25: Daniel de León

25: Daniel de León

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Billy Graham & Me

• 25 •
DANIEL DE LEÓN

Pastor of Templo Calvario, the largest Hispanic congregation in the U.S. with seventy-five satellite churches

Our church, the Templo Calvario in Santa Ana, California, is one of the few Hispanic churches in America in which Billy Graham has preached. In 1985, he came and preached to our ministry. It was an incredible blessing for us and something we’ll never forget.

It all started when my wife Ruth and I were in Orlando, Florida, where preparations were being made for the dedication of a beautiful church edifice called Carpenter’s Hall. We noticed on a flyer the names of all the people who would be speaking and ministering at the dedication, and it included some of the top names in the nation. I remember my wife saying, “How come God doesn’t bless us with something extra special for our dedication?” We were also building our new sanctuary at the time.

Months passed, and then I received a call from England. It was from one of Billy Graham’s assistants, and he said, “Would you like to have Billy in your church?”

That was an incredible moment. I can’t even describe how I felt, hearing that Dr. Graham was willing to come to our church. Here we were, ministering to the Hispanic community in Santa Ana, a city that one study said was the hardest place to live in America when compared to others of similar size. It still has the highest number of gangs per capita in the entire United States. And Billy Graham, who was on his way to Southern California to conduct one of his famous crusades, decided to take the time to visit our little-known Hispanic church in Santa Ana.

A couple of weeks before Billy’s visit not only the local police but also his crusade logistics people and maybe the FBI or some other agency came and checked out the facilities and the route he would take. It just impressed the daylights out of us, making us realize, if we didn’t already know, that this was not just an ordinary preacher but a world figure, and that he was coming to our church!

The night before Billy’s visit to our church, a special banquet was held for all the people who were part of the crusade. This was when we first met him. In the receiving line he was there with all his staff, and my wife and I were way back, maybe about 100th in line. Then a young lady came up to me and said, “Are you Pastor Dan de León?” I said, “Yes, I am.” She said, “I just want to let you know that Dr. Graham has requested that you and your wife sit at his table.”

We were floored. We couldn’t believe it, but they took us up to the table. Ted Engstrom, head of World Vision, was there, and so was the president of the crusade and a couple other important people, and we were… well, who were we?

One thing Ruth and I noted, as Billy Graham conversed with the people at the table he would always make sure that he included all of us. He’d turn and look at each one of us as he was answering a question or making a comment or conversing. He would make sure that we were all included. What humility and graciousness. It impressed us very much that he was concerned about making everyone feel comfortable in his presence.

On the day of the actual dedication, there were local policemen scattered throughout the area he would pass through, which I am told is typical in any crusade city. They were on walkie-talkies… he was three minutes away… and two minutes away… and one minute away. And we were standing there like a bunch of kids gawking. I said, “My God, what a blessing it is for us that this man is coming.”

You can imagine what it was like for our staff. We were all on our best behavior. People were just waiting and waiting, very patiently. The sanctuary was filled to capacity and then it overflowed. People were sitting everywhere, outside the doors, all over the place, waiting for Billy.

Finally he came in, and we had a receiving line for him. It was made up of just the church staff. Billy’s organization wanted to make sure that we as a church were made to feel important, so there were no dignitaries or city officials there. It was just us. That’s how they had planned it.

At the end of the line my wife Ruth stood with a Bible. We asked him if he would sign it, and he was very gracious in doing so. Then Ruth asked him, “Would you consider, Dr. Graham, taking a picture with our family? My boys are just going crazy; they want to take a picture.” He said, “Of course.” We took the pictures later, after Billy finished a news conference and turned to my wife and said, “Where are the boys? I want to take that picture!”

So we went and had the service, the very first at our new facility. The place was jam-packed. There was no room for anybody else. People from all races, people from the community, and of course the news media were there in numbers. We had been pushed for time in our preparations and didn’t have the carpet on the floor yet. Nor did we have the lights set up, so we had to use temporary lights to light up the stage. Obviously, things were not yet where we wanted them to be, but Billy Graham didn’t seem to mind anything. He just made everybody feel so welcome.

And he did so despite his own discomfort. Just a few weeks before his visit, Billy had fallen and broken two or three ribs, and his crusade staff weren’t sure he would be able to make the trip. But he had said, “No, I want to be there, and I’m going to be there.” He didn’t speak for long — maybe twenty minutes. He was obviously in pain and he also had to conserve his energy for the crusade. But the fact that he fulfilled his commitment in spite of adversity showed the kind of man he is.

For my wife, Billy Graham’s visit was the fulfillment of her prayer in Orlando, Florida, when she watched that grand ceremony at the dedication of the new church at Carpenter Hall and wondered, “Why can’t we have a dignitary come and speak at our dedication?” The answer came when Billy Graham became the first preacher to speak at our new facility.

When Billy Graham came to our church, many people came up to me and asked, “Is he the head of the evangelical church?” Of course, that’s not our tradition, and Billy would never make such a claim. But those questions showed how people viewed him, how significant Billy Graham was to them. Even today, some people can’t believe that Billy Graham preached here. “Billy was at your church?” they say. And we proudly say, “Yes, he was.”

A few years ago, I attended a special gathering, and Billy Graham was there. I went up to him and said, “Dr. Graham, do you remember visiting our church in California and speaking at our dedication?” He said, “Of course, I do. I would never forget it.” We won’t either. Our ministry is now the largest bilingual Hispanic congregation in the country, with seventy-five satellite churches across the U.S. and Latin America. And Billy Graham is part of our church history. But he is also part of my history, and my family’s history. We still hold dear that picture we took so long ago of him, my wife, and our three boys, and me, on that day when Billy Graham came to celebrate with us at the dedication of a little-known Hispanic church in Santa Ana, California.

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