By Sophia Chang
But in the end, it will be one man, bringing word of the Holy Trinity.Evangelist Billy Graham, on the eve of his eighth self-billed “crusade” in the New York metropolitan area, reflected on what he called his final such event in America, and perhaps his last crusade ever during a packed news conference in Manhattan Tuesday.Graham made it clear what he would and would not talk about during the three-day rally scheduled for Friday, Saturday and Sunday at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.”I'm not going to dwell on the problems that face us today,” said the once-hale North Carolina farmer's son who is now a frail 86 years old. “At my age I have one message, that Jesus exists.”Graham has spent a lifetime preaching that message through his weekly radio ministry, the “Hour of Decision,” and through large-scale crusades all over the world, where he helps a community's Christians put on a concerted effort to convert the populace. His staff estimates he has “preached the Gospel to more people in live audiences than anybody else in history, over 210 million people in more than 185 countries and territories,” including the historic 1957 crusade at Madison Square Garden. Then at the top of his game, Graham extended the original six weeks of the Madison Square Garden rally to 16 weeks, including a stop at Yankee Stadium and a finale held in Times Square where he sermonized using the area's theater marquee titles as his themes, according to Graham's staff.”I ran out of sermons after the first week,” he joked during the news conference. But while circumstances, surroundings and times may have changed since 1957, Graham said, “deep inside man has not changed.”He has also held crusades at Madison Square Garden in 1969, Shea Stadium in 1970, and a 1991 Central Park rally that organizers said more than 250,000 people attended, bringing his past New York City audiences to a total that Graham's staff estimated to be nearly 3.3 million. Graham's last crusade was in Los Angeles in November 2004, where he spoke before 200,000 people, according to his staff.Graham was brought back to the city after a group of churches requested a crusade after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. For one of the world's most recognizable evangelists, a return to New York City at the end of his career presented a familiar yet new challenge to be savored.”I've loved New York for years. I prayed for New York ever since I was in my 20s,” he said. Graham hailed the city's diversity, noting the park's location in what has been called the world's most diverse county.”There (is) a mixture of ethnic backgrounds within walking distance of (Flushing Meadows) Corona Park,” he said.The local momentum for the Queens crusade has been building for months as area churches such as Christ Tabernacle in Glendale and Jamaica's Greater Allen Cathedral of New York have been mobilizing their members. On Saturday, during training at the USTA Arthur Ashe Tennis Stadium for the estimated 10,000 volunteers assisting with the crusade, one Queens Village woman said while she respected Graham's method, it was his mission she truly embraced.”It's more than just the person, it's the message,” said Hazel Embden, who will be serving as a counselor and singing alto in the 1,500-person choir. “The message is always bigger than the person. He's been a very noble vessel for all these years.”In hopes of unity, Graham said he will focus on the Gospel at the crusade and would not broach potentially polarizing issues as he has done in the past.”If I get up and talk about some political issue, it will divide the audience,” he said. “I want a united audience to hear the Gospel.”Despite the professed focus, Graham could not help but touch upon societal issues during the news conference.”The world is heading toward some sort of climax,” he said, referring to the “coming nuclear problem.” “The worst division is what is called the civil war. We're fighting each other, but I think this country's still together as Americans.” Graham has also called upon the crusade's attendees to bring packages of new socks to the meetings for donation to the city's homeless missions and agencies.”I'm glad, at the end of it all, Jesus is coming back to this earth,” he added.Inevitably, the aging evangelist who has suffered prostate cancer and water on the brain touched on the subject of death when asked at the news conference if this was his last crusade or if he would accept an offer from a group of British churches to host an event in London this fall.”This is the last in America, I'm sure. We're thinking about (London). We're getting up there in years,” Graham said, adding that he was thinking of the ultimate finale. “I look forward to death with great anticipation,” he said. “I'm looking forward to meeting God face to face.”Reporter Scott Sieber contributed to this article.Reach reporter Sophia Chang by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 146.