Christians in Vancouver are in open disagreement over a decision to invite controversial U.S. evangelist Franklin Graham to speak in that city.
In a letter to organizers of a three-day festival featuring Graham in March, next year, five local evangelical and Roman Catholic leaders call Graham—who is known for criticizing homosexuals and Muslims—“incendiary and intolerant.”
“Rev. Graham is a polarizing figure,” the letter states. “His ungracious and bigoted remarks have the potential to generate serious negative impact on the Christian witness in Vancouver.”
The controversy reminds me of what happened in 2006 when Graham came to Winnipeg for a similar festival. Back then, it was local Mennonites who opposed him, for some of the same reasons—as I wrote in the Free Press ten years ago.
Franklin Graham is coming to Winnipeg this fall. That makes many people happy. But it also has caused some concerns.
City officials are happy, since the three-day festival is expected to attract 50,000 people and pump $1 million to $3 million into the local economy.
Many local Christians are happy, since the event promises to bring “unity and spiritual renewal” to Winnipeg churches, according festival director Dan Klug.
Christians from a variety of denominations have signed on to serve on various committees. Altogether, festival organizers hope 200 to 300 churches will endorse the festival.
But some Mennonites wonder if they should support the event, citing Graham’s very public support for the U.S. war on terror and remarks he made shortly after 9/11 when he called Islam “a very evil and a very wicked religion.”
At its Feb. 24-25 convention, Mennonite Church Manitoba delegates passed a resolution expressing support for the festival but calling on conference leaders to seek a meeting with festival organizers to express their concerns.
“We support churches working together, but we don’t want to be seen to be supporting Franklin Graham’s militaristic stand,” said Menno Wiebe, a lay minister at Sargent Avenue Mennonite Church.
The subject of the festival did not come up at the annual convention of the Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches in Manitoba, also held in February. But leaders of that group are deciding whether to join Mennonite Church Manitoba in seeking a meeting to share concerns with festival organizers.
Meanwhile, Mennonite Central Committee Manitoba has also weighed in on the issue. In a letter sent to both conferences, executive director Peter Rempel wonders what may happen to Mennonite church members, and to aid and mission workers overseas, if Manitoba Mennonites support the festival.
“I’m thinking about the safety of our workers and Mennonites in other countries,” he said in an interview, citing the riots that occurred in a number of Muslim-majority countries after cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed were published in Denmark.
Rempel also wonders if Manitoba Mennonites who support the event should have consulted with Mennonites in other countries about supporting the event.
After all, he points out, “they would the first in line to be expected to explain to people in their context an endorsement of a Franklin Graham event by Mennonite church groups. It is possible that they will experience reactions to such an endorsement sooner and more directly that the Mennonite community in Manitoba.”
Festival director Dan Klug says he is open to meeting with representatives from the Mennonite conferences, adding that he “appreciates and respects Mennonites and their convictions.” Graham, he says, is not coming to Winnipeg to “talk about current political issues or the war on terrorism, but simply to proclaim the gospel of Christ.”
And that’s the crux of the issue for some people in Winnipeg: What does the gospel of Christ include?
“By raising these questions, we are not anti-evangelism,” Wiebe says. “We just need to clearly signal our Mennonite peace stand.”
Adds Rempel: “I agree with the importance of proclaiming the gospel, and of our peace witness . . . we can uphold both.”