15: Jimmy Carter

15: Jimmy Carter

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Billy Graham & Me

• 15 •
JIMMY CARTER

39th President of the United States, Nobel Peace Prize winner, author and founder of The Carter Center

I first became associated with Billy Graham about forty-five years ago, when I was in Sumter County, Georgia. Anyone who knows anything about Georgia would recognize Sumter County, and particularly Americus, as having the strongest John Birch Society in the South. In those days it had almost 100 percent membership among white men and the White Citizens’ Council. Andy Young and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. both said that Sumter County was the worst place in the United States to be put in jail.

Someone called me on behalf of Billy Graham and asked if I would lead a Billy Graham Crusade. I said, “Yes I will, if Billy Graham comes.” The representative replied, “Well he’s not coming, but he’ll send a motion picture, and we want you to put the event together.” Then he added, “And the first thing you have to realize is that all over the world, the Billy Graham Crusades are absolutely and totally racially integrated.”

I somewhat reluctantly agreed to do it, knowing the South as I did. Then we tried to find a place where we could have a biracial planning meeting. However, and I hate to report this, not a single one of the Christian white churches would let us meet on their premises. So we had to find some secular place to meet, but the planning went on. The name of the movie was The Restless Ones. During the crusade, we showed that film in the movie theater, two hours each night, and at the end of the film, I gave a short presentation about the Gospel message. During the completely integrated ceremony, 650 people accepted the call to accept Jesus Christ. This event, sponsored and orchestrated by Billy Graham, was a major breakthrough in severing the distinctive separation between our African American and our white citizens. It helped to integrate our county in a major way, because whenever anyone went forward in that theater, black or white, to accept Jesus Christ, they were embraced by the leaders of the segregationist churches as Christian brothers and sisters.

The first time I actually met Billy Graham in person was when I became governor of Georgia in the early 1970s. I invited him to come down and lead a prayer breakfast. He came and I was delighted. We had big crowds, as you can well imagine.

The next time I saw Billy Graham was when I was invited as a governor to go to the White House for the National Prayer Breakfast sponsored by President Nixon. That was a special event for me not only because I saw Billy Graham there, but also because it was the first time I had ever met a U.S. President.

While I was President, Billy Graham performed another important service that had an influence on the secular as well as religious world. He was the first evangelist of any stature who penetrated the Iron Curtain. In 1977, he went to Hungary, then ruled by a communist government, and he preached — so the CIA told me — to hundreds of thousands of people who came to hear his message. Wanting to downplay the impact of the visit, the Hungarian government said that maybe a thousand people showed up! Later, in the 1980s, Billy Graham did something else that was profoundly significant: he met with Pope John Paul II. Both this meeting and his trip to Hungary were criticized by some devout Christians as “going to the communists” and “going to the Catholics,” but that was the kind of thing that Billy Graham did.

In 1994, I decided to go to North Korea to help improve relations with that country during a difficult time. It was very difficult to obtain any accurate information about North Korea from the CIA or State Department, so I had a conversation with Ruth and Billy who had just before that visited Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. As you know, Ruth attended high school in Pyongyang, North Korea, for several years. I learned a lot from what they told me.

That visit turned out to be a very wonderful occasion for me because I discovered something quite unexpected about Kim II-Sung, a communist dictator whom I had despised ever since I served as a submarine officer in the Pacific during the Korean War. I learned that he not only had a great affinity for Billy Graham but also for Christians generally. Several times he expressed to me his appreciation for Christians. He said that Christians had saved his life when he was imprisoned by the Japanese.

I’ll conclude by giving a report on an interview I had with Fox television. It was a special program about Billy Graham. The question was, “Who has been most influential in your spiritual life?” My response was: “Billy Graham.” He was constantly broad-minded, forgiving, and humble in his treatment of others. He has reached out to all people — black or white, American or foreign, man or woman — for opportunities to serve God. My testimony is that I am just one of tens of millions of people whose spiritual lives have been shaped by Billy Graham.

Adapted from remarks delivered at the dedication of the Billy Graham Library on March 31, 2007.

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