Billy Graham, A Father Figure to Me
The renowned evangelist inspired many from afar. For Bill Shuler, who got to know Billy Graham personally over several decades, little moments revealed his character.
I grew up hearing about Billy Graham. He and my father, Jack Shuler, were two of a handful of evangelists in the 1940s and 1950s who crisscrossed America in a post-World War II world preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Billy Graham became a household name after his evangelistic meetings in Los Angeles in 1949. The seed money for those meetings had come from my dad’s meetings in Los Angeles years earlier. The counselors and prayer partners for the meetings were trained in my granddad’s church. My dad preached in the Los Angeles meetings one night so that Billy Graham could get a rest. Cliff Barrows, Mr. Graham’s song leader, had first been my dad’s song leader.
For me in my youth, these were stories that caused me to want to know more about my dad — who died at age 44 when I was six months old — and about Billy Graham, who would become a father figure to me.
From New York City to Oklahoma
Billy Graham was different from other preachers in that he had a global perspective and authority to his preaching.
My mother Ruth, who just happens to have the same name as Billy Graham’s wife, was the office manager for Mr. Graham’s 1957 New York City Crusade. She told me about how she felt when she first heard Mr. Graham preach. She said that he was different from other preachers; he had a global perspective and authority to his preaching.
She also shared numerous examples of Mr. Graham’s humility. Where some speakers might exaggerate the numbers of those attending their meetings, Mr. Graham would understate them. He would share about Jesus with waitresses and with his barber. His humility caught people off guard.
In 1983 I was a junior at university. That year I reached out to see if I could perform my senior practicum with Billy Graham at his Oklahoma City evangelistic meetings. I was thrilled to be accepted, and to experience the world that my father knew. I cannot exaggerate how profound an impact this time, and my experiences there, had on the rest of my life.
The first moment I saw Billy Graham up close was at a press conference that kicked off the week of meetings. Mr. Graham was asked about a book authored by his daughter that had just been published, in which she stated that he was a great parent. A reporter asked him, “Were you a great parent?”
Mr. Graham’s response was that he was humbled by his daughter’s words but that he was gone far too much of the time with his meetings to be considered a great parent. “Ruth was the great parent,” he said, referring to his wife. “She’s the one who deserves the honor.” I was witnessing the humility my mother had told me about so many times.
Valuing Each Person — Just as We Were
Emerging from the press conference, Mr. Graham and Cliff Barrows walked toward the main room of the Myriad Auditorium to view the venue where the meetings would be held. I tagged behind. Cliff Barrows reached out to draw me in between Billy Graham and himself. Feeling out of place, I stepped over to the other side of Cliff. He moved me back in place, next to Billy Graham, and whispered, “You’re exactly where we want you to be.”
Before entering the main auditorium, Mr. Graham noticed a maintenance lady over to the side. He approached her and personally invited her to be his guest that evening and be seated in a special section near the front. I witnessed a man who was a friend of kings and presidents treat someone others would overlook as the most important person present.
I was honored to sit on the stage behind Mr. Graham as he preached. He was sick at the beginning of that ministry week, but very few knew. As he preached he was shaking and, at one point, his knees buckled. Several men lurched forward on the front row behind him. The audience never knew, though, what he was going through to make sure they heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Halfway through the evangelistic week, the spouses of the Billy Graham team arrived and I saw the visible difference in the team. They lit up with renewed energy.
There was such an urgency in Mr. Graham’s preaching. One night that week someone was taken away on a stretcher while the great crowd was waiting for the meeting to start. During his message Mr. Graham referred to this one who’d been taken to the hospital. It was for all of us to be reminded of our own mortality. Mr. Graham pointed out that this person never thought this might be their last night on earth.
When my mother, who had worked with Mr. Graham decades earlier, visited me and witnessed the final meeting of the week, she said the Billy Graham team had hardly changed since 1957. Sure, they were older, but the message had remained the same. Only illustrations and news references were different. The Gospel message was still without compromise. Its messenger, Billy Graham, was still humble, still amazed that God would use him, still careful to give God all the glory.
The Remedy for What Afflicts Our Culture
Thirty-four years have passed since I was with Billy Graham, Cliff Barrows and the team in Oklahoma City. It was a profound experience that confirmed my own call into full-time ministry. Twelve years later, he delivered one of his most famous sermons in that same city, following the horrific Oklahoma City bombing. I am forever indebted to Mr. Graham and the team for their faithfulness, courage, sacrifice and humility.
Mr. Graham would have a clear message for us today were we to be able to hear it. We all suffer from the same deadly condition of the heart. It appears in ways as personal as loneliness and lust and as global as racial divides, terrorism and school shootings. The condition is sin and it is universal.
The ultimate remedy, Mr. Graham would tell us, is not social improvement, laws or material wealth but Jesus Christ. He is the answer and earth’s only Savior. He is the one who has welcomed Mr. Graham to his eternal home.
Bill Shuler serves as lead pastor of Capital Life Church, an interdenominational church in Arlington, Virginia, serving the nation’s capital region.