76: Dan Rather

76: Dan Rather

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Billy Graham & Me

• 76 •
DAN RATHER

Peabody Award-winning investigative journalist; host, Dan Rather Reports; former anchor CBS Evening News

In 1951 or 1952, when I was an undergraduate student at Sam Houston State Teachers College (now Sam Houston State University), in Huntsville, Texas, Billy Graham brought his crusade to nearby Houston.

My roommate and I decided to go to the Sam Houston Coliseum to hear Billy Graham. We were skeptical, even borderline cynical. We saw ourselves as intrepid investigative reporters — we were all of nineteen or twenty years old at the time — and wanted to “expose” the Billy Graham Crusade. It must surely be a moneymaking operation, we thought.

So on one of those nights at the Coliseum, my roommate and I were in the crowd. My roommate, by the way, was nicknamed The Weeper, because when he had a beer or two he would get furrow-browed and depressed.

We didn’t really know much about Billy Graham at the time. Television was still new and not very many homes owned one. We had heard Billy Graham on the radio but I don’t think we’d seen anything other than just a few news clips. We had no idea what we were in for.

The crusade got under way, and everyone was singing hymns. The hymns were carefully picked, each one an old standby like “The Old Rugged Cross.” The music helped to create and build an atmosphere, and before we knew what was happening, The Weeper and I started to be enveloped by it. Something was definitely happening, and it was powerful. There was an aura about it.

Then Billy Graham came to the platform, and he preached a tremendous sermon that night. There was something magical about the occasion — not only the sermon but the entire evening.

By the end of the sermon, when Reverend Graham made his call to come down to the front and accept Jesus Christ into your life, it was all The Weeper and I could do to hold back from accepting the invitation! (I had “accepted the call” and was baptized at the little West 14th Street Baptist church in Houston, Texas in my youth many years earlier, and reminded myself of this that night.)

We had gone there as (in our fond imagination) zealous investigative reporters, but that had all fallen away. Now we were something else — we were actually open to Billy Graham’s message. That was quite a transformation. We were looking at each other, and I don’t remember who said it first, but one of us said, “I think I’m going to go down,” and the other said, “Well, wait a minute, let’s think about that.” It was all we could do to hold each other back. Our cynicism had just melted away.

In the end, we didn’t go down to the front, but we left the crusade inspired, with a whole different view of Billy Graham than we had had going in. It was quite unexpected and made a deep impression on me.

It might be hard to understand from the vantage point of today, but there was a kind of magic in a Billy Graham Crusade at that time, in the 1950s, when Graham himself was at the peak of his oratorical power. Graham was one of the two or three best preachers of his time, and one of the two or three best orators that I have ever heard. And he was able to preach in this powerful manner night after night after night. The Billy Graham Crusades were, after all, a very large undertaking. My roommate and I were there for only one night, but the crusade continued for several nights in Houston alone, and then it went to other locations concentrated in the South and Southwest. Night after night, week in week out, in venues thousands of miles apart, the Billy Graham Crusades continued, and that was pretty impressive.

Many years later, I was to learn that not only was Billy Graham a very powerful preacher, he was also a man of shrewd judgment. In the early 1980s I interviewed him, and he spoke about his desire to hold crusades in Russia. This was at a time when the Soviet Union was under atheistic communist rule, and the Cold War was at its height. I put it to him that the Soviet Union was a godless country; the godless government permeated society all the way down from top to bottom. “To whom are you going to preach?” I asked.

I had been to the Soviet Union many times, and I was trying somewhat aggressively to point out to the Reverend Graham that in the Soviet Union the only people who went to church were very old women in their late eighties or their nineties. The reason was that there were communist government apparatchiks standing in the church taking down the names of people who went, so nobody would go to church because they didn’t want their names on a list.

After I made this point, Billy Graham replied, “What you don’t understand is that below the surface, there are a lot of religious people, and they are afraid to come out, they won’t risk coming out, but in effect, Dan, there are many, many, quiet, secret Christians, far more than you can imagine.”

I didn’t believe this at the time of the interview. But Billy Graham went ahead and visited Russia in 1982, and then again in 1984 and 1988, and on each occasion he preached to overflowing crowds. It turned out that he had been right all along, and I was wrong. He understood the basic religiosity of people even when their religious instincts had long been repressed.

Part of Billy Graham’s power over the years is that he has stayed on message. That message hasn’t varied since he started preaching in the 1940s. Decade after decade he has preached the Gospel. It’s the way he has lived and is the key to his success. He has always said, in effect, I’m Christ-centered; I want you to be Christ-centered; I want the nation to be Christ-centered.

And you feel this when you are with him. You can’t be in his presence and not notice it. Year after year, over the course of a lifetime, he has not wavered. Who among us can say we have done that? It’s a rare person who can look back on a long life, and particularly a life in the limelight, and say that. To use the current political vernacular, there has never been any flip-flop with Billy Graham.

He knows what he is about. He felt called to the ministry many decades ago, and look at the changes that have taken place since then. Changes not only in politics and society but in the rise of the televangelist phenomenon, in which new evangelists would rise up and attain celebrity and then fade away. Yet Billy Graham has been constant. He was the first televangelist, the first man to harness the power of television for the Word of Christ. Not only did he do it first, the record shows he did it best over an extended period of time.

It is truly remarkable. This man is inspiring. I think that even if a person has no interest in the message Billy Graham preaches, or is an atheist or of a different religion, he or she would still find him inspiring because he has been steadfast, knowing who he is, believing strongly that he is fulfilling his destiny. Someone who is that dedicated to sustaining a mission outside himself and keeping his commitment to it for a lifetime is both humbling and inspiring.

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