Reverend Franklin Graham is the preacher who gave the blessing at Donald Trump's inauguration this past January. He has caused significant unease within the Christian world, and the general public, for saying things like Islam is evil, that LGBTQ people should not be welcomed into your home, and that God intervened to elect Trump because, among other things, the White House had been infiltrated by secularists and Muslims. He's also the son of legendary tent revivalist, Billy Graham. And an Obama birther to boot, according to the Globe and Mail.
Graham was in Canada this weekend—not under some tent in rural Alberta, but preaching to a packed 20,000-seat stadium in rainy, progressive Vancouver. I went to the free-to-the-public "Festival of Hope" to find out why so many turned out for a man openly opposed by many local church leaders and politicians.
More than 30 church leaders published an open letter to the organizers last week calling out Franklin Graham's invitation. "[Graham] has made disparaging and uncharitable remarks about Muslims and the LGBTQ community, while portraying the election, administration, and policies of U.S. President Donald Trump as intrinsically aligned with the Christian church," reads the letter. They asked the organizers to drop Graham from the event.
Many of the people I met outside the venue expressed hurt over the "divisions" within the "body of Christ" over the event.
In response to the letter, Graham released a statement: "Politics, policies, economics and commerce are significant matters, but for these three days, we will come together in Vancouver to focus on the most important thing of all: God's love for each and every one of us."
And that's what his followers told me they were here to experience. Frank, 65, explained to me how it's the media's fault—for misrepresenting Graham and creating divisions.
"If you were represented by the news media as one quote that you made, how do you know the person's heart unless they have a chance of rebuttal?" he said. "You can't. There's no way that you can do that... It comes down to a misrepresentation of small dialogues that he made."
His partner, Audrey, 55, jumped in, saying, "We're not against the gay lesbian population at all, no. I think he [Graham] needs to explain what he said because when you make a statement like that they chop off everything before and in the middle."
Our conversation was cut off as they entered the building.
Like many in the lineup, Kristine, 27, was excited to help spread the gospel. She and her husband Marco were not familiar with the controversy surrounding Graham.
"I'm quite surprised for a Christian preacher like that, how come he mentions those kind of things. This is open for everyone… he shouldn't be acting like that," Marco said.
The couple told me about their home church in the suburbs and how they've been part of a group that has been praying for the event. They explained that they were excited about the good things that God wants to do in Vancouver and concluded that, despite the divisions, the time has come to "set aside the politics and just enjoy the event."
Outside the venue, there was a contingent of 20 or so loosely affiliated people demonstrating against the event. I asked one of the protesters, a 25-year-old named Celine, about Marco's particular refrain. She's a Christian, as were most of the demonstrators, and was holding a sign that read: "Love your LGBTQ+ neighbour."
"I don't think that you can ever isolate the idea of souls being saved or the gospel being preached without the context of politics and social impact that surrounds those ideas," said Celine. "In my opinion, the gospel, which is the good news for all people, is inherently political and so it just depends on what politics you see as aligning with it."
Vick, 29, made the trek from Surrey for the event. "I love sharing my testimony," he told me, explaining that he grew up Sikh, but he was saved after God intervened in his life by preventing his brother's suicide.
"I've heard things that he's done, but I've also learned that hearsay is just hearsay," he said. "I don't think he meant it in that way. I think he meant it in that some, you know, are very radical, and they're against every other person."
No one should ever say anything hateful about anyone, he added. We should all "just have love." And from what I could tell, he genuinely meant it.
Inside the venue, it was a familiar scene for any hockey fan, minus the overpriced beer (and the hockey). It was a dry event, and the crowd I confronted was by far the politest crowd I've ever confronted in Rogers Arena. The food workers looked pleasantly bored, expecting a food rush that never showed.
A band that sounded like a Christian Arcade Fire was playing, and the place was packed up to the nosebleeds. Lyrics appeared on large screens so everyone could sing along to phrases and titles like: "Children of love. Soldiers of God. Your love awakens me. God is in this place tonight. You're beautiful."
Irony was abundant. Ads for the upcoming Lady Gaga showed, and a Game of Thrones fandom event sat awkwardly among the scatterings of Christian organizations promoting their ministries, like Focus on the Family.
Scrounging the last available spots underneath the large screens, I craned my neck to the left to see Graham's gigantic head. He was the lone figure on the floor, standing atop a walkway on an eight-foot stage, staring out into an empty ground floor, soon to be filled by converts. His figure cast a metaphor for each and every person in the arena—how they too stand before god, alone.
He was composed and steady in his tone. He spoke with a calming southern drawl that was emphasized when he said words like Babylon (it came out "Ba-ba-lyn"). His sermon—a story about a man who was a "party animal"—consisted of nine verses from the book of Daniel in the Old Testament.
"Sin is disobedience to God, and we're all guilty of that," he said, as part of his larger sermon about the pagan secular city of Babylon, and how it fell to an enemy army because its leader, Belshazzar ("Bal-shaz-a"), did not repent.
"God would have forgiven him… but he just sat there," he said.
For the most part, Graham steered clear of politics—almost. This is Franklin Graham after all. His website has a donation button with the title: "We won't back down. We won't retreat."
"Many of you here tonight may be guilty of immorality," he said. "You see the Bible says that the body is not meant for sexual immorality. The Bible says flee from sexual immorality… God first of all, gave us sex, and he wants us to use sex. Sex is a wonderful part of our life, but it's to be used in a marriage relationship between a man and a woman."
Rogers Arena erupted into a chorus of applause.
After that he went deeper into talking about sin and forgiveness, how he too is a sinner, that you can't save yourself, that God loves you, and that now is the chance to tell Jesus you're sorry.
Then came the alter call, the point of all of this, the moment when, if you want to repent, you publicly respond to the preacher's message. Into the pit where the Vancouver Canucks ice rink normally sits, hundreds, maybe thousands (though it was hard to tell exactly between the volunteers and the about-to-be-saved) filed in. I followed the crowd and listened as people began confessing their most intimate thoughts with members of the Graham ministry team wearing orange vests—people trained to help the new believers in conversion. Graham talked the sinners through a simple prayer, which they repeated after him, line for line.
And then it was done. Another chorus of cheers.
On my way up to retrieve my things from section 320, the tip of the nosebleeds, I had one last conversation, with Destiny, 28. She told me she attended a church that was protesting the event, though she'd rather not say which one.
The divide is hurtful, she explained, speaking of the collection of Vancouver churches boycotting the event. She said that she's been "persecuted" for being honest, that political correctness is a problem, and that she wants to go on a Facebook fast because of all the negativity she's seeing in the media.
She opened up freely. She talked about how the event is powerful and overwhelming. That it's about love. That it's full of hope. That it's about what God thinks, not what people think. That the world is suffering. That God can use Graham, despite the division, for the greater good.
"We can be too blunt… as Franklin Graham can be, we're only human. But people do need to hear the truth, and the truth will set you free. But we do it out of love," she said.
For Destiny, the event had an added level of meaning. She told me that her mother was saved at a crusade just like this one, led by Billy Graham many years ago. That synchronicity was ultimately the reason Destiny was here, chaperoning two youths in the nosebleed section as they waited for the redeemed to flee the floor area so the bands could come back on.
She, like many of the people I talked to that night, relayed the same message: That coincidences are often evidence of the divine.
As I squeezed myself between a railing and the growing crowd of converts, I heard a familiar voice. I could see shaded brass sunglasses, a balding head, and a tense chin and jaw. Immediately in front of me was the very same man who, two weeks before, called me a "faggot" and threatened to kick my ass at a downtown Vancouver bus stop after I stood between him and a young woman that he was harassing.
Drunk, holding an open Pepsi can and a crinkled tote bag stuffed with Festival of Hope swag, he started speaking in tongues as two Graham handlers tried to walk him through the sinner's prayer and then politely out the building. Go figure.