The late Rev. Billy Graham touched thousands across Long Island and New York City with his message of redemption and salvation through Jesus Christ, drawing throngs of people to Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, Roosevelt Field Mall, Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, Madison Square Garden and Central Park.
During more than a half-century, the prominent events brought out the multitudes each time — some as spectators from various religions reveling in the presence of the internationally renowned icon, and others who came forward in the sports arenas, historic city parks and suburban parking lots to pledge their commitment to a life of Christian faith.
Aside from a 16-day crusade in Madison Square Garden that reached 2 million people in 1957 — which included a rally in front of Macy’s department store at Roosevelt Field — among the most notable of Graham’s visits to the area was a five-day crusade in September 1990 at the Coliseum attended by nearly 100,000 people.
The event broke records on four of the five days, with more than 21,000 people on a single day: filling the 16,000-seat main arena, the 4,000-seat downstairs exhibition hall and several hundred seats outside, where it was shown on a large screen. The previous record had been held by Billy Joel, for a Dec. 27, 1989, concert that drew 17,870.
“I’m afraid our lifestyle has become similar to that of Babylon,” Graham told the Coliseum crowd on Sept. 23, 1990, comparing modern-day New York to the biblical city. “Babylon was a very wicked city, a very sensual city, a very rich city, a very beautiful city, a very secure city. They had everything in Babylon . . . No one ever believed that anyone could ever conquer that city.”
In the course of that visit, more than 8,700 responded to Graham’s invitation, issued at the end of each meeting, to dedicate or recommit their lives to Christ. Local churches working together helped make the event a success, the evangelist said at the time.
While the Diocese of Rockville Centre wasn’t a full sponsor of the crusade events because of differences in teachings, Bishop John McGann, then the head of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, encouraged Catholics to attend.
On Wednesday, Bishop John Barres, the diocese’s current spiritual leader, said he joined “all of our brothers and sisters in Christ” in mourning Graham’s death.
“Back in the 1990s when he held one of his crusades at Nassau Coliseum he reached out in the spirit of respect to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rockville Centre so that it could be a chance for us to work together for the good of all Long Islanders,” Barres said in a statement. “May the Lord reward him for his selfless dedication to the spreading of the Word of God.”
It took two years to prepare for Graham’s 1990 arrival on Long Island, said Jack Crabtree, former director of Long Island Youth for Christ. Crabtree was tasked with bringing together the Island’s various congregations and strengthening the churches so they were able to receive the new people who would recommit after Graham’s crusade.
“When Mr. Graham spoke, there was an urging in your own heart to respond,” said Crabtree, 68, now a teaching pastor at Shelter Rock Church in Syosset.
He recalled the inside of the Coliseum nearly 28 years ago: “It was amazing to look out into the crowd and see all types of people responding . . . . And you realized, this was just a start — this night — just the starting point to continue to follow Christ and get involved in a local church.”
That certainly turned out to be the case for Jerry O’Sullivan, who was at the event with Crabtree.
As a 19-year-old college sophomore, O’Sullivan was mourning the death of his high school girlfriend, who had been killed that summer in a biking accident.
“I was broken. I was upset and confused leading up to that,” O’Sullivan said. At the end of the crusade, he joined others and approached the floor of the Coliseum, recommitting himself to Christ at Graham’s invitation.
“I needed a fresh start. I needed a change in my life,” he said. “My focus, my perspective and my priorities were different after that crusade. I started realizing that God had different plans for me.”
The move changed the course of his life and he began to attend church, pursuing a career in physical therapy before becoming a pastor himself in 2003. Now, at 46, O’Sullivan is lead pastor at the Syosset church and lives in Glen Head with his wife of 23 years and their two high-school-aged children.
“The metropolitan area has a much larger evangelical Christian population than most people realize. That may have been more the case back then,” said Paul Moses, a former religion reporter for New York Newsday who covered Graham’s 1991 gathering in Central Park. “Graham’s appeal crossed religious lines, but this population was a large Protestant Christian population, including those from minority groups.”
About 250,000 people flocked to the Great Lawn — at the time the largest single audience the pastor had addressed in North America.
“It had that kind of rock concert enthusiasm. There was a lot of goodwill in the city toward Graham even though he represented a different background and agenda and political outlook — I think that was expressed to him,” Moses added.
Graham’s last American crusade was in New York City in 2005. At 86, and in poor health, he took to the pulpit at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens for three days that June. It was his 417th crusade.
“We’re all sinners, every one of us, and radical change is needed for all of us to find fulfillment,” Graham said as he stood before thousands who packed the park north of the New York Pavilion, a landmark built for the 1964 World’s Fair.
Using a walker to get up on a massive stage, he was visibly moved by the appreciation from the crowd.
“I have stars in my eyes. I thank all of you for being here,” he said. “It’s great to be back in New York.”