35: Leighton Ford

35: Leighton Ford

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Billy Graham & Me

• 35 •

Author, founded ministry that mentors future Christian leaders and has preached worldwide, brother-in-law of Mr. Graham

I was seventeen when I first met Billy Graham. I was in high school in my hometown in Chatham, Canada, and at the time I was the youngest local director in the world of a youth organization called Youth for Christ. We held monthly rallies and we had invited Billy Graham to come and be our speaker. It was 1949, and I remember it was a very cold January night. It was icy and the roads were very slick. But our high school auditorium was packed. We were excited because even then we knew that the young Billy Graham (this was before he became nationally known) was a powerful speaker and people responded to his message. So I assumed that everybody who came would say, yes, we want to follow Jesus.

Billy preached, and his voice was very strong. I can still hear that Southern drawl saying, “Prepare to meet thy God.” And then came what we used to call the altar call, when he would ask people to come forward publicly as a sign of their commitment to Christ. I thought everybody would respond. We waited and waited and waited. No one came. Finally, one young girl, about twelve years old, came forward. She said she just wanted to be sure she knew the Lord. She was the only one. No one else stepped forward.

I was so disappointed. After the meeting I went off to the wings of the stage, and I was in tears. Billy saw me and he came over and put his arm around me. He said, “Leighton, I believe God has given you a concern to see that people know the Lord, and I am going to pray for you. If you stay humble I believe God will use you.”

I never forgot that arm around the shoulder. Billy Graham wasn’t thinking about the fact that people hadn’t responded to his message that night. He was concerned about me.

I later learned that when he got back home to North Carolina, he told his kid sister Jean about this young guy he had met in Canada, so he was a bit of a matchmaker for us, too.

That same night in Canada he told me about Wheaton College, in Illinois, where he had studied. I had planned to go to the University of Toronto, but I liked what he said about Wheaton, so I applied there. Later he told Jeanie about Wheaton College, so she went there, too, and that’s where we met and fell in love. I had just turned twenty-two when we got married in 1953, and we have been married fifty-eight years.

So the influence of Billy Graham on my life was very strong from the beginning.

He invited me to become part of his evangelistic work. I was ordained as a Presbyterian minister and evangelist and spent thirty years speaking around the world, both with Billy and on my own.

That arm around the shoulder meant a lot to me in future years.

Our older son Sandy, when he was a twenty-one-year-old junior at the University of North Carolina, died during surgery for a heart arrhythmia problem. He was an athlete, a strong leader, a strong Christian. The loss of Sandy was a major factor in the decision my wife and I made to change the focus of our ministry. I had been preaching to great crowds, which was wonderful, but we decided the next phase that God had for us was to identify and encourage the emerging generation of leaders, the young men and women who had a call from God. In part this was because we had lost a son, but it was also because I remembered that arm around the shoulder when I was discouraged that night, when Billy saw a need and encouraged a younger guy. I wanted to do that for other young people.

There have been many other times in my life when Billy had the same encouragement for me. In 1957, he was planning his first really big crusade, in Madison Square Garden, New York City, which lasted sixteen and a half weeks. Some time before the event, he asked me to drive up from Charlotte, North Carolina, where we were living, to his home in Montreat. We talked about the crusade, and he said, “Leighton, I’d like you and Jeanie to go there ahead of time and start working with the churches to prepare them and recruit them to be involved in the strategy of this crusade, so they get the benefits from it.” I was in my mid-twenties and had just finished seminary. I look back on that time and I think, if that had been me, and I had been planning the biggest thing I had ever been involved in, would I have chosen a young guy like me and given him that big responsibility? Billy knew I had had a fair amount of experience by that time, but I think for him to take that risk, to entrust me with such an opportunity at such a young age, was a sign of very insightful and encouraging leadership.

Jesus of course showed the same kind of leadership. Out of the crowd He picked twelve people. They certainly weren’t perfect but He saw their potential, and through them began to change the world. Any true leader is going to do that. He or she is going to encourage the next generation to come forward. I call it “aspen tree leadership,” and I contrast it to “banyan tree leadership.” There is a saying in India, “Nothing grows under the banyan tree.” The banyan tree is so thick it doesn’t let the sunlight through to nurture the seedlings at its root. There are a lot of leaders who are banyan tree leaders. They take up a lot of space and oxygen when they enter a room, and their vision is not reproduced because they do not nurture those seedlings. In contrast, the aspen tree grows underground. The second largest organism in the world is an aspen tree in Colorado that has 44,000 trunks, and it grows up from underneath, unseen.

I see Billy Graham’s leadership in this light. When people think of him they may think of the vast crowds, the millions of people he spoke to, the conferences he organized, his television programs, and his books that have sold hundreds of thousands of copies. But what most people won’t know of is those little private human touches by which he would offer comfort and inspiration and even change a person’s life. Time after time he would see a need or a potential in an individual, and he would offer that person encouragement or opportunity, or both. That is true and genuine leadership — as I found out for myself that cold night in a high school auditorium in Canada over sixty years ago.

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