Get Your God at the Ballpark

Billy Graham comes out of retirement to preach at Camden Yards.

Billy Graham

Baseball parks smell like old beer. Church smells like incense. At one, I yell at umpires; at the other, I genuflect. I don’t confuse the two—even at confession. But Sunday at Camden Yards, the Orioles’ stadium, the beer nozzles were dry and everyone was praying, though there wasn’t a censer in sight. I was there to hear Billy Graham preach, for what he said might be his last time before a large crowd. After his first tent revival 60 years ago, he officially retired in 2005, his body weakened by Parkinson’s disease, cancer, and brain operations. He continues to preach, health willing, but since that isn’t often the case these days, this was a rare opportunity to hear him.

There were no ticket-takers. The event was free except for the concession stands, which charged $8 for a soda—sinful no matter what the day. The crowd of 35,000 was whiter, more female, and favored pastels more than on game days. A few people wore Orioles shirts, but without the usual sea of orange and black for the team’s colors, the stands looked strangely Technicolor in the afternoon sunshine.

More than an hour before the preaching started, Newsboys took one of the three stages connected between first and third base. They looked like your garden variety metal band—dressed mostly in black with a long-haired bassist and a lead singer with a shaved head. They sounded like U2, both because of the guitar licks and the Australian lead singer’s Bono-like calls to the crowd. But if they were derivative, they didn’t have the saccharine feel of much of Christian contemporary music. They rocked. “I know lust is a sin and all,” wrote one attendee later in her blog, “but Wowzers! Hubba hubba! I sure am glad that there are Christian artists that look like that.” This was the kind of music that parents insist must be turned down if you’re going to live in their house. In a previous generation, Newsboys might have had their albums burned. In this one, maybe parents actually listen to the lyrics about the saving blood of Christ.

While the band played on, my host, Cal Thomas, the conservative columnist who worked at NBC with my mother when she was a television reporter, took us down to speak with Franklin Graham. An evangelist preacher like his father, Franklin has taken over Billy Graham’s ministry. We wound through the security guards and minders. If we had been visiting Bono, they would have given us surly scowls and pat downs. In this case they were like wedding greeters.

Franklin Graham stood in a little collection of couches wearing a blue blazer and beige pants, the uniform I wore as a boy to Mass. We discussed his charity, Samaritan’s Purse; the politicians from both parties who have tried unsuccessfully to win his endorsement; and North Korea, where he has piloted his own plane to visit the tuberculosis prevention centers his ministry sponsors. He talked about his own conversion at age 22, comparing the “black hole” in his soul to the one Kurt Cobain wrote about in his suicide note (Graham had seen it in Rolling Stone). “I don’t usually read Rolling Stone, but I was at the barber shop,” he said.

He spoke with perfect diction and a whiff of a Southern accent. He is not a man in doubt. His positions on abortion, condoms, and immorality are just what you’d expect, but his weightless charm isn’t. There was no smiling at the wrong time or obsequious fawning or theatrical whispering. He’s selling salvation to be sure, and he is less diplomatic than his father, but he has such an even keel that for a moment you forget that he’s just predicted eternal damnation for all those who don’t enter into heaven through Christ.

Franklin gets his temperament from his father. The elder Graham took the few shaky steps to the podium, just above second base. There was no evidence he was sick once he started speaking. At first, he sounded like a seasoned politician, which is understandable since he has advised every president since Truman. He thanked the local papers for publicizing the event, made warm comments about Baltimore’s revitalization, and even cracked a joke about its ball club. “From what I’ve read, I believe they need our prayers,” he said of the Orioles in his husky voice, still tattooed with a North Carolina accent. He could have been holding a talk on the porch of the dairy farm where he grew up.

Then he said we’re all going to hell. It was very literal. There was no windup or the verbal padding I’m used to from Catholic Church, where the priest talks in parables and inference that usually obscure the starker messages of sin and redemption. “You are going to die,” he said. “I’m going to die. And after that, there will be a judgment. ‘Every idle word that man shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the Day of Judgment,’ the scripture says. When you break a law, you pay the price. You’ve broken God’s law. We’ve broken the Ten commandments. If you’ve broken one of the commandments, you’ve broken them all. And we’re all sinners. And we’re all under the threat of judgment.” It was spare and simple. He did not raise his voice. It was as if after all that rock, Woody Guthrie had hooked up his battered acoustic to the sound system. “Are you ready to die? You’d better decide for Christ here and now.”

After speaking for 25 minutes, Graham made an altar call. He invited those who wanted to proclaim their faith to come down to the field to renounce sin and take up a life with Jesus as their personal savior. The aisles filled immediately, like they do when the visiting team scores a late-inning grand slam. People streamed onto the outfield. No security guards stopped them. Volunteers patted them on the arm.

This was where the incongruity of the venue worked so powerfully. Graham’s message wasn’t just for Sunday or weddings or funerals. What he was offering was the promise of grace at any moment, including in left field under an Esskay hot-dog sign. Too frail to walk, the old man left the stage as he arrived, driven across the field on a golf cart. It’s the same way they bring relief pitchers from the bullpen. He was departing after one more save.