41: Debbie Ford Gourley

41: Debbie Ford Gourley

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Billy Graham & Me

• 41 •
DEBBIE FORD GOURLEY

Niece of Mr. Graham, homemaker, entrepreneur, and mother of three

My mom and Uncle Billy are fourteen years apart but are extremely close. She adores him. When they were growing up, they lived on a farm off a little dirt road in Charlotte. She would often sit and wait for hours for him to come home, because she missed him so much.

I knew the more public Billy Graham as I grew up. When he came home to Charlotte, our entire family stopped what we were doing so we could hear about Uncle Billy’s travels; the kids got out of school early, the adults took off work, and we usually met at my parents’ house. We’d have perhaps twenty of us gathered in my parents’ living room, listening to Uncle Billy’s stories about meeting the president of this or the king of that. It was unbelievable. There were lots of personal stories, and often he told us things he couldn’t repeat publicly. We heard about conversations he had with really famous politicians and world leaders. He talked with them about God, about faith and about spiritual things. We always knew that whatever he told us was a private matter.

Over the years, the Billy Graham crusades grew. As a thirteen-year-old girl, it was fun to go behind the scenes at the Madison Square Garden Crusade. At the time I remember asking myself, “Could all these people really be here to hear my uncle?”

I admire the stance he took during those years of strict segregation when he insisted that African Americans be included in his crusades. And he strongly supported the role of women. But he wasn’t an issue-driven kind of person. It’s not what he said; how he lived his message is what people will remember.

For me, one of my key memories about my uncle is how he helped me when I was going through a difficult period. I had breast cancer in my thirties and shockingly, I had a recurrence seven years later. My husband and I went to the Mayo Clinic in Florida to get a second opinion. Uncle Billy happened to be at Mayo at the same time. I didn’t expect to see him but knew he was there, because when we got to our hotel room there was a big basket of flowers waiting for us that he had sent — it was so thoughtful and kind!

The next day I had a long series of scans and tests. Toward the end of the day, I went for another scan (to see if my cancer had spread) but I had to go without my husband. I was walking down a long hallway when a nurse said, “Come this way.” She took me down another long hallway, and there at the end, I saw my Uncle Billy sitting in a wheelchair. He had asked people to go all over the Mayo Clinic to find me. Even though he was at Mayo undergoing tests, he wanted to see me. I was shocked! I ran down the hallway, sank into his open arms and tearfully said, “I am SO scared.” He threw his arms around me like a father would, and he cried with me.

Even though Billy Graham was my uncle, he was also a famous and busy world figure, so I didn’t get to see him very often. That day at the Mayo Clinic was such a tender moment. He held me and he cried with me. To have his arms around me is something I will never forget. What I felt was incredible compassion and tenderness. His tears were for me and for my fear. I actually felt God saying, “I’m here with you, today. I am with you, through your uncle. I have put you together in each other’s arms.”

When I returned home and told my parents about my time with Uncle Billy, my mother was quite surprised. She said her brother rarely cries, and it was probably a really tender moment for him. My dad said, “That’s probably the best sermon he could have preached. He was there to put his arms around you and bring you a direct message from God.” It was a tender and personal moment, just between Uncle Billy and me. And it was a great example of Billy just living His message.

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