I just came across this important keepsake, and it brought back some vivid memories from a crucial moment in my life. I was a twenty-year old junior, majoring in biology at a secular college, Rutgers University, while trying to untangle myself from my Fundamentalist upbringing. I might have abandoned my inherited faith altogether, except for the fellowship and support I found in the Inter Varsity Christian Fellowship group on campus. The previous year, all the top leaders of our chapter had graduated, and the presidency was forced on me because there was no one else better prepared. I felt totally inadequate. It didn’t help that the president of the IVCF chapter at Douglass College, our sister institution across town (neither school was co-ed at that time), was an unusually gifted young woman, well-read and wise beyond her years. When our two groups met together, I felt spiritually tiny beside her.
Billy Graham’s evangelistic meetings began to attract National media attention with his 1949 Los Angeles tent meetings, and since then he had held crusades in Boston (1950), Washington D.C. (1952), London and Paris (1954), India and the Far East (1956). Now he was coming to the Big Apple, New York City. I think I was challenged by my role as president in IVFC to sign up for the training to be a Counsellor for the rallies. A friend and I went to several training sessions in a church near our campus. I didn’t feel enthusiastic or even adequate. Actually, the idea of having a person’s eternal destiny depend on how I “counselled” them scared me.
I think my friend and I took the train in from New Brunswick, NJ, to New York City for two or three of the rallies. Here are some impressions that have stayed with me:
- I remember being surprised by how simple Billy Graham’s words were; they were reasonable and hopeful. He didn’t scare people into salvation; he loved them into salvation.
- At the end, he invited them forward to accept Jesus. And they came, with no hard sell, no emotional pleading. They just came and kept coming. In very little time, there were hundreds of people standing before the platform (see photo below).
- As a Counsellor, I was instructed to go down and stand among them. I remember hoping I would see lots of Counsellors in the crowd so I could stay in my seat, but my fellow-Counsellor friend was next to me, and he went to the front, so I felt I had to as well.
- Billy asked those who had come forward to follow some leaders to the Counselling Room, which was down a curving ramp to a large room on a lower level. I remember being aware that the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus had performed at the Garden a couple of weeks earlier, and I thought I could picture the elephants lumbering down this ramp. I even thought their smell still lingered a little.
- It was pretty chaotic down there. Leaders tried to match counsellors with those who had gone forward to make decisions. I tried to pull back into the shadows, but I was always noticed and matched up with someone.
- As a Counsellor, I had three responsibilities: to fill out an information card on the person so some church or group could follow up on them later, to help them clarify the decision they were making, and to lead them in a prayer of commitment to crystallize their decision. There was so much noise around us in that big room that it was hard to do any of these very well. Frankly, I have no clear memory of any of the people I was paired with; I can’t envision their faces, genders or ages. I can only hope I didn’t say anything that would confuse them after Billy had made the Gospel so clear.
One of those nights, I had a strange encounter on the way down the ramp. A very agitated older man, wearing a clerical collar, singled me out because I was wearing my Counsellor badge. He touched my arm, and he implored me, in a thick British accent, to think about what I was doing. He said something to the effect that we were misleading people, making them think that just saying Yes to Jesus would make everything all right in their lives. Having a genuine relationship with God involved so much more than that. We weren’t telling them the whole Biblical truth.
I don’t know if I counselled anyone that night. But I do remember having a very troubling conversation with myself during the train ride back to college. The British clergyman’s words echoed in my mind. I was returning to the faith/science struggle that was built into my chosen college coursework, and there was nothing simple about that. Besides, my experiences at the crusade rallies had not helped me to feel more confident in my ability to be a Christian leader on campus; in fact, the experience made me feel less adequate. The man was right: my own life and faith journey were very complicated, so how could I counsel people that they were making a decision that would totally change their lives?
Yet, there was something about the simplicity of Billy Graham’s message that I really needed at that time. At rock bottom, it really was just about saying Yes to God, every day, in every way, and it has been ever since.
— Pastor George Van Alstine
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For those interested in more background about Billy Graham’s 1957 New York City Crusade, here are some facts:
- The Crusade began on May 15 and lasted in the Garden for 16 weeks. Total attendance was about 2,397,400, with 61,148 of them coming forward to make decisions. It culminated in a rally at Yankee Stadium on July 21, with 156,213 people attending, one of the largest Christian gatherings in history.
- You can view one of the meetings, featuring music by Ethel Waters and George Beverly Shea, as well as Billy’s sermon: click here
Billy Graham angered many conservative Christians by embracing people of all denominations and advocating for some social justice issues. Here’s a video of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., praying at one of the New York City rallies: click here