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Thomas de Zengotita Headshot

Billy Graham in Queens

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I resented the doom Billy was peddling on Sunday at Corona Park, playing off world affairs in this apocalyptic way -- as if he felt he had to compete with the grimmer fundamentalists who can’t wait to see us burning in hell.

The New York Times remarked on it the next day, although (determined to show respect for religion) they overlooked a sly swipe at gay marriage. When he switched from judgment day to the love channel, however, I could feel myself (a lifelong secularite, with metaphysical inclinations) responding—especially when he did the "come to the Jesus" invitation/command thing at the end. The way he says "Jee-suhs" and the tenor and tempo of his voice in general. Impossible not to feel some tug. On the whole, though, I found the whole event strangely unmoving. I'm a pushover for frail humans at their fragile ceremonies longing for transcendence. I choke up at the drop of chord. There were a few moments of that (Rock of Ages, Healing Rain), but surprisingly few.

Context is all. The heat and the humidity and the dust. By the time I got there the service had started, and there was no chance of getting into the main area—some VERY nice cops were herding us to various peripheries from where people on the stage were almost invisible and even the giant screens on either side were TV size. And some VERY nice firemen had turned their trucks into spray fountains for delighted kids and relieved adults. And there were peddlers everywhere, from official theme colored Crusade booths to improvised hot-dog stands, and random guys with plastic coolers full of Poland Spring. Also bizarre sects and individuals pushing their messages. A little group with signs saying "Billy Graham will lead you to Hell!" had (completely unnecessary) police protection. Members of the Seven Tribes (?) communards, dozens of them, looking like extras in an Amish movie passed out literature (lengthy and detailed exegesis of Scripture) to persuade us that THE way was theirs. Another aggressive crew promoted Mary as savior, rather than (or along with?) Jesus—which prompted some people to improvise signs declaring that Mary was not THE way, only Jesus was THE way.

There were also three separate areas with seats available in rows in front of giant screens. If you went to them, you could sit among the faithful but had no hope of being in his Presence—although there was this all-embracing atmosphere across the entire park that gave you some sense of participation, no matter where you were. Corona Park is the site of the old World's Fair, with a lot of the 50's style "futuristic" structures still standing, rusting and peeling away, so many monuments to the folly of our earthly projects.

So I wandered the periphery for a while, catching the barest glimpses of the distant stage during the build-up (veteran of Iraq, black Brooklyn preacher, Korean pastor, traditional choirs, Christian rock, and really bad R&B-like praise songs). Then, as the time approached, I made my way to one of the giant screen areas where I took a seat in the middle of the crowd, only to be surprised, yet again, by how casual it was. A lot of women were revealingly dressed—not just because of the heat, but with that extra prop and stretch that can only be intended. And a lot of the men were buff and tough, some with tattoos, long hair at the back, short on the side, bandannas. There were many modest middle class souls too; all pale and earnest, looking like nuns and priests without their habits. And all manner of black and brown and Asian people, the nuances of whose styles were (in that order) less apparent to me—but if this gathering had a theme it was diversity. Liberals can only dream of such diversity in their politics.

Casual in manner too. You know that standing and raising one hand as if to testify gesture? And the standing and raising both arms so that grace can pour down on you gesture? That was happening all around me, but—sorry to go to the obvious—the mood was EXACTLY like a rock concert. People would do that for a while and then sit down and make a cell phone call, or eat a sandwich, or do a thumbs up to some acquaintance across the way. When Graham was embracing his top aides (their last Crusade?) the woman behind me said appreciatively (no irony) "There's a Kodak moment." Appreciative, but not moved.

And so it went through his sermon and the call to come to Christ. In terms of body language, I couldn't tell the difference between the people heading toward the Altar/Screen and the people heading for the subway. Maybe that was a function of being in the virtual setting, but there was a dimension of habituality, a feeling of routine among the people involved in this that I just wasn't expecting. On the train going back I eavesdropped on a conversation between a 75 year old Serbian man and a 45 year old (very proper) black New Jersey matron and a (not quite so proper) light brown teen-age girl. They talked at length, with complete comfort, about their churches and about mundane details of life (best bus to Tenafly?). They could do this because, whatever the (mind-boggling) differences between them, they were sustained by, and could rely upon, the routines of Christian fellowship. I could almost see the supports, the guarantees, holding them up.