Nearly nine months after world-renowned Billy Graham left the crusade stage for good in New York, the 87-year-old evangelist stepped onto the debris-littered grounds of New Orleans Thursday where he will be preaching a word of hope alongside his son, evangelist Franklin Graham.
It was the Rev. Billy Graham's first look at the flood-damaged community as he and Franklin drove through the Lower Ninth Ward and viewed the streets that Katrina left behind. During preparations for this weekends evangelistic festival, Billy Graham had told his son, "Franklin, I want to come to New Orleans."
The elder Graham was surprised by the devastation. Upon viewing the communities, he said, "It reminds us that there is so much more to life than material things. There's a moral and spiritual strength that's needed not only here in New Orleans, but everywhere."
"My prayers are going to be intensified for the people here," he stated, according to the Associated Press.
The community visit is one of several stops the Grahams will be making before the "Celebration of Hope" this weekend. On Thursday, a special prayer service was held with hundreds of New Orleans area pastors who had asked Franklin to preach the Gospel there. According to the evangelist, the pastors were hoping God would use the storm to bring a spiritual awakening to the city and surrounding communities which they had been praying about for years.
"It's God's perfect timing to reach tens of thousands of weary and anxious residents with the reassuring Good News of His great love and compassion, proclaiming that 'we have this hope [in Christ] as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure,' (Hebrews 6:19)" Franklin said in a statement released Wednesday.
In the upcoming days, the international evangelists will meet with families living in mobile homes donated by Samaritan's Purse, the evangelical aid organization that Franklin leads, and dedicate a new playground.
Along with relief efforts, Franklin, who also serves as CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and his father will offer hurricane victims spiritual relief through a message of hope. With the participation of 215 local churches, the evangelistic festival is expected to house thousands of affected people under the gospel message at the New Orleans Arena.
"This is a very tumultuous time and if ever the country needed to turn to God, it's now," said Billy Graham.
"My heart goes out to the people who lived here."
This is Franklin's tenth visit to the ravaged area in relief aid. He met with President George W. Bush on Wednesday who also made a trip to New Orleans in his commitment to rebuild the U.S. Gulf Coast.
Bush extended his faith-based initiative this week to religious relief efforts, ordering the Department of Homeland Security to remove barriers to funding faith groups and establish a Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.
Samaritan's Purse has provided $38 million to the Gulf Coast and assisted more than 7,000 families and homes since the August 2005 disaster.