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A crowd fills Collidge Park to hear Franklin Graham's message. Franklin Graham begin his Tennessee Tour of Decision America in Chattanooga on May 15, 2017.

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Franklin Graham speaks in Coolidge Park

Event organizers estimated 6,200 people gathered in Coolidge Park on Monday night to listen to — or protest — Franklin Graham's speech for his Decision America Tennessee Tour.

Graham, president and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Samaritan's Purse, an international Christian relief organization, opened his sermon with prayer.

"Our country is in trouble," said Graham, the son of longtime evangelist Billy Graham. "Republicans won't turn it around, Democrats won't turn it around. Only God can. Let's take a moment to pray for our country."

Everyone in attendance stood still in prayer, including passersby.

"We've always wanted to see Billy [Graham], so this is pretty exciting," said Jerry Gibbs, a traveling nurse from Kentucky who has been living in Chattanooga for six months. He and his wife stayed in Chattanooga an extra day specifically to attend the rally.

"We'd like to see people make a decision for Christ tonight," he said.

But Graham's tour was not welcomed by everyone in Chattanooga. Brian Merritt, pastor of Renaissance Presbyterian Church here, said he does not think Graham's message is good news.

"For a huge portion of the population that he's excluding, it's not good at all," he said. "Whether it's homophobia, Islamophobia, sexism against women, it's a gospel of exclusion instead of a gospel of the kingdom."

A counter service was held in Coolidge Park at the same time.

Decide Love, organized by Alaina Cobb, a minister for the Progressive Christian Alliance, had around 20 people gathered to show support for the message.

Cobb, a transgender woman, said she didn't want only one voice to be heard in Chattanooga Monday night.

"I was raised fundamentalist, and I remember going to rallies like this as a young girl," she said. "Going to rallies like this, seeing no one around speaking up for equality, for LGBT rights, for the right of diversity; I wanted there to be another voice because I didn't have that, and I think that's important."

Despite the protesters' message, Graham said he welcomes them.

"We don't exclude anyone," he said. "And Jesus Christ, when he died on the cross for our sins, he died for the whole human race — everybody. Black, white, yellow, red, it doesn't matter what your background is or ethnicity or even what your religion is. Christ died for all, and I want people to know how they can have that relationship with him."

Many of the people who were in attendance shared Graham's views about the state of the country.

Jerry Marshall, one of the event's volunteers, said he thinks tours like the one Graham is doing are necessary to bring the country back to God.

"There is too much violence and hate going on, and the only way to unite is through [God]," he said.

The Decision America Tour aims to encourage people to "pray for a miracle — the kind of miracle that will solve the racial, political and cultural divisions," according to a press release announcing the tour.

The way Graham intends to do that is by "piercing the blue wall" and preaching the Gospel in the most secular areas of the United States, he said.

"We're not [piercing the blue wall] for Republicans or Democrats," Graham said. "We want to pierce the blue wall for God."

Graham's next stop will be in Clarksville, Tenn., on May 18. From there, he will stop in Jackson, Tenn., and Memphis before the month is over. In the fall, he will make a seven-city tour through Texas.

Next year and into 2019, Graham said he plans to visit 25-30 cities over three months in Democratic-leaning states.

Just last year, Graham visited all 50 state capitols with his Decision America Tour, urging people to pray for the country and get involved in the political process. He told the Times Free Press his goal is to encourage people to make a difference for Christ through political engagement.

Contact Rosana Hughes at rhughes@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327.

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