Fred Weiss was only 24 when he joined the crowd of 24,000 at Calgary’s McMahon Stadium on a warm Friday night in August 1981 to listen spellbound as Billy Graham spoke of Jonah’s struggles to discern the will of God.
“Having watched Billy Graham on TV, I was very excited to be there and see him in person,” recalled Fred, now executive director of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association of Canada.
One person who helped organize that event is among the few Canadians who has played a part in organizing not only Billy Graham Crusades, but also Franklin Graham Festivals and Will Graham Celebrations. That person is lawyer J. Allen Howard.
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“The invitation to hold that crusade came from a committee of civic and religious leaders, including a rabbi and a Catholic priest,” Allen said, while recalling the astonishing level of support for bringing Billy Graham to Calgary.
Allen was asked to incorporate a nonprofit society to serve as the Crusade’s legal structure.
Though they came from different faiths and denominations, and had seldom cooperated in the past, the organizing committee members knew the Crusade would be feasible.
Calgary had a well-earned reputation for volunteerism—the world-famous Calgary Stampede is almost entirely a volunteer effort—so finding skilled volunteer workers would not be a problem.
Allen’s role gave him a birds-eye view of how a Billy Graham Evangelistic Association outreach event comes together. “I had the benefit of being at all the organizing committee meetings without carrying a heavy load.”
He was impressed—and remains impressed—by what he saw.
“If I were running for political office, I’d have gotten people from the BGEA to work with me,” Allen said. “Their organizational skills were very impressive. Volunteers would go out into neighborhoods, let people know the Crusade was happening, and invite them to attend. The whole community got behind the Crusade.”
Nevertheless, the Calgary event almost didn’t happen. It was originally scheduled for 1980 in conjunction with the Crusade in Edmonton (320 km to the north). The Edmonton Crusade was to be held in July of that year, and the Calgary one was to follow in August. However, due to delays in the Edmonton startup, the Calgary event had to be postponed for 12 months.
As the Calgary Crusade dates grew near, the Calgary Sun editorialized: “[Billy Graham] isn’t selling anything except belief and hope… Our city is experiencing a surge in marriage breakups, suicides, and crime. Graham may have come at just the right time.”
“He was an overwhelming presence, in part because we were all in awe of him,” Allen recalled. “However, there was nothing put-on about Billy Graham. What you saw was what you got.”
In addition to serving on the executive committee, Allen was also an aisle captain at the stadium, seating people and taking an offering.
“On Sunday it was raining,” he said. “However, just as Dr. Graham ended his message and gave the invitation, the clouds parted and the sun shone on the platform. ‘God loves Billy Graham,’ I thought.”
During its seven nights, the Crusade drew over 164,000 people, and more than 7,000 committed their lives to Jesus Christ.
Outreach events in the 1990s, new millenium
Fast-forward to 1999. Franklin Graham preached to more than 20,000 each night from October 28 through 31 at Festival ‘99 at the Calgary Saddledome. Over 5,000 dedicated or re-dedicated their lives to Christ. Allen was again called upon to incorporate a nonprofit society to oversee the Festival’s finances.
“I met Franklin at a luncheon,” he said. “At the time he didn’t have the credentials his father had, but there was the same type of sincerity and powerful speaking. He is a very vibrant person.”
In 2015, when Will Graham’s Celebration of Hope took place at the Siksika Nation, an hour’s drive east of Calgary, Allen served as an advisor to the organizing committee. He saw almost 450 people crowd into a gym to hear the gospel proclaimed. That day, 70 people responded by dedicating or rededicating their lives to Christ.
“Will was a much younger version [of his father and grandfather], but again, an ordinary person doing an extraordinary job,” Allen said. “Very committed; very sincere. Nothing put on.”
From this unique perspective, Allen has gathered firsthand observations about how BGEA has evolved over the three generations. Billy took advantage of radio and TV, while Franklin and Will also use the Internet and social media to reach current generations.
“There will come a time when what Will is doing will be past, and there will be new ways of reconnecting with the next generation,” Allen predicted. “That’s part of their ministry—being contemporary.”
Allen grew up on a farm east of Drumheller, AB, where his family attended a United Church. “[Sunday] was the only day you got to put on a dress shirt,” he said with a grin. He and his wife, Gail, who died nine years ago, raised their family in the Baptist Church.
A long-time financial and prayer supporter of BGEA of Canada, Allen credits his connection to the Christian community with keeping his life on track.
“God knows the big picture, so I don’t have to worry about it,” he said. “When things go well, I never take the credit, and when things go badly, I don’t have to carry all the burden.”
When he heard about Allen’s hands-on leadership in support of the three generations of Grahams, Fred Weiss spoke of the impact of the 1981 event.
“In the following weeks, we met new families who had committed their lives to Christ at the Crusade. Because our church had been participating, they had been connecting to us,” Fred recalled.
“They were experiencing forgiveness of sin and having the opportunity to live their lives serving the Lord. That excited the whole church again.”
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