Remembering Billy Graham: ‘I’m not going to retire until God retires me’
Rex Rutkoski conducted this one-on-one interview in 1993 with Billy Graham, who died Wednesday at age of 99. The conversation came prior to Graham’s weekend Pittsburgh Crusade in June 1993 in Three Rivers Stadium. It had been 25 years since his last Pittsburgh Crusade, conducted at Pitt Stadium in 1968. His first: in 1952 at Forbes Field in Oakland.
His memories of that first visit: A baseball game with Branch Rickey, general manager of the Pirates and the Dodgers, and the man credited with integrating the major leagues.
The Rev. Billy Graham’s laughter carries softly through the telephone line.
“I’ve probably had many close calls in 40 years,” the world’s best-known evangelist says as he talks from his home in the mountains of North Carolina. “I didn’t find out about this until we landed.”
Graham is referring to a close encounter in the skies above the Midwest recently when, due to an air traffic controller’s error, his private jet came within 50 feet of another plane.
If anyone deserved to have a higher power as his co-pilot that day, Graham’s supporters would be quick to suggest, it would be this gentle man of God who has devoted his life to spreading the Good News.
He has preached the gospel to more people in live audiences than anyone in history, an estimated 180 million people in more than 180 countries and territories – and he has reached hundreds of millions more through television, video and film.
The personal appearance schedule for the minister, in his mid-70s, is slowing down. Yet even as he battles the degenerative Parkinson’s disease, he makes plans for the continuation of his work, including the dedication of The Billy Graham Bible Training Center at the Cove in Asheville, N.C.
He has been friends and counsel to every United States presidents from Truman to Clinton, a respected voice to international leaders and 35 times, more than any other individual, he has been named to Gallup Poll’s list of the Ten Most Respected Men in the World. But Graham downplays the idea that historians will view him as one of the major figures of the 20th Century.
“I don’t think about that,” he insists. He does think of the ongoing challenge of reaching as many people as possible. “I’ll never be happy until the world is at peace and we have turned to God,” he says. “And we are far from that now.”
The message he has given since he began more than a half century ago is the same one he still delivers today in his crusades.
“The message doesn’t change at all. The gospel is still the same as it was 2,000 years ago,” says the Charlotte, N.C., native. “Sin is still the same; the life of Christ is still the same. It’s how we interpret and apply it that has changed.”
Though human nature has not changed through the centuries, he adds, the teaching of the gospel has to be applied to our situation today.
It’s been suggested that if the nation has a chaplain, it is Dr. Billy Graham. The day before the United States went into battle in Desert Storm in 1990, President Bush asked the clergyman to spend the night in the White House. When a group of families in Greensburg lost their loved ones in a missile attack in that conflict, it was Graham who flew to comfort them.
A COMFORTING PRESENCE
Even those not necessarily comfortable with matters religious can feel comfortable with Graham, whose simple message of faith, of right and wrong, of treating our neighbors as we ourselves would like to be treated can be appreciated by anyone on a very human level.
Testimony to that fact is the wide range of groups that have honored him. He has received the Big Brother Award for his work on behalf of the welfare of children and been cited by the George Washington Carver Memorial Institute for his contribution to race relations and by the Anti-Defamation League of the B’nai B’rith and the National Conference of Christians and Jews for his efforts to foster a better understanding among all faiths.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, has been bestowed on him, as has the Freedom Foundation Distinguished Person Award and the Thayer Award from the United States Military Academy Association of Graduates at West Point, the most prestigious honor the Academy gives to a U.S. citizen.
The integrity of the man and his ministry, proven not in years but decades, is a decided and welcome contrast to some others in his profession.
NO ONE IN THE BIBLE HAS RETIRED
Retirement? “I don’t use that word because I’m not going to retire until God retires me,” he answers. “I don’t find anybody in the Bible that retired. As long as there is a need for a proclamation of love and people need someone to turn to, I’m going to keep proclaiming the gospel.”
His friendship with United States presidents has given him additional recognition in the secular world. “Except for Mr. Truman, I’ve known them before they ever became president,” he says. “Like Bill Clinton, I’ve known him for 15 years (Clinton attended a Graham crusade as a youth). I don’t think I’ve done much advising to presidents, although I may have stepped over the line with one or two (he offers no names). But I never talk politics with them.”
He is quite pleased that he gave the inaugural prayer at the last two presidential inaugurals, “even though one was a Republican and one was a Democrat.” He senses that when a person becomes president, “I think they become more spiritual. They realize they need the Lord to help them.”
Other international leaders, recognizing Graham’s stature beyond the world of religion, have embraced him, seeking meetings with this child of the Depression who grew up on a dairy farm and learned the value of hard work.
“Many people who know the Bible have a difficult time understanding what is happening in the world,” he says. “We have so many threats in the world that are not in the news. The Korean frontier may be one of the most dangerous. My youngest son just got back from there. I think that North Korea, which is the most powerful Communist country left, wants to be friends with us, but doesn’t know how to go about it. Our prayers can help.”
He conducted a historic crusade in Moscow’s indoor Olympic stadium as part of a two-week stay in the Russian capital, drawing 45,000 people nightly and breaking the previous attendance record of 38,000 for the 1988 Goodwill Games.
His success, in part, is attributable to the strength of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, headquartered in Minneapolis, Minn., which he founded in 1950.
Any business, small or large, might be able to learn from the acclaimed effective business practices of this organization.
Graham has chosen several ministers of varying church denominations and diverse backgrounds to form a support team which oversees his crusades; an evangelistic film company, World Wide Pictures; a TV/Telephone ministry; Graham’s “Hour of Decision” radio broadcasts; “Decision” magazine, the official publication of the Association; schools of evangelism; a guidance program and more.
At its heart, though, it is Billy Graham reaching out to yet more people.
His role in history: “I am a proclaimer of the Gospel like thousands who have gone before me,” he says. “It’s a special feeling. I feel it is the same message, the same God, the same Christ.”
He hopes his crusades “cause many people to be alert to what they can do to help their neighbors,” he says “and what they can do to help world peace and turn to God and trust Him.”