By Joe McKeever
I was in a congregation of ministers in Birmingham once in the early 70s when Billy Graham entered. A shock wave moved across the auditorium. It was amazing, and I had no explanation for it.
He was God’s man. No question about it.
During the last years of the 1980s, I pastored Charlotte’s First Baptist Church and visited with Billy and Ruth Graham on several occasions. His sister Catherine was in my church, along with her family. Mostly, we shared a hospital waiting room while their friend and my congregant Grady Wilson was in surgery. Once I handed them a notepad and asked them to write their favorite scripture verse and sign it. That this was a presumptuous thing to do never entered my mind.
Billy jotted down “Psalm 16:11” and signed that familiar name. I said, “I’m glad you wrote that because I’ve quoted that verse for years as Billy Graham’s favorite.” Ruth Bell Graham laughed and said, “My favorite keeps changing!” As I recall, she wrote Proverbs 3:8-13 and signed it. My secretary had those two notes framed and they hung in my office for years, until I donated them to a fundraiser for a New Orleans ministry.
In November of 1987, the entire Graham team came to our church for the celebration of evangelist Grady Wilson’s life. My funeral message that day was rebroadcast worldwide on the Hour of Decision radio program which was so popular for a generation or more. (I’ve teased that I should put that on my resume!)
In those days I recall how people in Charlotte spoke about Billy’s mother. Mrs. Graham had been such a powerful witness for Christ, they said, and they told of Bible studies she had led in the retirement home where she had lived her last days.
But my favorite Billy Graham story concerns our first meeting.
In late 1986, the Charlotte Observer brought Billy Graham back to town for an evening in Ovens Auditorium in which he would talk about growing up in the Queen City. Having never met the distinguished evangelist, I wanted to be there so badly but had promised a deacon I would attend his retirement celebration that evening. I managed to get away as soon as I could and drove across town to the auditorium.
As I walked toward the entrance, people were leaving. “Is it over?” I asked. One said, “He’s taking questions from the audience.”
Inside, I spotted one of our members who managed the auditorium. “If you want to meet Dr. Graham,” he said, “go outside and take the stage entrance.”
Meeting him had never been a thought, but I would certainly not want to pass up this opportunity.
As I entered, everything was cavernous, dark, and bare. To the left stood three or four men wearing business suits, evidently his hosts from the newspaper. Off to the right was the heavy curtain, beyond which Billy Graham could be heard speaking. Just this side of the curtain stood a small table with a water pitcher and two glasses.
“What does the man want after being out there talking an hour?” I thought, and walked over to that table. I poured a glass of water just as Mr. Graham was saying, “Thank you very much” and stepping between the curtains. I handed him the glass.
As he was drinking I said, “Dr. Graham, my name is Joe McKeever and I’m the new pastor of the First Baptist Church.” He thrust out his hand and said, “Well, hello, Joe. I’ve been hearing about you.”
I was so uncool, I said, “Oh sure. Billy Graham has been hearing about me,” and laughed at my own lame remark.
Immediately people started coming toward him. I backed off and watched as they lined up to greet him. A woman wearing dead animals around her neck said in a breathy whisper, “Dr. Graham, when you finish here tonight, could you counsel with me about a problem?”
I thought, “Good night lady – asking Billy Graham to counsel you! Why don’t you ask the Pope!”
Billy Graham was gentle with her. He said, “I’m sorry. But when we get through here tonight, we’re leaving for Florida.” She thanked him and left.
A minute later, I spotted T. W. Wilson standing off to the side. I knew him from photographs as Billy Graham’s veteran friend and right-hand man. I walked over and introduced myself. As we chatted, he said, “Would you like to meet Ruth?”
“I would love to meet Ruth,” I said.
“She and a few friends are in a room backstage.”
We walked back and the introductions were made. Someone remarked at how cold it was outside. This was, after all, November in North Carolina.
I said, “But you’re about to have warm weather. You’re going to Florida.”
She said, “We’re going Tuesday.”
I smiled to myself. I had caught Billy Graham in the tiniest of white lies.
But I love what it said about him. He would do anything before hurting or offending if he could help it.
In a tribute to the great evangelist this week following his death, a friend said, “If he had a fault it was his generosity to everyone who had a request of him. He hated to tell anyone no.”
I have a letter from him telling me ‘no.’ We invited Billy Graham to preach at the dedication of our sanctuary in Charlotte in February of 1988. His full-page letter was so gracious, as he explained the heavy demands on his time and expressed his regrets. At the time, Grady Wilson had assured me, “Don’t worry about it, pastor. We’ll get him.” And then, Grady Wilson had left us for glory three months before the event.
THE OTHER STORY
The day of the funeral, Billy Graham and Bev Shea and three other pastors sat in my office for nearly two hours prior to the service. I have teasingly said I wished I had Nixon’s White House taping equipment that day, to have preserved that give and take. But while the others were talking, I sat there and heard from the Lord.
Billy Graham sat to my right on the couch. The Lord said to me, “Do you pray for Billy Graham?” And in my spirit I said, “Lord, people all over the world pray for this man. And I’m just one person.” Which even then hit me as so patently dumb that I almost laughed out loud. The Lord said, “Do you know anyone who is two people?”
Ever since, I prayed for Billy Graham. For the next 30 years. Until now. I count it a privilege to have been among the untold multitudes who lifted this man to the Throne on a regular basis.
What a privilege.
What a blessing.
Joe McKeever is a cartoonist and former director of missions for New Orleans Baptist Association. This editorial first appeared on his blog.