Franklin Graham will speak at Rogers Arena next March, for the culmination of the year-long Festival of Hope process. (billygraham.org)
Forty years ago I hitchhiked up to a farm west of Lusaka in Zambia. Three months later I left as a born again Christian. The farmers/missionaries introduced me to Christ in their home Bible studies and I made a profession of faith after hearing an evangelist at their Baptist church.
In retrospect, it’s probably best that I did not know the whole story of the family on the farm. It turned out that the man of the house had abused several people in his care. As for the evangelist, I don’t remember anything about him, except that he came from Perth, Australia. He may have been an absolute saint – or not.
I think back to my own experience of coming to faith as I reflect on the controversy surrounding Franklin Graham’s visit next spring for the Festival of Hope. (How much of a controversy there really is, I’m not sure, but an article this summer by Vancouver Sun columnist Douglas Todd pointed out that several local Christian leaders have critiqued his choice as key speaker for the culmination of the Festival next spring, March 3 – 5, at Rogers Arena.)
Maybe I should have waited to get saved under more carefully controlled circumstances – like the Billy Graham Crusade which came to Vancouver in 1984. But the fact is that nobody would likely have invited me. At least, no one had really shared the gospel with me during my first 25 years of life.
So, I remain thankful to the flawed family – including the father – who introduced me to the gospel. And I thank the local Christian leaders who are supporting the Festival of Hope in Vancouver. I am prepared to welcome Franklin Graham to town next March, despite the fact that I see some pretty serious flaws in some of what he says, and have little doubt that other Vancouverites will see them as well.
A strongly-worded letter from five local church leaders quoted in full by Todd will no doubt prime the pump. They said, in part:
As members and fellow leaders of the Christian community in Vancouver . . . we are compelled to formally respond to the request for endorsement by the Billy Graham Association and must unreservedly oppose the invitation of Reverend Franklin Graham . . .
[W]e seek to share a joyful witness, distinguished by love, and therefore denounce the frequent incendiary and intolerant statements made by Rev. Graham . . . [he] is a polarizing figure: many evangelical and church leaders in the United States have denounced Graham’s remarks. Finally, his ungracious and bigoted remarks have the potential to generate serious negative impact on the Christian witness in Vancouver. . . .
The five signatories (Tom Cooper, president, City in Focus; Tim Dickau, senior pastor, Grandview Calvary Baptist Church, Marjeta Bobnar, ecumenical and interfaith relations, Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vancouver; Tim Kuepfer, senior pastor, First Baptist Church; Ken Shigematsu, senior pastor, Tenth Church) said they could suggest “alternative speakers.”
About Franklin Graham
The statement doesn’t give any detail about which of Graham’s actions or statements they object to, and Todd didn’t add much more, stating that Graham is “known for criticizing homosexuals, Muslims and U.S. President Barack Obama.”
The most substantial knock against Graham, as far as I can see, is that he has called for a ban on the immigration of Muslims (or those from the Middle East, or everyone – it’s not entirely clear which in this CNN interview late last year), until America’s “broken” immigration system is “fixed.”
Like the great majority of Canadians – including Christians, who have led the way in welcoming Syrian and other refugees – I don’t agree with his stand at all.
I am also not keen on the way he ties Christian faith so closely to the American way. While Donald Trump endlessly repeats his ‘Make America Great Again’ message, Graham is spiritualizing a similar message during his 50-state Decision America Tour this year. On the tour’s remarkably red-white-and-blue website, he asks his fellow citizens “to pray for our nation just as Nehemiah cried out to God to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and restore hope to His people.”
Graham takes pains to state that he does not promote either Trump or Clinton, though a look at Two Visions, Two Americas (in the BGEA’s Decision magazine) or the Party Platforms overview on the website suggests he fears Clinton more than Trump.
Graham appears to have bought into a fearful nativism. He seems not to remember some of the lessons that Billy learned along the way – he famously said that if he had things to do over again, he “would have steered clear of politics.”
A 2012 article in Christianity Today – founded by Billy Graham and still very much a sympathetic publication – asked Has Billy Graham suddenly turned political? The three commentators had a range of views, but the magazine was clearly concerned that Franklin was moving his father and the BGEA too far into the political realm.
(It should not be overlooked that Franklin Graham has spent most of his adult life doing good works. He has been leading Samaritan’s Purse – including Operation Christmas Child – since 1979, well before he took over at the helm of BGEA. The humanitarian organization works in more than 100 countries, including a number of Muslim ones, and with Syrian refugees, as illustrated in this UNHCR report.)
Here are some things to take into account as we consider the upcoming Festival of Hope.
Festival of Hope leaders gathered on the stage at Broadway Church March 31. Photo by Frank King.
Gabeli said, “The leadership team respectfully disagrees [with the statement]. We honour them; we understand where they are coming from.” He feels the Festival has a mandate from a very wide range of churches, but doesn’t feel any rift with the critics, noting that they have known each other and worked together for many years – and will work together again. “We’re still brothers working together in the city.”
For his part, Cooper said to Todd: “We understand that we are just one of many evangelical and orthodox voices and there will sometimes be disagreement.”
It is worth noting, as well, that three of the five who signed the letter had people at the Festival of Hope launch in March. A representative of City in Focus was there, as was Marjeta Bobnar, on behalf of the Catholic Church.
Todd interviewed Paul Schratz, who said the Catholic Church has changed its position:
While the opposition statement was signed by Catholic ecumenical relations official Bobnar, Paul Schratz confirmed the archdiocese also formally declined an invitation to take part in the Festival of Hope.
“Initially we were supportive of next year’s event, since it was intended to draw a large number of people to hear the gospel and grow closer to Jesus,” said Schratz, spokesman for the archdiocese, which includes more than 400,000 Catholics.
“While we obviously acknowledge Mr. Graham’s zeal in preaching the Gospel we had second thoughts about participating when we noted that American evangelicals, whom we were trying to work with on this event, were criticizing Mr. Franklin for various comments and stances that didn’t promote religious tolerance.”
Ken Shigematsu was up on stage with the leadership team – and is in fact still on the team. Pointing out that the ‘statement’ was leaked to the press (sent June 16, it wasn’t reported on by Todd until August 18), he told me:
The intent of the private memo was to ask the committee to consider a less polarizing speaker and ideally a Canadian like Leighton Ford or Ravi Zacharias who is part of the Graham Associate orbit.
We support Samaritan’s Purse and I wish Franklin the very best and I have no negative comment regarding him or his ministry.
The Festival has been common knowledge for a couple of years in Vancouver; a local team went to the Toronto Festival of Hope in 2014 They were impressed by what they saw there, and shared their experience widely.
While critique of the Festival is certainly legitimate, any attempt to suggest alternative speakers should have been made earlier than this summer.
2. Strong support for Festival
Festival of Hope executive leader Giulio Gabeli (left) with David Ingram, BGEA’s Festival director. Photo by Frank King.
David Ingram noted that there are already at least 200 churches on board and that the large networks of Chinese and Korean churches (each more than 100 strong) are interested in joining. He expects at least 400 churches to be involved by the end of the year.
Todd pointed out:
Some of the large, often ethnically mixed evangelical congregations in Metro Vancouver that are endorsing Graham’s crusade include Willingdon Church, Westside Church, Coastal Church, Broadway Church, Glad Tidings Church, Holy Trinity [Anglican] Church and Richmond Pentecostal Church.
He also quoted a couple of supportive pastors:
Rev. George Wong, head pastor at Evangelical Chinese Bible Church in Burnaby, one of many congregations training volunteers to work at Graham’s crusade, said “the last thing we want to do is promote hate.”
Graham “is not coming to Vancouver to preach against homosexuality, but to preach the gospel,” Wong said.
Saying he was unaware a Christian group is opposing Graham’s involvement in the Festival of Hope, Wong didn’t want to comment on Graham’s statements about gays and Muslims, other than to affirm “the gospel is for people from all walks of life.”
Ingram said to Todd: “I wouldn’t want a few people who are opposed to the festival to overshadow the wide support for it.”
3. Festival isn’t really about Franklin
The Billy Graham team points out that Franklin Graham is only part of the year-long Festival of Hope process.Following the launch event, which drew about 1,000 people to Broadway Church March 31, there were a series of Involvement Seminars at 12 churches from May 2 – 10.
Many Vancouverites can point back to Billy Graham’s visit in 1984 as a turning point in their faith journey. We still need all the help we can get with evangelism – and the BGEA has the experience and the know-how to pull together a large-scale evangelistic event.
Some will say the Festival approach is outdated or too narrow. The Toronto experience suggests the former is not true – many were saved, many were renewed in their faith and hundreds of churches worked together for the good of the city.
Is the evangelistic focus too narrow? No. Ingram and BGEA are the first to acknowledge that the Festival has a simple goal: “bringing the Good News of Jesus Christ to Vancouver.” When people go forward to commit themselves to Christ, or to renew their commitments, they will be directed to local churches for discipleship.
The Festival of Hope is far from the only model of evangelism. We are fortunate to be an active centre for the Alpha Course, which is gearing up for a major initiative this fall (supported by many of the same churches which support the Festival). There are other initiatives, but they’re pretty rare. We can learn something from Graham – boldness, directness, willingness to confront . . . but mainly the simple gospel message of salvation, which does not require any degree of human perfection to pierce the heart.
The Festival will also not cover all elements of the Christian life. Should our faith be more justice oriented? Yes. More sophisticated intellectually? Yes. More community oriented? Yes.
Franklin Graham is not being invited to address those needs. They are down to us. Though the church of Vancouver has lots of room for growth in all of these areas, I think we already have something to share with Franklin Graham when he comes to town.
The first and most important distinction to make about evangelicals is to highlight the difference between evangelicals and the Religious Right, the latter being the source of most of racy news stories mentioned.
While it’s fair to say most members of North America’s Religious Right are evangelicals (and, to a lesser extent, Roman Catholics), it is not accurate to assume that most evangelicals belong to the Religious Right.
The second crucial thing to keep in mind is that Canadian evangelicals are often less fundamentalist and militant than their often-bombastic American counterparts.
Some local Christians – and I would say particularly those born in America who have left behind that more assertive approach – fear that our (more open-minded? more polite? tamer?) brand of faith will be overwhelmed from the south. We also fear, I think, that Vancouverites will lump us in with those American believers, will judge us and might even ostracize us.
These are understandable fears, but Canadian Christians tend to be too timid; let us not be so fearful of what the culture might say. Active, enthusiastic Christians are always going to be viewed with a degree of suspicion – sometimes even contempt – by some in our very secular society. (I remember well my own views before I was saved; I sometimes wonder if I would have had enough respite from the nay-sayers to really consider the claims of Christ, if I had not been safely tucked away in Zambia.)
6. Put it in perspective
The Pacific Coliseum became a house of prayer during Voices Together last summer – and will again next July 1; Christians from all denominations are involved.
We all must follow our own conscience. No one is obliged to support the Festival of Hope – but it is essential to remember that there is just one church in Vancouver; the community will be watching as we work out our disagreements.
I respect all these leaders – those who are working hard on the Festival of Hope and those who feel they cannot. I have dealt with many of them, and I believe their motives are good. They have worked together before and they continue to work together.
Giulio Gabeli said, referring not only to the festival, but to all the joint ventures “I really believe God is going to do something wonderful in Vancouver.”