19: Bill Clinton

19: Bill Clinton

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Billy Graham & Me

• 19 •
BILL CLINTON

42nd President of the United States, founder of the Clinton Global Initiative and co-founder of The Clinton Bush Haiti Fund

For more than fifty years, including wonderful encounters and encouraging phone calls and letters when I was governor of Arkansas and after I left office, Billy Graham has blessed my life. But the story I like to tell best about Billy Graham happened when I was a twelve-year-old boy in Arkansas, and my Sunday school teacher drove me to Little Rock for Billy’s 1958 crusade at the War Memorial Stadium. Schools in Little Rock were closed at the time due to the Central High School integration crisis, and racial tensions in the city were running high. Arguably because of these tensions, which they exacerbated, the White Citizens’ Council suggested that Reverend Graham restrict the crusade to whites only. A lot of less radical whites agreed. But Billy refused. He said that all people deserved to hear God’s Word and that, if he couldn’t preach to everyone, he wouldn’t preach at all.

So the crusade happened as Billy wanted it, with tens of thousands of people, black and white, pouring into the stadium where the Arkansas Razorbacks played. When Billy finished preaching and issued the call, inviting us to rededicate our lives to Christ, thousands, black and white together, some smiling, some crying, went down to the field to answer the call. It was a moment in Arkansas history after which nothing would be quite the same for those who were there and those who knew the stand Billy had taken. And Billy didn’t have to preach one word about integrating the schools. All he had to speak was God’s Word to all God’s children. It may seem easy now, but back then, fifty years ago, it was an act of moral courage and deep faith.

At the time, I didn’t fully understand it, but I felt it. After all we’d been through, I was thrilled to see an integrated crowd actually living their faith. I had been a Christian for only about three years then and was still questioning everything, trying to sort out what being a Christian really meant for my day-to-day living. Through Billy’s example I began to see how faith was not just something to affirm on Sunday; it was something to be lived. Only a man who lived his faith could do what Billy did in Little Rock, could tell people in word and deed both to forgive those who sin and to love their neighbors. I was so moved by his stand that I decided to send him a little bit of money each month from my small allowance.

Another three decades would pass before I’d have the privilege of meeting and befriending Billy Graham. When I was governor, Billy came to Little Rock for another crusade, and we traveled together to visit my pastor, W.O. Vaught, who was dying of cancer. I’ll never forget their conversation — about faith and fears, life and death. It was my first real glimpse of Billy the private man. He went to the home of my pastor and offered him comfort, saying that he too had lived a long life, and would see him again soon “just inside the Eastern Gate.” He lived his faith when no one was looking.

This extraordinary kindness and concern has remained constant throughout the more than quarter century I’ve known Billy Graham. It remained true when he visited Hillary and me in the White House, just as he visited other presidents before and after me. And whether he was speaking to our nation after the terrible tragedy in Oklahoma City or speaking to me privately in the Oval Office, he embodied St. Paul’s maxim that of all the virtues, faith, hope, and love abide, but the greatest of these is love. It can bring redemption, healing, and new beginnings.

The other lesson of Billy’s that I’ve carried with me is the notion that living with faith requires a fair amount of humility. To be faithful we need to acknowledge what we don’t know, admit our vulnerability to sin and errors. I guarantee that any person in power who’s tried to live by this has found it easier said than done. Yet it’s essential to the honest governance, constructive criticism, and principled compromise necessary to build a “more perfect union.” When you recognize that no one has all the answers, you know you need to work with others to find solutions. How you work becomes as important as what you work on. For my part, I’ve tried to build my Foundation on the idea that we can bring very different people together to share their knowledge, experience, and resources to solve problems, knowing that in this life, perfection is impossible, but doing better is a moral responsibility.

When I think back to what the world looked like in 1958, when I first encountered Billy, I know Billy’s crusade didn’t abolish racism or the prevailing vestiges of segregation. But he showed us that by following our faith we would move the rock up the hill. The Scripture tells us that faith is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen.” That faith is Billy Graham’s great gift to the world. He has given it to millions in public and only the Lord knows how many in private. I’m grateful I got to experience it both ways.

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