outfield to begin that brand new relationship with Jesus. As Franklin Graham was talking to them and leading them in prayer, Dr. Graham quietly left the podium, slowly got back in the golf cart, and was driven into the stadium.
And that was the last time.