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December 19, 2013 8:40 am

Billy Graham ready to answer the call home

Written by Tom Lawrence

Billy Graham wasn’t really a televangelist.

Yes, Graham was a preacher who appeared on TV. But while that term gained a negative connotation over the past three decades, Graham’s reputation remained largely unsullied.

No booze, drugs or women. No amusement park investments. No crying on TV because God was threatening his life if contributions didn’t pick up.

Just a consistent message of adhering to the Christian faith.

Graham, 95, is near death, according to his family. He is waiting to be “called home,” his grandson said last week.

When I covered Graham in Portland, Ore., on Sept. 25, 1992, he was 73, still at the peak of his powers. Graham was on one of his crusades when he stopped in Portland. I was the editor of a pair of area newspapers, and grew up watching him on TV.

A church in Canby, Ore., recruited a busload of the faithful and was kind enough to make room for an ink-stained sinner for the trip to and from Civic Stadium.

I’m not a very religious person, in spite of my parents’ best efforts, but I found the trip very illuminating. The singing was sincere, and the people, me included, were thrilled to see the great Billy Graham.

Once we arrived, it reminded me of a concert. The crowd milled about, waiting for the star to appear.

There were opening acts, including Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, and Gospel singer George Beverly Shea, whose powerful voice needed little amplification. Shea accompanied Graham for six decades before he died earlier this year at 104. My mother was a great admirer of his singing, hushing up her kids when he stepped up to perform on those televised crusades.

Finally, Graham, wearing a tan raincoat against the Oregon chill and dampness, entered. I had a photo pass and was near the stage.

Graham’s handsome head, with a distinctive nose and firm jaw set beneath a flowing head of hair, made a strong impression. I was surprised by the emotion that arose as he looked in our direction. I can hear that North Carolina-tinged voice right now, and was able to find his message on YouTube to revive my memories.

When Graham became famous in 1949, he was much more fiery than the charismatic but calm preacher he became.

Graham preached before integrated audiences in the 1950s, shared a stage with and became close with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whom he bailed out of a Birmingham, Ala., jail. That message of inclusion came through to his worldwide congregation.

Graham reached out to people, appearing on TV with Woody Allen and accepting a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He knew if he didn’t get people into the tent, there was little hope of them hearing his message.

Graham wasn’t a saint. A registered Democrat, he got too close to some conservative politicians, and shamed himself with bigoted remarks exchanged with President Richard Nixon in the Oval Office. When tape recordings were released years later, Graham apologized for the anti-Semitic comments.

He counseled presidents of both parties, including Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, but was always perceived as being closer to Republicans. Harry Truman didn’t care for him, labeling him a publicity hound, but most other presidents were, at least publicly, great admirers.

Graham endorsed Mitt Romney last year. His son Franklin is in charge of the organization now and is much more overtly conservative.

But politics was a side interest. Billy Graham was dedicated to sharing the Gospel “as long as I have breath,” as he said in Portland. He also said he would serve until “God retires me.”

That call is here.

1 Comment

  • Comment Link December 21, 2013 2:09 am posted by Douglas Blough

    I still DVR Billy's historical sermons every Sunday morning at 3 a.m. on TBN. The word "charismatic" fit no one better. My spiritual hero.

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