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.
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