30: Gerald Durley

30: Gerald Durley

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Billy Graham & Me

• 30 •
GERALD DURLEY

Civil rights leader, pastor emeritus of Providence Missionary Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia; NAACP Board Member

I have not been a lifetime follower of Dr. Billy Graham. As an African-American man who participated in the civil rights movement, my perspective of Dr. Graham was quite different. I moved from Colorado in 1960 to attend college in Nashville. This was during the era of segregation in the South where African-American people lived under oppressive racism. It was a time when people like city official Bull Connor unleashed fire hoses and attack dogs on peaceful demonstrators in Birmingham. Sheriff Jim Clark sent a posse of mounted police to beat a crowd of unarmed peaceful marchers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the outskirts of Selma. One of those brave “Bloody Sunday” marchers was John Lewis, who was hospitalized with a fractured skull and eventually went on to become a U.S. Congressman from Georgia, and who, like me, praises Billy Graham in the pages of this book.

In Nashville, during those days, there were people who prayed to God during the day and lynched people at night. For years I was skeptical about the Billy Graham Crusades, because their message was conspicuously silent on the atrocities against God’s people. African Americans had their own needs in the South, and my personal thinking about the crusades was that they went into a city and put on the crusade like a grand concert, and then they were gone. Nothing changed for faith-filled believing African Americans. The crusades didn’t make a difference to the city, the racial and economic conditions didn’t change, nor did anything else related to the plight and souls of Black people. We were fighting for voting rights, and this Graham movement — as I saw it at the time — was “just about saving the soul,” not the changing of the attitudes of those who oppressed Black Americans.

Many years later, in 1994, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association planned to conduct a crusade in Atlanta. Their frontrunners met with me to discuss the anticipated crusade. I was a dean at Clark Atlanta University at the time, and I was also the pastor of Providence Missionary Baptist Church. I challenged the Graham crusade organizers as to what they wanted to accomplish. I was not an easy convert to assisting in this endeavor since I did not feel the sincerity of the group for addressing African Americans’ concerns.

I expressed to the planners my view about the crusades coming and going without making a significant racial, social, or economic contribution to the city. They said, “We want to have a lasting impact on the total lives of those we are called to serve. If we come to Atlanta, we are not coming just as a white-Christian, evangelical movement. We’re here to reach all of the people in the cradle and melting pot of the civil rights movement.”

I continued to remain skeptical. My attitude was, “Whoa, prove it to me!”

A few months later I met Dr. Billy Graham. He was graciously taking the time to meet with people, to address their personal concerns, and spiritual issues. When I initially met him, I felt his strong physical presence. He was tall. His eyes were piercing. His jaw was set. His handshake was firm. His eyebrows were bushy, his smile disarming, his voice captivating, and his message genuine.

He said, “Hello, how are you? I’ve heard so much about you.” I shook hands with him and he said, “We need your help to complete God’s mission here in Atlanta. We want to include all races and cultures. Can we depend on you for your support?”

I was completely disarmed, and all of a sudden, I felt like putty in his hands. I was literally mesmerized by his godly sincerity. I was ready to work for God through Dr. Graham to improve the lives of people in Atlanta, Georgia.

The important characteristic about Dr. Graham personally was his unassuming demeanor. He never tried to impress me. He did not act like a man who expected to be treated in a special way just because he had traveled all over the world and was world famous. His attitude was, I’m a servant of God, here to do what I can, and I would like us to work together. I’m not coming to your city to tell you what you should do. I am coming to learn and to work along with you and your ministries here for the cause of Christ.

He shared from his heart what he wanted to happen in the birthplace of the civil rights movement. It was a very genuine and transparent revelation and changed my life forever. He commented, “This is something that I feel the Lord has laid on my heart. What we want to share is not only important here in Atlanta, but all over the world, and for all of God’s people.”

These were simple, yet profound, words. Dr. Graham was doing what God had placed in his heart and mind to do. It was now up to me to decide how I could be of assistance in sharing the Word of God.

Looking back on the first meeting that I had with Dr. Graham, it was one of those kairos moments when you have certain preconceptions in your mind about an individual or an organization — then you meet the person and they are totally different. Immediately, I thought to myself, Wait a minute! I have believed and accepted some of the myths and misperceptions about this man and these crusades, just as some people had the wrong perceptions about those of us in the civil rights movement. Back then many wrongly stated that we were trying to disrupt “the system” when in reality all we were seeking was “justice for all.”

After meeting with Dr. Graham, I got involved in the Atlanta Crusade of 1994. I was put in charge of what was called the Love in Action Committee. As preparations got underway, I called a group of African-American ministers together in Atlanta. I brought them together to meet with Dr. Graham, since he requested inclusivity.

Dr. Graham and his team went to a church that was one of the larger congregations in Atlanta. The minister there, whom I knew, was the administrator for hundreds of churches throughout Georgia, as well as the pastor of his own congregation. He was somewhat skeptical about the prospect of a Billy Graham crusade, because of the perception of the BGEA’s insensitive nature to the plight of Black Americans.

As I sat there with Dr. Graham in the waiting room of the church, I was struck by the oddness of the situation. I thought, Dr. Billy Graham is patiently waiting for an African-American pastor to invite him in to a meeting.

While we were waiting, one of the secretaries asked, “Would you like some water?” Dr. Graham replied, “I would appreciate that very much.” I was deeply impressed, because he was so genuine and profoundly appreciative.

Thirty minutes passed and Dr. Graham never became impatient. Finally, when we entered the pastor’s office, the introductions were made, and we laughed and talked for more than an hour. Just before we left, the pastor said to Dr. Graham, “Will you please forgive me for your having to wait? I had an emergency.” And then this minister, who had been so unenthusiastic about the crusade, and who had kept Dr. Graham unexpectedly waiting, walked Dr. Graham to his car and pledged the support of his entire network of pastors to assure the success of the crusade. Dr. Graham had all of us on his team and he never disrespected any of us.

That same minister, the skeptical one, became one of the major motivators for the entire crusade. He became one of the most influential organizers. He even canceled the revival he had planned at his own church, and encouraged everyone from around the state to come to the Georgia Dome. He was there every night, sitting with us on the stage.

There was one remarkable situation that I observed during the crusade here in Atlanta. I did not know that Dr. Graham was experiencing some minor physical challenges. At times, he would twitch. I was in the group with him just before he came out to speak, and I noticed that he was visibly shaking, and somewhat unsteady. However, when he approached the podium, I could see the apparent empowering of God take over his entire body and dominate his voice. He was powerful, strong and resolute each night as he shared God’s Word. True to his word, Atlanta was changed.

When Dr. Graham stood at the pulpit preaching, he did not shake at all. He spoke adroitly, he spoke forcefully. His hands did not shake; his mouth did not quiver; and his eyes were like an eagle’s eyes piercing the crowd. He gave life to those who were around him, and all those gathered in the Georgia Dome.

When he finished preaching, I could see once again that he was physically challenged; however to this day I am amazed how God used him to preach and profess His Word boldly. The only explanation I can give to this phenomenon is that he is an anointed servant of the Lord who gave his message life — it came through him, and was so powerful that it enabled him, in those moments, to overcome the physical challenges of his body and bless thousands.

I discovered one more valuable detail during the immediate aftermath of the crusade message — that what the crusade had promised was true. They did not just come into a city, preach and leave it unchanged. After the crusade, the Billy Graham organization bought, for the City of Atlanta, a mobile health unit, which would go into poor areas and provide medical screening to the least, the lost and the left behind. That medical unit is still in service to the poor today. Dr. Graham’s crusade did not just pay lip service to the idea of leaving something with the community. It actually did it.

I accepted the truth and reality that Dr. Graham changed the internal spiritual nature of all those who listened, believed, and came forth regardless of color. Many people were changed when the crusade concluded. I had a different perspective of Dr. Graham. I viewed him as a man who remained true to his calling, because not everyone does. There are evangelists who are more engaged in politics than religion and a few who seem to become larger than God’s Word. Dr. Graham always kept the appropriate perspective of his relationship with God intact — that’s the secret formula for Dr. Graham’s longevity for success, his right relationship with God.

When you are with Dr. Graham you realize that you are in the presence of a man who knows God but does not pretend to be God. This is at the heart of what the Billy Graham Crusades are about. My experience with him was that he was transparent and honest to his calling. He never became larger than that which God called him to be. My working for the crusade in Atlanta paved the way for my ministry to touch the lives of all of God’s children regardless of race, creed, or faith.

To this day, nearly two decades later, one would be hard pressed to find any of us, here in Atlanta, who would have a negative word to utter about Dr. Billy Graham. Doubters we may have been, but during that crusade, he won us over and we, Atlanta, and the world are better.

Thank you, Dr. Billy Graham.

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