In the summer of 1982 I crossed the Pacific Ocean for the first time to spend some time in Japan and China. The occasion was a Christian missions trip. After six weeks of ministry work in Tokyo, we concluded the trip with a few days of sightseeing in Hong Kong, Guangzhou, and Beijing. I thoroughly enjoyed China, but it was somewhat surreal walking around Tiananmen Square, through the Forbidden City, and over the Great Wall. As one of my companions said at the time, we wouldn’t fully realize until we were back home in America that we had been all the way on the other side of the world.My companion was right. We don’t appreciate experiences at the time nearly as much as we appreciate them years later, when we can see the impact they had on us and how they shaped the course of our lives. It’s the same with people. We don’t know how important they have been to us until years later. Maybe even decades or centuries later, when the full tale of their story can be considered in context.
The full tale of Billy Graham’s impact on my life is not yet told, but I have an idea what it encompasses now, nearly 50 years after I first saw him. That occasion was in the spring of 1972, during his second visit to my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama. It was just before my 11th birthday, and I had no idea at the time what a tremendous effect Reverend Graham had already exerted on my city. For some reason, my parents deemed it best to shield us from the momentous societal transformations wrought by the Civil Rights Movement. All I knew in my childhood was that Billy Graham, like me, was a Southern Baptist, that he loved Jesus like I did, and that he was a very important preacher. I did not know that it was he who insisted on having an integrated choir in his first crusade in my divided city in 1964, and that the crowd gathered at Legion Field in that year was the largest integrated audience in Birmingham history. He addressed a deep, deep wound with the healing admonition of Jesus Christ – one of many ministers of reconciliation the Almighty used in that era to right grievous wrongs, curb the worst of abuses, and prepare the next generation to carry the progress forward.
The seeds sown in Billy Graham’s first visit to Birmingham had begun to sprout by the time I saw him eight years later. My youthful eyes and ears had taken notice of the color divide in our society, and wondered why it had to be so. The integration of the University of Alabama’s football team helped bridge the divide, and that was largely the work of Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. He also was there with Billy Graham at Legion Field in 1972, drawing perhaps as many people as the famous evangelist drew. No matter why they came, the people all heard the same message. It was the message Billy Graham always preached: God has great love for all people, a love He expressed through His Son, Jesus Christ. Trust Him with your life, and He will carry you through the trials of this world into an eternal reward.
It is a simple message, and a true message. It is also the consistent message from which Rev. Graham never wavered. I heard him speak it again in San Antonio, Texas, in 1997. The intervening 25 years had not changed the sermon very much. In fact, it was the other way around: the sermon had changed the world.
This was something I did not fully appreciate in 1972, nor in 1997. I did not begin to understand until November 2017, when I had occasion to visit the Billy Graham Library just days after the great evangelist’s 99th birthday. I had been aware of his lengthy career, his many famous connections, and his appearances before millions of people on every populated continent. What I did not realize was that this simple Baptist preacher had been used of God to change history.
The evidence is there in pictures and in video. There is one wall which shows Billy Graham in photographs with every U.S. president from Harry Truman to Barack Obama, and with world leaders as diverse as Golda Meir, Queen Elizabeth II, Boris Yeltsin, Konrad Adenauer, Jiang Zhemin, and Indira Gandhi. There is a whole section devoted to his crusades in communist countries, where he preached to hundreds of thousands of people hungry for a word of hope from a God they were officially forbidden to acknowledge. And there is another room showing video clips of his appearances on American talk shows over a 30 year period. In interviews with Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, Woody Allen, Phil Donohue, and Larry King, Rev. Graham consistently spoke a message of righteousness – God’s righteousness, delivered in a firm, but loving, way.
That’s when I realized that all my work as a soldier in the Cold War and as an agent of the United States Government paled in comparison to the accomplishments of this humble preacher. While I was preparing to go to war with the Soviet Union, he and his evangelistic team were transforming it from the inside out. Yet he would be the first to say that his work was not as important as the work of the nameless multitudes who labored quietly in the shadows on both sides of the Iron Curtain, praying for God’s Kingdom to come and His will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. Whether they languished in Russia’s gulags, or contributed their pennies as offerings in Sunday Schools, they were all part of a massive undertaking guided by the Holy Spirit to shift the eternal destiny of nations. It was they whose prayers and labors brought Billy Graham and others like him into positions of influence, where the word of the Living God could be spoken at just the right season.
This is the point that had been lost on me until that moment at the dawn of Billy Graham’s 100th year. It is the question of how we define success. Success is not only that many millions experienced salvation moments through the ministry of Billy Graham, but that the lives of billions were made better through him. The stories will come in time – such as a recent account of his quiet, humble actions that brought a large measure of healing in the division between Christians and Jews.
And now Billy Graham has departed this life. What will we remember about him? Good things, I hope. That is what I remembered as I paid my respects as his body lay in repose here in my new hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina. It is not the first time I have paid my respects to a great person. In 2004 and 2006, I joined the thousands who went to the Capitol in Washington when Presidents Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford lay in state. Like them, Billy Graham will lie in repose in the Capitol, but his final resting place will be here in Charlotte.
Since I now live in Charlotte, I could not forego the opportunity to honor this man of God. The entire experience was not only one of dignity and respect, but of celebration and familial hospitality. That was my impression from the moment the first representative of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association greeted me in the parking deck at the Charlotte airport – one of two locations where visitors gathered to take shuttle busses to the Billy Graham Library. This was no mere perfunctory greeting born of professional courtesy, but a heartfelt expression of gratitude. Gratitude for what? For coming to participate in the lengthy process of sending this servant of the Almighty to his eternal reward. So it was with everyone I encountered, from the security official who apologized for our delay (we had to wait while former President and Mrs. George W. Bush paid their respects), to the volunteers who directed us to sign the guest books, and finally to those attending the casket in the parlor of the old Graham family home.
Perhaps I should not have been surprised to see one of the great man’s grandsons there as well. Roy Austin Graham, the second son of Franklin Graham, stood at the door to give personal thanks to each visitor. That, after all, is the way of Southern Baptists. The family is present for the visitation, greeting those who come to pay their respects to the dead. I surmise the Graham family took turns to ensure at least one representative was there to greet the thousands of guests over those two days of public viewing. It was more than a nice touch; it was the best way of including everyone, just as the old evangelist would have wanted it.
All of these things I pondered in the time leading to and since my final journey into Billy Graham’s presence. Three times in 50 years. That’s not much. This last time I did not even get to see his face. The plain wooden casket was closed, of course, and even then I could do little more than gaze at it for a few seconds. But that was enough to acknowledge a debt of gratitude. No doubt the great man’s spirit received the message even better than his grandson did. As I shook Roy’s hand, I stumbled through an awkward thanks to him and his family for their service to the Kingdom of God. He may have grasped the meaning of my words, but even if not, his kind expression and response of thanks indicated that he very much understood the impact his grandfather has had on this world.
It is an impact for good, regardless what others may say to the contrary. Some have tried to explain to me that Billy Graham was in league with this or that nefarious organization in some sort of dark conspiracy to enslave the world. Why should I believe them? I myself have been in association with people who would be considered questionable in various circles: Catholics (Franciscans and Jesuits no less), Jews (Orthodox, Karaite, Messianic, and secular), Evangelical Christians, Mormons, Muslims (Sunni and Shia), Hindus, Freemasons, agnostics and atheists, communists and socialists, homosexuals and lesbians, Democrats, Republicans, and others. Do any of them control me? Am I their tool for some arcane purposes known only to a select few?
No, I am not. Neither was my Messiah Yeshua, the one whom Billy Graham proclaimed as Jesus Christ. And thus I deem Billy Graham was no tool of anyone other than the Kingdom of Heaven. The fruits of his labors speak for themselves: millions of lives are changed for the better, and nations have refrained from destroying one another for yet another generation. This is the work of the Almighty. If there is error in it, the Almighty alone has the right to judge. As for me, I am content to honor this one who is counted among His messengers, and to aspire to do even half as well.