In the late 1920s. my mother told me, my grandfather, her daddy, Henry Price took his oldest daughter, Katherine, to the hospital. The doctor said that she had diphtheria and if he didn’t take her to the hospital she would die. Having no health insurance, Grandpa had to sell every chicken, cow and piece of equipment he had, as well as his his land and his house to pay the hospital bill.
With few other options, he moved his young family down to Charlotte and got a job with a local dairy farmer delivering milk. He would go out to the farm every day and pick up his deliveries and do his route.
Their daughter survived, and when she was 6 she would go with him and knew the farmer’s son, who was about 12 years old. She said he would pick on her. She would later say, “He was mean to me sometimes.” But that boy went to a revival and was converted to faith in Christ, and she would have never guessed that the farmer’s son was Billy Graham, would go on to preach to 215 million people in the world and whose body lies in state in the Capitol as I write.
Most of us around Concord and Charlotte watched his rise to fame and came to love and respect his preaching Ministry. My mother says that when I was a baby, she and dad went out to the Charlotte airport to pick up someone for his work, and there came Billy and a couple of his fellow ministers, walking up the terminal hallway. My dad walked over with me in his arms, and according to family lore, Billy rubbed my head and pronounced me a cute child. I did not notice at the time.
My grandmother sent him money all of her years to support the work that he did to tell others about Jesus Christ. As he grew older zeal gave way to wisdom and maturity. He learned some hard lessons when he came too close to a corrupt President Nixon who used him.
I later saw him again, at the Cotton Bowl, part of a massive crowd of young people and church leaders who came together for Explo 72. An event to galvanize a global evangelistic effort. Johnny and June Carter Cash sang, which impressed me as well, but I was there as a teenaged boy committed to the gospel ministry and headed to college.
From a dairy farmer’s son in North Carolina to a worldwide voice of Christian evangelism, Billy Graham transformed evangelicalism, distinguishing it from fundamentalism into a voice for telling the Jesus story to the world. Even other conservatives and fundamentalists were critical of his being too generous to opponents and critics. His zeal was to tell people about a God who loved them and wanted to save them from their sins.
Praise and appreciation has dominated the response to the 99 year old preacher, but there have been voices of critique as well—his sometimes naïve relationship to Presidents and politics, and those who wanted him to speak more forcefully about race and other social problems. There are those who take issue with the very notion of evangelism in our day as a negative reality, trampling over other cultures and religions.
It is important to note that Billy Graham himself acknowledged many of these issues. At the end of his public ministry, I heard him on an interview answer the question, “What do you think the greatest problem facing the human race today is?” Without hesitation he replied, “No question, the problem of racism.”
It is necessary to have prophetic voices, like Martin Luther King, and evangelistic voices like Billy Graham from a Christian point of view. Both are the gospel. They do not cancel each other out but complete the story. However, Graham did take some powerful steps in his own way. My friend Dr. Fisher Humphreys wrote to me this week to say that Rev. Graham felt remorse that he hadn’t done more in the area of race relations:
In his autobiography he includes stories in which he apologized to King and other civil rights leaders. One of them–it may have been King but I don’t remember–urged him to continue doing just what he was doing! [It is also important to note] how VERY early it was when Graham integrated his meetings. No one else was holding any integrated meetings, anywhere. And the integration in his meetings wasn’t tokenism, either; I myself heard him preach at the old Pelican Stadium in New Orleans in 1954, and the choir was half blacks and half whites, and those on the platform with him also were half and half. That was, to put it very simply, radical at the time.
This was before the Brown v Board of Education decision. If Billy Graham was, like all of us, imperfect in some ways, he should also be appreciated for what he did in his time.
Stephen Neill once wrote in History of Christian Missions that the Biblical story is of “God’s love story with the human race.” The logic of our faith, then, leads us out, not in. The gospel is the natural energy of God’s love for the human race. That’s why our work is toward others for the sake of leading them out—of themselves, of narrow cultural boundaries, out of immature and limited viewpoints. We lead them–and ourselves– toward the kingdom of God, maturity, compassion for neighbor and mercy to the stranger. Even feeding the hungry and concern for the poor are birthed out of this extraordinary energy of love that emanates from the compassionate God who made them. And so is the telling of our story.
Billy Graham’s life was not perfect. He was the first to admit it. But his love for the simple story of Jesus, and his passion to share it with everyone on the earth was companioned with a generous heart that always seemed to see room for one more. Social justice and telling the story of Jesus both matter. In these times of anger and division, of tribal isolation and distrust, we might pray for a larger heart for the world again, both prophetic actions and healing bridge-builders. We need to have reborn among us the story of Love that refuses to give up on us. Billy Graham never lost sight of that story. Neither should we.
Lives are complicated. So is the world. But sometimes simple hearts shine through the cynicism and suffering. He was bigger in spirit than his politics and even his theology sometimes. It was that strange simplicity of a loving God and his passion that everyone might know about it. That is worth keeping with us.