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Religion

‘Tens of thousands’ in Hong Kong became Christians after American evangelist Billy Graham’s rousing gospel rallies

The preacher who died on Wednesday aged 99 gave sermons to a full house three times in the city and had ‘a strong love for China’ as his wife was born on the mainland

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 February, 2018, 8:02am
UPDATED : Friday, 23 February, 2018, 4:01pm

During Christian evangelist Billy Graham’s second gospel gathering in the city in 1975, about 220,000 people flooded Hong Kong Stadium over the course of the five-day meeting, with tens of thousands of attendees reportedly converting to the faith.

Lawmaker Priscilla Leung Mei-fun was then a Form Two pupil listening intently to Graham among scores of the faithful in Happy Valley. She was so moved that she too became a Christian.

“He could really move the intellectuals by having a direct dialogue with them and challenging their egos. He used scientific concepts in his message,” Leung said, praising Graham as a faithful minister and an irreplaceable evangelist.

Others the Post spoke to about Graham, who on Wednesday died at the age of 99 at home in the United States, expressed similar sadness and regret, recalling his humility and ability to move crowds.

The preacher and adviser to US presidents held his first rally in Hong Kong in 1956, followed by another two in 1975 and 1990.

Reverend Youngman Chan, a translator of one of Graham’s biographies and an interpreter for the 1990 rally at Hong Kong Stadium, said he was impressed by Graham’s infectious enthusiasm and modesty.

The retired pastor from Abundant Life Christian Church in Hung Hom, who met Graham in the late 80s and early 90s in the city and on mainland China, recalled that the stadium rally in 1990 was packed with much support from local churches and significant figures in the political and commercial sectors.

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The five-day event drew about 330,000 people to the site, even more than the one in 1975, and was broadcast overseas by satellite. 

Chan said: “On his way back to the hotel after a rally, he prayed inside the car, ‘Father, thank you for using clay’, referring to himself. He gave all glory to God.”

“[During the rally] and in the midst of the Persian Gulf crisis, he showed me a personal memo handwritten by [then US president] George Bush asking him to pray for the country,” Chan said.

In 1988, when asked by Hong Kong media for his views on a sex scandal involving another prominent American evangelist, Graham said “integrity” was the word that he wished would be seen on his tombstone, Chan said.

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Former Commercial Radio disc jockey Leo Chim Chi-man could still recall how packed the stadium was on a night in November 1990 during Graham’s third event in Hong Kong. 

“It was just incredible. So many people were there that people who made vows to follow Jesus had to line up,” said Chim, who became a Christian that night after listening to Graham’s message based on the parable of the prodigal son.

Ken Chan Kam-hoi, a retired pastor from the Evangelical Free Church of China, one of the very few church leaders who had helped organise two rallies for Graham, said the preacher had wished to stage such rallies on the mainland as he had always wanted to spread the gospel as far as he could.

Chan said Graham had a strong love for China because his wife Ruth Bell Graham was born in Jiangsu province. Her parents were medical missionaries at the Presbyterian Hospital 480km (300 miles) north of Shanghai.

An English-Cantonese interpreter during the preparations for the rallies in 1975 and 1990, Chan said Graham was gifted in giving sermons.

“He was able to use simple English to clearly convey the Bible’s messages,” he said.

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Reverend Peter Koon Ho-ming, provincial secretary general of the Hong Kong Anglican Church, known as the Sheng Kung Hui, said he remembered attending one of Graham’s events in Hong Kong when he was just an ordinary Christian.

“It was very impressive. His message was very powerful. The event was held at Hong Kong Stadium, and there were a lot of people there,” he said.

Koon described Graham as a “very humble man”.

He suggested that as people remembered Graham’s messages, they should also reflect on how Christian values were being followed.

Reverend Eric So Shing-yit, chairman of the Hong Kong Christian Council, one of the most influential Christian bodies in Hong Kong, extended his heartfelt condolences to Graham’s family on behalf of the city’s Christian community.

Estimates by the Legislative Council research office found that in Hong Kong as of 2016, there were about a million Buddhists, under a million Taoists and about 884,000 Christians, with just over 400,000 people saying they practised Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism and Judaism. The number of Christians increased by 33 per cent between 2007 and 2016.

Additional reporting by Tony Cheung