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The Reverend And The Newsman

Despite his failing health, the Rev. Billy Graham will hold what he expects to be his final American crusade of his evangelical career starting Friday night in New York City. The Early Show co-anchor Harry Smith had the opportunity to interview him. It was not the first time. Here is Smith's story.

Graham, 87, has been preaching for more than six decades, touching the lives of presidents and ordinary people alike, including an impressionable young boy many years ago.

In 1957, Graham came on his first crusade to New York City and made his mark on a nation's conscience. Just four years later, as a young boy, I was honored to be in his presence and have never forgotten.

I tell the spiritual leader, "I was 10 years old when I first heard you preach."

"Where was that?" the reverend asks.

"That was in Chicago at a Christian Youth Gathering," I tell him, "and it was the height of the Cold War, and you preached about a nuclear holocaust, and I was scared to death."

"Oh," the reverend says and laughs.

To be exact, this is what the reverend preached back then in Times Square: "Let us tell the world tonight that our trust is not in our stockpile of atomic bombs and hydrogen bombs, but in Almighty God."

Some 25 years later, I met Billy Graham for the first time. If you're a Protestant, it's a little like meeting the pope.

What was it inside of him that it was so necessary to answer this call to come to New York City and preach again?

"That's a difficult question for me to answer in one way," Graham answers, "But 9/11 is the root of this meeting that we've come to."

On Sept. 14, 2001, at the National Cathedral service, he preached, "No matter how hard we try, words simply cannot express our horror, the shock and the revulsion we all feel, over what took place in this nation on Tuesday morning."

He still preaches the same theology. Graham notes, "The gospel doesn't change. Man's need doesn't change. His basic need of the root of our evils and our problems, which is sin, needs to be forgiven.

"We need a new strength within us, which the Holy Spirit brings, and I feel the same way. When I stand up to preach, I may be helped to the podium by my friends and son, but when I touch that podium, I can feel a new strength and new power come. And it's a thrilling thing for me to preach the gospel at this age."

Ask him what is the single most important thing that Jesus Christ taught and Graham says, "I think John 3:16 sums it up, which is known to almost everybody. 'That God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.' That's the sum total of what I preach."

And he has a sense that these will be his last sermons.

"I think they will be," he says. "I will preach as though I'm preaching my last sermon, and that gives a new urgency to my message, I think."

After all these sermons, after (by some estimates) more than 200 million people that he has spoken to in person, to know that these will be his last sermons is incredible.

"That's true of every area of life," Graham says and, with a big smile, he adds, "I'm married to my last wife, my first one and my last one."

Smith says, "I'm sure, though, as you kneel in prayer to think about these times..."

Graham interrupts: "I don't kneel. My knees can't take it anymore."

"All right," Smith replies. "As you fold your hands in prayer, what do you think about then? What do you contemplate, and what are you asking for?"

"My No. 1 prayer is: 'Lord, help me,' in whatever I'm doing, whomever I'm talking to. As I was coming down the hall to see you, I prayed, 'Lord, help me with Harry,' " he says with a laugh.

Graham has been invited to preach in England in the fall, but this will be his last crusade in the United States. How much is he looking forward to getting into that pulpit Friday night?

"I'm looking forward with great anticipation," he says, "I'm going to preach the opening night on the love of God, and what that means, and what it could mean to all of us."

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