I don’t remember a time before Billy Graham.
And so I stood with the 300 people gathered on Feb. 24 at the Startown overpass on US 321. It was unseasonably warm, and many of us waited for an hour or more, watching the traffic whiz by as oversized American and Christian flags flapped from the overpass, waiting for North Carolina’s most famous son.
A break in traffic came about 1:30 p.m. with the sound of helicopters and flashing blue lights of the highway patrol escort. The motorcade, including Billy Graham’s hearse, passed by us as it headed south toward Charlotte.
It may sound corny, but America’s Pastor was one of my heroes, a man of integrity in a world in which sincerity and humbleness are extremely difficult to find.
Like many of you, I grew up in front a TV set. On hot summer evenings Billy Graham crusades would pre-empt regular programming on one of three networks that existed at the time. I would whine to watch the other channels, but my mother, who was more churchy than most, would insist that we watch “Billy.” And so we did.
The fuzzy black-and-white image of the TV preacher came after the preliminaries: testimonies by noted athletes or entertainers, then Cliff Barrows would direct a large choir of church people from the host community. The crowd would number in the thousands. There would be a solo by George Beverly Shea, the noted baritone, singing a hymn such as “How Great Thou Art,” and finally, the amiable Barrows would introduce Dr. Graham.
Billy Graham spoke with his distinctive Carolina accent and his message was simple. Sinners should repent and accept Jesus Christ or face the consequences. With a Bible in one hand, he arranged his sermons around current events that pointed to fulfilled prophecy and references to parables such as the workers in the vineyard. It was never too late to be saved.
Graham’s major points were introduced “firstly” and “secondly” and “thirdly.” It wasn’t altogether hellfire, but he mentioned that idea clearly enough to get your attention. After 20 minutes of preaching, it was time for the invitation hymn, always the standard “Just as I Am” sung by that choir in the bleachers. Then Graham would share how long it would take to get up and walk to the podium to pray the sinner’s prayer. “Don’t hesitate for there may never be another time for you to say yes to Christ,” he would say. And people would flock to him by the hundreds.
Then, as the choir sang, Graham looked at the camera to address the TV audience. “Now is the time for you to make your decision for Christ,” and he would tell you to write to him, Billy Graham, Minneapolis, Minnesota to receive the same literature being given to those at the crusade.
“That’s all the address you need.” That’s how famous he was.
One evening my mother wrote to Graham and all through my growing up years, his magazine, Decision, arrived in the mailbox, along with frequent solicitations.
Critics regard the TV evangelist as neither prophet nor theologian. Some scoff at his conservatism. Others insist that the he was shaped more by pop culture than the other way around. Still, the man called America’s Pastor held fast to his mission, speaking directly to more people—an estimated 215 million—in his lifetime than anyone in history.
My one and only Billy Graham crusade was his last one in his hometown of Charlotte. It was in 1996. I rode a bus with my family and fellow church members to Ericsson Stadium. The event drew 75,000 people.
We’ve been to the Billy Graham Library a couple of times since it opened in 2007, and I’m intrigued by some of the mementos on display including awards and photos and even a letter delivered to “Billy Graham, Many Apples, Minnesota.”
Over the years I came to appreciate what Billy Graham stood for. His ministry withstood scrutiny and politics, war and social upheaval. Through it all, he never wavered in his mission to do God’s work.
I think Billy would have been pleased with the gathering at the Startown overpass last Saturday. There were onlookers of all ages and backgrounds, both black white, license plates from North Carolina and New Jersey. Truckers pulled their rigs to the side of the highway and waited. Motorists in SUVs and sedans and pickups did the same. Some had claimed parking space on the exit ramps early. Others arrived much later, and still others happened by at the last minute to pay respects to this great man.
I thought of the workers in the vineyard. Regardless of how long we waited, we all received the same reward as Billy Graham’s motorcade passed from real life into history. I doubt we’ll ever see the likes of him again.
Startown Overpass, US Hwy 321 on Feb. 24, 2018.