Revival headliner Franklin Graham has trail of support, polarizing comments

For those in the scores of Protestant and Catholic churches supporting it — stuffing envelopes, putting out lawn signs, training to be ushers and counselors — the Aug. 15-17 revival to be led by the Rev. Franklin Graham is something of a Super Bowl of spiritual life here. 

Several hundred people from churches in dozens of denominations have trained to be ushers, counselors and other volunteers as the Three Rivers Festival of Hope, to be held at the Consol Energy Center. The free services — starting at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 4 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 17—  will feature music ranging from Christian rapper Lecrae to country rock veteran Charlie Daniels, with preaching by Rev. Graham.

“Christians are about sharing the love of Christ, and he’s good at it and he’s focused on it. I think it’s a unifying message, and we’re thrilled to have him here,” said Cynthia Scott, executive leader of the festival.

The effort recalls how Pittsburgh-area churches in generations past mobilized to support the stadium crusades of Franklin’s legendary father, Billy Graham, now retired and in frail health at age 95.

The North Carolina-based Franklin Graham, 62, has not only succeeded the elder Graham in his preaching ministry developed a missionary/humanitarian organization with a global reach — Samaritan’s Purse, most recently in the news when two of its medical workers contracted Ebola while fighting the disease in Liberia. Samaritan’s Purse raised $376 million in 2012, according to its tax filing. It blends evangelism with a vast range of aid projects, development work and disaster relief.

But Franklin Graham also brings with him a trail of controversy. The U.S. Army withdrew an invitation to speak at a 2010 prayer gathering amid a backlash over his denunciations of Islam as an “evil” religion. He has dismissed Hinduism’s veneration of multiple divine manifestations, saying “none of their 9,000 gods is going to lead me to salvation.” The North Carolina chapter of the NAACP objected to Rev. Graham’s comments focusing on gay marriage and abortion during the 2012 presidential campaign, calling for a moral agenda that challenges “the evils of racism, classism and militarism.”

When “Duck Dynasty” patriarch Phil Robertson drew a backlash last year for denouncing homosexuality in a magazine interview, Rev. Graham defended him against “the intolerant gay community and its vast network of immoral, liberal allies” in a “full-scale assault against Christianity.” And Rev. Graham applauded a new Russian law banning homosexual ”propaganda“ aimed at children, which critics called a pretext for a more general repression of gays.

Rev. Graham said he’s not coming to Pittsburgh to preach on such topics and that he regularly works with Muslims and others through Samaritan’s Purse. “Just because we believe differently doesn’t mean we can’t work together,” he said in a phone interview from Alaska, where he is working with a Samaritan’s Purse program that provides counseling and recreation for wounded war veterans.

“People of different faiths are absolutely welcome and we want them to come” to the festival, Rev. Graham said.

But his message is unapologetically Christian: “I want people to realize they can have their sins forgiven, they can have a relationship with God, so their prayers are heard. Those sins are only removed by faith in God through his son Jesus Christ.”

And Rev. Graham reaffirmed his stance on gay marriage.

“I believe marriage is an institution that God has established, and it’s between a man and a woman,” he said. “Biologically, it’s obvious. You’d have to be a complete blind person or an idiot not to see we’re male and female for a reason and that’s to populate the world with children. Gay people cannot have children.”

Organizers for the festival are not projecting a turnout. Consol Energy Center has a capacity of more than 19,000, depending on seating and staging configuration. Rev. Graham did predict hundreds of conversions each night. ”I've never been to a city yet where I didn’t see lives changed,“ he said.

Sherman Barnette, a Billy Graham Evangelistic Association representative helping to coordinate the festival, added: “Our purpose is to have as many people there that are non-church people as there are church people.”

Andy Hromoko, youth director at Mount Lebanon Evangelical Presbyterian Church, who is chairing arrangements for the festival, said he grew up “as a Billy Graham fan.” When the festival was planned, “I really wanted to be a part of it.” He said he hoped that anyone dismayed by Franklin Graham’s controversial comments would come with an “open heart and open mind to hear the gospel.”

Larry Luba, a member of the South Hills campus of the Bible Chapel, a non-denominational church, is coordinating the hundreds of ushers preparing for the festival, many from the church’s men’s ministry.

“Any time it comes to serving the Lord, the guys just volunteer and pitch in all the time,” he said.

The festival is also drawing cooperation from a dozen Roman Catholic parishes in the region. 

Bishop David Zubik said the festival dovetails with calls by recent popes to a ”new evangelization,“ bringing back cradle Catholics who drifted or became estranged from the faith.

”We felt as long as there was a Catholic component to this particular crusade, we wanted to be a part of it,“ Bishop Zubik said.

Those who respond to Rev. Graham’s invitation to make a decision for Christ, and who identify as Catholic, will be given the opportunity to go to Epiphany Church — adjacent to the Consol Energy Center — for the sacrament of reconciliation, or confession.

”We’re right next door,“ Bishop Zubik said.

Bishop Zubik said Catholics don’t share all of Rev. Graham’s controversial political statements but added: “That’s not what this is all about. The whole point is to bring people back to Jesus.”

Nancy Lee Cochran, an advisory team leader for the Franklin Graham festival, noted that churches have been cooperating across denominational lines for months on human-service projects and festival planning. The revival’s legacy, she said, will be a network of local Christians who are “more sustained and better equipped to serve.”

But some local religious figures contacted by the Post-Gazette said Rev. Graham’s past comments have been disappointing.

“If he speaks about loving God and praising God [at the festival], that’s fine, but if he gets into these statements, that’s divisive,” said Sister Barbara Finch, a Roman Catholic nun who chairs the Association of Pittsburgh Priests, a liberal group independent of the Diocese of Pittsburgh.

Citing his comments on Islam, she said: “There are radicals in every religion. For him to make a blanket statement is just improper.” And she said it’s wrong to suggest a gay person is “any less a child of God than you or I.”

Safdar Khwaja, president of the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Pittsburgh branch, said: “He’s very welcome here. I hope some day we can sit down and have a very human discussion.”

Kollengode Venkataraman — editor of The Pittsburgh Patrika, a quarterly magazine for Indian-Americans — said he appreciates Rev. Graham’s candor but that his understanding of Hinduism is mistaken. 

“I am eternally thankful to people like Graham who vocalize what is in the mind of every denomination of Christianity, which looks at Hinduism as pagan, hedonistic and polytheistic.” Mr. Venkataraman said. He said, for example, that Hindus don’t worship multiple idols but believe they represent manifestations of a single divine being.

He said Hindus teach there are “multiple paths” to spiritual liberation. “If you don’t want to understand it, that is fine with me. I am not offended,” he said.

Peter Smith:, 412-263-1416 or on Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.

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