67: Sam Nunn

67: Sam Nunn

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Billy Graham & Me

• 67 •
SAM NUNN

Former U.S. Senator (Georgia); co-chair and CEO of the Nuclear Threat Initiative

The first time I remember being with Billy, I was ten years old. It was 1948, and I lived in a little town called Perry, Georgia, 110 miles south of Atlanta. Our Methodist Youth Fellowship went to Atlanta to the home of the Atlanta Crackers, which was an AAA minor league baseball club, and Billy had a rally held there in the baseball stadium. They held the rally outdoors, and I remember he was a wonderful preacher. Of course, I was one of a huge number of people out there so I did not meet him personally, but he had an effect on everyone in our young crowd that night. He had a terrific message. Of course, he was a young man then, too. He’s twenty years older than me, so he would have been about thirty.

When I served in the U.S. Senate, I attended what we called Senate Prayer Group luncheons, on Wednesdays. We had a group of five or six of us — two Republicans and two Democrats: Mark Hatfield and Pete Domenici, and Lawton Chiles from Florida, and myself. Doug Coe, the evangelical minister, and Dick Halverson, who was chaplain of the Senate, joined us every week. Then we gave a standing invitation to two other people. One was Arthur Burns, who was Jewish, a wonderful man, and head of the Federal Reserve for years. And the second one was Billy Graham, who would come whenever he was in Washington.

In this group, we were very open with each other about our problems, our families, our faith, the challenges of political life, and the challenges of personal life. And Billy, when he joined our group, was as vulnerable as the rest of us. He didn’t come in to preach. He came in as a fellow human being and a friend who had his own challenges and doubts, his own sense of the need for fellowship and the need for friendship and sharing. He was real.

Billy reached out to all people and all religions, and he did it in the spirit of Jesus. He felt there was too much emphasis on religious organizations and not nearly enough focus on Jesus and His life, on His example and His lessons. Of course, he spoke to millions and millions of people about this, but he also talked about this during private conversations.

I always recall how he would reach out to people all over the world, to those with different faiths, and to many people with no faith at all. And he led by example, such as standing up for civil rights in the 1950s when it was very important. He tore down the racial barriers between congregations. He told organizers to remove the ropes that were supposed to separate people by race during his crusades. He really did carry the spirit and the message of Jesus, not only with his words, but with his life and his example.

I gave him a small Bible once. It was very small, one you could put in your pocket. I saw him many years later toward the end of his career of actively holding crusades around the country. It was during a crusade at the big Coliseum in Atlanta, and I was up on the stage with him and six or eight other people. I said “hello” but hadn’t yet had a chance to talk to him. But he pulled that Bible out in front of thousands and thousands of people and said that he had gotten it as a gift from me, and he’d had it with him in his pocket ever since. That was an amazing memory, especially since I’d given him the Bible at least five or six years before. His authenticity and sincerity shines through. People realize it instinctively. That distinguished him from any preacher I know of in that generation who was in the public limelight.

There are a lot of preachers who are sincere, yet they aren’t world famous. But Billy Graham is, and yet you couldn’t have lunch with him and sit there for an hour without knowing that this man is genuine and his faith is real. His purpose was not self-centered. It wasn’t about being famous. For so many years, people have understood that, and the reason they believe he is authentic and telling the truth from his perspective is because that’s the way he really is.

I spend most of my time now working with the Nuclear Threat Initiative, trying to reduce nuclear dangers, including catastrophic terrorism and getting nuclear materials under control. In 2005, I read an article which reported that Billy had made a statement about nuclear terrorism and the need for prayer. So I wrote Billy a letter and sent him some information on projects that we were working on. I told him not to write back because he was about to have a rally in New York City, and I knew he had too much to do. But he replied with a very nice letter, adding a handwritten note at the bottom that said, “I’m praying for the people of New Orleans.” This was just after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Well into his eighties, he was still keeping up with everything, and praying for everyone.

The last time I saw Billy, he gave the prayer at a dedication event where I was speaking at the Mayo Clinic. He still had a commanding presence and a commanding voice and commanding credibility with the audience. He was certainly not as physically rigorous as he had been when I’d seen him before, but he still had all the Billy Graham strengths. Watching him speak, it occurred to me that back when I was ten years old watching him preach, I had never dreamed that I would personally get to know him when I grew up. Seeing him again reminded me of what a real blessing it has been, having a friendship with Billy.

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