As the shadows lengthened, he grew ever brighter. In a wooden pulpit adorned by a single, simple cross, Billy Graham--older, slower, unmistakably weakened in body--stood illuminated by a mass of stage lights in the gathering darkness of a New York night. Now 86, he has prostate cancer, suffers from symptoms of Parkinson's and has broken a hip and his pelvis; there are shunts in his brain to fight hydrocephalus, and not too long ago, on an operating table at the Mayo Clinic, he believed he was dying.

Yet when he began to speak to a massive outdoor audience last Friday in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in the New York borough of Queens, the years fell away and his voice hit the old familiar notes. "You must be born again," Graham said during what he is calling his last American crusade. "Jesus said it's possible to start life all over again." As Graham preached from the third chapter of the Gospel of John, his great mane of white hair and piercing blue eyes looming before the 60,000-strong crowd on huge screens, he returned again and again to the core of the evangelical message he has carried to 210 million people in 185 countries through seven decades. "You've come tonight not to hear Billy Graham..." he said. "You've come to Jesus. He loves you and he forgives you. You have come to the cross."

His modesty was becoming, for in fact many were there to hear Graham preach once more. The most influential Protestant evangelist of the modern age, Graham plays a unique role in American life, one that may well go unfilled once he ends his earthly pilgrimage and goes home to God.

In the twilight of his life, Graham is more pastor than partisan, and, like the late John Paul II, is blessed with the ability to profess an unflinching creed with a welcoming warmth. "I'm going to talk about the Gospel of Christ," he said in New York, not about politics. "At my age I have one message: that Jesus Christ came, he died on a cross, he rose again, and he asked us to repent of our sins and receive him by faith as Lord and Savior, and if we do, we have forgiveness of all of our sins."

It is a sign of our polarized age that no other minister of national stature seems as moderate a figure as the aged Graham, who long ago transcended the passions and divisions of any given issue or era. Though his message is unabashedly sectarian, he is not. As a spirited Christian in an ecumenical age of diversity, Graham represents American Christianity at its best: faithful to the Gospel but tolerant of others, dedicated to Jesus but committed to openness and freedom of conscience. Graham's genius--and the reason the nation will miss him when he goes--lies in his capacity to preach the Gospel with an air of tolerance, offering hope, not fear.

Graham has been in the public eye since a landmark 1949 Los Angeles crusade and has known every president from Harry Truman to George W. Bush, whom he helped move away from a life of drift and drink in 1985. Still, Graham is consistently bipartisan, and it is difficult to think of many men who, like him, can say they are genuinely close to both the Clintons and the Bushes. That Graham can claim this distinction with sincerity, as he did in New York when asked whether he believed the nation too divided, is a testament to his formidable pastoral gifts.

Graham is the first to tell you he is an imperfect man, publicly praying "O God, I am a sinner..." Like many white Southerners, he was slower to take on the injustices of Jim Crow than he ought to have been. Only when the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education, in 1954, did he steadfastly integrate his crusades and rallies. In 2002, a newly released Nixon White House tape captured Graham agreeing with an anti-Semitic Nixon about alleged Jewish control of the media. Graham said he could not recall the conversation and sought forgiveness and reconciliation: "Racial prejudice, anti-Semitism or hatred of anyone with different beliefs has no place in the human mind or heart." Jewish leaders, many of whom appreciated his support of Israel and his refusal to join other evangelicals in calls for the conversion of Jews, accepted his apology.

Graham's current retreat from what he calls "hot-button issues" that so consume other religious figures appears rooted in decades of reflection on the virtues of faith, hope and love--love for all God's creatures. "Much of my life has been a pilgrimage--constantly learning, changing, growing and maturing," Graham said when he was 83. "I have come to see in deeper ways some of the implications of my faith and message, not the least of which is in the area of human rights and racial and ethnic understanding."

In recent years, at home with his ailing wife, Ruth, in the mountains of North Carolina, Graham has understandably come to dwell more on the spiritual than the temporal. Recalling his near-fatal brain operation at Mayo, he said: "That night I knew I was dying--or at least I thought I was--and I prayed to the Lord and all of my sins came in front of me that I had done even as a child. And then, when I turned to him by faith, I had the greatest peace to come to my heart that I have ever had--and I have never lost it to this day."

That peace is what he has offered throughout his ministry, and an estimated 3 million people have answered his call at crusades down the decades. Last Friday, after a 15-minute sermon, Graham sat down in the pulpit and summoned those who wished to declare their faith to walk to the front of the field. "You come," he said. "There is no decision in your whole life that compares to this. You come."

As his own journey nears its end, he is sure and certain about the future. "Do I fear death?" he asks. "No. I look forward to death, with great anticipation. I am looking forward to seeing God face to face. And that could happen any day." At the end of Moses' life, according to the Book of Deuteronomy, "his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated." In New York last weekend, another man of God, his eyes also sharp and his force equally unabated, again bore witness--a prophet in winter speaking a last time in the warmth of an American summer.