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The Associated Press

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Over the past half-century, this hard-driving entrepreneur has built a $374 million-a-year organization from scratch, a group with a staff of 24,000 and a sleek, new headquarters.

Yet check the fine print in the annual report: His salary is a mere $30,595. His wife and co-founder gets another $19,975. The couple drives two aging Lincolns, donated by friends. They have never owned a home, instead paying rent on a company-owned condo. He donates all his book royalties to charity.

The man who combines this business acumen and personal frugality is Bill Bright, the layman leader of Campus Crusade for Christ — a figure arguably as important to America’s evangelical Protestant movement as his famous friend, the Rev. Billy Graham.

If Graham has been the movement’s star, Bright has been its director, the less visible but all-important master behind the scenes.

The 82-year-old Graham and 79-year-old Bright — both with serious health problems — are the lone survivors among the leaders who energized postwar evangelism in the United States.

Now, as Graham conserves his strength to speak at two of his “crusades” a year, Bright’s career, and indeed his life, are coming to a close.

Next weekend, 5,000 U.S. staff members attending a training camp at Colorado State University will celebrate Campus Crusade’s 50th anniversary and pay tribute to Bright as he passes the presidency to his chosen successor, the Rev. Steve Douglass.

The emotion will surely be heightened by the fact that Bright is dying from incurable pulmonary fibrosis. Bright has lost 60 percent of lung capacity and is perpetually connected to an oxygen tank.

But he’s unfazed by his condition.

“A Christian can’t lose,” Bright says in an interview at his Orlando home. “If we live, we go on serving him. That’s an adventure. If we die, we’re in heaven with him, and that’s incredible.”

Raised by a churchgoing mother and skeptical father on an Oklahoma ranch, William Rohl Bright was a self-described “happy pagan” and California businessman when he encountered Jesus in 1947.

It happened through the ministrations of the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood and its noted youth worker, Henrietta Mears, who later coaxed Vonette, Bright’s fiance, into commitment to Jesus as well.

One night the young couple literally signed a contract with God, agreeing to surrender all their possessions and seek to evangelize the world during their lifetimes.

The very next day, Bright recounts, God gave him the vision for Campus Crusade, which began as a small effort to evangelize students at nearby UCLA but quickly prospered and spread to other campuses.

Bright’s empire has since swept into 190 countries (some clandestinely), and foreign nationals now constitute a large majority of the staff.

Besides the original college effort, there are now Crusade units targeting high school students, school board members, racial minorities, singles, athletes, politicians, diplomats, business executives, lawyers, health professionals, parents, women, children, prisoners and the entertainment industry.

Other Christian agencies specialize in those same groups, but Bright’s evangelistic Wal-Mart seemingly covers everyone. Though the overlap has irritated some ministries, Bright figures there’s plenty of work for everyone and gladly provides resources to other groups.

Also, the other ministries usually have multiple purposes, while Bright focuses tightly on winning new converts and teaching them Christian fundamentals.

Crusade has held some mass training sessions, but evangelizes mostly through intimate groups and one-on-one contacts, not Graham-style telecasts and arena revivals.

The raspy-voiced Bright admits, “I have never been a particularly dramatic or highly entertaining speaker.” His son, Brad, adds “Crusade has never been about personalities. It’s been about getting the job done.”

Crusade’s best-known tactic originated in 1957 when Bill boiled the Christian message into 77 words, the “Four Spiritual Laws.”

Fundamentalists grumbled because his pitch didn’t start from human sinfulness — and intellectuals scoffed. But Bright’s drummers found the tract helpful in gaining followers, and Crusade says copies have been distributed by the billions.

Sloganeering erupted in the 1970s as Bright plastered “I Found It!” signs across U.S. cities for months, followed by the revelation that “it” was faith in Jesus.

By 1979, Crusade released a two-hour film titled “Jesus,” funded by billionaire Bunker Hunt and since dubbed in 654 languages.

The organization, which tabulates everything it does, says cumulative audiences total 4.3 billion and 140 million viewers have registered commitments to Jesus. Some of the group’s 2,757 film teams lug portable generators for showings of the movie in the remotest corners of the planet.

The film was central to “New Life 2000,” Crusade’s typically grandiose goal of working with other organizations to give everyone on earth the chance to say “yes to Jesus” by New Year’s Day, 2001.

Bright can’t say that happened but believes God imparted this “tremendous challenge to accelerate everything we’re doing.”

Forever trying new ideas, Bright recently co-authored his first novel even as he fought against illness.

“Blessed Child,” due late next month, should stir discussion. It tells the story of a boy with the power to perform healing miracles who encounters a dying evangelist — a character Bright describes as semi-autobiographical. Bright says the purpose is to show that “the God whom we worship is still a miracle-working God.”

In the time that remains, Bright will also record lectures for The King’s College, a nonaccredited, Crusade-owned school that rents quarters in New York’s Empire State Building. The goal is to make it a suburban university for 2,000 students, offering course work for another 10,000 worldwide via the Internet.

Copyright 2001 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.