I always wanted to meet Billy Graham, but the closest I got to him was at the 1987 Southern Baptist Convention meeting in St. Louis, one of 13 annual SBC meetings at which he spoke. I slipped out of my seat, walked down the center aisle, and snapped pictures as he preached. I have no idea where those pictures are.
I heard him preach at his Atlanta crusade at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in 1973, but I was in the upper deck that night.
Graham is one of my spiritual heroes. His ministry was already going strong when I grew old enough to become aware of him and his fervent preaching. As I began to follow him and sense how God was using him, I was impressed and personally impacted. Every preacher worth his salt wants to have the anointing Graham had.
His gospel message was simple, clear, and powerful. He boldly called people to repentance and to receive the Lord Jesus as their Savior. His messages used current events or references to contemporary pop culture. I recall one message I heard on the Holy Spirit, and he started talking about Norman Greenbaum’s 1969 hit “Spirit in the Sky” and tied that in to the real Spirit in the sky.
When I was in college my journalism professor, Sam Riley, told a story in class one day about the power of the press. He shared that Billy Graham came to Los Angeles for a crusade in 1949, and William Randolph Hearst was so impressed with Graham, his message, and the response that he gave the order to “puff Graham,” except I remember Riley saying “push Graham.”
The Los Angeles Times ran a story about Graham’s 1949 meeting on the day after his death. Neil J. Young’s lead was “Los Angeles saved Billy Graham.”
Graham was discouraged when he came to LA for a three-week meeting, Young wrote. He pitched a massive tent that was dubbed the “Canvas Cathedral,” and attracted hundreds each night, including well-known movie stars. Olympic track star and World War II prisoner of war Louis Zamperini was saved in that meeting, along with 3,000 others. Three weeks turned into eight weeks.
Hearst sent a message to the editors of every paper he owned to promote Graham, and the crusade made the front pages across America. When he came to Los Angeles, he was pretty-much an unknown. When he left, Billy Graham was a household name.
Graham was on the cutting edge of using media to spread the Gospel. More than 130 movies, the “Hour of Decision” radio broadcast, the “My Answer” newspaper column, Decision magazine, special crusade broadcasts from all over the world, creative ads in local newspapers promoting upcoming movies or specials.
Graham was ahead of his time in race relations. Segregation was the order of the day when Graham started his ministry, but Graham was not comfortable with that position. He told an usher at a Chattanooga rally to remove the ropes that were separating the races. When the usher refused, Graham removed the ropes himself.
Graham became friends with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and paid his bail to free him from jail during the Birmingham protests in 1963. Graham got so close to King that King allowed him to call him by his nickname, Mike. During Graham’s 1973 Atlanta crusade, Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr. led one of the prayers.
I never understood, as a fourth grader sitting in the barber shop waiting for a haircut, why the old men hanging around were talking so mean about Martin Luther King, Jr. I remember thinking, “What did he ever do to them? Have they even met him?” I never understood hate.
In a video Billy Graham said, “There is no excuse ever for hatred. There is no excuse ever for bigotry and intolerance and prejudice. We are to love as God loves us.” (ibid, retrieved March 1, 2018).
I was impressed with his counsel to U.S. presidents and world leaders, his influence over celebrities, and his impeccable integrity. These days many pastors are leading their churches away from public invitations and altar calls, yet Graham always issued a public, come-forward invitation. And the masses came forward in droves to receive Jesus.
Heaven is fuller because of Billy Graham.