63: Toby McKeehan (TobyMac)

63: Toby McKeehan (TobyMac)

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Billy Graham & Me

• 63 •
TOBY MCKEEHAN (TOBYMAC)

Pioneering Christian hip-hop/pop recording artist and producer, Grammy Award and Gospel Music Award winner, author

When the Billy Graham organization first asked our rock trio dc Talk to perform at his June 1994, crusade in Cleveland, Ohio, we weren’t sure if it was a joke. We associated Billy Graham with the great Gospel singer Bev Shea, who had performed at his crusades since the beginning. His music was beautiful, but totally conservative and traditional, so we never thought Billy Graham would use rock and roll and hip-hop.

Around that time, Billy Graham felt it was vital to connect with more young people to share the message of God’s love and forgiveness. Some of the members of his organization thought that the kind of high-energy music we offered could be a powerful vehicle for that. They were essentially turning the traditional crusade model into what they eventually called a “Concert for the Next Generation.” Though about half of the organization’s board members were unsure about this approach, the others wanted it. Like Billy, they were strongly inspired to reach out.

A couple of guys from the mission team came to watch our show. To their credit, they didn’t just want a rock group; they wanted performers with integrity and heart. They met us after the show and told us, “This is real. Dr. Graham would love to have you in Cleveland.”

Next, we were asked to meet with Dr. Graham and his wife Ruth at their small home in the North Carolina mountains. I think they wanted to get to know our hearts. When we arrived, we were invited to sit down and we all started talking. Then something happened that I’ll never forget. Dr. Graham asked us if we wanted something to drink. He actually went to the kitchen and brought us two Cokes and a glass of water on a tray. That servant’s heart at work even in his home impressed me deeply.

Billy told us that we were his translators for the next generation, helping put the Gospel message into a language they could understand. I saw that he cared enough for the world’s youth to risk the possibility that half his people might not like us joining him on stage. However, for Billy Graham, reaching young people was worth the risk. To me, that showed who he was.

When we appeared with Billy Graham at the Cleveland Stadium, we had already performed at large arenas, but nothing the size of that stadium. I remember walking across the field to the stage in this massive, empty stadium for a sound check. It felt unbelievable. We later found out that about 65,000 people attended.

When we went up to pray with Billy at the Cleveland Stadium, I told Mrs. Graham, “We’re so honored that you would invite us here, and we can’t believe this place is full.” She returned, “Well, that’s what was supposed to happen. dc Talk stocked the pond so Billy could go fishing.” Ruth was always funny and great with words. “I don’t think that’s true because we don’t play stadiums,” I responded. “We didn’t stock this pond, but I appreciate the humility.”

That appearance started us on an amazing run of at least a dozen concerts for the next generation. The crusade team scheduled the youth-oriented programs for Saturday nights and that’s when we played. The audience was quite different from the typical one you would find at a Billy Graham event. There was much celebration, and it felt like a real concert with all the lights and big sound that came with it. The crowds were huge — 60,000, 90,000 people. We sang before Billy Graham spoke, and then introduced him. When people ask me what my best show or most memorable moments were, I always point to those evenings with Billy Graham.

We usually sat behind him on the platform, and I had repeatedly watched a river of people coming down from the stadium stands onto the field to make a commitment to faith. It was always an emotional, tear-filled experience. One evening, he spoke about whether God was real. We can’t see Him, so how do we know He is real? Dr. Graham explained that we can’t see the wind, but we see the trees blowing. After the sermon, I grabbed a pen and paper and started writing as I walked out of the stadium. Billy Graham’s message had birthed the song, “Mind’s Eye”:

In my mind, I can see Your face

As Your love pours down in a shower of grace

Some people tell me that You’re just a dream

My faith is the evidence of things unseen

At the Georgia crusade, something he said grabbed my attention, because it sounded so familiar. I suddenly realized that he was reading a lyric to a song I had written called “The Hard Way.” You can’t imagine how choked up I got. That was definitely one of the highlights of my life. I felt completely humbled.

Reverend Graham is unfailingly gentle and kind. Especially coming from the world of rock and hip-hop, his gentle spirit and his meekness stand out for me. They honestly made me want to be like that. He took a genuine interest in all three of us in dc Talk. He always wanted to meet with us before we did something together, and he would pray for and with us. He was always extremely thankful that we would come. We felt like it was the opportunity of a lifetime, while he acted as if we were doing him a favor. I was always aware of him: he personified everything right about Christianity.

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