ASHEVILLE, N.C. - At 95 and in frail health, Billy Graham often resists family entreaties to make excursions from his mountaintop home. But the nation's most famous evangelist attended a birthday celebration Thursday night that featured hundreds of well-wishers and what is being characterized as his final sermon.
In a video that was recorded over the past year, Graham delivered his familiar message about the saving power of Jesus Christ and expressed concern about the nation's direction. "Our country's in great need of a spiritual awakening," he declared. "There have been times that I've wept as I've gone from city to city and I've seen how far people have wandered from God."
Graham, white-haired and heavier-set now than he once was, was brought into the ballroom in a wheelchair. Instead of speaking from the dais, he addressed the crowd through the half-hour film. It included photos and clips that underscore his ministry's intersection with decades of American life and politics, showing him alongside presidents (John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton) as well as with Martin Luther King Jr., Pope John Paul II - and Johnny Carson.
Rapper LeCrae and Christian rocker Lacey Strum gave testimony in the video about the impact of Christ in their lives.
The video, titled My Hope America, will be aired on dozens of Christian and other TV stations across the country and at thousands of churches.Fox News Channel also aired it. "The greatest news channel in America," Graham's son, Franklin, declared during the dinner.
"This will be my father's last message to the nation," Franklin Graham said in an interview with USA TODAY before the celebration began. "He won't be able to do this again."
Among the hundreds of guests were North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin and New York real-estate magnate Donald Trump. Singers Ricky Skaggs, Michael W. Smith and others led the audience in two refrains of Happy Birthday. Fox News host Greta Van Susteren, one of the speakers, jumped off the stage to hold a microphone before Billy Graham as he singled out a few people in the audience for thanks.
"His message transformed my mom's life," Palin, one of the dinner's speakers, said in an interview with USA TODAY.
"In the 70s, she would tune into the Billy Graham crusades, televised. My mom was raised Catholic, and she ... was yearning for something more," she said. "His invitation for people to know that they could have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ - my mom understood that from the way that he could articulate it. She became a Christian, led the rest of the family to Christ, and that I believe transformed our family."
Franklin Graham, CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, says his father's mind is clear but his energy often wanes. "Sometimes I try to get him out to get a hamburger, just to get him out of the house," he says, persisting when his father demurs. "He'll look at me half-disgusted and say, 'Wait until you turn 95.' "