Remembering Billy Graham and the huge crowds he once drew in Sacramento

'He had such a gentle and confident spirit about him'

Jim Holst reminisces about meeting Billy Graham and being a part of his crusade in Sacramento.
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Jim Holst reminisces about meeting Billy Graham and being a part of his crusade in Sacramento.

Evangelist Billy Graham’s death Wednesday was felt by millions of people around the globe, including thousands of Sacramentans who attended his crusades here.

Among them was Jim Holst, outreach pastor at Bayside, a nondenominational church that has six campuses in the Sacramento region hosting about 20,000 parishioners a week. In 1995, Holst served on the executive committee for Graham’s Sacramento crusade, a five-night event held at Arco Arena.

“My wife and I had the privilege of meeting him,” said Holst, 61. “My wife got to say thank you (to Graham) for coming to Oakland in 1971, an event which changed her life at 15. He looked at her and said in his famous Southern accent, ‘I remember that well.’ He was giving us his full attention like we were the only people in the room.”

Holst said there was nothing ostentatious about Graham, who conducted crusades – essentially large-scale revival meetings – in 185 countries and territories over his 60-year career. Despite being one of the most famous and influential Christian leaders, Graham “was just a gentle, humble spirit” in person, Holst said.

Holst said Graham was instrumental in his religious development. While attending Cal Poly in 1976, he had traveled with other students to see Graham speak in front of 17,000 people in Urbana, Ill. Holst said he left that event feeling called to the ministry because of Graham’s gospel.

“He just shined when he spoke,” Holst said. “His message was so simple and strong. He had the spirit of humility and courage.”

By 1989, Holst was working with Youth For Christ, an organization Graham helped create in 1948. He was assigned the role of youth chairman. In that capacity, he later rallied youth groups to attend Graham’s Sacramento crusade at Arco Arena in October 1995.

The event ended up drawing more people than were expected. “An estimated 45,000 people showed up the first night,” Holst said, even though only 18,000 people were permitted inside. Organizers set up large TV screens outside where people could watch Graham and others speak.

“I heard his speech each of the five nights,” Holst said. “It was a simple message that there’s a God that knows you and loves you, you can receive forgiveness and your best days are ahead.”

What made Graham’s message so powerful, Holst said, “was it didn’t matter your age, your faith background, your political background. He would respect all people.”

Graham also did his homework, Holst recalled. “He got The Sacramento Bee a year ahead to read about the issues that matter to Sacramento.”

Graham, at a press conference before the Sacramento event, even invited the Unabomber to attend. Theodore “Ted” Kaczynski was behind a bombing campaign that killed three people – including two Sacramentans – and injured dozens of others. (Kaczynski was captured in January 1996.)

“(Graham) was trying to change every life and stop the guy from doing bad things,” Holst said.

By the end of his five-day run, more than 170,000 people had attended Graham’s Sacramento crusade, his third in the Capital City.

While in Sacramento, Graham, who during his career counseled U.S. presidents ranging from Harry Truman to Barack Obama, found time to meet with then-Gov. Pete Wilson.

The Bee reported that on Oct. 18 Graham appeared with Wilson, a Republican, and quipped: “It’s great to be back in Sacramento. I notice the Capitol is still the same. The squirrels are still here. I notice some of them look like Democrats.”

Holst, who came to Bayside in 2001, said the church’s ministry strongly has been shaped by Graham and his message of inclusion. “We kind of model our church after Billy Graham’s belief that we don’t care about your background or political views, we just have a simple message we want to share with you.”

Holst recalled that Graham once said that when he dies, he only cares what one person will say about him and that’s Jesus. “I hope he will say, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant,’” Holst remembered Graham saying.

With the news of Graham’s passing, Holst said he found himself thinking, “What a great day for Billy Graham,” he said. “After working so hard he gets to see Jesus face to face. What joy he must be feeling now.”

Billy Graham was born into a farming family in Charlotte, N.C. Evangelism took him around the world. He became famous with his 1949 crusade in Los Angeles. He passed away in February 2018.

Stephen Magagnini: 916-321-1072, @SteveMagagnini

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