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By Tim Funk
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Rev. Billy Graham would like to give one more sermon. That, everybody can agree on.
But there appeared to be mixed signals coming out of Graham's family this week over whether, at 91 and in fragile health, he'll be up to achieving that goal. And if he is, where, when and in what format should he preach?
On Monday, Graham's youngest daughter, Ruth, told a religion reporter for The Associated Press that her evangelist father was preparing a sermon and was thinking about delivering it sometime next year at Charlotte's Bank of America Stadium — the site of his last hometown crusade, in 1996.
But on Tuesday, spokesmen for Billy Graham and his son Franklin, who heads the Charlotte-based Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, dismissed that scenario as mere speculation. The elder Graham does want to preach again, said his spokesman Larry Ross, but the likeliest possibility would be to have him speak into a camera and then widely distribute the video.
"Though many potential venues have been suggested to him," Ross said, "his son, Franklin, and he thought perhaps it would be on video, so that more people could be reached with the transformational message of faith in Christ that he has preached for more than six decades."
But Ruth Graham told AP she encouraged her father to preach before an audience, and that he seemed to like that idea.
"When I talked to him, he said, " 'I'll just have a video camera and a chair.' And I said, 'No, Daddy, you need people to interact with as you preach,' " she said, according to an audio of the interview provided to The Charlotte Observer by the AP. "Then the next thing I heard, he was thinking about the Panthers' stadium — because of Charlotte being his hometown."
She added that he'd first have to build up more strength, so "I think the plans would take at least a year."
Ruth Graham, founder of Ruth Graham & Friends ministry, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
It was another of Graham's daughters, Anne Graham Lotz, a Raleigh, N.C.-based evangelist, who first revealed that her father wanted to come out of retirement to preach one more time and that the family "is praying that he'll have that opportunity."
In an interview with the Observer last month, Franklin Graham confirmed sister Anne's report, saying the once-globe-trotting evangelist even had his message: "He wants people to know that they can have forgiveness of sins and that they can be assured of the certainty of heaven."
But the younger Graham, who took over his father's ministry and moved its headquarters to Charlotte, said his father's health woes — "including fading eyesight and hearing" — ruled out another crusade in a stadium.
"I would like him to do something on video, talking into a camera," Franklin Graham said. "Then we'd have it for generations to come." He added that the family hoped to work out a plan in the next few months.
This isn't the first time Graham's grown children have seen things differently. They reportedly fought about whether their mother, Ruth Bell Graham, who died in 2007, should be buried on the wooded grounds of the Billy Graham Training Center in Asheville, N.C., or near the prayer garden at the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte. (She's buried in Charlotte, next to where her husband will lay).
And last year, Franklin and another of his sisters, Gigi, publicly disagreed over a feature film made about Billy Graham's early years. Gigi was hired by the producers to help promote the movie; Franklin panned it and announced on the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association's website that the BGEA had had nothing to do with the making of it.
On Tuesday, Ken Barun, BGEA's senior vice president for communications, said Franklin and his sister Ruth "get along fine." But he said Franklin has heard nothing from his father about preaching at Bank of America Stadium and that "Franklin is in closest contact with his father."
Billy Graham's sister, Jean Ford of Charlotte, also said she had not heard of any plans for Billy Graham to speak at the Panthers' stadium.
"I know Billy would like to preach again, but I don't think that's realistic at all," she said. "His mind is very good — but he is not physically able to do that, in my opinion."
Ruth Graham told the AP that her father "is doing great" and that "he says God's given him a timeline for his death. (Preaching next year) is within his timeline. He does not feel like this is the year he's going to go to heaven."