No saviour at Godless West Ham

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A memory of Billy Graham on the occasion of his demise in his 100th year. A version of this piece originally appeared in Nearly Reach The Sky by Brian Williams

My one visit to Upton Park left me with a single overwhelming conviction: there is no God.

I travelled to West Ham’s then stadium to see the American preacher Billy Graham conduct a ‘revival meeting’ in 1989.  My attendance, however, was as a newspaper reporter not a seeker after salvation.

Graham had a global reputation in the 1950s and 1960s.  A generation before tv-Christianity made household names of American preachers (many of whom gained a murky reputation for financial and sexual impropriety) Graham was the best-known charismatic evangelist.  He toured the States and well beyond spreading his gospel of booming certainties.  His was a faith that reduced the bible to homilies, promoted a belief in miracles and centred on an absolute conviction in being ‘born again’, stripped of sin and offering up one’s soul to Jesus.

I arrived at Upton Park to find its stands packed to capacity – that was my first surprise.  On the pitch was a stage in front of which was a huge empty area.  A parade of warm-up acts struggled to enliven the crowd.  The only one I remember clearly was the blues singer Paul Jones, whose scripture-infused set provided definitive proof that the devil really does have all the best tunes.

When Graham finally took to the stage, however, it was clear that we were in the presence of a man who understood how to work a crowd.  Looking like a late-period Johnny Cash, he had the quality of an Old Testament prophet.  And simple as his stories were, he invested them with a fervour that resonated even at the top of the West Stand.

The climax of Graham’s sermons had always been the same.  ‘Come on down’ he would demand – encouraging his audience to leave their seats and gather in front of the stage. Graham would then lead his congregation in a ‘sinners prayer’ – the cornerstone of born-again Christianity where all  would either reaffirm or embrace faith anew.

So  it was at West Ham – although Graham did not rely on oratorical skills alone.  As his sermon reached its explosive conclusion and he called on us to come forward, a small army of stewards suddenly appeared among the audience.  Soon they were pushing and cajoling us down the gangways and onto the turf.

In the interests of journalistic enquiry, I followed.  Now the stewards were tending to those of us on the pitch individually – ‘are you ready to make a sinner’s prayer’ one asked me.  I declined, but noticing that those who did bend to their knees were being given a package of literature, I asked if, as a representative of the press, I might be given one.  ‘They are only for the converted’, I was told.

My professional instincts kicked in – that pack might be the key to a decent story, I figured.  So I picked among the throng and found another steward.  ‘I’m ready’, I said.  The steward held my hands, pushed me to my knees and asked that I repeat these words: ‘forgive me of my sins Lord, I accept Jesus as my Master’.

Graham’s performance had not really moved me, but now, bent down, hands clasped in the steward’s sweaty grip, I knew that, if a thunderbolt from the sky was ever going to smite a cynic, this was the moment.  Seconds passed.  I opened my eyes, my fingers were released and I looked up.  The light momentarily dimmed as I was handed my information pack, but forked lightening — there was none.

The moral, that I left with was this.  Like West Ham themselves, Billy Graham, on song, could put on a show with the power to transport crowds to different realm.

If you are looking for miracles and evidence of the existence of God, however, you will have to go a lot further than the London Borough of Newham.