Religious leaders put faith in festival


Three years after a group of local Christians first talked about inviting the Rev. Franklin Graham to preach in Baltimore, tens of thousands of people are expected at Camden Yards this weekend for three days of music, prayer and preaching.

The Metro Maryland Festival is aimed at winning what Graham's ministry calls "decisions for Christ."

"What we're trying to do is get people to come to have a genuine relationship with the lord," said Mount Pleasant Church Bishop Clifford M. Johnson Jr., a member of the committee that has brought Graham to Baltimore. "This is a good time to have a great harvest for the body of Christ."

The revival, which opens at 6 p.m. today, brings musical performers Randy Travis, Andrae Crouch and the Newsboys to Baltimore. The Rev. Billy Graham, who led what he said would be the last of his storied crusades last year in New York, has planned to preach Sunday, health permitting.

Franklin Graham, the son of the globe-trotting evangelist, will deliver messages on all three days. Each evening will culminate in an invitation, that signature moment when audience members are asked to come forward and commit their lives to Christ.

Local churches -- the organizers include white and black denominations, Assemblies of God, Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists and Pentecostals -- have planned the free festival as a means of spreading the Gospel.

"We want our people to bring their unsaved family members to the event," Johnson said. "We want to bring our friends to the event."

The city Department of Transportation predicted the event would attract more than 35,000 to Camden Yards each day of the festival. Officials were urging attendees to take public transportation to the stadium.

Billy Graham led crusades in Baltimore in 1949 and 1981. Thomas J. Schetelich, the local attorney who chairs the committee that has organized this weekend's event, says the Metro Maryland Festival will be different.

"The Franklin Graham festival doesn't really look like the Billy Graham crusade," said Schetelich, who traveled to Tulsa, Okla., in 2003 to see Franklin preach.

"It is a much livelier event," he said. "The type of music and the people who are being brought in are really designed to reach a younger generation. Franklin has a great heart for reaching that generation."

Franklin Graham, who is now the president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, said he would use his time in the city to answer questions. First among these, he said: Does God exist?

"I want people to know, yes, there is a God," he said in an interview last month at his office in Charlotte, N.C. "I want to give a person every night an opportunity to confess their sins to God and to come to him through faith in his son, Jesus Christ."

Johnson said organizers would be ready to connect any new converts to local congregations.

"We're not going to get them saved and then leave them," he said. "We want to make sure that all the pastors and all the churches and all the people stay in the follow-up process to bring these people to the place of discipleship."

Billy Graham has been slowed in recent years by Parkinson's disease and other health problems.

"I think he's probably, at this stage in life, maybe a better communicator than he's ever been," Franklin Graham said. "Because he talks very deliberately, very carefully. ... I think even the kids really listen to him."

Franklin Graham has not led a festival in Baltimore. But he has visited the city, notably to attend the 2000 Army-Navy football game at what was then PSINet Stadium with his son, a cadet at West Point.

Graham said Baltimore was ripe for a visit.

"The churches there I think are probably the most united that I have seen in recent years," he said. "I want to go because there's been a sense of prayer from the community, where the churches have been praying for the loss of their city."

Still, he said, evangelizing here would be a challenge.

"Baltimore's not an easy city," he said. "It's a tough town. It's a very diverse city, and there's a lot going on this time of year, so there's going to be a lot of competition. But we hope people will come and fill the place."

Capacity crowds would be great, Schetelich said. But the work of the city's churches would only be beginning.

"This is not a show that's rolling through Baltimore on its way to some other place," he said. "This is a local event. The two- to three-year run-up has been a local effort, and the follow-up is going to be a local effort."

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