20: Doug Coe

20: Doug Coe

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Billy Graham & Me

• 20 •
DOUG COE

As part of the National Prayer Breakfast family, works with friends around the world, including political leaders, who gather around the person and teachings of Jesus

I was just fourteen years old when I first heard Billy Graham speak in 1943 at a Youth for Christ rally at Waters Field in Salem, Oregon. After hearing Billy Graham preach, my mother wanted me to attend Northwestern Schools (now Northwestern College) in Minneapolis, where he served as president. She figured I could learn from the evangelist what it meant to be a man of God, but that didn’t happen. I do recall, however, a special all-school convocation held in the fall of 1949 upon his return from his historic eight-week crusade in Los Angeles.

As I sat listening to the report and watching the films of people responding to Billy Graham’s preaching, I was skeptical of both the person and the process. I was a mathematics and physics major, still trying to figure out faith in my head — not my heart — and I was a long way from being able to relate to his transformational message of God’s love and forgiveness.

But through the providence of God our lives have intersected in many ways and on numerous occasions ever since: as a mentor, a partner, a brother, a great example, and a dear friend.

I first met Billy Graham personally in the early 1950s through Oregon Senator Mark Hatfield. The Senator and I had become close friends, having met Jesus together, and learning to pray and read the Scriptures together. Mark Hatfield loved and admired Billy Graham and always wanted to help him as much as he could. I then worked on a number of crusades, more deeply in the Portland, Oregon crusades where Senator Hatfield was greatly involved. I began to know Billy Graham more closely because of his friendship with Dawson Trotman, founder of the Navigators.

But it wasn’t until I moved to Washington, D.C. in 1959 to begin my life’s work with the National Prayer Breakfast family that I came to really know Billy Graham as a brother, and to observe and embrace his unique, inclusive perspective as ambassadors of Jesus Christ’s love. Until that time, I thought the work of God was evangelism, but I soon realized that the only person I could evangelize and disciple was myself. I learned from Billy that the Gospel message isn’t three or five “points,” it’s a Person — Jesus. He would also preach that God is love, and since Jesus is God, then the Gospel is also love.

Throughout his life, Billy was transparent and accessible to everyone. He loved all the sinners Jesus came for, and included himself in that group. He didn’t have a judgmental spirit, but rather a supernatural love for anyone he met, regardless of their religious background, or none. And he was always fully present, focused and engaged with anyone — whether a President or Senator or a waiter or bellman at the hotel.

Billy also had openness to the study of Jesus. Even though his crusade outreach was always church-based, he worked hard to overcome the pressures and influences of religion. “The greatest need of the Church,” he once told me in one of our many conversations, “is to set it back 2,000 years to the time of Jesus.”

Billy kept growing in his understanding of Scripture. That put him way ahead of his time. He didn’t preach about a Christian Jesus, but rather the universal message of Jesus of Nazareth, Who came for all mankind. He always spoke publicly and privately about “Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. Jesus is not a way, He is the way.” He said, “It’s not information about Jesus that’s the way; Jesus Himself is the way, the truth, and the life.”

When Billy started traveling the world, he found people who never had heard the word Christian, but whom he knew he would see in heaven because of their faith in, and relationship with, Jesus. Once, while singing “Jesus Loves Me” with a group of Chinese children at the Great Wall, an elderly man in his nineties came up to him with tears streaming down his face and said, “I’ve known Him all my life, but I didn’t know His name.”

Billy once told me, “I became born again as a teenager, attended a Bible school, graduated from a Christian college, served as a Christian pastor, was appointed president of a Christian university, and eventually answered the call to become a Christian evangelist. Eight years later, I finally met Jesus, in a new and more personal way.”

What may sound like a distinction without a difference to some was vividly reinforced for me during Billy’s 1994 crusade in Tokyo. I was traveling in India at the time, but read his farewell press conference. I was amazed.

A Japanese reporter asked, “Mr. Graham, Christian missionaries have been coming to Japan for 150 years, and you have just completed your second crusade here. Yet Christians represent less than .5 percent of our population. Is there something wrong with Christian religion or with the Japanese people, that they don’t respond?”

Billy replied to her and all of the assembled media, “The answer is clear. Most pastors, teachers, and missionaries have equated Christianity with Jesus — and there is a vast difference, you know.”

Along with Senator Frank Carlson and Abraham Vereide, Billy had a major role in the founding of the National Prayer Breakfast in the early 1950s by encouraging President Eisenhower to attend the first of what has become an annual gathering. He was the main speaker at most of the first fifteen, and has said a prayer or read Scripture at many others.

Though renowned for his public evangelistic crusades, Billy was one of the few leaders I have known who had the vision and heart not only to equip laypersons, but as best as possible to turn the work over to them. In this he followed the example of John Wesley. Whenever he met with members of the House and Senate weekly prayer groups, and other leaders throughout the world, he would encourage them to give leadership by talking and thinking about Jesus, having genuine fellowship together, and praying together, without depending on a professional religious leader to do it.

One day, Billy was speaking about these prayer fellowships with Senator Sam Nunn, who exclaimed, “Billy, the Lord has used you to bring millions to faith in Jesus Christ and it is a privilege to partner with you.”

Billy replied, “Senator, most of what you are saying is not true. I am thrilled to be used by God as an instrument, but if you as a layman would teach the Scriptures, it would be far more effective.”

When Senator Nunn told Billy he was just being humble, the evangelist grabbed him by the lapels and pulled him close. “Senator, thousands of people already know what I am going to say,” he said. “But millions want to know what you would say.”

God has honored Billy Graham’s faithfulness, through his consistent focus on Jesus, his exemplary public and private humility reflecting the Spirit of the One he serves and in his empowerment of laypersons to do the work of evangelism. Just as chicken soup helps heal the body in times of physical illness, Billy’s unfailing fidelity to his calling has enabled millions of individuals suffering from spiritual sickness to find nurturing for their soul. I don’t think we will see another like him in our lifetime.

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