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Friday, May 26, 2006

50 Years in Christian Work # 128
From the 50-year diary of Maurice Rowlandson

Special to Assist News Service

LONDON, ENGLAND (ANS) -- June 1989 saw the start of the Mission to London. We had already had one or two preparatory events (like the Guildhall Dinner and a meeting in Victoria Park). Now the first real phase was to begin in the Upton Park West Ham United Football Stadium.

Once again London became the centre for Billy Graham’s ministry and we were encouraged by a totally filled stadium. It remained like that for the three nights of the Mission. We had problems over tickets – not an unusual situation at Billy Graham meetings, but more difficult in a British situation than it would be in America. All the tickets were free and did not stipulate any specific seat. In America, around a quarter to a third of the free tickets were never used. Therefore the Mission committee always issued rather more tickets than the seating capacity of the venue. Mostly that meant that the tickets which were used just about filled the stadium. But to an Englishman something given away meant that he intended to use it. So the situation could arise when far more people turned than those for whom we had seats. It was a problem which had not changed since the days of the Harringay Crusade in 1954. Nevertheless, the London committee, encouraged by the Billy Graham Team still distributed an excess number of tickets.

West Ham was no exception! I was despatched to deal with the problem of people outside with tickets but no seats. It was almost like facing a lynching mob! ‘I’ve got a ticket’ they all said, and I had to pacify them until we could find a solution.

While I faced the mob outside several of my American colleagues were in consultation with the West Ham United authorities. Eventually they negotiated permission to allow us to let people use the turf. So I changed from being the ‘bête noir’ to becoming the champion of the enormous crowd!

Amongst them, unbeknown to me, was a young man who was the exceptional bass guitarist of McKenna’s Gold – a popular band of the late 1980’s. His name was Alex Bowler and he had been persuaded to come by a friend. . Five years later I heard his story – the details of which must await their proper place in the diary of these events.

Another significant conversion at West Ham was that of a young man who was later to go to Oak Hill Theological College and enter the Anglican Ministry. We met him 16 years later at a Reform Conference of the Church of England. We sat at the same table one mealtime and he told me that it was at West Ham that he had committed his life to Christ. There were surely many others!

The meetings at West Ham concluded on the Saturday morning when thousands of children attended a special event called ‘Bubble Trouble’. This followed the pattern of Mr Graham’s meetings in America, when the Saturday morning was devoted to bringing the Gospel to children. The stadium was packed for this special occasion.

On that same day we had news that the Curate of our church in Edgware, George Hoffman, had been awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire). This was in recognition of his work with Samaritans’ Purse and, formerly, with Tear Fund. He had been and was a dear friend. Just three short years later he was to lose his life as he was knocked down by a speeding car in the West Country. Along with many others we missed him greatly.

The Monday after the West Ham Mission finished we had news that there was to be a major transport strike on the Wednesday of that week. The news was important to us because that was the very day when the next phase of the Mission to London was to start at the Crystal Palace stadium in Southwest London. This led to a great discussion in the committee whether or not we should cancel. The outcome was that we decided to continue without any change to our programme. One attraction was that the singer Cliff Richard was expected to take part that evening. We hoped and prayed – and believed – that that factor would help to encourage the crowds to come. And they did. We had close on 30,000 there that first night. It was one of the biggest crowds for the whole of the Mission to London.

I was to experience a new situation during the Crystal Palace Mission.. For the first – and only – time, Mr Graham invited me to be responsible for looking after him in his room at the Crystal Palace. This involved monitoring his visitors and ensuring that there was adequate security. I felt greatly honoured that he had entrusted this task to me and I prayed that God would give me the wisdom and ability to do it well. In the event it was a challenging but rewarding job and I greatly enjoyed the responsibilities.

Billy Graham’s (English) secretary, Stephanie Wills, celebrated her birthday during the weeks of the Mission. We took advantage of her presence in London to mark her special day. So, on Saturday 24th June, a group of Team Members and staff from the Team Office, took her to lunch at the Mondello Restaurant in Goodge Street, London. That little Italian Restaurant was often the scene of Christian activity for it was a great place to go after an evening committee meeting. It was also Henry Hole’s favourite restaurant and we had many Venturers Cruise meals there with times of great fellowship. We also used it regularly to honour members of the staff who were leaving us. In a way it became almost ‘my London office’ because once I had retired (for the first time in 1987) I needed somewhere to meet people, and the Mondello was very convenient. They also had excellent Italian food at reasonable prices!

On this occasion amongst those who came were Maurey Scobee (who like Stephanie lived and worked in Montreat, North Carolina); Suzanne Byrne from America; Jean Wilson from the on-going London office and Myriam van der Doef with her sister Chris Arnaert, both of whom had worked with Stephanie in many places in both Europe and America. We also had several of the Team Office staff with us including Judith and John Righton; Susie Sanguinetti and Ingrid Holdsworth. It was a happy time of wonderful fellowship together – something that was a regular experience when working with the Billy Graham Team.

The penultimate phase of the Mission to London took place over six days in the Earls Court Arena. This was a different for, in effect, the Earls Court Arena became a vast ‘studio’ as more than 250 Closed Circuit Television programmes were relayed from the meetings there across the British Isles and to some places overseas. Each night the arena was filled for what, in effect (together with the Wembley Stadium meeting a week later), became the last series of meetings that Billy Graham would ever hold in England.

At Earls Court, Billy Graham gave me the task of greeting the many VIP’s who had responded to our invitation to attend the meetings. Some of them he wanted to meet personally and he would ask me to bring them to his room. This involved fetching them from the VIP lounge at the far end of the building and walking them around the corridors to his room behind the platform.

Two people who attended one night were the Archbishop of Canterbury (Dr Robert Runcie) and Cardinal Heenan of the Roman Catholic church. Billy Graham said that he would like to see them together and he sent me to get them. I apologised to both of them for the many double doors which lie between the VIP room and Mr Graham’s room. At each pair of doors either the Archbishop or the Cardinal would stand back and ask the other to go first! Eventually we reached the final pair of doors and I told them so, whereupon Robert Runcie turned to the Cardinal and asked ‘Your Grace: is this an Anglican Door or a Catholic door?’ Before he could answer a member of the Earls Court staff appeared and, while he held open one door, I held the other open and they went through the doorway together – whereupon the Archbishop remarked ‘That’s how it should be!’

The Earls Court meetings were reminiscent of the great Crusades of 1966/7. Billy Graham preached as powerfully as ever but the response was consistently larger than it had been in the earlier years.

Mr.Graham recalled how, at Earls Court in 1966, he had answered the charge that ‘it was the emotional music’ which prompted people to come forward when he invited them to ‘get up out of your seats and come to the front.’ So this time he suggested that the choir should not sing, and let people come forward in the silence. They still did so and the noise of thousands of pairs of feet was a very moving sound. Then the Press complained that it ‘was the emotional silence’ that made people come forward.

I was reminded of Aesop’s Fable in which a man and his son went to market to buy a donkey. On the way home they led the donkey by its leading rein. As they reached the first village people said ‘What silly people! Instead of them both walking why doesn’t one of them ride the donkey?’ So the son rode the donkey but, as they passed through the next village, they heard the villagers say ‘Look at that thoughtless boy, making his poor old dad walk.’ So the man told his son to dismount, and he himself got on the donkey. At the next village they heard the remark ‘Look at that cruel man, making his son walk.’ So the father said ‘Son! Get up behind me. We’ll both ride.’ At the next village they heard the villagers say ‘That poor donkey. Fancy two of them making him carry that burden!’ So the father and son got off and finished up by carrying the donkey!

If you constantly listen to, and respond to, criticism, you will end up ‘carrying the donkey’!

(Next: The Wembley Stadium: The Keswick Convention and parking problems)

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