Sixty years ago Billy Graham brought his historic 1957 New York crusade to a close with a pre-Labor Day rally that brought an estimated 200,000 to Time’s Square.
My wife and I were there as part of the team. That summer we heard Billy preach six nights a week in the old Madison Square Garden for sixteen and a half weeks. It was packed out every night except one, a record never broken. Up to 2.3 million attended and some 61,000 registered a new commitment to Christ.
That year and for many years to come he would become known across the world for the huge crowds that came to hear his simple message: that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son with the gift of eternal life.
Billy was always an evangelist. What is often forgotten is that over the years he would also be known for an influence beyond his crusades. He desegregated his early southern crusades, and became an advocate for Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty, based on what the Bible said about God’s care for all and for the poor.
That New York crusade began in May of 1957. It was twenty-five years later in May of 1982 that he made perhaps his most controversial move: accepting an invitation to attend a peace conference in Moscow.
He accepted the invitation against the advice of many, because he believed the threat of global nuclear annihilation had grown so grave that he had to take a stand. As Duke historian Grant Wacker records, he believed that “to work for peace was a moral issue and not just a political issue.” He recommended that the conference call “the nations and leaders of the world to repentance.”
Several years later he was invited back to Moscow and led a mass gathering that attracted thirty thousand. No one claims this brought about détente with the old Soviet Union. But it did open some doors, perhaps more than we will ever know.
Today the nuclear-rattling threats come from North Korea. Political and military leaders are considering how best to respond without a war that would kill millions.
One of my friends who knows Korea well reminds me that Billy made a courageous visit to the leader of North Korea years ago. He was roundly criticized. Yet that was arguably the moment that convinced Kim Il Sung (the father of the current ruler) to allow U.S. Christian agencies to serve there.
My friend asks: does the American church have the prophetic courage to provide that kind of presence now?
There seems to be no evangelist of Billy Graham’s stature to provide that today. But God cannot be barred from North Korea or any part of the world, and he is at work through his people.
There are many followers of Christ in North Korea living faithfully in a hard situation. We can pray for them. There are Christian agencies (as described in a recent TIME article) who want to continue their humanitarian work, and which could potentially provide channels of communication. We should urge the State Department to allow for them exceptions to the recent order for all Americans to leave North Korea.
We can certainly take to heart the admonition of Paul to his young friend Timothy, and to fellow believers living under the pressure of a hostile government, that prayers should be made “for kings and all who are in authority, that we may live a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence.”
Naïve this may sound. But there is no travel ban on the Holy Spirit. And God’s ways and wisdom are greater than we can imagine.
Leighton Ford of Charlotte is a Presbyterian minister known internationally as preacher, writer and mentor.