HED:Packed house greets Graham
By John Armistead
Plan to have Billy Graham's son Franklin preach in Tupelo, and they will come.
And they did.
At 5:59 p.m. last night ushers wearing blue and white identification tags stood at their posts all over a Tupelo Coliseum empty save for the choir section. At 6 p.m. sharp, the doors swung open and the multitudes poured in.
By 6:19, all 3,000 downstairs seats were taken. By 6:41, all 9,600 Coliseum seats were taken, and the doors closed. Ushers directed others to a 350-seat overflow room, which quickly filled.
According to a Coliseum official, more than 2,000 people had been turned away from the facility before the 7:30 starting time.
"It's amazing," said Pontotoc's Mitch Montgomery, a usher standing at one of the closed doors. "It's been the talk of the community for at least a month."
Tupelo's Lori Dickerson, sitting in the counselors' section and wearing an orange children's counselor badge, looked up at the mass of people shortly before the pre-service concert and said, "I'm just overwhelmed with the number of people. This is awesome when you consider this is Spring Break."
They came because of whose son he is. But, many recognize he is a person in his own right. Lorinda Lee of Tupelo has read part of Franklin Graham's autobiography. "I was kind of glad to find that he came to it (faith) on his own terms instead of being a clone of his dad," she said.
In the foyer many lined up in front of the concession stands for last minute Cokes, popcorn, and nachos with cheese, and the crusade bookstore did a brisk business in Franklin Graham Crusade caps and T-shirts. On the T-shirts was a cross, a motorcycle, and the logo "Rebel with a Cause," which is the name of Graham's autobiography.
At 6:50 The Praise Band began with pulsating music from drums and electric guitars and the audience joined with clapping and sang "There's power in the blood!"
A few minutes later, songwriter/singer Gary Chapman with a large green guitar came to the microphone. Blue and red spotlights swept back and forth across the stage. After performing for almost 30 minutes, Chapman brought the crowd to its feet when he broke into "I'm gonna take a trip in the good old gospel ship."
Then, at 7:30 promptly, the crusade service began. Over the next hour the atmosphere was something of a cross between an old-fashioned tent revival meeting and a rock concert.
The choir of over 1000 members from area churches sang "Hallelujah" while the ushers collected an offering for the crusade in large, blue paper buckets.
Gary Chapman sang a more subdued "Great is thy faithfulness," and the congregation joined him on the chorus.
Then, at 8:25, two stage hands carried a pulpit to the edge of the platform and set a microphone in place. A hush fell over the audience as Franklin Graham, wearing a gray sports jacket and tie, stepped forward with his Bible in hand.
"For many of you this is going to be a night of decision," he said. "Tonight I'm going to give you an opportunity in a few moments to have peace with God."
Graham, a youthful-looking 44, looks strikingly like his father. His speech cadence, pronunciations, and gestures are unmistakenly those of the famous evangelist.
Graham launched immediately into his message. Taking his text from John 3, he gave a simple, straightforward exposition of Jesus talking with Nicodemus, and said, "I'm here tonight to ask you if you've been born again."
He referred to his well-known youthful rebelliousness. "I decided in my teen-age years I was going my own way. If that embarrassed my parents, that was tough."
He then told how he finally came to that place in his life where he was "sick and tired of being sick and tired."
"One night I got on my knees and surrendered my life to Christ. He's forgiven me. Not because of who I am, but because of what Christ did 2,000 years ago."
Just as his father has been doing for over four decades, Graham extended an invitation. "Wherever you are, I want you to get up and come down here and we'll pray for you and give you some literature. Your friends will wait on you."
As The Praise Band began to sing, Graham stepped away from the pulpit and crossed his arms, and waaited. Counselors identifiable by their tags, moved quickly out of their seats and into the aisles, making their way toward the front. But, moments before any counselor reached the platform, a young man dressed in a black shirt and jeans came to the platform's apron and knelt down on the floor and bowed his head.
Others came. Some in dresses and suits, some in jeans and T-shirts.
"This is your life," Franklin Graham said as he reissued the invitation. "Eternity hangs in the balance. You come right now."