The Rev. Franklin Graham, the son, namesake and ministry heir to legendary evangelist Billy Graham, gathered with several hundred Pittsburgh-area pastors and others Thursday afternoon to formally launch the countdown to a three-day revival here in August.
Rev. Graham is scheduled to preach Aug. 15-17 at what's being called the Three Rivers Festival of Hope, organized by an array of Protestant and Catholic churches, at the Consol Energy Center. The center has a capacity of more than 19,000, depending on seating and staging configuration.
"I'm going to present the Gospel as plainly and simply as I know how and give people an opportunity to respond," Rev. Graham said at the lunchtime launch at the Marriott City Center.
Organizers have been quietly at work for the past 18 months, inviting Rev. Graham and preparing to mobilize a fleet of volunteers for the event, which will include music and testimonies as well as preaching.
"What I've seen in the last 18 months is a thirsting in this city to come together as the body of Christ, not as a dismembered mess," said Ted Kerr, chairman of the festival steering committee and executive director of the Pittsburgh Experiment, a nondenominational workplace ministry.
Organizers span a broad range of denominations, and a Catholic parish in Carnegie arranged for festival organizers to use office space there.
William Franklin Graham III, 61, succeeded his father as president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in 2001. The younger Graham also heads Samaritan's Purse, an international organization that has delivered relief to disaster victims and other needy people. Rev. Graham returned to his North Carolina headquarters directly after Thursday's gathering to help organize a relief flight to Iraq.
The Rev. Billy Graham, now 95 and in weak health, has preached to hundreds of millions of people since the 1930s and persuaded millions to commit or recommit to Jesus Christ. He drew hundreds of thousands at revivals in Pittsburgh in 1952, 1968 and 1993.
Franklin Graham has preached to about 7 million people worldwide, according to the association.
Both Grahams have preached an uncompromising appeal for all to repent of their sins and receive Jesus. But while the elder developed warm relations with leaders of other faiths, the younger has drawn controversy for his blunt criticisms of other religions.
The Pentagon withdrew an invitation for Franklin Graham to speak in 2010 at a prayer event due to his past statements about Islam, which he had called a "very evil and wicked religion" while saying he loves the Muslim people. He also said in 2010 of Hindus' veneration of numerous divine manifestations: "None of their 9,000 gods is going to lead me to salvation."
Rev. Graham said Thursday he believed religious liberties in the United States are being curtailed, such as with removals of creches and crosses from public spaces, and that churches should take advantage of opportunities to evangelize while they can.
"Secular progressives are tolerant of everything but the name of Christ and the symbol of the cross," he said in an interview.
He said all were invited to the festival but that he wouldn't compromise the message.
"When you tell a person that they're a sinner, it's offensive to them," he told the audience.
"When you tell a person that the only way to God is through Christ, that's offensive to many people," he added. "But it's true. And we have to present Christ and give people an opportunity to repent."
Franklin Graham asked for prayers for his father, who suffered a lung infection a few days after a major celebration of his 95th birthday on Nov. 7 at his North Carolina home.
The infection cleared but drained his strength.
"His vitals are good, but I can sense there's a change in him," Franklin Graham said. "It is like he has completed what he's going to do and he's ready to go home."
Pastors gathered Thursday said they were eager to join forces and plan for the festival.
"We can't do this kind of stuff" as a small congregation, said Paul Baer, pastor of Suburban Community Church in Irwin. "But when Franklin comes, we can put our hands to it."
Peter Smith: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1416 or on Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.