Years ago, when I was in Catholic elementary school, the nuns would go berserk whenever Billy Graham brought his crusade to D.C. They were afraid Graham was a ‘sheep stealer’ – trying to lure Catholics into becoming Protestants. But I, always the contrarian, was interested in Mr. Graham. While my parents would never let us watch his crusades on television, much less attend one, I was intrigued by the power of one man, in a plain suit, to fill a stadium. No glitz or glamor involved, just forthright talking about Jesus.
Even more amazing was how the audience consisted of blacks and whites. This was when D.C. was known as the ‘chocolate city’ with ‘vanilla suburbs’. The days of segregation were over, but there wasn’t much interaction between the races.
Thus, about fifteen years ago, when I was in the Chicago area, I took a side trip to Graham’s alma mater, Wheaton College. (Where the students are known as ‘wheaties’ – get it?)
I toured the Graham museum. I assumed they didn’t get much Catholic foot traffic. They had some excellent pen-and-ink drawings on display (religious, of course), followed by a biographical museum of Graham and his crusades.
At last I could watch those forbidden video clips!
Graham didn’t strike me as a man with charisma, á la John F. Kennedy. Charisma was too superficial, being a culmination of good looks, an expensive (but not flashy) suit, white teeth and poise. Graham had something that ran deeper.
That’s not to say Graham wasn’t ‘easy on the eyes’, as the Irish might put it. He was handsome and tall. It was his bearing that was difficult to describe.
Was his bearing commanding? No – he wasn’t bossing people into accepting Jesus. Self confident? Maybe, but often self confidence morphs into arrogance and pride, and Graham clearly didn’t have those problems.
Although the private meeting between Queen Elizabeth and Graham depicted in The Crown (season 2, episode 6) was fictional, Graham was portrayed as refreshingly modern, not obsequious, with a caring, pastoral attitude.
Perhaps the special presence Billy Graham had doesn’t have a name. Why did people flock to hear Saint Francis of Assisi preach in the 13th century? How could Saint John Vianney draw thousands of pilgrims to his little parish church in France in the 19th century, where he spent 11 to 16 hours a day hearing confessions? Seeking answers in a divinity school seminar or YouTube video is pointless.
There was a special video room at the end of the museum tour, where Billy Graham, seated in a wing chair, asks the viewer to accept Jesus Christ. Good little Papist that I am, I could but nod at Graham. Asking people to accept Christ: it’s what he did.
Rest in peace, Brother Graham.
Joanne Butler is a freelance writer.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller