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Rev. Billy Graham’s message, Pittsburgh-area visits inspired many of all faiths

Stephen Huba
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Spencer Platt/Getty Images
The American evangelist Rev. Billy Graham has died at age 99.
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The Rev. Billy Graham preaches on the first night of his three-day crusade at Flushing Meadows Corona Park in the Queens borough of New York Friday, June 24, 2005. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
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The Rev. Billy Graham speaks during the second night of the Greater New York Billy Graham Crusade Saturday, June 25, 2005 at Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens, New York. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

The Rev. Billy Graham’s unique impact on American religious life included changing lives in Western Pennsylvania.

Graham, whose crusades, books, sermons and movies made the evangelical movement part of American popular culture, died Wednesday. He was 99.

Graham brought his evangelistic meetings, then called crusades, to Pittsburgh for the first time in 1952. He returned to much fanfare in 1968 and 1993.

Western Pennsylvanians who attended those crusades, helped in their planning or just admired him from afar said his legacy will be long-lasting.

“We have lost a kindred spirit and a man who brought many people into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” said Greensburg Bishop Edward C. Malesic. “I always admired his ability to preach the gospel of Jesus with power and conviction. He inspired people to seek God in their everyday lives, echoing the words of Jesus, ‘Repent and believe in the good news.’ ”

Malesic noted that Graham met with Pope John Paul II, who said to the North Carolina evangelist, “We are brothers.”

Christian Associates of Southwestern Pennsylvania, an ecumenical group that represents Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox Christians, released a statement on its Facebook page, calling Graham “one of the most influential Christians of the past century” and praising his ability to cross boundaries.

“Billy Graham influenced not only those who claimed evangelical as a description, but any Christian who was formed by the public faith of the 20th century,” said the Rev. Liddy Barlow, Christian Associates executive minister. “The way he worked with Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants was revolutionary. Today’s ecumenical movement owes a lot to him.”

Grove City College President Paul J. McNulty called Graham “the pre-eminent leader of the modern evengelical movement.”

“He embodied our core value of faithfulness in his remarkable commitment to the ministry of the gospel over the span of nearly eight decades,” McNulty said. “Now he is enjoying the eternal rest that he so tirelessly encouraged millions of people to envision.”

Graham’s relationship with the Western Pennsylvania college included his 23-year friendship with its foremost benefactor, Philadelphia industrialist J. Howard Pew.

A year before Pew died in 1971, Graham wrote Pew a note in which he said, “Evangelicalism is growing — and much of the credit goes to you. You have been a great inspiration and blessing in my life. I thank you for it.”

Allegheny County Councilwoman Sue Means, who considers Graham a mentor, trained as a children’s counselor for Graham’s 1993 crusade at Three Rivers Stadium. She counseled children who came forward for the “altar call” that was signaled by the popular hymn “Just As I Am.”

“There was such a great response,” said Means, 66, of Bethel Park. “You’d pray with two or three kids and share the gospel with them and they would accept the Lord. We would give them literature and then follow up with them — try to get them connected to a local church so it would not stop there and they would have some other source to help them on their faith walk.”

Billie Summerville, 53, of Greensburg also attended the 1993 crusade, remembering it as a seminal moment in her spiritual journey.

“That was when I realized that my Christianity didn’t have to be a secret. It was like, wow, there’s this many people who think like this. It didn’t have to be a Sunday-only relationship,” Summerville said. “It was a positive experience with positive-thinking people — but real. They weren’t trying to fabricate their life like a lot of people on Sunday morning.”

Summerville went on to coordinate an appearance by Graham associate Dr. Ralph Bell in Latrobe in 1999 — an event at which Graham made a guest appearance.

Priscilla “Sas” Argentine, 64, of McMurray, Washington County, said Graham’s 1968 crusade in Pittsburgh had a similar effect on her.

Raised in a Methodist church, Argentine said she had become a “willful” teenager by the summer of 1968. But her attendance at a weekly Bible study prepared her for what happened at the Graham crusade.

“Just hearing the message of God’s love for me and that Jesus died for my sins, I knew in my heart it was true, and I wanted to make a public confession of my faith,” Argentine said. “It was as if a huge burden was lifted off my soul.”

A counselor gave her a packet of Bible verses to memorize and told her to find a Bible-believing church, she said.

“That was very helpful,” she said.

Graham’s 1952 crusade was so popular that it was moved from the Hunt Armory to Forbes Field, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates, according to contemporaneous news accounts.

Marketing Support Network President Lin Cook, 65, of Bethel Park said he was impressed by Graham’s memory when he met him as a college student in 1974.

Cook was a student chaplain at Gordon College in Wenham, Mass., and saw the famous evangelist at a small gathering of college and seminary leaders. He had been introduced to Graham earlier but was surprised that Graham remembered his name as they shook hands at the end.

“He said, ‘I believe each person is made in the image of God and deserves to be treated with repect,’ ” Cook said. “He was more interested in other people than he was in himself. That’s not something you see very often.”

Cook said Graham told him that he had learned memorization techniques from NBA player Jerry Lucas.

Retired Grove City professor L. John Van Til, who met Graham through Pew in 1969, affirmed the famous preacher’s humility.

“He was easy to talk to. … He was an ordinary guy in many ways, a humble guy,” he said.

Van Til wrote some speeches for Graham and traveled with him to Pew’s Ardmore estate for Pew’s funeral in 1971.

Alexander Panormios, 53, of the North Hills was walking in the “bowels” of Three Rivers Stadium during Graham’s 1993 crusade when he ran into the evangelist. The volunteer usher said he was shocked at the unexpected encounter.

“He and some other guys were walking by (prior to the service), and I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, that’s Billy Graham,’ so I stopped and shook his hand,” Panormios said.

He, too, said he was struck by Graham’s humility and ordinariness.

He had his picture taken with Graham and crusade singer George Beverly Shea. “It was just one of those things,” he said.

Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-1280, [email protected] or via Twitter @shuba_trib.

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