Graham to hold revival in Rochester, but some churches are troubled about his anti-LGBTQ comments
Graham said he is not singling out LGBTQ members, but some area churches plan to hold a counter-event to highlight the inclusive nature of the gospel.
ROCHESTER — A group of Rochester area churches are planning to host a gathering to coincide with an evangelical revival hosted by Rev. Franklin Graham at Soldiers Memorial Field Park to highlight many of Graham’s anti-LGBTQ comments and to offer what they say is a more inclusive version of the Gospel.
Graham is making Rochester one of six stops on his nationwide “God Loves You” tour that starts Saturday, Sept. 24 in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and ends in Rochester on Sunday, Oct. 2, 2022.
Rev. Paul Bauch, lead pastor of Peace United Church of Christ, said the Rochester churches' counter-event is not meant to be confrontational or even a protest. It is designed to emphasize the inclusive nature of the Gospel, a message of hope that Graham, through his anti-LGBTQ comments, has appeared to signal doesn’t apply to the LGBTQ community. Bauch estimated that six or seven area churches have been part of the discussion as to how to respond to the Graham event.
“The messaging Franklin Graham has made about the LGBTQ community has not been very helpful,” Bauch said. “A lot of our folks feel threatened by that message. And there are many of us who believe that the Gospel is a Gospel of love and inclusion of all people.”
Graham, the son of evangelist Billy Graham, has made a number of comments over the years equating the behavior of LGBTQ members with immorality and perversion.
According to the GLAAD Accountability Project, which monitors people and groups who make anti-LGBTQ comments, Graham said celebrating LGBTQ+Pride is like celebrating “lying, adultery and murder.” He has said he loves gay people “enough to warn them that if they want to continue living like this, it’s the flames of hell for you.”
He has praised Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is waging war in Ukraine, for passing a law that effectively bans children from accessing media that presents LGBTQ identities and relationships “in a positive and normalizing light.”
In an interview this week with the Post Bulletin, Graham noted that there are 110 area churches that are supporting the “God Loves You” tour in Rochester. He said that he is not coming to Rochester to preach against the LGBTQ community.
“I’m coming to tell people how they can have a relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ,” Graham said. “I want people to turn from their sins, to see people reach out in faith to Almighty God.”
Asked why his comments tend to focus on the LGBTQ community as “sinners” instead of all mankind, Graham replied, “That’s unfortunate, because I don’t want to single them out.
“I want them to know that they are important, that God loves them and cares for them, and that Christ came to die for their sins,” he said.
Graham said God provides salvation, but people have to be willing to accept it. God is offering a gift, but “we’ve got to be willing to receive it by faith, and so that’s what I hope in Rochester that many people will receive Christ by faith.”
Graham’s history of making homophobic and Islamophobic comments has brought backlash in cities with his scheduled previous appearances. In 2020, Graham’s attempt to hold planned appearances across England was stymied when every venue booked by the preacher was canceled, according to CNN.
Asked why so many venues appeared to be rejecting his version of the Gospel, Graham said that some of the venues canceled the contracts, and “we have taken them to court,” and so far, those disputes “have been decided in our favor.”s
“Again, I’m not an enemy of the LGBTQ community. I don’t agree with them. But that doesn’t make me an enemy,” Graham said.
Graham said the question of whether gay people choose to be gay or are born that way was “difficult to answer,” but added “we’re all born sinners.”
“We have to make a conscious decision to turn from our sins,” he said. “Is a person born a thief who steals or a person who murders, was he born a murderer? I don’t think when they’re born, they had that in their mind to be a murderer. It’s that sinful nature we’re all born with.”
Graham is one of the most high-profile speakers in the United States, is president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and an outspoken supporter of former President Donald Trump. He has more than 10 million fans across his social media platforms, where many of his past comments have fueled anger.
Graham is appearing in Allentown on Sept. 24, York, Pennsylvania, on Sept. 25, Youngstown, Ohio, on Sept. 27, Flint, Michigan, on Sept. 29, and Waukesha, Wisconsin, on Oct. 1 before winding up in Rochester on Oct. 2. The event in Rochester starts at 3:30 p.m.
The tour through the U.S. heartland includes several communities like Flint and Youngstown hard hit by industrialization. Some are bastions of blue-collar workers that flocked to Trump in 2016. The tour appears to studiously avoid large urban centers. Except for Rochester and Allentown, none have populations over 100,000.
Graham said he chose Rochester because “it’s part of the country that had a great influence on our family.” He said his dad, Billy Graham, spent many nights in Rochester as a patient of Mayo Clinic. Many of the doctors and nurses there were responsible for helping him live to be 100-years-old.
Graham said that during one three-month stay in Rochester, his father ate at the downtown Red Lobster for an entire month.
Rochester church leaders who are organizing to highlight what they say is a more inclusive version of the Gospel than what Graham offers hew to more progressive church theology.
Bauch said the churches are not calling for the event to be canceled or for people not to attend. He said he had no idea how many would attend the counter-event, but he expected that people from the LGBTQ community would be there, as would be congregation members wanting to show support for them.
“I’m hoping that if somebody goes (to Graham’s event), if they experience God in a new way, good for them,” Bauch said. “I just don’t want it to be at the peril or demise or hurt of other people. That’s my concern.”
“Franklin Graham has a large national following. And while there are congregations that align with his beliefs, his public presence and statements, especially around LGBTQ folks, are troubling to us. And we want to offer a counter-message of affirmation,” said Rev. Luke Stevens-Royer, pastor of First Unitarian Universalist Church in Rochester.
Church leaders are calling their counter-event, “Love Your Neighbor,” and will gather at 3 p.m. Oct. 2 at the corner of Sixth Street and Second Avenue Southwest at Zumbro Lutheran Church. There will be a few words spoken to set the stage. The plan is for people to hold up signs, talk with people as they pass by and express the event’s “love your neighbor” theme.
“This is designed to be a positive, uplifting approach … not confrontative,” an email from the group said.
Jenna Bowman, Rochester’s strategic communications and engagement director, said Franklin Graham representatives received a special permit through the City Clerks’ Office to hold the event. Rochester City Council approved it on May 5, and it was issued to the event on May 16.
“Thus far, the conversations with the event coordinators have been very professional and it appears they understand event management,” Bowman said.
Graham noted near the end of the interview that the Rochester event is free.
“(They say), there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Listen, there is going to be a free concert and a message of hope,” Graham noted. “It’s a great opportunity for the community. And I hope that they will come.”