During his life, the Rev. Billy Graham preached the word of God to an estimated 215 million people in 185 countries and held more than 417 city crusades – including a stop in Spokane that filled 33,000 seats in one evening at Joe Albi Stadium.
The eight-day Inland Empire Billy Graham Crusade took place in August 1982 and drew more than 223,500 people – a number higher than the population of Spokane at the time.
Graham, who died Wednesday at the age of 99 after a lifetime of spreading his evangelical faith around the world, was invited to Spokane after a representative for the Billy Graham Evangelical Association encouraged a group of Spokane businessmen to support a crusade.
The group asked churches and community members to write letters formally inviting Graham to Spokane. In reply, about 880 letters were sent to churches in Eastern Washington, Idaho, Oregon and Montana informing them of Graham’s acceptance.
Thousands of volunteers helped organize the crusade, which drew people from all over the Inland Northwest and Canada.
Fourth Memorial Church attendee John Tusant said he was among a group of pastors who submitted an invitation for Graham’s visit to Spokane.
Tusant – who also served as a counselor for crusade attendees – remembers Graham as being very personable.
“If you were to meet him, he would say ‘Do not call me Reverend Graham or Mr. Graham, my name is Billy,’ ” he said. “There was no difference between when he would talk to a world leader and when he would talk to a person on the street. His approach would be the same. He was a humble man.”
Tusant said there was great anticipation for Graham’s visit to Spokane.
“For Joe Albi, it’s probably got to be largest event that’s hit the stadium,” he said. “Everybody was just looking forward to his arrival. The service itself would always start with a great rousing musical number. A choir of a couple thousand people would sing in it.”
Before the event began, Graham held a news conference in Spokane calling for the total disarmament of “all weapons of mass destruction.” He said he would oppose any proposals to freeze the amount of nuclear weapons unless it was clearly a “step toward the total disarmament of these weapons that can bring about the destruction of civilization at any time.”
At the end of his sermon on the crusade’s opening night, Graham asked audience members to witness their faith and trust in Christ in an altar call. More than 700 people marched down from the stands to the field’s 50-yard line, where Graham asked them to read the Bible, pray, witness Christ and work for Christ in a church of their choice.
Frank Hamilton – who is a retired psychologist – served as a counselor for individuals who would come forward for help at the end of Graham’s sermons. He also trained other volunteer counselors for two months prior to Graham’s visit.
Hamilton said he was in attendance for all eight nights of the Inland Empire Billy Graham Crusade. On the final evening, the stadium was so packed that people had to set up chairs on the football field.
“It was exciting. It felt like a holy time, a very special time,” he said. “It was a big night with a lot of excitement and a lot of good things were done.”
Tusant said choosing a city for a crusade wasn’t a decision Graham took lightly. It took years of research, with involvement from his team leaders.
“When Billy would send a team, he would send his own people to come live in the city for a year or two to get a good feel for what the city is,” he said. “They would get involved in the local church community here.”
In 1982, the Inland Empire Billy Graham Crusade ranked among the top 10 most attended crusades in the history of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
It generated $526,000 in revenue, most of which covered expenses. Of that, $81,840 was used to cover a nationwide telecast of the crusade and to help fund the 1983 Tacoma crusade.
“The attendance has far exceeded what we expected,” Graham said at a 1982 news conference.
During his trip, Graham visited the Spokane Raceway Park for the American Hot Rod Association World Finals – his first drag race – and chatted with driver Don “Big Daddy” Garlits.
“So many of the fellows I’m staying with talked about coming out here, so I decided to come out. This is a new experience for me. I’ve always been an inquisitive person,” Graham said about his visit to the park.
After he left town, Graham was ordered to have two weeks of bed rest because of a back injury he sustained in Spokane “when he was climbing a ledge to get a better view of the city,” according to a Spokane Daily Chronicle story. He canceled his schedule for two weeks, including a dinner at the White House with President Ronald Reagan.