Miracle in Johannesburg



— MATTHEW 18:19

The story of the Anchorage crusade really begins in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when the first Christian missionaries arrived in Alaska. Innokenti Veniaminoff, a Siberian priest of the Russian Orthodox faith, pioneered God's work among the Aleutian peoples. He built churches that are still active, for there are Orthodox congregations all along the southern coast of Alaska. He was an excellent man, memorialized in the hearts of Alaskans and by a snow-capped volcanic peak of 8,200 feet named for him in the Aleutian Range.

    After him came Sheldon Jackson, a Presbyterian missionary and another great man. He brought in reindeer to augment the diet of impoverished Eskimos. Then came S. Hall Young to Juneau and Father Duncan to Metlakatla and Archdeacon Hudson Stuck to Fort Yukon and the Moravians to Bethel. But missionary work in Alaska has always been hard, and the results were meager.

    I was no missionary, but a godless, threadbare news reporter when I arrived in Alaska on a steerage ticket aboard the S.S. Alaska in October 1935. I was twenty-four, and my worldly wealth consisted of twelve dollars, but, lo and behold, a newspaper job in Juneau turned up and became my meal ticket for four years.

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    I remember once asking Father Kashevaroff, curator of the Territorial Museum, what the Eskimo people thought of God. He said the Eskimos had no notion of God. They only knew demons, whom they feared and sought to appease. Once on a rowboat trip down the Yukon River I found baby boots tied to the paling of an Indian grave on the riverbanks, evidently for a memorial to this world and a gift for the next.

    This was Alaska. Small churches, small interest, small vision, but a great and mighty land, rich beyond human imagination.

    Billy Graham had some interest in Alaska. Once en route to the 1967 Tokyo crusade, he had stopped in Anchorage and talked with Christian people at the airport. At the time nothing further developed, but he did not forget.

    On November 7, 1978, Billy reached his sixtieth birthday. I had conceived the idea of a festschrift of essays to be written by his friends and presented to the evangelists on that festive day. His family approved, and the response from Billy's friends was enthusiastic, so I spent several months of retirement editing and putting the book together.

    Word Publishers released it in an attractive volume under the title Evangelism: The Next Ten Years, with the subtitle Essays Presented to Dr. Billy Graham.1 Among the contributors were Archbishop Marcus Loane, Primate of Australia; Bishop Maurice Wood of Norwich, England; Dr. Philip Teng of Hong Kong; Dr. Harold Ockenga; Dr. Oswald Hoffman; Rev. Tom Houston; Evangelists Leighton Ford and Luis Palau, and others.

    In November I flew to Charlotte, North Carolina, for the birthday presentation. It was made by Floyd Thatcher of Word Books from the pulpit of a church where Billy was preaching. Afterward a few of us were invited to a private home for the birthday party. There I found myself seated on a sofa and chatting with Billy. The moment was auspicious for the introducing of a subject that had nothing to do with the book.

    "Billy," I said, "there is one place you haven't been that needs you badly, and that's Alaska."

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    His response was immediate. "I'd like to go to Alaska. You used to live there, didn't you?..."

    It did not take me long to notify Dr. Sterling Huston, director of North American crusades, of Billy's response. Sterling had already received overtures written on sealskin from Christians in Alaska. But Sterling's desk was piled high with other requests and invitations addressed to Billy from every point of the compass. In addition, he was heavily involved in preparations for actual North American crusades and rallies in Nova Scotia, Wisconsin, Indiana, Alberta, Nevada, and Florida. Alaska must have seemed to Sterling a long way off.

    A few weeks later I was back in Alaska, not for Billy this time, but as an invited guest of the Central Alaska Mission. Using a small plane that landed on paved highways, we toured and ministered to Christian groups in such exciting places as Eagle, Dawson, Fairbanks, Tok, Glennallen, and other settlements. Our mission ended in Anchorage. There, while making plans for a writer's seminar sponsored by Alaska Bible College, I renewed friendship with a local minster, Dr. Thomas Teply. He had been my pastor in Minneapolis and was now pastor of Anchorage's First Presbyterian Church. I also met his friend, Rev. Victor Zacharias, who pastored a fine Conservative Baptist church.

    Knowing something of Billy's ways, I suggested to these two men of God that they start praying together regularly and asking God to bring a Billy Graham crusade to Alaska to proclaim the Gospel to the people of the forty-ninth state.

    Back in the 1930s when I was a young reporter in Juneau, the Territory of Alaska's population had been 60,000, divided about equally between "natives" and "whites." Now Anchorage alone had a population of 200,000. The state was number one in sad statistics, such as alcoholism and suicide percentages, and lowest in church attendance. The vastness of the north country, the climate, crowded towns, and attendant disadvantages created enormous social problems.

    I left Anchorage after two days for San Diego and home, but Tom and Vic took my challenge to heart. If Billy wanted to come to

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Alaska, they wanted him. On Wednesday noon, November 22, 1978, the two men held their first weekly sack-lunch prayer meeting. According to Tom, "At first we were simply praying for an answer. Was this a proper request? It seemed to us there were so many immediate matters that needed help from God. But after many months of earnest prayer, sometimes with others, usually alone, we both believed that God would be pleased to have us pray definitely for a crusade, so we shifted our emphasis."

    In March 1979, the two pastors invited 169 churches and Christian organizations in the Anchorage area to a complimentary luncheon at the First Presbyterian Church on May 2. Eighty-six ministers agreed to come, and fifty-one actually attended. It was agreed at the meeting that they would write to Sterling Huston as director of North American crusades for Billy Graham and invite him to visit their city.

    Sterling is one of the world's most gracious and tactful persons,

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but in 1979 his work calendar was extremely full. Even so the overture from Alaska was properly acknowledged, and the lines of communication were kept open. The prayer meetings of Tom and Vic continued week by week. A year passed, and things began to move. In September 1980, Sterling Huston flew north and met with twenty concerned Christians at breakfast and 120 more at lunch. He thanked the Alaskans for their invitation and reassured them about Dr. Graham's interest in coming there. He also gave them suggestions as to how to prepare spiritually.

    An executive committee for the proposed crusade was formed with Henry Pratt as chairman and Richard Anglemyer as treasurer. The original two-man prayer team kept praying.

    In May and October 1981, Sterling returned to Anchorage, and hope for a crusade took a great leap forward. On Wednesday, May 19, 1982, Sterling asked me to fly up there to speak at a prayer rally. The aim was to build spiritual momentum among the members of the supporting churches. I was to urge the church folk to join the executive committee and the prayer warriors, Tom and Vic (who were still meeting and still praying), in seeking God's gracious help.

    When I arrived for the rally, I learned that Sterling had won the full cooperation of the archbishop of the Anchorage diocese, Francis T. Hurley, who promised to urge all Roman Catholics to attend as many crusade meetings as they could — a remarkable spiritual breakthrough. We had a well-attended prayer rally in the Presbyterian church with lots of intercession and singing, and the two daily newspapers began to show interest.

    After I left, the two-man prayer team kept on, with help. A tentative date was set to hold the crusade in 1983, but construction delays on the new 9,000-seat George L. Sullivan Arena caused further postponements. It was not until March 11, 1984, that Billy Graham and his team finally arrived in Anchorage to open the Alaska crusade.

     Alaska was more than ready for them. The response was beyond all expectations. To help my memory, I am drawing on Decision editor Roger Palms's fine account of what happened in Anchorage. It is full of gripping stories of people who made commitments to Christ.

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One jogger who was running past the arena at about 5 P.M. stopped a counselor and asked if he was connected with the crusade. Told that he was, the jogger stood in the middle of the street and said he wanted to change his life and turn to God.

    People flew in from the oil rigs, mining camps, and fishing boats. They came from Barrow at the "top of the world," from the Prudhoe Bay, from Nome and Point Hope and Kodiak Island and Juneau and Ketchikan. Cheechakos (newcomers), sourdoughs (old-timers), natives (Indians and Eskimos) all joined the crowds that for eight nights filled the arena to hear the Gospel.

    Walter Maillelle, chairman of the Native Committee for the crusade, said, "This is the greatest thing that has ever happened in Alaska. Every night I see native people coming forward." At least two Russian Orthodox men made new commitments to Christ (Bishop Veniaminoff in heaven must have been smiling). And each night buses rolled up into the arena parking lot from nearby Elmendorf Air Force Base, where I once served as a chaplain.

    A School of Evangelism for ministers drew 500 pastors and church leaders. Counseling of inquirers was carried on in Thai, Russian, and Aleut languages as well as English. The Koreans present translated every service into their own language and reaped fruit among their people.

    Billy had kindly invited me to come to Anchorage for the crusade. My wife, Winola, was under a doctor's care, but I managed to fly north on Tuesday, March 13, and attended two meetings at the Sullivan Arena. How glorious to see and hear 9,000 Alaskans — think of it! — under one roof singing praises to God for His Son Jesus Christ. And to see them go forward at the invitation in large numbers to receive Christ!

    What fun it was to be again with the team and with my Alaska friends. What a wonderful feeling to shake hands with Billy and to thank him for coming, just as three of us weak-kneed mortals — Tom, Vic and Woody — had hoped and prayed he would, nearly six years before!

    For Billy it was not an easy week. He squeezed his days in Alaska into an overcrowded schedule. Then he developed laryngitis so

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acutely that on Thursday evening he suddenly stopped in the middle of a sermon based on Samson and Delilah and said, "My voice is gone." He turned around on the platform and went back to his seat. Immediately Associate Evangelist John Wesley White, who had been sitting hear him, stepped to the pulpit and finished the sermon brilliantly, if extemporaneously.

    When John gave the invitation at the close to come to Christ, Billy rose from his seat and without speaking, held out his arms and beckoned the people to come forward. They came! It was a biblical moment. Statistics later showed that the 486 inquirers who went forward in commitment that night were the highest percentage relative to attendance of the entire week. The Sullivan Arena attendance count that evening was 8,700.

    The outreach of the Anchorage crusade was fabulous. Ninety percent of the state of Alaska was covered by television rebroadcasts of the meetings. The gospel outreach went by radio over the North Pole to Siberia, Finland, and to a 9,500-mile radius over the Pacific expanding out of Billy's radio station, KAIM, in Honolulu. In Seoul, South Korea, one congregation met for an hour every morning that week to pray for the crusade.

    But the one precious moment I shall always carry with me occurred on Tuesday evening just as I arrived breathlessly from the Anchorage airport. I entered the jam-packed arena as the crusade service was about to begin and was escorted quickly down the aisle toward the platform. Suddenly someone slipped out of one of the aisles and grasped me. It was Tom Teply, and his face was shining. "Woody, do you remember," he asked, "when we started praying for this way back when? Do you remember? And God did it. Wow!"

    We hugged and laughed, and I continued walking until another man came out of his seat and accosted me. This time it was Vic Zacharias. He too seized my hand and then hugged me and said, "God heard us, Woody. All those months and years of praying. Nobody knew about it — only a few — and this came out of it. Can you believe it? Look at this crowd. Praise the Lord!"

    The usher who had been waiting now escorted me to the platform.

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I took a back seat, smiled at Billy, Grady, T.W., Tedd, and others on the team, looked at the dazzling crowd — and eight years dropped away. The choir rose for the opening hymn, and there was glory all around.


1. This book, Evangelism: The Next Ten Years, was published by Word Books, Waco, Tex., in 1979.

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