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Celebs attend 'spiritual hero' Billy Graham's 95th birthday party

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By Phil Gast

(CNN) -- The Rev. Billy Graham took people to church, perhaps for the last time, as hundreds joined the iconic evangelist Thursday evening for his 95th birthday.

A guest list that included former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the Rev. Rick Warren and businessmen Rupert Murdoch and Donald Trump came to pay tribute to a man beloved for his humility and faithfulness.

Because the frail Graham no longer has the strength to speak behind a lectern, his enduring message of salvation through Jesus Christ came in the form of "The Cross," a 30-minute DVD that made its debut at the celebration.

"He is my spiritual hero," said entertainer Ricky Skaggs shortly before the celebration began at the Grove Park Inn in Asheville, North Carolina. "He exemplifies brokenness and humility."

Graham, in a wheelchair, entered the room to a standing ovation. Although he did not give a formal speech, he later made impromptu remarks from his table, thanking family and friends.

"The Cross" was filmed in part this year at Graham's remote mountaintop home in Montreat, east of Asheville.

His hearing and eyesight have dimmed, but Graham has remained true to his familiar themes.

"Our country is in great need of a spiritual awakening. There have been times that I have wept as I have gone from city to city and I have seen how far people have wandered from God," the pastor said in what is expected to be his final video production. "Of all the things I have seen and heard, there is only one message that can change people's lives and hearts."

That message, as billions around the world have heard for more than six decades, is salvation and the need to live a new life because of Christ's sacrifice on the cross.

Graham has provided counsel to generations of U.S. presidents beginning with Harry S. Truman. Staging revivals that he called "crusades" around the world, the founder of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association has reached untold millions of people in person.

In the video, Graham said when he was young he did not foresee speaking to large audiences.

"As I look back over my life, it is full of surprises. I never thought I would become friends with people in different countries all over the world," he said.

Singers Lecrae and Lacey Sturm also are featured in the video, which can be watched online and will be played in churches across the country. It is part of the "My Hope America with Billy Graham" series. The production included recorded sermons and footage of a younger Graham.

Skaggs, singer Michael W. Smith and TV host Kathie Lee Gifford were among those leading the singing of "Happy Birthday" to Graham. About 850 well-wishers were on hand at the resort inn.

Palin told Graham that his Christian message is needed for a "great awakening" the nation and world need.

Graham is a member of the Rev. Don Wilton's church, Spartanburg First Baptist in South Carolina, and he still watches Wilton's sermons on TV.

"He'll look at me and say, 'Don, let's talk about that second point you had on Sunday,'" said Wilton, who drives up at least once a week to Graham's home.

"My favorite part is when he puts his hands on me and prays with me," Wilton told CNN affiliate WYFF in Greenville, South Carolina.

Graham, a Charlotte native, began his missionary work in 1944 when he started speaking at rallies for the Youth for Christ/Campus Life ministry. Five years later, Graham was holding a "crusade" in tents in downtown Los Angeles.

Cliff Barrows was with Graham in the early years and for decades has served as music and program director.

Barrows, 90, turned to his boss on Thursday evening, paying an emotional tribute.

"I praise God for the journey we have had together. Thank you with all my heart for the privilege. Happy birthday."
   
 The-CNN-Wire
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