Foreword

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Billy Graham & Me

• FOREWORD •
A. LARRY ROSS

President of A. Larry Ross Communications, founded in 1994, has more than thirty-seven years’ experience in mainstream and Christian public relations, including serving as director of media/public relations and principal spokesperson for evangelist Billy Graham since 1981

OVERVIEW

Since 1993, Chicken Soup for the Soul — one of the world’s most iconic, recognizable and trusted brands, renowned for sharing uplifting stories — has inspired readers all over the world with more than 500 million copies of its 250 or so titles, translated into more than forty languages.

But the book you hold in your hand is unique and unprecedented, marking the only time in its twenty-year history that the Chicken Soup for the Soul series has focused on a single individual — evangelist Billy Graham. Regardless of your familiarity with Mr. Graham or your identification with his message, more important than the person are the transferable principles by which he lives his life.

This original anthology contains 101 personal and anecdotal stories by some of the most significant world changers and influential leaders in government, business, sports, entertainment and religion, as well as friends and relatives of Mr. Graham who know him best.

Just as Billy Graham’s influence and impact transcend religious, racial and political boundaries, so does the list of contributors to this volume as they reveal and confirm his place in history. Prominent Christian pastors, leaders from other faiths, celebrities, heroes, regular citizens — and remarkably, every living U.S. President — collectively document the effects of Mr. Graham’s worldwide ministry over more than six decades.

Contributors include a sheer diversity of leadership representing myriad professions, geographical locations, political persuasions and faith traditions, all of whom coalesce around the common denominator of utmost respect for one individual — including those who do not share his perspective or worldview.

Considering the current polarization and politicization of our nation, it is extraordinary to have voices from all walks of life, representing a full spectrum of ideology and methodology, joined in praise for an inclusive Christian leader known for unwavering conviction in a biblical worldview. During this arguably unparalleled period of divisiveness in America and our world, there is, perhaps, no other individual who has been able to unite diverse people like Billy Graham has.

Because Mr. Graham never compromised his integrity nor watered down his message to achieve consensus or reach critical mass, it is his character and integrity that have engendered such an unprecedented tribute. In a sense, this celebration of friendship and influence is a first look at the evangelist’s legacy — while he is still alive.

This volume reflects Mr. Graham’s counter-intuitive, inclusive approach to public ministry, electing to have his story chronicled not by an official biographer, but rather through the lens of others sharing how his message influenced or impacted their lives.

Billy Graham faithfully preached a timeless message in a timely way at the intersection of faith and culture. He put the green grass of the Gospel down low where “even the goats could get it,” showing how the Bible speaks to personal and societal problems, and always providing an opportunity for audiences to respond by making a personal faith commitment.

Early in his ministry he helped define and give credibility to Evangelical Christianity. His crusades brought unity, visibility and credibility to the local church. He was a catalytic unifier of the Church around shared priorities rather than differences, cultivating mainline churches and prompting Protestant/Catholic cooperation in evangelism.

In the absence of an official spokesperson, for years Billy Graham was perceived as a senior statesman and the perennial “go to” authoritative resource for the media on issues related to the Christian faith and a biblical worldview. While his emphasis was evangelism, not ecumenism, during his travels Mr. Graham also met with and gained the respect of leaders of other faiths.

Though primarily an evangelist, Mr. Graham worked tirelessly as a man of conscience, compassion and peace, often facilitating rapprochement between disparate groups. He provided leadership influence by example in racial/denominational reconciliation, civil rights, social justice and de facto international diplomacy by pioneering early ministry efforts behind the Iron Curtain. As a spiritual entrepreneur, his vision had a seminal influence to found or encourage others to seize a timely opportunity to initiate more than thirty separate ministry organizations.

But the remarkable thing about him is that there is no difference between the public and private Billy Graham. He is the same individual one-on-one over a meal or in a meeting back at the hotel as he is behind the pulpit. Though he is a spiritual confidant to some of the world’s foremost leaders in government, entertainment, sport and business, he made anyone in his presence feel like the most important person in the world at that moment.

A LIFE WELL-LIVED AND A LORD WELL-SERVED

I am honored by the invitation to pen the foreword to this anthology tribute to a man whose prophetic voice has not only influenced three generations as “God’s Ambassador,” “Evangelist to the World,” and “Pastor to Presidents,” but has had a profound impact on my life as a colleague, friend and significant spiritual mentor.

But first I must reframe the underlying premise, “Billy Graham & Me,” into the lexicon of the man himself, who would be more deferential and self-effacing, identifying the source of his strength and success as “Billy Graham & God.” I have merely been privileged to have a front-row seat at the game to observe that spiritual partnership firsthand and watch Mr. Graham’s agendaless servant leadership unfold over more than three decades of his public ministry.

FIRST IMPRESSION

I was raised in Wheaton, Illinois, a suburb twenty-five miles west of Chicago, where Mr. Graham received his education and where my father was a Bible professor in the graduate school that is now located in the building on campus that bears the evangelist’s name.

I will never forget the first time I heard Billy Graham preach, when I was just nine years old — though it is not a happy memory. One hot, muggy Sunday afternoon in June 1962, with a temperature of 94 degrees and 97 percent humidity, my parents dragged my brothers and me to the final meeting of his Greater Chicago Crusade at Soldier Field, adjacent to the lake downtown.

I was sitting in the next to last row in the corner of the stadium — one of 116,000 people in an overflow crowd under the blistering sun — and Mr. Graham was just a speck on a small platform at the other end of the field. All I can remember is how thirsty I felt, though I must admit it was purely physical, not spiritual, like the craving of so many others who attended his meetings.

Little did I know in my youth, however, that the providence of God would so closely intertwine our lives — Billy Graham’s and mine — as the faculty house that was my boyhood home would have to be moved in order to build The Billy Graham Center; I would myself graduate from Wheaton College thirty-three years after him; and later I would transition from a mainstream corporate and agency public relations career to serve as his personal spokesperson for, at this writing, thirty-two years.

FIRST INTRODUCTION

The first time I was introduced to Mr. Graham was in fall 1976, shortly after graduating from college, while working for a meeting planning firm that organized convention logistics for large corporations. I was an intern, assigned to help with the Holiday Inn Franchise Holders convention in Memphis. As a reward for working hard, the president of our company asked me which of the many celebrities and marquee speakers I wanted to meet personally.

Without hesitation, I asked to meet Billy Graham, who had spoken at a prayer breakfast for attendees that morning. The president told me that at that very moment he was having his picture taken with the client’s board of directors across the hall. The next thing I knew, we barged through the door, interrupting the photo shoot, and my colleague said presumptuously, “Billy Graham, this young man went to your alma mater and would like to meet you.”

I was mortified, as the evangelist was seated in the middle, surrounded by at least twenty-four directors standing in two rows. He smiled, stood up, shook my hand and we spoke privately for several minutes. He then turned to the group and for another ten minutes shared about our common heritage, values and biblical worldview, using my interruption as an opportunity to share his own personal testimony of faith.

I would later observe that this was Mr. Graham’s constant priority, practice and platform, to boldly — yet sensitively — share the transformative power of the Gospel message as any occasion would allow. And God has honored his faithfulness.

POWERFUL PREACHER

The universality and accessibility of Mr. Graham’s message was powerfully impressed upon me one Friday evening in 1984 when he preached to the upper echelons of British society, including the Queen of England, several members of the Royal Family and the Lords and Ladies of London at a black-tie dinner.

The following Sunday afternoon, I accompanied the evangelist to an outdoor park in London’s East End, where he was scheduled to address a crowd of 5,000 low-income immigrants. As our vehicle approached the venue, I asked Mr. Graham what message he planned to preach, to which he replied, “The same sermon I gave to the Royal family two nights ago.”

A LIFE MARKED BY HUMILITY, INTEGRITY, AUTHENTICITY AND LOVE

My longtime pastor in Dallas defines success as “when those who know you best, love you the most,” and that certainly holds true for Billy Graham. In an era where confidence in institutions is crumbling, and even religious organizations are being scrutinized or Christian leaders criticized for behavior inconsistent with their beliefs, he has long modeled courage, character and conviction and stood as an example of how to finish well.

Associate evangelist Ralph Bell once referred to Mr. Graham as a leader “who walked with the Lord daily.” That is the measure of the man — who he really is — and the source of his spiritual strength and power.

Through the years, many reporters have asked me to sum up Billy Graham’s life and legacy in one word. But in response, I have to use four: humility, integrity, authenticity and love — each of which I have observed consistently in my travels with him.

HUMILITY

In July 1999 I accompanied Mr. Graham to the local NBC affiliate in Jacksonville, where he did a remote interview with Katie Couric on Today. While waiting in the green room, the floor producer asked me if he would be willing to sign her copy of his recently published memoirs, Just As I Am.

Despite symptoms of Parkinson’s that made writing difficult, he was happy to oblige, which so touched the young woman that she asked Mr. Graham if she could pray for him. That moved me deeply, as it was the first time in my quarter century of traveling with him that someone took such an initiative, rather than asking him to offer a prayer on his or her behalf.

After the producer left the room, Mr. Graham turned to me and said genuinely, “I have never understood why in the world anyone would want my autograph.” At first I thought he was joking, but then realized his puzzled sincerity was reflective of his self-identification as “a country boy called to preach,” who could not fathom why the Lord chose him to be blessed with such spiritual responsibility and global opportunity.

As best I could, I tried to clarify for Mr. Graham what his inscription in her book meant to that young woman and others who made similar requests through the years, explaining his obvious influence and the significant impact of his ministry on her, since she had made a faith commitment at one of his crusades as a teenager. To my surprise, he responded, somewhat matter-of-factly, “I have only asked for one autograph in my whole life.”

Now it was I who was flummoxed, as I sat in stunned silence trying to determine who that individual would have been, going over in my mind myriad celebrities, influencers and world changers Mr. Graham had met during his travels.

At first I thought it was Babe Ruth, whom I knew he greeted after a ballgame when he was twelve years old. My second candidate was President Truman, whom he met on his first visit to the White House in the early 1950s. Or possibly it was Winston Churchill, who summoned the young evangelist to his chambers after his successful mission at Wembley Stadium in 1954 to ask him the secret of gathering such huge crowds (which Billy Graham explained was due to the Holy Spirit, not anything he had done).

When I sheepishly turned to Mr. Graham and asked if any of these individuals had been worthy of such a request, he said, “No.” Acknowledging I would probably never be able to guess, he explained, “It was John Glenn. He and I sat next to each other at the March 1998 TIME magazine 75th anniversary gala at Radio City Music Hall honoring all living cover subjects.

“As we got up to leave, John asked me for my autograph,” Mr. Graham continued. “I replied, ‘I’ve never asked anyone in my whole life to sign something. Could I have yours?’ And so we swapped autographs!”

INTEGRITY

Among the many examples of Mr. Graham’s personal, spiritual and financial integrity, I remember when he kicked off the twelve-week, six-city Mission England tour the summer of 1984 in Bristol, west of London. In their coverage of the opening service, local papers appealed to their readers’ British reserve through articles criticizing the “emotionalism” of the American evangelist’s meeting. Their evidence was the fact that the choir sang softly during his invitation for people to come forward to make a faith commitment.

So for only the second time in the history of their ministry, before the start of the meeting the next evening, Mr. Graham told program director Cliff Barrows to refrain from having the choir sing during the invitation. But the next day, the headlines in the paper read, “The emotionalism was in the silence,” and Mr. Graham decided that if he was going to get criticized, they should at least do it right, and they went back to the choir accompaniment for the rest of the mission — and ever since.

AUTHENTICITY

In August 2005, just two months after he had preached his final crusade in New York City, I went to visit Mr. Graham at his log cabin home in western North Carolina. On the flight to Asheville, I reflected on an observation shared by a pastor friend that every individual needs three things in order to find fulfillment in life: someone to love, something to do and something to anticipate.

As I drove up the mountain to call on Mr. Graham, I realized that for the first time in more than six decades the evangelist had only two out of three of those elements. He still had Ruth, his marriage and ministry partner of then sixty-one years; he was working on a new book and remained regularly engaged with the ministry he founded; but he could not look forward to another crusade planned for the near future.

I knew that Billy Graham always believed and lived what he preached, but I wondered how that applied to his current life stage. What mindset would I encounter in the forward-thinking evangelist, who had always focused on the next thing and who had been a part of current events on the world stage since the Truman Administration?

While sitting together on his back porch for several hours, eventually watching the sun start to set over his beloved Blue Ridge Mountains, I asked Mr. Graham how he felt. He replied, “I have never been more at peace in my life. My wife Ruth has been there for me as I traveled the world in itinerant ministry. But with her recent medical needs, it is now time for me to take care of her. God has enabled me to do that, and I am looking forward to spending more time together.” Ruth passed in 2007.

During my most recent visit to Mr. Graham’s home, despite physical limitations of his own, I found him once again filled with passion and purpose. As he sat in his favorite chair in the den, he told me how he felt called to deliver one more sermon about the need for renewal in the Church and revival across America.

It was obvious that, though his body might be physically weakened, the heart of the evangelist continued to beat. He had already selected his text, Galatians 6:14, which he had posted in big letters on the wall beside him and recited to me, “‘May I never boast, except in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ…’” In his characteristic authenticity and transparency, he then stressed that when he gets to heaven he is going to lay any awards and rewards received in this life at the feet of Jesus.

LEADERSHIP WITH LOVE

Several years ago I had the opportunity to share the story about Mr. Graham and John Glenn at the TIME gala with a former bureau chief of the magazine. He smiled, acknowledging that he was at that event, and told me I needed to know “the rest of the story.”

He then informed me that the black-tie dinner in question was held in March 1998, during the period following President Bill Clinton’s impeachment by the House of Representatives. Minutes before the event was scheduled to begin, organizers were in crisis mode, as iconic sports figure Joe DiMaggio had refused to sit next to the President at the head table.

Further, no other celebrity or marquee figure in attendance would accept that offer and they seemed reluctant to be photographed with him in the midst of the political kerfuffle. When Billy Graham was approached about the situation, he declared, “I’ll sit next to the President. He’s my friend!”

What mattered most to Mr. Graham was to faithfully lift up the name of Jesus with authenticity and integrity to the great and the low, the high and the humble. Though he never compromised the Gospel or the dimension of the reality of God’s judgment, unlike some other Christian leaders whose messages come across as condemning, in my experience Mr. Graham always functioned as a “paramedic,” rather than a “policeman,” for the Kingdom of God.

Billy Graham represents a balance of grace and truth. He is a man of humility, integrity, authenticity and an agent of God’s love, who despite his many gifts and ability, the Lord used more for his availability. He had an audience of One, and would consistently “suit up and show up,” leaving the results to the Lord he served, and giving all the glory and honor to God, knowing that he was operating with faith in His strength and power from above.

December 3, 2012

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