NEW YORK - More than 30 years ago, Sue Schelble was a young, single nurse working in Chicago when she first decided to check out a Billy Graham crusade.
"I grew up in church, taught Sunday school and played the organ, and never understood the true message until I heard Billy Graham preach it in such a clear, simple way," Schelble, 57, of Akron, Ohio, said through tears as she prepared to hear the man she calls her "spiritual father" one last time.
Graham preached what could be his final revival sermon yesterday, ending a three-day crusade in Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens that drew an estimated 230,000 people.
The world-renowned evangelist has preached to more than 210 million people in more than 185 countries and territories, and counseled a long line of U.S. presidents. But at 86, he suffers from Parkinson's disease, prostate cancer and fluid on the brain, and has said he is prepared to die.
Yesterday's sermon appealing for decisions to follow Jesus emphasized that nobody knows the hour of death. Noting his own advanced age, he said, "I know it won't be long."
Though he has left open the possibility of one final crusade in London, there was an air of finality in his words.
"You may never have another moment like this in your life," he said Friday night, in a sermon that lasted just under a half-hour. "There may never be another moment like this in New York."
Some came to see Graham for the first time, but many others came to say goodbye. And although some couldn't remember their lives without Graham - Brooklyn resident Ann Fields, who is in her 50s, recalled listening to him on the radio as a girl in Barbados - others know the precise moment when he changed their lives forever.
'The Protestant pope'
"Billy Graham is kind of the Protestant pope," said Tera Cooke, 27, supervisor of a youth group in Euless, Texas, that sang and danced in the park before Friday night's rally. "He's the symbol of what we want Christianity to be."
Believers cited Graham's sincerity and the simplicity with which he conveys his message as the reasons he has drawn them in, time and again.
"I sense honesty in him, I really do," said Richard Anderson, 50, of Queens, a customer service technician for an energy company who has been watching Graham on television for 20 years but had never before seen him in person.
Getting off the subway at 3:30 p.m. Friday, four hours early for the revival, Rosana Gonzalez was screaming from excitement. It was Graham's first public appearance in New York since 1991. When he said he chose New York as the site of his final American crusade because the city needs spiritual healing in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks, Gonzalez, 38, felt as if he was speaking directly to her. She worked 10 blocks from the World Trade Center and saw the second tower fall.
"I just became born-again almost four years ago," said the Queens resident, who was wearing a "Pray NY" T-shirt and had her 15-year-old son at her side. "9/11 brought me to my knees before the Lord."
The daughter of a Jewish father and a Puerto Rican mother, Darlene Adamo of Deer Park, N.Y., was being raised without religion in the 1950s when she heard about kids going to Sunday school on The Howdy Doody Show. She begged her mother to take her, and by 1957, they were attending Graham's famous crusade in Madison Square Garden, which was scheduled for six weeks but lasted 16. In 1964, Adamo worked as a counselor for converts at the Billy Graham Pavilion of the World Fair - in Flushing Meadows Corona Park.
'Influence on my life'
"It's very important that I see him," Adamo, 58, said Friday, sitting on a lawn chair beneath a maple tree outside the main seating area and munching matzo. "It's like saying goodbye and thanking him for the influence he's had on my life."
One measure that made the crusade accessible to the masses was translation services. Volunteers held signs in Korean, Armenian, Portuguese, Polish, Thai, Russian and Hungarian directing people to radios providing translation in their native languages.
"It's everybody from everywhere, no racial barriers, no culture of differences," said Elaine Hopkins, 49, a Sunday school teacher from the South Bronx. Hopkins' first exposure to Graham came at 19, when she was already the mother of twin girls and the victim of a violent assault.
"Something in his voice made me feel welcome as I was passing Central Park," she said, crying. "I was on my way somewhere else." She stopped, and "that's when I gave my life to Jesus."
For Schelble, the nurse from Akron, the pain in her life was less apparent.
"I had it all," she said. "I had the looks, I had the job, I had the miniskirt, the boots. And it looked great on the outside. But there was still a void. It had to be more than myself and material things."
Schelble has heard a live sermon by Graham's son, the Rev. Franklin Graham, who has taken over the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and said she loved it.
But without the elder Graham, she said, Christianity will not be the same.
"There's just this era where Billy Graham is here," she said. "It won't be like it again."
The Associated Press contributed to this article.