83: Daniel Southern

83: Daniel Southern

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Billy Graham & Me

• 83 •
DANIEL SOUTHERN

Author, corporate trainer, leadership coach and former Crusade Director for Mr. Graham

The first time I saw Billy Graham after I was hired, I was only twenty-three and still wet behind the ears. I was being trained for a role in organizing his crusades. At the first crusade I attended, I held his overcoat and hat for him while he preached. When he had finished and was leaving the platform he looked right through me with his piercing blue eyes. We connected in that instant. He said simply, “Thank you. God bless you,” and I knew that he meant it and that he cared about me. I wasn’t just the young man standing there holding his coat and hat. This was the beginning of my admiration for the man behind the ministry. He always had that gift of connecting with people quickly and in a very personal way.

Billy was known for giving people meaningful gifts, not just chocolates or trinkets but something that would really impact them. I was involved in the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association for nearly twenty years, and over those years I personally received many devotional books that he and Ruth had signed to mark a special occasion in my life, such as upon my ordination or my marriage engagement. They were always signed personally in their own hand by him and by Ruth — there were clearly two different signatures in these books.

I remember two specific incidents that show how Mr. Graham’s giving of gifts — in each case a Bible — profoundly impacted the recipients; one a politician and the other a celebrity.

The first incident involved U.S. Senator Sam Nunn, who shares his own feelings about Mr. Graham in this book. In the context of my work for Mr. Graham as a crusade organizer, my staff and I would put on events in the major cities of the world. When Mr. Graham was in town to preach I would often meet the famous people who would come to these meetings as guests. In Atlanta in 1994 I had the pleasure of meeting and hosting Senator Nunn, a Democrat from Georgia, who by that time had spent over two decades in the Senate.

As I briefly visited with Senator Nunn, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a very small New Testament. It was covered in brown leather and well worn from use. Its dimensions could not have exceeded about 3 x 4 inches. As he held it up to show me, the senator told me that Mr. Graham had given him this Testament many years ago. Mr. Graham had signed it personally to him, and Senator Nunn showed me the inscription. “I carry this everywhere I go,” he said. “It’s my constant companion. Whenever I have some spare time I can just read some Scripture and be encouraged by it.” I thought how awesome it was that Billy’s unsung influence was felt in the halls of our nation’s congress and that this well-known politician was a sincere follower of Christ.

The second incident, which stands out in my thinking, took place some years earlier in the late 1970s. I was working in a church in Ventura, California, and heard the story of how Steve McQueen had recently become a Christian. I learned that Steve regularly attended services in the very church where I was working and where he had become a believer. I greatly admired Mr. McQueen, one of Hollywood’s most popular actors, and thought it was wonderful that he had become a Christian. I wanted to meet him, so one Sunday I positioned myself in the balcony of this little missionary church because I had heard that Steve liked to sit there for the service. Sure enough Steve McQueen took his usual seat in the front row just ahead of me. He was paying rapt attention to everything the minister was saying, and had The Living Bible open in his lap. The easy-to-read Bible written in everyday English was still fairly new, having first been published in 1971. I was familiar with this paraphrase of the Bible because I had known a girl in college whose father was the author and I used it often for my own reading.

I watched Steve intently throughout the service and when it was over I introduced myself as someone who worked with Billy Graham. He said, “Oh, really, you know Billy Graham?” I confirmed that I did and he said, “You mean you really know him personally?” Again I confirmed it, and he said, “Well, do you think if I gave you my phone number you could get that to him?” I said, “Sure, I would be pleased to do that.” So he scratched down his phone number and said, “I’d like to see him some time. If he could meet with me, I’d love to buy him a Twinkie and a Pepsi.” Then he added, “By the way, you need to go back to bed and get some more rest so you can grow up a little bit.” I smiled at the tough-guy actor for the joke he had made; you see I’m six foot six and not a “little guy.” Before we parted, he said with some urgency, “I’ve got some questions that I would like to talk to Mr. Graham about if he could spare the time.”

As soon as possible I contacted Mrs. Graham and gave her Steve’s phone number because she was very savvy and I knew she would make a point of ensuring that Mr. Graham got this important message.

As Steve’s wife Barbara tells us in this book, when he passed away from cancer, he was found in his bed with a Bible lying on his chest. It had been Billy Graham’s personal Bible, which he had given to Steve as a gift.

Mr. Graham was always very careful about how people perceived their need of Christ. On one occasion he was holding a crusade in Las Vegas and the pastors there wanted him to preach strongly against gambling and condemn those who worked in Sin City’s huge casinos. Billy refused because, he reasoned, if you’re not involved in gambling you may be misled into thinking you’re fine with God. “Everyone is a sinner whether they gamble or not. It doesn’t matter what kind of sin you might be involved in. All sin separates us from God and we are all sinners who need Christ as our Savior. I’ll speak against sin, but I’m not going to speak specifically against gambling.” He even held special services at unusually late hours so casino workers could attend. As a result, he had thousands of people who were working in the casinos, or had come to Vegas to gamble, coming to his meetings and many of them found a relationship with Jesus Christ. Billy understood how to make his point without unnecessarily alienating those who needed his life-changing message.

These are just a few out of many possible examples of how Billy’s wisdom, generosity, thoughtfulness, and kindness deeply touched people’s lives, not just in single moments but on multiple occasions over the course of his entire life and ministry.

Billy Graham was the real deal both in public and in private. He was always a gentleman and never bombastic. Whether someone was involved in questionable activities, a famous actor, a powerful senator, or just a young man holding his jacket as he preached to thousands, Billy learned early in his ministry that you don’t categorize people because of appearances or judge them by the label they wear.

Because he looked beyond the external, in some ways, Billy didn’t seem to fully grasp how famous and influential he himself was. He didn’t have a desire to be honored as a celebrity or to make any profit from what he was doing. Remaining humble, generous with his time and his gifts, he saw himself as just another man, but a man who was on a mission. It was always his mission that was preeminent. Billy Graham was driven to share with everyone who crossed his path his understanding of why we are on this planet and how we all equally needed to come to God through Christ as our Savior.

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