A spiritual three-ring circus

Billy Graham's last crusade, at Shea Stadium, was a lot tamer than the fire-breathing revivals of my youth -- but the crowd was a lot more interesting.

Published June 27, 2005 6:37PM (EDT)

Brothers and sisters: This weekend, the good and holy reverend who is called Billy Graham came to Queens, N.Y., and yea, I was there. The reverend descended upon Flushing Meadows Corona Park and I beared witness whilst a few miles away my roommate Mario threweth a Gay Pride party in our West Village apartment. And, lo, the incongruity of the two events didst not surprise me out as much as I thought it wouldth. But everything else did.

-- Book of Me, Chapter 2, Verse 23

When I hopped on the No. 7 train to Shea Stadium to join several thousand people to hear what was ostensibly the 86-year-old Billy Graham's last series of sermons, I was expecting an old-time Christian revival, but that wasn't what I got. I was also expecting the fiery orator I grew up with as a Southern Baptist evangelical in small-town Alabama, but I didn't exactly get that, either.

To be fair, Graham had warned me. On June 24, on the first night of what the Billy Graham Evangelical Organization was calling the "Greater New York Crusade," Graham began his first sermon by saying that "after all we'd heard and seen" -- the newspaper accounts, the TV appearances, the enormous building-size banners with large, steely-eyed Graham heads staring off into what one presumes can only be eternity -- "I'm probably an anticlimax." And he was. That's not to say that parts of him were not impressive. Graham is, after all, the "respectable" evangelical. He's not the guy who declared a SpongeBob Squarepants video "pro-homosexual." (That was James Dobson, who, full disclosure, employs one of my cousins.) He's not the guy who said "abortionists" were responsible for 9/11. (That was Jerry Falwell.) And he's certainly not the guy who routinely whacks people on the head with his palm, "slaying them in the spirit" and "curing" them of terminal diseases, broken bones and, it would seem, the capacity for rational thought. (That would be Benny Hinn.)

Graham has been preaching for over 60 years to audiences large and small, is comparatively moderate and has earned the respect of people on both sides of the conservative-liberal divide, some of the more prominent names of which appeared in between the three short sermons he delivered during the weekend revival. Bill Clinton introduced Graham's Saturday sermon with a story about hearing Graham in Little Rock, Ark., as a boy. "All the powerful white people wanted him to speak to a segregated audience," Clinton said to the mostly nonwhite crowd. "And he said, 'Jesus doesn't want me to speak to a segregated audience.'" (The crowd cheered.)

And Graham himself, with his wild flames of titanium hair and bass voice that can only be characterized as "booming," provided constant reminders of his respectability, liberally interspersing references to his recent media appearances in his sermons and even preceding the name of the A-list journalist who conducted an interview with the phrase "my good friend." If I weren't conditioned to believe the man behind the podium was above such things, I'd almost swear he was name-dropping.

Graham's sermons, for the most part, followed a narrative style in which he recounted a joke or anecdote and used the punch line to segue into an important lesson -- which, in my experience as a sermon consumer (forced and voluntary), is the standard formula. But there was something strange about them, in that they offered little of substance. The revivals of my childhood and adolescence, in contrast, were raucous affairs, with blistering 45-minute sermons designed to break you down and convince you that the only way you'd ever put yourself back together again was with the aid of your lord Jesus Christ -- and probably not even then.

The visiting pastors were the most effective because they were on the revival circuit most of the year and had the technique perfected. They might have only one story to tell, but it was always a heart-rending tale of a spiraling descent into the pits of hell involving illegal narcotics, near-death experiences and torrid affairs with wayward women whose temptations made Odysseus' sirens seem quite manageable. And if those sins were not likely to be on your list of confessions anytime soon -- if, say, your biggest problem was not turning off the TV when "Dynasty" got a little too risquié and the kids were still up -- it didn't matter because it was just a matter of time before one thing would lead to another. Sin was a slippery slope and you'd be snorting cocaine off the linoleum at a swingers party in no time.

There was none of that at this weekend's revival. The mission was love, tolerance and pandering to New Yorkers -- none of which is inconsistent with my value system. The pandering fell along predictable, if a bit surreal, lines. First there was the obligatory Yankees reference. ("Did you watch the Yankees vs. Tampa Bay? ... They and the Mets both need your prayers.") Then there was his expressed happiness to be in the melting-est of melting pots, with his acknowledgment that he had seen "some Koreans" praying only minutes before. And perhaps remembering some regrettable anti-Semitic comments he made during the Nixon era that were later be mentioned in the New York Times (a paper he reads "every day"), he gave a special shout-out to New York Jews. "It is here [in Queens] that the U.N. met for the first five years," said Graham in his first sermon. "It was also here that the U.N. voted to establish the state of Israel. Now more Jewish people live in New York than all of Jerusalem." If the cheering was any indication, the pandering went over well.

And when the Graham crusade wasn't pandering to New Yorkers, it was pandering to the kids of today. There was a "Star Wars" reference ("in the new 'Star Wars' movie, you see a young man who made a wrong decision ... The young man was searching, and he was looking for something that was missing") and a discussion about what young people want ("to be loved and recognized as individuals"). And at one point, Graham explored the profundity of Rolling Stones lyrics. "I can't get no satisfaction," he said in a monotone voice with no discernible rhythmic cadence, "though I try ... I try ... I try ... And I try." (Christ is capable of providing the satisfaction the spiritually bereft Mick Jagger couldn't get, he later pointed out.) For the 10-and-under set, there was a superhero named "Bibleman," who, I imagine, will inevitably be deemed gayer than the Teletubbies, SpongeBob and Bert and Ernie put together by one of Graham's contemporaries.

And for the teenagers, there was an assortment of Christian contemporary bands and singers. Mercy Me, fronted by a fresh-faced and slightly pudgy young guy named Bart Miller, kicked off their first set with a fist in the air and a rallying cry: "How many came to worship?" The band members had hip but tasteful and unobjectionably short haircuts and dressed mostly in black, one with an upturned polo shirt collar. "We're dark, brooding ... Christian ... uh ... preppies," the band's look seemed to say. Hesitantly. The music, however, was very popular -- engendering more raised hands and singing along than any of the traditional choir-led hymns that split up the program segments. Other crowd pleasers included Jars of Clay and Michael W. Smith, a composer who resembles a more wholesome version of George Michael (and whose music, full disclosure, I used to listen to religiously -- in both senses of the word).

For the older crowd, there was the Bill Gaither Trio -- a country-cum-gospel-cum-folk group responsible for what I find to be some of the worst Christian contemporary music in existence. The Gaithers wore three-piece suits in breezeless 80-degree weather, so you had give them credit, if only for showing up and not passing out in the heat.

The satellite acts were no doubt part of the reason Billy Graham himself was less impressive. It's hard to have an extended spiritual experience when the people in charge of programming are shifting gears every 20 minutes. And then the slick production values were kind of distracting. The sessions, which were projected onto several large screens, were split by flashy cutaway graphics that helpfully identified the people onstage, but not too helpfully made you feel as if you were watching some bizarre Protestant version of the Grammys.

The whole thing cost $6.8 million to produce, Bishop Roderick Caesar ("from right here in Queens") informed the audience on Day 2, and the Billy Graham Crusade recovered 45 percent of the budget via donations. If attendees wanted to contribute, they could render unto Caesar and the crusade the other 55 percent via cash, check or credit card, which many people happily did. "A complete audit of every penny received will be published in the New York Times," said Caesar, "because we have nothing to hide."

As with most affairs where money changes hands, there appeared to be a fringe market around the Graham enterprise. In between sessions, attendees were encouraged to buy books from the Crusade bookstore including a coffee-table volume that offered a photographic history of Graham's various crusades throughout the years. Signage for Snapple was everywhere and the concession stands served only Pepsi, lending unwitting credence to any conspiracy theories about the inherent evil of Coca-Cola. There was also the occasional middle-aged woman with a cooler offering black-market bottles of Poland Spring water at the cut-rate price of "One dollar, one dollar!" But for a gathering of this size with absolutely no drunks and the world's only immaculate portable toilets, the program officials and cops on hand appeared to consider the sales a tolerable infraction.

But the odd hodgepodge of elements that made up the revival, as produced by the reverend and his associates, was not nearly as odd as the audience that showed up to witness its execution. For every variation of Christianity that exists, there were representative members in attendance trying to convert every other element to their own special brand, either passively, aggressively or passive-aggressively. Their pamphlets ranged from lists of New Age-y feel-good aphorisms to dark apocalyptic tracts ("It has been shown that the United States is the power represented by the beast with the lamblike horns") to pseudo-patriotic brochures, including one titled "Remember," the cover of which was a shot of the New York skyline with two large tablets bearing the Ten Commandments superimposed over the area where the Twin Towers once stood.

The most friendly group was a community of men and women with long hair (sometimes held back with headbands made of natural-looking fibers) and sporty clothing in neutral beige, brown or olive colors who call themselves the Twelve Tribe Communities. They said they do not ascribe to any specific denomination, are not too keen on organized religion and live according to the principles of Christianity. One young woman I spoke with, an ex-Green Party activist who had done some work for FAIR, insisted, however, that they were not a "hippie commune" (although she later conceded a few were "ex-hippies"), their outposts in Vermont, drum circles and spontaneous Frisbee games notwithstanding.

At the other end of the spectrum were two men and a woman from "A True Church" in Lake Hughes, Calif., who were standing behind police barriers with signs that said "God Caused 9/11" and "Billy Graham Is Going to HELL." The apparent ringleader, a skinny, middle-aged guy with a scruffy strawberry blond beard and wraparound sunglasses (and ironically named Darwin), spent a few minutes angrily explaining to me that Graham was representative of a false Christianity, one that was too inclusive for his tastes and accommodated too many people who did not belong. Roman Catholics, for example, were going to hell. "The Bible says they follow demons." Darwin had gotten into a screaming match with a slightly larger man just before I walked over to chat, so I wasn't particularly inclined to ask what he thought about liberal, agnostic New Yorkers. Other key tenets of Darwinian thought, according to the "A True Church" brochure: Christmas is a lie. Women are to be silent in church. And true believers hate. The police barriers were suddenly reassuring.

Somewhere in the middle of the friendly-angry continuum but not exactly evangelical was the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade, two of whose members, ages 24 and 22, were walking in front of me into the park on Saturday carrying their own signage ("The Bible taken literally is a HORROR!"). Joey, the curly-haired 24-year-old and the more vocal of the two, wore glasses and a "Communist Revolutionary" T-shirt. Alya, the 22-year-old, had pink streaks in her half-blonde, half-dark hair and a patch on the back of her black hoodie that said, "Fuck Sexism." That provoked a few disapproving stares from mothers with kids and junior-size Bibles in tow.

Incredibly, Joey picked an argument with some of the Twelve Tribe members -- his primary object of protest being the Bush administration. As his voice got increasingly louder and more adamant, an irritated, nonhippie passerby sputtered, "Yeah, he's the anti-Christ!" When I asked Joey why he so strongly identified Christians as de facto Bush supporters, he was more thoughtful and conceded that some of them weren't. "Even Billy Graham has his differences with Bush," he said. "But Billy Graham's not in charge."

Graham had not made any political statements one way or the other, though he disconcertingly kept repeating the mantra "War does not increase death" in his sermons, presumably to highlight the inevitability of death, but effectively making war sound not so bad as previously thought. While not the most hostile or confrontational of the aggressive evangelicals by a long shot, Joey and Alya stood out with their punk aesthetic. "How are people here reacting to you?" I asked. "We're getting literature stuffed in our pockets as we hold our signs up," said Alya with a wry smile.

With so many diverse constituencies claiming Graham and, by extension, Graham's God, as uniquely their own and Graham trying to cater to all of them, the New York Crusade was a sort of spiritual three-ring circus. But it was also a powerful antidote to the naive, monolithic portrayals of Christian evangelicals in America that would have them all looking and acting like the ones I knew growing up -- such as my Bob Jones University-educated teacher in fifth grade who spent the first hour or so of every day reading Bible stories to me and the other 29 students in my class, despite the fact that the school was not parochial, and made us memorize woefully out-of-date street terms for obscure drugs that were probably not even available in the state, lest any "pushers" offer us "angel dust" after Sunday school. Or the music minister for whom I sang -- badly -- in an a cappella group that favored black spirituals despite the fact that my church openly ostracized African-Americans.

In reality, the future of evangelical America probably looks less like the evangelical America that voted for Bush, wants to see the Ten Commandments affixed to the courthouse steps and would overturn Roe vs. Wade at the first opportunity, and more like the Billy Graham Greater New York Crusade: diverse, a bit chaotic and increasingly more aware of pop culture, technology and commercial and cultural realities. The result may be anticlimactic, but it's a lot more interesting than those old-timey revivals.

Back in Manhattan, the city was clearing out after the Gay Pride Parade and as I walked back to my apartment, I thought of the last person I saw before heading into the subway to Queens: a guy with short, bleached-blond hair, a couple of body piercings and a baggy black kilt with zippers. Three friends were with him, two wearing matching T-shirts with little rainbow crosses on the breast. His was different. It said "Gay Pastor."

By Elizabeth Spiers

Elizabeth Spiers is the editor of Gawker.com. She lives in New York.

MORE FROM Elizabeth Spiers

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Bill Clinton The Bible