How Billy Graham found a place in our hearts

With the death of evangelist Billy Graham at age 99, the world turns to theologians and historians to measure his impact. But perhaps we should turn first to the everyday people who filled the stadiums, arenas and parks where he preached for a half-century – 215 million people in all.

It could have been New York’s Madison Square Garden in 1957, when the world took notice. Or an eight-day crusade at Carter Stadium in Raleigh in 1973. Or Charlotte’s Ericsson Stadium in 1996, when 305,000 welcomed their native son home. Or the old World’s Fairgrounds in New York in 2005, when the advancing years made this his last crusade.

At any of those places and more, the faithful he touched could have most eloquently expressed why we mark the passing of this son of North Carolina with gratitude and grief: He offered the promise and comfort of Christ to the last person in the last row in the most distant venue on earth.

His simple message never changed, nor was it sullied by scandal. And though he came to counsel presidents and allowed himself to get too close to the powerful by his own admission, his legacy lies with the lost and the restless: Those even on the last row who felt he was talking directly to them, giving them hope, promising them that life can be better, and that heaven awaits.

The message

I write about Graham’s life and death from two perspectives. I covered him for a dozen years as religion writer at his hometown Charlotte Observer, running around the stadiums, trying to capture the spectacle on deadline. From New York to Charlotte to Tampa to Essen, Germany, I embraced the fervor and came to appreciate the legacy of modern Christendom’s most enduring figure.

He built a model for religious organizations everywhere, even the little church down the block, by avoiding financial and personal scandal, living a modest lifestyle in small-town Montreat, and blending evangelism and entertainment with integrity.

He left us a cautionary tale as well, about speaking truth to power, which he admitted he failed to do most famously during Richard Nixon’s anti-Semitic rants preserved on tape. Most importantly for those trying to reach people in the 21st Century, he left a playbook for how to spread a message across many platforms.

Graham figured out how to effectively connect through live events, on TV and radio, in books and magazines, even in full-length movies. One example of his ingenuity: He’d hold a crusade over several nights, then condense it into an hour-long TV show and buy time on stations across the country. I can’t begin to tell you the number of North Carolinians who have told me they grew up watching Graham on TV. Under Franklin Graham’s leadership – whatever you think of his politically-conservative bent – the ministry that bears his father’s name is effectively harnessing the Internet. If Billy was still at it, he’d probably be tweeting.

Fragile humanity

But I write about Graham’s life and death from another perspective, this one more poignant, for I got to know him and his family over the years, away from the pulpit. I’ve eaten a lot of Big Macs in my life, I confess, but only once with Billy and Ruth Graham in their home as he reminisced about hosting Muhammad Ali for lunch in 1979. He gave the champ an autographed Bible. Ali handed it back to Graham and said, “How about printing ‘Billy Graham’ under that. I want people to know it’s you when I show it to them.”

The moments I had with Graham remain…

Sitting beside him on a golf cart after the last night of his crusade in Charlotte, his face still flush from the fervor. The message he left on my answering machine at home, updating me on his wife’s condition at the Mayo Clinic. It was the voice of a worried husband, not the fiery evangelist, and he went on for so long, the machine cut him off.

This may be most pivotal in understanding Graham’s impact and legacy: His fragile humanity came through, even in his younger, more electrifying days, deepening his connection with the masses, helping people see that he was one of them, on the same journey, facing the same struggles.

I put it all into a book celebrating Graham’s life, and sent him as signed copy. A few weeks later, I received a letter of thanks from him in the mail. I look often at his shaky signature at the end of the letter, reread his words of gratitude, and how his assistant had to read a bit of the book to him because his eyesight had failed him.

I framed the letter from Billy Graham. Years from now, I’ll glance at it for the thousandth time and think again about the farm boy from North Carolina who found a place in our hearts, and who devoted his life to reaching out to the last person on the last row.

Ken Garfield is director of communications at Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte. He previously covered religion at The Charlotte Observer and wrote “Billy Graham: A Life In Pictures” (Triumph Books).