It’s been 50 years since Billy Graham held his first crusades in Australia and to mark that fact the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association has commissioned a new documentary which takes a look at the events of of 1959 and their ongoing impact in Australia.

The one hour film, Remembering ‘59, will be hosted by Karl Faase - the host of weekly Christian talk show Face to Face and a board member of the BGEA. It’s been produced by Olive Tree Media in association with the BGEA.

Faase and Shea

REMEMBERING '59: George Beverly Shea, "America's most beloved Gospel singer", with 'Remembering '59' host Karl Faase in the US last year.

 

“It was no flash in the pan...” he says. “It gave the church a lift and a boost and it provided a major shift in the Australian Christian scene.”

- Martin Johnson, director and producer of 'Remembering '59'.

Martin Johnson, who directs and produces the film, says the documentary looks at the impact of the crusade on Australia both then and now.

To that end, it includes interviews with a number of Australians who were impacted by the crusades, the best known of whom is Peter Jensen, the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney.

“He went 17 times to hear Billy Graham...” Mr Johnson says. “He said he went forward and he turned around and saw his younger brother Phillip (now Dean of St Andrew's Cathedral in Sydney) following him. 

"Now Phillip tells the story that when he heard the call for people to go forward he know that ‘criminals and alcoholics’ were the people that went forward and when he looked up to see what a criminal and an alcoholic looked like, because he’d never seen one, he saw his brother going forward.” 

Mr Johnson and Mr Faase also spent a week the US in the middle of last year where they visited the Billy Graham Centre in Charlotte, North Carolina, which contains a reconstruction of the house he grew up in.

While in the States, they also conducted interviews with George Beverly Shea, a Grammy award-winning Gospel music singer who was choir director at the crusades and who recently celebrated his 100th birthday, and Cliff Barrows, perhaps best known as the host of Dr Graham’s weekly Hour of Decision radio program. Dr Graham, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, was too ill to be interviewed.

The documentary also includes an interview with Jerry Beavan, the US-based organiser of the Australian crusades, as well as archival footage including from Billy Graham’s LA crusade in ‘49 - the crusade which took him into the public eye.

Dr Graham’s 1959 crusade was initially held at Melbourne’s Festival Hall but when that was found to be too small, was moved to the larger Myer Music Bowl. The 15 week crusade later moved to the Melbourne showgrounds and the final event was held at the Melbourne Cricket Ground where a record crowd - estimated by some to be as high as 143,000 - people heard Dr Graham preach on the final Sunday.

Mr Johnson, who has a personal connection to the crusades - he was nine-years-old when he went forward in 1959 at one of the crusade events, says that for him, one of the highlights of the documentary concerns the story of Ron Baker, an alcoholic who underwent a dramatic conversion to Christianity after attending one of the crusades and became an evangelist.

Not only does the documentary tell the story from Mr Baker’s perspective, it also does so from that of his wife Beryl, and from the perspective of Cliff Barrows.

“Ron, then, after he was converted...spoke on the platform at a number of crusades about what happened to him in ‘59.”

Mr Johnson says there is no doubt that impact of the crusade 50 years ago is still being felt today.=

“It was no flash in the pan...” he says. “It gave the church a lift and a boost and it provided a major shift in the Australian Christian scene.”

The documentary comes as the BGEA - which late last year brought Mr Graham’s grandson, Will Graham, to Australia and is doing so again later this year - is looking to relaunch itself in Australia. 

Faase and Martin

LOOKING BACK: Karl Faase (left) and director/producer Martin Johnson explore the story of Billy Graham in North Carolina.

Leigh Brown, who is the executive director of the BGEA in Australia, says the decision to make the documentary was about encouraging Australians to reflect on what happened during the Billy Graham crusades and the ongoing impact the visits have had in Australia.

“It’s not a nostalgia thing, it’s just highlighting the fact that when God moves, He moves. And he certainly did in 1959 through Billy Graham and has continued to do so...Why not produce something that just helps Australians remember?”

 Noting that he is surprised by how many young people still know the name Billy Graham in Australia, he says he doesn’t believe there is any doubt that the Billy Graham crusades of the Fifties and Sixties have had a lasting impact in Australia.

“I think the impact on individual lives and certainly on the churches as a whole was quite significant,” he says. “A lot of people who are now in leadership in churches trace their Christian roots back to when Dr Graham came - that just seems to be a time when God really moved.”

Mr Brown says the BGEA - which recently hosted the visit of two members of a US-based BGEA "rapid response team" who came to Australia to offer chaplaincy support in the wake of Victoria's bushfires - remains focused on how it can serve the local church in “reaching the 95 per cent of Australians who don’t really understand what the Christian message is truly all about”.

“If we can help in any way...that’s what we want to do,” he says.

• Remembering ‘59 will premiere at free screenings in Melbourne (31st March, 2pm at Scots' Church, 99 Russell Street) and Sydney (2nd April, 2pm at Wesley Mission's Lyceum Theatre, 220 Pitt Street). It’s also showing on the Australian Christian Channel on Easter Saturday at 8.30pm and will be repeated on Easter Sunday at 6pm. A DVD, featuring extras including extended interviews, will be available from April through Koorong stores. For further information, visit www.remembering59.com.au. For further information on the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, see www.bgea.org.au.