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Gary Younge
Billy Graham returns to sin city for swansong

When Billy Graham came to preach in New York in 1957 his trip was regarded as ambitious, verging on foolhardy.

Back then, New York was regarded as synonymous with sin - a hub for loose morals and fast living, luring and then corrupting the innocent from Middle America.

Mr Graham preaching fire and brimstone, God and Gospel in the Big Apple seemed about as likely as John Kerry flipping burgers at a Texas gun club barbecue. But he drew capacity audiences right through the summer.

Tomorrow, the evangelist returns to the city for what he says will probably be his last hurrah. "There are people who feel I shouldn't go to New York in case I can't speak," Mr Graham told Newsday yesterday. "I think New York will be the last one. Yes, I think so."

He told reporters that his death could happen "any day".

Mr Graham is 86 and frail. He has symptoms of Parkinson's disease, fluid on the brain and prostate cancer. Last year he broke his hip and fractured his pelvis in two falls. He has trouble seeing, hearing and speaking.

Now on his 417th crusade, the towering figure, once branded "Charles Atlas with a halo", uses a Zimmer frame, and on Friday he will preach for just 30 minutes, sitting down.

The city to which he will speak has also altered significantly. When he first gave a sermon at Madison Square Garden, he confessed to being "frightened".

"No other city in America - perhaps in the world - presented as great a challenge to evangelism," he wrote in his memoirs.

But with a growing evangelical movement made up largely of new immigrants from Africa and Asia, Mr Graham is confident of a warm greeting from the throng at the Flushing Meadows stadium in Queens.

And while religion and politics are mixing, making evangelicals a crucial base of the Republican right, Mr Graham, who is credited with converting George Bush to Christianity, has moved away from politics, claiming it impedes his ability to unite his flock around the Bible.

Asked where he locates himself politically today, he said: "I'm not even sure now where the middle is. One of the things I find very helpful is if I stay away from politics and just preach the Gospel."

In his autobiography, Just As I Am, he says: "Becoming involved in strictly political issues or partisan politics inevitably dilutes the evangelist's impact and compromises his message. It is a lesson I wish I had learned sooner."

In decades past, President Eisenhower called him to ask his view on sending troops to enforce school desegregation and Lyndon Johnson sought advice on a vice-presidential running mate in 1964.

But Mr Graham was badly burnt following Richard Nixon's resignation when tapes revealed him participating in an anti-semitic conversation with Mr Nixon about the liberal Jewish "stranglehold" on the media.

"I decided then, perhaps unconsciously, that I just wasn't going to get involved with other politicians," he says.

When Ronald Reagan asked him for an endorsement in 1980, Mr Graham said: "Ron, I can't do that. I think it would hurt us both."

Mr Graham's relationship with the right has always been close but troubled.

When he came to New York in 1957 he invited Martin Luther King to share the stage with him at a time when King was still controversial and loathed by many white Southerners.

"Billy Graham has seldom been out of the front of the parade," said his biographer, William Martin, a professor of religion and sociology at Rice University. "But he has almost always been in front of his own constituency, particularly with respect to civil rights, poverty and, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, calling for nuclear disarmament."

But with both Mr Graham and his wife in poor health he has been winding down in the last six years. "I'm looking forward to heaven," he told Newsday. "And so is my wife."

In his own words...

People are beginning to realise that science has its limits, for it has not been able to answer the deepest questions of human existence. We are seeing an upsurge of interest in the spiritual.

On science and religion

I have come to see in deeper ways some of the implications of my faith and message, not the least of which is in the area of human rights, and racial and ethnic understanding. Racial prejudice, anti-semitism or hatred of anyone with different beliefs has no place in the human mind or heart.

On prejudice

This stranglehold has got to be broken or this country's going down the drain.

On Jewish domination of the media, in conversation with Richard Nixon, 1972

I cannot imagine what caused me to make those comments, which I totally repudiate. My remarks did not reflect my love for the Jewish people.

Apologising when tapes were made public in 2002

I silently cried to God for strength and darted from that classroom the way Joseph fled the bedroom of Potiphar's philandering wife in ancient Egypt.

On resisting an early temptation in his memoir, Just As I Am

Katy Heslop

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