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October 2005
Coming Home
By Susanne B. Deitzel

In 1937, a passionate young man enrolled at Florida Bible Institute waited among his classmates for his call to preach. His moment came during a service in a small, rural church in Palatka, Florida. Prepared with four sermons he had committed to memory, he attacked the pulpit unabashedly.

With vigor and ferocity, he raged on the pulpit, and before he knew it he had delivered all four sermons in only eight minutes! His self-doubt was amplified by the whispers of ministers and town folk who found his style unusual, even crazed. He was roundly criticized for having “flailed the air with his pipe-stem arms,” having “pounced around the pulpit like a man swatting flies,” and “booming his raw North Carolina twang” to the far corners; his style was likened to machine-gunning.

For a time, even his own family was embarrassed…

Little did the parishioners of that small church realize they were witnessing a phenomenon that would change the tide of evangelical Christian preaching forever…the Reverend Billy Graham.

Known in his younger years for fire and brimstone sermons, Graham has since been embraced the world over for his humility, his compassion, and his singular focus: delivering the message of redemption through Jesus Christ.

For over sixty years the Charlotte-born minister has preached to more live audiences than anyone else in history; his messages have reached over 210 million people and spread over more than 185 countries and territories. Individuals turning their lives over to Jesus in a moment Graham calls ‘Decision,’ continue to multiply, even as the Reverend’s voice becomes frail and his health continues in conspicuous decline.

 

Just a North Carolina Boy

On November 7, 1918, four days before World War I ended, Morrow Coffey Graham gave birth to a baby boy in a farmhouse on Park Road near Woodlawn. She and her husband, dairy farmer William Franklin Graham, named the boy William Franklin Graham Jr. and called him “Billy Frank” as a youngster. Graham became the eldest of five children born into a family of strong convictions and dedicated to hard work. In his autobiography, Just As I Am, he describes himself as a child of the Roaring Twenties who reached adolescence in the Depression of the early thirties. Amidst the turmoil of the time, Graham observed that rural life offered him the best of all worlds:

“As Scottish Presbyterians believing in strict observance of moral values, we stayed relatively uncontaminated by the Great Gatsby lifestyle of the flapper era, with its fast dancing and illegal drinking. And being farmers, we could manage to live off the land when the economy nose-dived in the 1929 stock market crash.”

But it wasn’t easy. Graham remembers days when they thought his father’s dairy farm wouldn’t survive; they had lost their family savings in the failed Farmers and Merchants Bank and his father had to start over from scratch. Billy Graham also says that hard times never diminished his father’s sense of humor, or his father’s ability to instill the value of hard work in his children.

Graham remembers being one of the first in their neighborhood able to listen to the radio on his father’s home-built crystal set and also in the car; he remembers being particularly fascinated by the oratorical rantings of a man in Germany named Adolf Hitler, whose style mesmerized but somehow frightened him even though he did not understand the language.

“But,” Graham remembers, “there were more important things to think about in my boyhood North Carolina universe. It centered on the three hundred acres inherited from my grandfather by my father and his brother Clyde, where they ran Graham Brothers Dairy. Father handled the business affairs and the farm itself, with Mother doing the bookkeeping at our kitchen table. Uncle Clyde looked after the milk-processing house.”

Graham would find well-deserved refuge and peace from his hard days’ work in the damp underpinnings of the family dairy barn. He showed an early leaning toward meditation:

“Our barns had tin roofs. On rainy days, I liked to sneak away into the hay barn and lie on a sweet-smelling and slippery pile of straw, listening to the raindrops hit that tin roof and dreaming. It was a sanctuary that helped shape my character.”

 

Lighting The Fire

Graham attended Sharon High School, a small country school. His report cards reflected the fact that he worked so hard and so early on the farm that he sometimes fell asleep in class. He was high-spirited, good-looking, well-liked, and athletic, and exhibited a vigorous sense of humor. By his own description, he dated girls, played baseball, did his chores, and grew up.

The Grahams attended the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church in downtown Charlotte. “I don’t ever remember not going to church,” Graham recalls. “If I had told my parents I didn’t want to go, they would have whaled the tar out of me.” Although as a teenager he was rapt with admiration for the preaching style, “The last thing I wanted to do was be a preacher,” he says.

The turning point in Graham’s life came around his seventeenth birthday, in the fall of 1934, when evangelist Mordecai Ham of Louisville, Kentucky, held a three-month revival meeting in Charlotte. At first refusing to go, Graham was later persuaded by friends to attend. Ham, a man of fierce passion himself, was reputed to “seek out the worst of sinners to claim them for redemption, even threatening to pray to God to convert or kill the most stubborn of the lot.”

Graham continued to attend night after night, finally coming forth at the evangelist’s invitation on the last verse of the final hymn to make his personal commitment to Christ. The controversial Ham roused Graham’s curiosity, lighting a fire that would never be extinguished.

After graduation from high school, Graham attended Bob Jones College (now University) briefly before transferring in January of 1937 to the Florida Bible Institute (now Trinity College of Florida). He remembers the very moment on a nighttime walk when an inner, irresistible urge caused him to sink to his knees and sob, “Oh, God, if you want me to serve you, I will. I’ll be what you want me to be. I’ll go where you want me to go,” wholly surrendering to the call to preach, tears streaming down his face.

In his second year there, in 1938, at just 19 years old, Graham preached his first revival at East Palatka Baptist Church. In large part because of his popularity, he changed denominations from Presbyterian to Baptist and was ordained in 1939 as a Baptist minister.

When Graham graduated in 1940, he was accepted to Wheaton College just outside Chicago as an anthropology major on a sophomore level. At Wheaton, Graham met and eventually wed Ruth McCue Bell, an intelligent, practical, witty and determined young woman – also a campus beauty – who had been born and raised in northern China. Her father was a Presbyterian missionary-surgeon from Virginia who had helped build and develop a large missionary hospital there. After their graduation, the couple married in 1943 in Montreat where Ruth’s parents had settled after leaving China, and took a short honeymoon in Blowing Rock before returning to Chicago.

Ruth’s profound faith and life experience embued her with the understanding and wisdom that would guide her through a sometimes lonely, and sometimes harried world. While Billy Graham, the evangelist, was out recruiting souls for God, Ruth Graham, wife and mother, was busy ministering to their five children. From the beginning, Ruth wholly supported Billy’s calling, and she became his greatest ally, often providing a glimpse into a worldview Reverend Graham could later call upon in his international ministries.

In fact, when asked upon whom he calls for spiritual guidance, Graham’s answer is his wife: “She is the only one I completely confide in…her life is ruled by the Bible more than any person I have ever known…When it comes to spiritual things, my wife has had the greatest influence on my ministry…We were called by God as a team.”

Graham’s career path blossomed from pastor at a Chicago Baptist church to the charter vice president for Youth for Christ (YFC), an organization founded for ministry to youth and servicemen during World War II. Graham preached throughout the United States and in Europe in the immediate post war era, emerging as a rising young evangelist.

 

From Appleseed to Orchard

It was the Los Angeles crusade in 1949, when Graham’s influence demonstrably grew from the appleseed to the orchard. When a well-known mobster and local disk jockey each proclaimed his decision to accept Jesus Christ, the media stood up and took notice. Both newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst and Time/Life publisher Henry Luce had articles featuring Graham, and other publications rode the wave of Graham-fever.

With his newfound fame and inexhaustible fervor to spread the gospel, Graham would preside at 417 crusades from 1948 until his most recent, and perhaps last, at Flushing Meadows, New York, in June of 2005. Many of his crusades were extended weeks beyond original plans to accommodate overflow crowds. One London crusade extended to 12 weeks, and the historic New York City crusade in Madison Square Garden in 1957 ran nightly for 16 weeks.

As his popularity soared, so did inevitable rumors of questionable appropriation of money being collected to fund the crusades. To quell any possible seed of doubt, Graham effectively revolutionized ecumenical fundraising. In 1950, he incorporated the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and appointed a board of directors to oversee the business of the organization, which included paying Graham a salary. This removed the practice of monetary “love-offerings” which in many cases were not recorded or monitored. His efforts strongly encouraged the creation of the respected Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, of which Graham was a charter member.

By pairing his God-given talent to preach to the masses, with operational efficiencies steeped in integrity, accountability and openness, Graham laid a solid foundation of trust for his ministry and his followers.

 

Firmly Grounded

Originally founded in Minnesota during Graham’s tenure as president of Northwestern Schools, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) grew from a desire for financial transparency. However, it evolved into much, much more.

Graham’s prominence found him courted by U.S presidents, international leaders and celebrities, and the common man, all seeking his counsel. To answer the deafening call of those looking for spiritual guidance, BGEA developed several initiatives to spread the gospel. Graham started a series of radio programs and television gospels called ‘The Hour of Decision’; founded the Grason literary ministry for which he authored several titles; began World Wide Pictures, which has produced films and broadcasts of his crusades, and opened The Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove, an evangelical training center in Asheville. These examples of constant innovation and attention to the finest detail in human communications are a cornerstone in the network of Billy Graham’s ministries.

Today, BGEA finds itself back in Charlotte, Graham’s original home. Just minutes from the intersection of Park and Woodlawn Roads where the original Graham homestead once rested, BGEA is now seated in plum real estate just off the beaten path of Billy Graham Parkway. A heavy timbered edifice welcomes visitors into a lodge-like retreat, its walls dotted with portraits of its namesake shaking hands with dignitaries and leading masses of humanity into prayer.

It is here that Graham’s legacy will be nurtured, so that the message he has heralded will continue to flourish. He has handed the baton of stewardship to his son, Franklin Graham, who, at 53, has become the president, first vice chairman and chief executive officer of BGEA.

Franklin, after first filling the necessary role of rebellious preacher’s son, has evolved from a reluctant ambassador of his father’s legacy to a full-fledged warrior on the front of redemption.

Explains Preston Parrish, executive vice president of BGEA, and long-time friend of Franklin Graham, “Franklin and I were in school together when he was figuring out his path. He’d be the first to tell you he doesn’t expect to fill his father’s shoes, that that is God’s call. What I can tell you is that it is wonderful to see him at his crusades, sharing the message of the gospel. God has used him to transform countless lives. He gets more comfortable and enjoys the events more now than ever.”

Franklin Graham has presided at over 100 crusades from which Parrish says thousands of people have made Decisions for God. But, prior to assuming the helm at BGEA, Franklin Graham was making his own spiritual footprint. Several weeks after committing his life to Christ in a Jerusalem hotel room in 1974, Franklin Graham was asked to join Dr. Bob Pierce, the founder of Samaritan’s Purse, on a mission. They connected on a very deep level, so much so that Franklin Graham was elected president of the organization upon Pierce’s death in 1979. Franklin currently manages his position as CEO and president of Samaritan’s Purse concurrently with his BGEA responsibilities, and the two organizations consider one another ‘affiliate ministries.’

Franklin Graham was instrumental in relocating BGEA to Charlotte. After gathering a few foot-soldiers and presenting plans to his dad, the idea gained ground. Recalls Preston Parrish, “When Franklin assumed leadership of BGEA, it became clear that logistically, Charlotte was a better fit. It’s within two hours of the Graham’s home in Montreat, Franklin’s home and Samaritan’s Purse in Boone, The Cove in Asheville, and our radio stations in Black Mountain, N.C. Compare that to the 1,100 miles to get from North Carolina to Minneapolis and there is no contest. Plus, here the cost of business is cheaper, a good site was available, and we were able to design a location that fit our every need.”

“Finally,” says Parrish, “this is Billy Graham’s birthplace. It’s the home of Billy Graham Parkway. And Billy Graham is ‘North Carolina’s Favorite Son.’”

For Billy Graham, all roads were truly leading home.

 

The Road Home

However, getting BGEA back home was no small feat. Graeme Keith of the Keith Corporation, one of Charlotte’s most respected and influential development corporations, happens to be on BGEA’s board of directors and played no small part in finding the land for the headquarters.

The poetically-located spot off Billy Graham Parkway was originally optioned to Childress Klein Properties by the city of Charlotte, and it was understandably hesitant to let go of the well-situated 143 acres of land. BGEA recruited Keith to indicate interest on its behalf, and Keith in turn recruited the help of the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce in his pursuit.

There was one minor caveat, however: Keith could not divulge the property’s suitor. For months both the Chamber of Commerce and Childress Klein Properties had to negotiate through Keith in blind faith that the organization that would assume the remaining vacancy on the property (40 acres was already spoken for) and would be a stable and reputable neighbor as well as a good fit for the existing tenants.

According to Keith, the negotiations were completed and solidified at the eleventh hour, the very morning he was to officially present the proposal to BGEA’s board of directors. That same day, an announcement of the new ownership was made to attendees of an Advantage Carolinas luncheon, which included both officials of Childress Klein and the Chamber of Commerce.

Comments Keith, “It was a great moment, and the reaction was very positive.” He adds, “I have to say though, it took a set of perfectly-timed miracles to make Charlotte our new home."

As of November 2004, the BGEA headquarters assumed its new home occupying 63 acres at 1 Billy Graham Parkway and boasts, among other things, a 24/7 telephone response center to field calls for literature requests; spiritual questions and prayer requests, an in-house, state-of-the-art television and radio production facility; an astounding archive of photos and film from Graham’s extraordinary life; a literature distribution services department; a courtyard patio; a walking path; an employee cafeteria; and a generous meeting hall where staffers gather for daily morning devotionals.

Yet, the most important asset contained within BGEA’s walls is the true heart of the ministry: its people. Explains Parrish, “Ministry is about people. The Graham family, the board members, our employees, our long time friends – we all put our heart and soul into protecting the integrity and imparting the core message of Jesus Christ to this generation and generations to come. There are more people alive on earth today that need Christ than ever before.”

The creation of the 40,000-square-foot Billy Graham Library expected to open in mid to late 2007, will be the crowning jewel of the BGEA campus. But rather than commemorating the life of Billy Graham for personal glory, Reverend Graham insisted that the message of God be threaded through each exhibit.

Explains Parrish, “Every choice made in the creation of the library is deliberate and constructed to emphasize the message of Christ and its impact upon Billy Graham’s life and sixty years of his ministry. These experiences, from seeing his writings and photos, to drinking milk out of a Graham Brother’s Dairy milk bottle, are created to impart a better understanding of his experience through Christ. Visitors will learn about how a farm boy grew up to receive the Congressional Gold Medal. They also will see how growing up on a farm influenced Billy’s character, how his marriage to Ruth influenced his life and his international ministry, how his relationships with presidents from Truman to Bush were conducted, and how he was able to always look for new and improved ways to use technology to share the message of the ministry.”

The library is constructed to resemble the Graham’s dairy barn and is hallmarked by a giant cross through which visitors must pass to gain entry. A country kitchen, talking cow and sundry exhibits document the historical achievements and the life of Billy Graham. Graham’s nephew, businessman Mel Graham, says that the family is looking forward to sharing some of the important family mementos such as a set of playing cards upon which Billy’s mother carefully typed Bible verses, and a replication of his grandmother’s homestead which will be featured across from the library.

Over 200,000 visitors per year are expected to tour the library. Admission will be free.

Comments Parrish, “It was important to Billy Graham and to all in his ministry that people continue hearing the message he has shared long after he has gone to heaven. As he himself says, the message wasn’t Billy Graham’s, the message was, and is, God’s.”

Graham hopes that his legacy is not one of mere bricks and mortar, or images frozen in time, but rather in the people he hopes to continue to inspire. By providing a glimpse into Billy Graham’s story, and by sharing the gospel from his crusades and writings, BGEA’s hope is that generations upon generations can continue to be called home to God.

As Reverend Graham once said in a crusade, “The real story…is not in the great choirs, the thousands in attendance, not 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.”

(For more information: Billy Graham, God’s Ambassador; Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, 1999.)
Susanne Deitzel is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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