When is a box of toys not just a box of toys? When it’s full of God’s love. This season, Operation Christmas Child will distribute seven million shoeboxes full of dolls, balls, markers, soap and lollipops to children in 95 countries around the world. Along with the treats, Gospel booklets are included in every gift-wrapped box to tell recipient children about “the Good News of God’s love.”
Operation Christmas Child is one of the best-known projects of Samaritan’s Purse, an Evangelical Christian relief organization run by Franklin Graham, the eldest son of celebrity televangelist Billy Graham. The organization seeks to “serve the Church worldwide by promoting the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Over the past 30 years, Samaritan’s Purse has reached out to “hurting boys and girls” from Afghanistan and Columbia to Liberia and Sudan, in an effort to convert them to Christianity.
Samaritan’s Purse bases its ministry on eight assertions of faith. The first predictably states that: “We believe the Bible to be the inspired, the only infallible, authoritative Word of God.” (II Timothy 3:15-17) The sixth is much more disturbing, and dictates the fate of millions of “victims of war, poverty, natural disasters, disease and famine” who receive aid from Samaritan’s Purse: “We believe in the resurrection of both the saved and the lost; the saved unto the resurrection of eternal life and the lost unto the resurrection of damnation and eternal punishment.” (Revelation 20:11-15; I Corinthians 15:51-57)
According to that uplifting maxim, the legions of Christmas Children who receive shoeboxes but do not open their hearts to the Lord (possibly because they already have a perfectly good God of their own) are going straight to Hell. As unfair as this may seem, the Samaritans teach that the only way to attain eternal life is through Jesus Christ.
Students at LeMarchant-St. Thomas elementary school were slated to take part in Operation Christmas Child this year, but the box-stuffing was halted after the Halifax regional school board received complaints from parents. Several parents expressed concern after visiting the Samaritan’s Purse website (www.samaritanspurse.org), where they learned the donated gifts would be used to proselytize.
Complaints were also directed at the organization’s controversial president, Graham, who visited Halifax for a three-day evangelical festival in October. Halifax Regional School Board spokesperson Doug Hadley told the Chronicle Herald “we feel there is a lack of respect and dignity that is shown through Mr. Graham’s organization to people who are not of the same views.”
A one-time rebel turned Christian, 53 year-old Graham is primed to continue in his aging father’s faithful footsteps. Franklin is now president and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (Billy retired in 2000), and over the past 15 years he has preached to 3.4 million people at more than 100 evangelical festivals around the world.
Along with the news of God’s loving forgiveness, Graham is well known for sharing his views on Islam. Following 9/11, Graham told NBC Nightly News, “The God of Islam is not the same God of the Christian or the Judeo-Christian faith. It is a different God, and I believe a very evil and a very wicked religion.”
Graham stands by this statement today, adding, “there’s nothing (in Islam) that I see that’s peaceful. And I have been working in these countries many, many years helping Muslim people, and we love them and we want them to be free. We want them to know that Jesus Christ died for their sins and that they can have faith in Jesus Christ and they can experience God’s forgiveness.”
By offering people the chance to accept Jesus into their lives, Graham and his Samaritans are holding out a golden carrot of salvation. Not everyone will accept it, and in a world filled with poor, disenfranchised, wrong-god worshipping sinners, an evangelist’s work is never done.
Despite his anti-Islam rhetoric and fundamentalist message, Graham managed to pack the Metro Centre for three nights straight during his Halifax visit.
It is Friday October 15, and the Halifax Metro Centre is bursting at the seams. Red-shirted ushers direct late arrivals into the high reaches of the upper bowl, while early comers scurry back to their seats laden with popcorn and fries. At precisely 7pm, the show begins.
“You don’t have to go far to hear bad news, or sad news,” intones the announcer. “But tonight, we’re going to hear good news.” The crowd murmurs its approval, and on that pleasing, pacified note the East Coast 2004 Franklin Graham Festival begins.
The primary objective of every Franklin Graham Festival is to “bring uncommitted individuals into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and firmly establish them in a local church.” Posters promoting the three-day event promise “Music,” “Fun” and “Truth,” and 300 local churches spanning 30 Christian denominations provide funds, volunteers and thousands of warm bodies to ensure the Festival’s success.
The festival’s greatest strength lies in its sheer entertainment values. Big name Christian rock bands attract adults and youth alike, and non-threatening broadcast testimonies of love and salvation create a pleasant and seemingly non-judgmental environment. Graham’s evangelical festivals, like the gift-wrapped, treat-filled shoeboxes of Operation Christmas Child, rely on one central marketing tenet: The prettier the package, the more you’ll want to buy it.
On the second night of the three-day festival, buses crammed with youth groups wind their way to the Metro Centre at 5pm. By 7pm over 10,000 people have packed into the stadium, and security guards are forced to lock the doors and deny entry to those still lined up outside.
Inside, shrieking masses of ecstatic youth storm the floor of the Metro Centre as Tree 63 takes the stage. The pop/rock/inspirational trio from South Africa bangs out their set, and small children climb onto each other’s shoulders while their friends and relatives who’ve barely hit puberty jump up to crowd surf. Many of them don’t look old enough to go to the mall alone, let alone a rock concert.
Jars of Clay is up next, and the American Christian rockers continue to work the crowd into a frenzy. Children and adults alike close their eyes and sway, arms outstretched, faces rapturous. The music is infectious and blasts throughout the stadium, obliterating any haven of quiet contemplation in favour of overwhelming sound and light.
“I’m over the moon,” says Bruce Havill, executive committee chair of the East Coast 2004 Franklin Graham Festival. And there is no doubt in Havill’s mind that it’s the God and Jesus of the musicians’ lyrics moving people, and not the overpowering musical spectacle. “What makes something sacred is it’s done for the glory of God, so the style is not the issue,” says Havill, “it’s what the message is and what the goal of the music is.”
Local teens Laura Baurle and Erin Griswold aren’t so sure. “I think a lot of times (people) get into the music because everyone else is, and they feel like they have to too,” says Baurle, “and it’s not necessarily because of God.” Griswold agrees, saying she prefers “smaller groups of people where you can get into worship better.”
Both girls are thrilled at the sheer numbers packing the Centre, however, and feel a rush of confidence and joy in knowing that their faith is shared by so many. This sense of religious affirmation is echoed throughout the stadium, from the floor to the stage, to the nosebleed section and the sky boxes, where volunteers are gathered to “pray for God to move in this city.”
Every night following the musical entertainment, Graham takes control of the podium. Graham tailors his message (and wardrobe) specifically to the demographics of each audience. On the Festival’s opening night, as legions of old white heads bob throughout the stands, Graham bases his sermon on uncertainty and fear. “There are many in here tonight,” intones Graham, “who are in danger of losing their soul.” He follows this threat with the promise of salvation, so long as you make the right choice. “You can choose to accept Jesus Christ,” says Graham, “or you can reject him.” Rejection of Christ guarantees the unfaithful soul a prime spot on “the ship of death.”
The festival’s second night is geared towards youth, and Graham swaps his solemn suit and death threats for a leather jacket and love. In a relaxed, affable tone, Graham shares the story of a young man who left home, squandered his inheritance, sinned against his father and then returned home with his tail between his legs, only to find his father’s arms “wide open” waiting to embrace and forgive him. It’s an emotionally appealing story, and Graham follows it up with his nightly invitation for all non-believers to come down to the front of the stage and receive God’s forgiveness.
The soon-to-be-saved are hesitant at first, but as increasing numbers trickle down the stairs, the floodgates open and hundreds of sinners rush to the floor. Empty orange seats pop up across the stadium like gap-teeth. On stage, the Tommy Coomes Band plays “Come, just as you are/Come and see/Come and live for-ever” as Graham continues to beckon from the podium.
Of the thousands of bodies now filling the floor, few are fresh converts. Most of the people in attendance were Christians long before coming to the Metro Centre, and in many ways the Festival is an exercise in preaching to the choir. For wayward members of the flock, however, coming down to the stage is an opportunity to reaffirm their faith. “I just needed a kind of boot in the butt,” says Donna Lee MacLeod, “I was following quite strongly, and then I walked away from it, and that’s when I started to get back into trouble. None of us are perfect and we never will be, but with God’s help I will be able to do my best.”The festival is also being broadcast live to Sydney’s Centre 200, and Graham instructs those in Cape Breton to “get up out of your seat and make your way down to the screen.” In an attempt to minimize his status as an idol, Graham assures the crowd “You’re not coming to Franklin Graham, I cannot save you, you’re coming to Jesus Christ.” Graham negates this claim moments later, however, when he warns those still seated “You may never have another chance like this again.” After all, it’s been 25 years since Billy Graham was last in town, and your life could easily come to a tragic end tomorrow like “the young man in the submarine,” “those men on the 747,” or “that lady in the car.”Once the stands are empty of all but the securely faithful and the resolutely unfaithful, Graham leads his thousands of believers in a prayer. The whole thing takes about a minute, following which Graham looks at his watch. “It’s 8:54 and God has heard your prayer and he’s forgiven you,” Graham tells his captive audience, “You’ve been set free. God has taken all of your sins and he’s just hit the delete button. There is not a record of your sins anywhere in heaven.”
To make sure they keep it that way, the floor of the Metro Centre is crawling with counsellors, at a ratio of one to every new Christian. The role of the counsellors is to firmly establish these converts in their new faith and connect them with a church in their community. Rigorous follow-up plans are in place to make certain, as Havill puts it, “that not one person slips through the cracks.”
“If you bring a new baby into your home, you don’t just give it one meal and then walk away and say ‘you’re looked after,’” says Havill. “We’ve got a lot of—in a figurative sense—a lot of babes here. It’s like there’s been a delivery here tonight and many precious lives are getting their first meal now. But they’re going to need many more meals.”Counsellor Harold Veinot is eager to feed hungry ex-heathens. “Are you a Christian?” he asks. Caught off guard I mumble, “Ah, not per se.” Veinot’s septuagenarian face contorts with self-righteous incredulity. “Why?” I ask, “Do you think I’m going to hell?” Veinot squirms. “I don’t like to put that word that way,” he says. “But I mean, we make that decision if we don’t accept the Lord. We only have one God, and when the rapture takes place people won’t have an opportunity then, it will be too late. I don’t want you to be one of those.” Veinot then tries to tempt me into spiritual re-birth with a bible and an inspirational CD (the kids love their CDs) and asks for my number so he can continue his bid to save my soul. I decline.
The concept of hell is insidiously present throughout the Festival proceedings, though no one wants to talk about it. Unlike catchy choruses and celebrity speakers, the damning fires of hell aren’t going to attract new Christians. But while hell may be a turnoff, it’s as real in the collective consciousness of hardcore Christians as Jesus Christ himself.
And as far as Graham and his flock are concerned, the time to repent and avoid an eternity on fire is running out. Graham is convinced we’re living in the “latter days,” and that the rapture (when Jesus comes back and born-again Christians both living and dead rise from the earth to meet him in the sky) could happen at anytime. “I don’t see how the world can go much further without it exploding,” says Graham. “When North Korea gets atomic weapons and places like Pakistan have atomic weapons, and Iran’s working on atomic weapons, how long till somebody pushes that button, and what would it lead to?”Chaos? Unimaginable destruction? Hell on earth? Whatever happens, it undoubtedly would not be fun. It is much more pleasing to interpret warring nations and environmental degradation as signs of Jesus Christ’s return, rather than worry about the consequences of our unbalanced and angry world.
Backstage at the Metro Centre, ensconced on a pleather couch and surrounded with trays of fruit and mini-sandwiches, Franklin Graham looks tired. It’s Saturday night, and a massive choir can be heard warming up the crowd of 11,000 faithful souls.Graham is scheduled to take the stage in an hour, but the celebrity preacher is looking less than charismatic. Graham’s eyes do not flash with zealous fire and his voice, barely audible at first, is tinged with a southern drawl, not the booming Word of God. Contrary to his physical presence—emphasized by high-gloss snakeskin cowboy boots, black leather jacket and glowing marigold tie—Graham seems distinctly absent.It’s almost like he’s already gone—up in the sky, looking down sadly. Don’t say he didn’t warn you. Or maybe, like a true performer, Graham simply knows to save his energy for the big show.