Followers will miss Graham’s leadership
By James Fuller
If Jesus is the hand of God incarnate, then the Rev. Billy Graham has arguably been the fingers, touching an estimated 200 million people worldwide with an evangelical message of redemption.
Now 86 and in poor health, Graham embarks on a crusade in New York today. It will likely be his last in North America, a final sign-off to the trademark of his ministry.
When it’s over, the voice of evangelical Christianity will grow quieter with the loss of its most recognizable figurehead during the past 50 years, say representatives of organizations central to Graham’s roots.
From Wheaton College, where Graham earned a degree and met his wife, to Youth For Christ, where he established the format for his crusades, to Christianity Today, a publication he founded, the sentiment is the same:
There may never be another Billy Graham.
The impact of his life is immeasurable, say local fans who have particular ties to him.
The legacy of those local roots begins at Wheaton College, where Graham was a student from 1940 to 1943.
The school became both “a spiritual and intellectual turning point” in Graham’s life, according to his autobiography.
He earned an anthropology degree, got his first recurring preaching job as pastor of Wheaton’s United Gospel Tabernacle as a sophomore and fell in love with his wife, Ruth, while reading tombstone epitaphs in a Wheaton countryside graveyard.
Those were the days of a young Billy Graham trying to find his place in the world. Soon the world would find him as well.
His fame first began as a guest speaker at Chicago-based Youth for Christ rallies during World War II.
“Evidently, he must have done a pretty good job because he became the first full-time staff member,” said Dick Norton, executive director of Metro Chicago Youth for Christ. “The beginnings of Youth for Christ and the beginnings of Billy Graham are very tied together.”
Indeed, those rallies laid the groundwork for the future format of Graham’s crusade rallies.
Those who have attended a crusade, and often multiple crusades, all speak of them in the same way. It’s not about the gathering. It’s not even about Graham. It’s the visible impact.
“It’s not flashy. It’s not flamboyant. In fact, it’s not particularly memorable,” said Wheaton College Chaplain Stephen Kellough, who has attended two crusades. “Yet the memory of the man and the message of Christ remains with you after.
“It’s because we see Christ in Billy Graham at those crusades,” Kellough continued. “We know that we have had a touch with God in that experience. Billy Graham is the embodiment of God and people are led to Christ through Billy Graham.”
Judy Gill can testify to that. She works for Christianity Today, a Carol Stream-based publication known in its upper ranks as “Billy’s magazine.” Gill has attended five crusades.
The call at the end of every crusade for those touched by the message to come forward and profess their faith is the electric moment for her each time.
“Thousands come down,” she said. “They just keep coming and coming. It’s the truth of the message. I don’t think it’s Billy Graham. It’s the Holy Spirit. God is using him.”
Perhaps the true testament to that notion is that Graham has remained nearly beyond reproach all his life, during an era when heroes often fall when the curtain of their lives is pulled open for all to see, fans said. Graham is humble. He always gives credit to the people and organization around him. He can’t walk past someone, be it a janitor, child or average Joe on the street, without shaking his or her hand.
Those qualities are simple, just like his style of preaching. Yet they are rare when accompanied by so much fame, said Bob Schuster, archivist at the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College.
“He’s human,” Schuster said. “Trying to present him as being without flaw, or as some plaster saint, really isn’t true. But who else is there with so high a record that is still held in such high regard by so many people?”
The answer for Christianity Today CEO Harold Myra is no one. Myra has corresponded with Graham throughout the years and often asks himself in his professional life, “What would Billy do?” It’s inspired Myra to co-author a new book about the secrets of Graham’s leadership ability.
“Billy Graham is battling for souls,” Myra said. “He’s uniquely anointed. He always led with love for everybody. I don’t think we’re going to see another Billy Graham step into the limelight.”
The end of the crusades is a personal loss for Myra and millions of other Christians. For them, Graham is a teacher who led by example through divine guidance.
Now Graham fans like Lisle resident Elaine Jordan wait with quivering smiles and somber souls for one final lesson. She said the most exciting moment of her life was meeting Graham in 1994 at the rededication of Wheaton College’s Billy Graham Center Museum.
“It’s kind of bittersweet to see someone so near the end of his career, but we also see him as one step closer to the Lord,” she said. “He’ll just continue teaching people valuable lessons, not only about how to live as a Christian, but how to die as a Christian.”