By Rev. Joe Walker, Minister of Congregational Care
The life and legacy of Rev. Billy Graham has been on my mind since his death. When anyone dies it is natural to pause and reflect on his or her life and what we learn from their triumphs and missteps. In Rev. Graham’s case, his ministry is so interwoven with history that it beckons us to look back on our collective journey during his 99 years.
I was not what you would call a big fan of Rev. Graham, on the other hand, I very much respected his ministry. Over the past couple of weeks I have read articles by his friends and critics, listened to a couple of his sermons, and recollected my own perceptions of him.
Rev. Graham always seemed to me to be genuine and sincere, even though the culture fawned over him and elevated him to celebrity status. I believe he is the only preacher who had a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. His biographers tell how Rev. Graham struggled to turn the spotlight back on Jesus where it belonged, while still using his popularity to propel the ministry and spread the Gospel.
I recall Rev. Graham’s 1982 trip to Moscow to preach and attend a peace conference caught my attention at the time. He took a lot of heat for that, going against the grain of many fellow evangelicals.
It was before my time, but eulogists recount that in a symbolic gesture, Rev. Graham personally went down and removed the ropes separating white and black attendees at the 1953 crusade in Chattanooga, TN.
Rev. Graham opposed proselytizing our Jewish sisters and brothers. (Still, we cringe at his comments on the Nixon tapes, for which he apologized repeatedly.) In the same way, Rev. Graham refused to demonize our Muslim neighbors after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
He had been sick and out of the spotlight for a decade, his heirs have taken the ministry in other directions, and the culture is less religious than in Rev. Graham’s heyday. His passing will fade quietly from the news cycle. Had I the chance, I might have politely disagreed with him on some things but, in the end, I will remember him with admiration.
“The real story of the Crusades is not in the great choirs, the thousands in attendance, nor the hundreds of inquirers who are counseled. The real story is in the changes that have taken place in the hearts and lives of people.” – Rev. Billy Graham