Guest commentary by Harry J. Heintz
Amidst all that was happening in the world on February 21, Billy Graham died at age 99, and no story demanded our attention like that one. Global evangelist, counselor to presidents, the closest thing we had to a national pastor — Billy Graham was all that and more. That is bringing back many memories.
Since hearing Graham preach at the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1963 when I was 16, I have had the highest respect for him. One of my strongest memories of that crusade, and of my teenage years, was the final day, when more people were packed into that venerable old stadium than at any other event in its long history. I had seen countless athletic contests there (including Rams, Trojans and Bruins football games, track and field meets featuring the best athletes of the time and the first four years of Dodgers baseball). Part of being reared in Los Angeles was going to games at the Coliseum. That late summer day it witnessed something it had never seen before. Every seat was filled. Thousands more were sitting on folding chairs on the infield (I expect that fire codes would not allow that today), and yet thousands more listened to loudspeakers outside the stadium. The Los Angeles Times reported that 134,254 were at that meeting.
When Graham stood to preach, he was clearly moved at the sight. He said that he asked his wife what he should preach at that closing meeting. She said, “Preach as if it were your last sermon.” I remember that comment and I remember watching him enter the stadium, tall and lanky and exuding an “aw shucks” humility, walking across that sacred sod toward the platform set on about the 50-yard line. I don’t remember the sermon. I do remember the colossal challenge of having people respond the message; because the crowd was so enormous, people had to be seated in that grassy area in front of the platform where inquirers would typically come forward at Graham’s invitation to meet with counselors. I was a senior in high school. It was a fall of indelible memories. A few weeks before, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his great “I Have a Dream” speech/sermon on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. A few months later, President Kennedy would be assassinated. Between those seminal events, I heard Billy Graham preach in person.
When he returned to Madison Square Garden in 1970, after his historic three-month run there in 1957, I took the youth group from First Presbyterian Church of Schenectady, New York, to hear him. He was the same Graham I saw and heard in 1963. I watched those teens watch him as I had watched him when I was a teen.
Graham had a significant role in establishing Gordon-Conwell Seminary, where I studied. When he visited the campus, he was known for greeting everyone, especially the support staff. He would go into kitchen to greet everyone from cooks to dishwashers. There was a genuine humility and infectious friendliness about him.
In the late 1980s word came that Billy Graham would hold a crusade for the capital region of New York in the new Knickerbocker Arena (then called the Pepsi Arena, and now called the Times Union Arena). I was invited to serve on the local executive committee. It took me about a second to agree to serve. The most notable feature of the Capital District Billy Graham Crusade was that Graham was late. Originally scheduled for April, it was moved to July when Graham underwent emergency surgery just a few weeks before the long-awaited opening night. Even with a three-month postponement for his recuperation, he was not ready. So, for the first time in the history of Billy Graham Crusades, a Billy Graham Crusade started without Billy Graham. Associate evangelist Ralph Bell was assigned to preach the first four nights (of eight). The plan was that Graham would preach the final four nights.
My wife Rachel and I were on the platform that Thursday night (all executive team members have that honor one night). We were seated in the front row on the left side, next to George Beverly Shea, which had our jaws dropping to the platform floor. Shaking hands with him was like greeting an old friend, but one we had never met. By Thursday there was concern that Graham might not come at all. The crusade was going well, with good attendance each night. While disappointed about Graham’s absence, we knew not to fix our attention on such things. The word was being proclaimed each night and people were responding. We had never thought the capital region would get a Billy Graham Crusade anyway. And we would go into the history books as the only Billy Graham Crusade ever conducted without Billy Graham. But Graham had arrived in town and was said to be resting in his hotel room. He wouldn’t be able to preach Thursday night, which plan B had him doing. On to plan C.
Somewhere in the first half of the next night’s meeting, after the opening music, with a beautiful solo by George Beverly Shea, and before Ralph Bell stepped up to preach, a spontaneous ovation slowly built across the arena. We had no idea why. Suddenly people were standing and clapping. We stood and clapped too, without knowing why. Then I turned and looked over my right shoulder and saw Billy Graham walking very slowly and carefully, with a grin as wide as that platform, not quite as lanky as 27 years before. He was wearing a blue suit. He was shaky on his feet. The next thing I knew he reached out his hand to me, looked me eye to eye, and said, “Hello. I’m Billy Graham.” I don’t know what I said (if anything), but I’ll never forget that unfeigned sense of humility that emanated from the man who has preached to more people than anyone in history. He said a few words of welcome to the crowd and promised, God willing and his strength permitting, that he would preach the last three nights of the crusade. He blessed Ralph Bell, and slowly left the platform. I don’t know that anyone there that night will have remembered anything that Ralph Bell said, but he probably got the greatest response of his five nights when he gave the invitation.
It was not a firm handshake. I think it took everything he had to walk without assistance that night. On our way home Rachel said, “He has Parkinson’s Disease.” She didn’t suggest it; she declared it. Since Rachel’s mother had been dealing with Parkinson’s for 10 years at that time (she would die five years later), Rachel had become expert at seeing the early symptoms. It was a few years after that crusade that it was finally made public that Graham, indeed, had Parkinson’s disease.
Billy Graham was not perfect or flawless, which he would readily admit. While I was troubled at how Graham let Richard Nixon use him for partisan political purposes, I respected that eventually Graham recognized that and apologized and learned from it. The so-called “Graham rule” about avoiding potentially compromising situations involving gender interactions and money guided me as a pastor. For seven decades, Graham’s life, public and private, under the searching spotlight of the media, was never tainted by scandal. Graham crusades were always ecumenical. In the Albany crusade, the Roman Catholic Diocese was integrally involved. The executive committee was diverse and representative of the greater church in our region. Serving on it, I made friends from many faith traditions, friendships that extend to this day.
I give thanks to God for the ways Billy Graham influenced my life and faith. I give thanks for the ministry of public proclamation of the Good News of Jesus which he discharged faithfully, humbly and effectively.
HARRY J. HEINTZ is a retired pastor. After 38 years serving Brunswick Church in Albany Presbytery, he retired to western New York, where he does a lot of supply preaching and is an adjunct professor at Northeastern Seminary in Rochester, New York.