Amen

In the past sixty years Billy Graham has been a spiritual adviser to seven presidents and has preached in front of more than 200 million people worldwide. And though health problems have recently slowed him down, he made one thing clear when he stepped up to the microphone last October in Dallas: He is still the most powerful evangelist since Jesus.

December 2002By Comments

I SELDOM GET TO CHURCH with much time to spare, but I knew I had to start early if I planned to attend the Concert for the Next Generation, a two-hour rap and rock fest that would kick off Saturday’s Youth Night at Billy Graham’s four-day Metroplex Mission in Texas Stadium this past October. Come again? Billy Graham and hip-hop? After all, for most of more than five decades of public ministry, Graham’s services have by design been familiar and welcoming to people with more conventional notions of worship. By the nineties, however, many of those attending Graham’s crusades, particularly younger people, had never been to a Little Brown Church in the Wildwood and might not regard an invitation of the hymn just to “Trust and Obey” as having much appeal. Encouraged by colleagues with teenage children of their own, Graham has recently agreed to shake up his formula. Word to your mama: The Metroplex Mission was not your grandfather’s crusade.

Inside the stadium, from a giant performance structure that sprawled across one end zone and soared eighty feet upward, a vocalist from Jars of Clay greeted a venue-record 82,000 decorously raucous young folk (10,000 more who could not get in watched a JumboTron screen in the parking lot) with, “Hello, Dallas, Texas! Are you ready to have some fun tonight? Are you ready for a revolution?” That set off an explosion of screaming, pogoing, and as Scripture puts it, “revellings and such like” (Galatians 5:21), even though it seemed that lasciviousness did not come naturally to most of these kids.

The Graham-endorsed contemporary Christian musicians that followed Jars of Clay came in several styles, from soloists who demonstrated their sincerity by looking quite pained to ensembles distinguishable from secular rock, rhythm-and-blues, and hip-hop groups only by their more sanitized lyrics, which were equally indecipherable without liner notes. Most of the groups included vocalists or instrumentalists sporting goatees and wearing peculiar hats, tams, or what looked like berets turned backward, and all relied heavily on extraordinary volume and a throbbing beat to drive the joy, joy, joy, joy down in the hearts of their young fans.

The evening’s final act was no exception. Kirk Franklin, a Fort Worth hip-hop Gospel dynamo, bounced and strutted around the stage as he shouted, “I want everybody in the stadium to lose your Holy Ghost mind! When I say, ‘Throw your hands up!’ I want everybody to just go bananas! Yo, Dallas, Texas, can you do that with me? Show the world that white people have rhythm!” Kirk then recognized he wasn’t the only black person in the stadium and, after running through some of his Grammy-winning repertoire, thought it a good time for them to cross whatever barriers separated them. “To my African American brothers,” he said, “I don’t want you going up to somebody named Tyrone, Raul, Little Man, or T-Bone. I want you to find somebody named Keith, Toby, Tyler, Justin, Brad, or Bruce. And to all my light-skinned sisters, I don’t want you to go up to somebody named Amber, Megan, Jessica, April, or Rachel. I want you to find somebody named Shaquita, Shakwandra—find somebody named Maleesha. I want everybody in this beautiful church tonight to make yourself uncomfortable and get up and hug three strangers and tell them that you love them. All over this place. Come on! All over, all over, all over! Lots of hugging. There you go; there you go; there you go!” And there they went.

When I spoke to Larry Ross, a Dallasite who has handled Graham’s media relations since 1981, he acknowledged that not all the veteran members of Graham’s team were easily won over to this new format. “Let’s put it this way,” he said. “It has been an education process. Though they were very progressive in the early days, this was a whole genre of music they were not used to,” an observation underscored by watching team members remove earplugs and grimace as they tried to communicate through the noise billowing from the stage. Graham’s son Franklin told me that Billy himself isn’t exactly thrilled with the noise either: “Daddy is not too comfortable with the music. He doesn’t like it. He won’t even listen to it. But he’s willing to give it a try. They’re stocking the pond so he can go fishing.”

Around eight o’clock, when it finally came time for 84-year-old Billy Graham to put his line in that pond, he conceded to the crowd that the music was for a generation far removed from his own, but he welcomed members of that generation warmly. At youth nights in other cities, I’ve heard Graham cite MTV or the lead singer of Nine Inch Nails and refer to Kurt Cobain’s suicide. On this night, he stayed closer to home, preaching about the Rich Young Ruler, who had good intentions and asked the right questions but was ultimately unwilling to surrender his great wealth as the cost of discipleship. It was a simple message about surrendering those things that stand between us and God, but when he spoke the familiar words, “I’m going to ask you to come . . . ,” 3,217 people, nearly 80 percent of them under age 25, streamed down the aisles and across the tarp-covered turf to stand before him to be born again, joining the great host who have made that same short journey in his meetings—more than three million at last count, and they do count.

INDEED, THE MORE THINGS HAVE changed with Billy Graham, the more they have stayed the same. My own personal relationship with the man goes back to one gray afternoon at Rice University in December 1985, when my writing career, though not seriously in need of being born again, was at least rededicated. While looking through the mail that day, I let out a whoop of surprised delight. Since I am not much of a whooper, the sociology department secretary called out, “Is that the letter from Billy Graham?” Good guess.

It was not the first time I had received a personal letter from the famed evangelist. After Texas Monthly published my comprehensive profile of Mr. Graham (a designation he prefers to “Reverend” or “Doctor”) in its March 1978 issue, he wrote a note expressing his appreciation for its accuracy and fairness. Three years later, following a crusade at Rice Stadium, he wrote again to say he was sorry we had not gotten together while he was in Houston. I was surprised and responded in kind but didn’t expect to hear from him again. Now I had. In his brief epistle, Graham said he thought it about time someone with appropriate credentials and from outside his circle write “a book concerning my life and ministry and any niche in history our work may have” and wondered if I would have an interest in such an undertaking. I told the secretary, “I think my life just came true.”

In 1991 I completed the biography A Prophet With Honor: The Billy Graham Story, the distillation of more than five years of concentrated attention to the life and work of a singular man. Not a perfect man, but an uncommonly good one; not an intellectual, but a genius at relating to people, individually and en masse; not a theologian who will pass down a school of thought, but a proclaimer of Good News who is, if results are the measure, the best who ever lived at what he does. Billy and I—in our first meeting, he insisted that I call him “Billy”—have since maintained contact through the years with occasional letters and telephone calls, but I have not spent much actual time with him or his team, a number of whom I came to count as warm friends. About a decade ago, he was found to have Parkinson’s, and he has experienced the progressive deterioration that accompanies that disease. I therefore leaped at the opportunity to attend October’s Metroplex Mission, seeing it as potentially the last chance to witness the work of one of history’s greatest evangelists.

I was not disappointed. On Thursday, the first night of the mission—the familiar “crusade” has been retired, partly in deference to Muslim sensitivity—Cliff Barrows, Graham’s choirmaster and closest associate for more than fifty years, opened the event. “It’s taken us thirty-two years to come back to Texas,” he exclaimed, “but we are finally here.” I’m confident Cliff had not forgotten the 1981 Houston crusade or those in Lubbock, in 1975, and San Antonio, in 1997, but was understandably putting greater significance on prior events in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. It was during a month-long crusade in Fort Worth’s Will Rogers Coliseum in 1951 that the crusty oilman Sid Richardson, less well known for piety than profanity, took a special liking to the young evangelist and provided him with an entrée to other rich and powerful people, including John Connally, Lyndon Johnson, and most importantly, Dwight Eisenhower, who awarded him frequent and well-publicized access to the Oval Office. Two years later the 1953 Dallas crusade, held in the Cotton Bowl, became notable both as the last time Graham allowed segregated seating in any of his meetings and the occasion of his placing his official membership in Dallas’ First Baptist Church, where it remains to this day. And the 1971 crusade at Texas Stadium to which Barrows alluded—although one year off—almost never happened. With the date for its baptismal event rapidly approaching, the stadium was not quite finished, and a labor dispute that would further delay its completion appeared likely. Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry, who chaired that crusade, went personally to union leaders to persuade them not to strike. They agreed, and though not every task was completed, the meetings proceeded as planned. As soon as the crusade ended, the workers walked off the job. Unfortunately, they never did finish the roof.

The 2002 Metroplex Mission involved 25,000 volunteers from more than a thousand area churches and proceeded along meticulously detailed guidelines, extending to the precise scheduling of the mission services themselves. Scripture suggests that the Holy Spirit “listeth” where it will (John 3:8), but in Bible days, the Spirit wasn’t on television. After Barrows’ opening-night words, the premier musical performer, “contemporary soul gospel” artist CeCe Winans, finished exactly when the schedule handed to journalists said she would, giving way at 7:37 to Michael Dean, the pastor of Fort Worth’s Travis Avenue Baptist Church, who had until 7:42 to explain the financial arrangements for a Billy Graham mission and give the signal to send hundreds of white buckets that could hold a family meal of fried chicken drifting down the rows to receive the cash, checks, and credit-card contributions needed to meet the $3.1 million budget.

Soon thereafter it was former president George Bush’s turn to address the crowd. Billy Graham’s well-known role as unofficial pastor and spiritual counselor to most of the presidents since Eisenhower has had its downside. During the Vietnam War, the evangelist was chastised for not raising his voice against what critics of American policy saw as tragic folly. His close ties to Richard Nixon still threaten to leave an asterisk on his legacy, after the release of Oval Office tapes on which he and Nixon and chief of staff H. R. Haldeman spoke disparagingly of liberal Jews in the media, charging them with a lack of patriotism and major responsibility for an increasingly corrosive popular culture. Graham issued several statements of abject apology and met with prominent Jewish leaders to repudiate his statements and humbly beg their forgiveness. Most of them seem to agree with Fort Worth rabbi Ralph Mecklenburger, who told the Star-Telegram, “Those comments were ancient history. I take him at his word that he is not a bigot.”

Despite such low points, Graham’s access to the highest levels of power provided him with an enormous boost in stature and influence and, equally important, accorded invaluable symbolic legitimacy to evangelical Christianity, of which he has been the unquestioned prime minister for half a century. Both of these benefits were evident when Bush strode to the podium. After an extended, thundering ovation, he used his allotted seven minutes (7:49-7:56) to speak of his long friendship with Graham. He called Graham “a genuine American hero and a man that the entire Bush family is proud to call a very dear friend” who has been “a personal pastor to America’s first family since as long as I can remember.” He recounted having asked Graham to join Barbara and him in the White House on the night he launched the Gulf War, to pray that American soldiers and innocent Iraqis would be spared. (I have been told, though not by Graham himself, that he was not particularly pleased to be put in a position of apparently giving his blessing to the war.) Bush added that no president wants a war and assured us that “our president wants to try and find a peaceful solution to this latest conflict with Iraq if he can.” He did not specifically mention the oft-noted role Graham played in bringing his son back from alcohol to the altar, but he did say, in a voice brimming with emotion, “Billy’s ministry means an awful lot to this nation’s forty-third president, believe me.”

Next, George Beverly Shea, who started singing with Graham in 1943 and introduced “How Great Thou Art” to America, came to the microphone and sang “He Died for Me,” accompanied by the five-thousand-voice choir that filled the sections behind the southwest end zone. At 93, Bev Shea’s rich bass-baritone still rolls out over the audience like a warm blanket, but he volunteered, “I think I sang better when I was ninety-two.”

When Shea finished, Billy Graham walked slowly to the pulpit, his son Franklin at his side in case he needed help, and the crowd on its feet, roaring its appreciation for the venerable patriarch. At first, his voice sounded phlegmy, and I suspect that had he not been standing in front of 37,000 people, his face clearly visible on five JumboTron screens, he could have dealt with the problem quite easily. In any case, before long he was sounding clear and strong, showing that the Parkinson’s had not yet attacked his vocal cords. After thanking the president for his gracious words, Graham expressed pleasure at the number of denominations involved in the mission, with special mention of Roman Catholics, and told one of his small stock of old jokes. Then, these ritual elements out of the way, he turned to “the most familiar passage in all the Bible, John 3:16. ‘For God so loved the world . . .'” As he has throughout his ministry, Graham cited evidence of a world in turmoil—Israel and Palestine, Iraq, the bombing in Bali, the Washington-area sniper, terrorism, greed, immorality, racism, prejudice, poverty—and proclaimed that the only cure for the sin-sickness giving rise to such troubles is a faithful response to the love God showed by sending his son to die for our sins. He said that one day we would all stand before the Great White Throne of Judgment, and everything we had ever done, said, or even thought would be projected on a giant screen similar to those positioned around Texas Stadium. He admitted that this was a frightening thought but reminded us that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” That first night, 2,359 people (6.4 percent of an estimated 37,000) answered his call as the choir sang “Just as I Am.”

The following evening’s event was a washout for me—literally. Rain had fallen all day Friday, and when I tried to get to the stadium by a back road I had used the night before, I found it closed by flooding. I knew that trying to approach the stadium via the main routes at rush hour would mean at least an hour of inching along, followed by a wet trek from the parking lot and a long evening in driving rain. So, like the man in the Bible who found the cost of following Jesus too demanding, I “turned away sorrowful.” But 34,000 hardier souls did show up, as did TV broadcaster Pat Summerall, who told of his recent return to religion. To a man who had once kicked a 49-yard field goal in a swirling snowstorm and won a long battle with the bottle, I guess a little rain was no real challenge.

THE ALL-TIME TEXAS STADIUM ATTENDANCE record set at the Saturday night youth extravaganza was short-lived. The Sunday crowd was conservatively estimated at 83,500, including 15,500 watching outside but not counting the thousands who had to be turned away. Doubtless, many shared a realistic conviction that this might be their last opportunity to see the world’s most famous preacher in person. I considered that possibility myself as I visited with Graham at his hotel before the service. When my biography of Graham first appeared, he felt some understandable ambivalence about it, since I had tried to deal honestly with his shortcomings and occasional missteps as well as his virtues and numberless triumphs, rather than depict him as having descended from heaven on the back of a dove. A few of his associates still regard me with suspicion for this, but enough people have told him, as they have told me, that seeing him as a real person rather than a plaster saint has made them appreciate his accomplishments all the more. Now, on our occasional visits, he always thanks me for positive comments I have given the press, and he said that evening, with a smile, “I hope the Lord will forgive you for being too good to me.” I thanked him once again for the opportunity he had given me, professionally and personally, then we talked a bit about our wives and progeny.

One question that had troubled Graham at the time my book appeared, that of who would succeed him as head of the ministry, has been settled. His son Franklin, now fifty, was named CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in 2000 and has left no doubt that he is in charge. His most dramatic act has been the decision to move the association’s headquarters from Minneapolis to Charlotte, where it will be housed in brand-new quarters along the Billy Graham Parkway, much closer to Samaritan’s Purse, Franklin’s own impressive social-service and disaster-relief ministry based in Boone, North Carolina. His impolitic statements about Muslims in the aftermath of 9/11—he described Islam as “a very evil and wicked religion”—have drawn fire from critics, as did his Trinitarian prayer at George W. Bush’s inauguration (even though his father had prayed in a similar manner at previous inaugurations). Franklin not only refused to retract his words but has written a new book, The Name, in which he defends them at length. He seems untroubled by the criticism and his staunch advocacy of an exclusive Christianity has won the warm approbation of many evangelicals. Billy has declined to comment on Franklin’s statements, but he professed to be delighted with the direction his son is taking the association, calling the transition “marvelous, wonderful.”

Toward the end of our meeting, Graham invited me to come visit him in North Carolina, but I think we both knew that might not happen. Parkinson’s, a shunt in his brain, and bouts with pneumonia have put him in the hospital for months at a time in the past three years. He can’t drive, he can’t write by hand with any ease, and recently he’s developed a peculiar general numbness that doctors don’t understand. He was worried that it might affect his preaching that night. Obviously, his weakening condition troubles him. A few months ago his daughter Ruth McIntyre told me of a recent visit in which her father had been watching an old video of himself preaching on Trinity Broadcasting, a Christian television network: “Daddy said, ‘I watched myself. I wonder what it felt like to have that power. I don’t have that power and strength now.'” She added, however, “I think he underestimates himself. There is a power in gentleness that is not in fire and brimstone.”

Despite his doubts, Graham was indeed able to preach that evening, and it was a memorable night. His brother Melvin, a plainspoken, funny, and unpretentious farmer who wears a cap to cover a deep indentation left from brain surgery years ago, charmed the throng with pearls of rustic wisdom, stories of his famous brother, and his assertion that “I just want to be a nobody that’s willing to tell everybody that there is Somebody who wants to save anybody.” After a final song from Bev Shea, Graham came to the podium and thanked the local media and all those who had helped make the mission a success. Then, or so it seemed to me, he spent longer than usual praising Shea, Cliff Barrows, and others who had contributed so much to his ministry. It was not quite a farewell address, but if he had no other chances, it might do. “People ask me,” he said, “‘Is this your last crusade?’ And I say to them, ‘I don’t know. That’s in God’s hands.'”

Later, as “inquirers” once again poured onto the field to stand in front of the craggy-faced, white-haired old preacher now sitting, head bowed, on a tall chair, I took what might be one last look at the man who had, for whatever reason, opened his life to me so generously sixteen years ago. I myself am frequently asked a question: “Who will be the next Billy Graham?” The answer, I think, is no one.

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