At home, with Ruth and the Reverend Billy Graham
My Times with the Reverend Billy Graham
My phone rang with its normal annoying trill. Late in a news day. I yanked an answer into the handset. I’m sure my mama would have denounced the tone as “Not entirely polite. Not fit for your raising.”
“Michael? This is Billy Graham. Remember me?”
God as my sure witness, that’s what he said. He didn’t lead with The Reverend Billy Graham. He stopped way short of any pastor-to-presidents talk.
He was just Billy calling. And I a fellow mountain boy trying to suck back the breath knocked out by the quiet thunder of him. The voice of unwanted celebrity on the other end of the phone.
“Remember me?” Oh, yes, I did. Yes, I believe he meant the question. He was that unsure of his fame. It didn’t suit him. He refused to wear it.
I had interviewed The Reverend Billy Graham a few years before. His gray was showing. My youth showed far worse. I was an embryo with TV hair the size of a Fiat. He was a gentle lion far from his springtime. In the interview he had admonished, “Please, just call me Billy.” I just couldn’t.
As I write this, he’s about to turn 97, and I still can’t.
“Reverend Graham, so wonderful to hear from you,” I strangled into the phone. I had expected to hear from his PR man, Larry Ross, out of Texas. Instead, I got the man himself, calling from just up the road at home in Montreat, North Carolina. Billy Graham had my number, in every sense. How great. How terrifying. It would surely have daunted the daylights out of Ed Murrow.
“I’m sure you’ve heard, sir. Dr. Bob Jones Junior has died. I wonder if I might get a statement from you about that. I’m sure you recall some of what he said of you.”
I said something like that, about as composed as a teenage boy before his new girlfriend’s daddy.
Bob Jones, Junior was second chancellor to Bob Jones University, the school that hung the C on Christian Conservatism. He didn’t have much good to say about Billy Graham. He considered him an apostate. That’s a blood-sport insult to an evangelist. A one-word weapon, sharp and fancy at once. He had denounced Billy Graham as a false teacher doing “…more harm to the cause of Jesus Christ than any living man.”
Billy Graham had already been named to Gallup’s most admired list what seemed like a thousand times (the actual current number is 57 ). Bob Jones, Junior had been an outlier of all that admiration.
And he was dead. An easy target, even for a gentleman.
“I love Bob Jones,” the Reverend Graham told me on that phone call. “All that talk, well, that just rolls off me like water on a duck’s back.”
That’s the statement, made for TV that night. I just answered the phone. Billy Graham did the rest, directly answering one of his sharpest critics. He borrowed some farm boy parlance and wrapped it in grace. It was his way. In my every encounter with him, it always was.
Billy Graham grew up as Billy Frank. His mama and daddy called him that on the family dairy farm outside Charlotte, North Carolina. In every interview and conversation we had, he wanted to talk of it.
“I milked 20 cows every morning and 20 cows every night” he said to me, as I sat on the arm of the couch in the Graham home place. Ruth – his wife who helped to build the place out of 3 old cabins – grinned beside him, looking about the size of a wren. Billy Graham still lives there, on a Western North Carolina mountainside. The land so lovely it would rattle poets. So steep it might send Gravity running, downhill. Moonshiners used to run uphill there, haunting the scarps and hiding from revenue men. Liquor making preceded America’s pastor to that ridge.
Billy Graham believes God lives in the real world, so he lived there too. He let the human heartbreaks show.
“The music has gone out of my house” he said of Ruth Graham’s death in 2007. Their first son, Franklin, once told me in her latter days, he would go into their room and find them lying on the bed, looking at one another. Wordless. None necessary. She was hickory-wood tough. Raised by missionaries in China. When I covered a wildfire on the mountain to which the house cleaves, a car rolled up to the staging area of the firefighters. Billy Graham, in blue jeans, got out and shook every firefighter’s hand, saying, through a smile, “My wife’s up there, and she can fight a fire or a rattle snake or anything else. It’s gonna be all right.”
It was. The farm boy just knew it.
In a sensible pair of britches that day, he ministered, as a small-town pastor might. The Reverend Billy Graham was still holding big-arena crusades back then. New York City’s Central Park would soon get in the works. But he made sure to stop and love some worn out men, out loud, one on one. He took pictures and gave smiles and said God bless you all over them. It wasn’t the Reverend Graham. It was Billy Frank who stood in that parking lot that day, in the smell of smoke and dirt and hard-won sweat. In his hand, we all felt the fence-post patina of humility. A farm boy work ethic. We heard his belief in the matriarch who held him and his mortal world together, just up the hill.
The fire went out. I believe Billy Graham wished his fame had died with it.
Not far from that day, the pastor who has preached Christianity to some 210 million people in 185 countries walked onto his porch up that mountain to face a band of reporters. He wore a weathered old blue-jean coat and those trademark dungarees. I and the others, overdressed for the occasion, stood on the simple front lawn and watched him take a seat and lead with Psalm 141. “Set a guard over my mouth, oh Lord” he said. He seemed genuinely afraid of what he might say. Any little thing that might get twisted or taken as hurtful to someone. But I believe the thing he most feared that day – and most of his days — was pride. He wanted none of it in his mouth. The denim on that coat, worn and mellowed by hard years, held the color that translates to everyman. Working man. A hue not of blue blood, but a shade of human frailty. Bleached by living in the light of real life, not the shade of high religion. The coat had its say before the Reverend Graham could say a word.
“This coat was given to me by Johnny Cash” he announced. He let the news of it hang in the air. Giving room for the clang of Folsom prison and the feel of Johnny Cash’s fall and rise to gather into our minds. Billy Graham was entirely Billy Frank in that moment. Every bit as human as Johnny Cash, or Charlie Daniels, or any of the so-called real people who had shared his crusade stage. He sat unashamed, of the Man in Black or any other friend. Critics might call him an apostate or worse for that. He clearly didn’t care.
People often ask me what he’s like. How was it, sitting with the Reverend Billy Graham, across time zones? The first answer distills to the word — humbling. Self-consciousness runs from the man. His own humility disarms and chases it off the people around him. Humility and humanity leap from him, sometimes even in a grand way. In a crusade meeting at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, I heard him say, “Billy Graham is a sinner, and Billy Graham deserves judgment, and Billy Graham deserves hell.” 85,000 people heard it, among them former President Carter and Coretta Scott King, and the silence that followed was daunting. We all fall. God loves us anyway. He gave the room that comfort as well.
But in a conversation, he’s quiet. The farm boy gentility like a garment that suits him. A cosmic hem he has touched. The fabric soft and tattered and hard-worn.
In one of our early chats, as if a camera were nowhere near, we got to talking less about old-time religion and more about new world orders. He told me of knowing Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior so well he called Dr. King “Mike.” That was a name used only among the King inner circle. The most trusted. The two ministers had traveled to South America together. In North America, they had faced down the same sins of old South segregation. Billy Graham had literally taken down the ropes that would have divided the races in his southern meetings. Both men had broken barriers with what Dr. King would call “the weapon of love.” They had done it under threat of their very lives.
But only recently did I learn just how far ahead of his time Billy Graham has been on the world stage. The Graham influence, his courage, became an export of the American Civil Rights Movement, far from his southern home.
It was 1973. In the undertow of Apartheid in South Africa, before a throng of many thousands in a stadium, the Reverend Billy Graham lit lightning into the thunder of these words:
“Now Jesus was a man. He was human. He was not a white man. He was not a black man. Don’t let anybody ever tell you that it’s white or black. Christ belongs to all people. He belongs to the whole world.”
The hands that milked cows shook the most powerful hands in the world. He politely leveled critics, and chased off scandal without raising ruckus about it, and felt the world change under his feet. Plenty of television evangelists tripped over their own frailties in pursuit of the success Billy Graham has known. Success from which he cannot hide, even on a mountainside. Success he dislikes to wear.
And that’s the other thing I’ll most easily recall about him. He calmly said more than once he considered himself a failure. Too much travel, too little prayer, too few hours studying the Bible.
“I could have done so much more, had I been more devoted to Christ,” he told me. “I keep trying to crawl off that pedestal the world keeps trying to put under me.”
It’s nearly as though he wants to become anonymous. The man who’s often said he looks forward to death and being with God wants his name to hurry and fade from his earthly legacy. His library building in Charlotte wears no sign of Graham out front. His orders. He argued with his pastor, the Reverend Don Wilton, about even uttering Billy Graham a single time at his own funeral.
I won’t ever obey his quiet order to me from years ago. What matters, in memory, is that he quaintly asked, “Please, call me Billy.”
Yes, I remember you, Reverend Graham. History will as well, far beyond the final, “amen.”
Well after the fading last notes of your signature hymn:
“Just As I Am.”