91: Jim Wallis

91: Jim Wallis

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Billy Graham & Me

• 91 •

Bestselling author, speaker and preacher; founder of Sojourners which articulates the biblical call to social justice

In 1975, I was a young Christian recently out of seminary in Chicago. I was living in Washington, D.C., in the early days of creating Sojourners, our new Christian community and outreach organization. One day I received an invitation to the pre-Prayer Breakfast for evangelical Christian leaders that takes place the day before the annual National Prayer Breakfast, where the President of the United States speaks to members of Congress and the Senate, most of the Cabinet, and about 3,500 invited special guests from around the world. All the established evangelical leaders would be there. I was still in my twenties, and I had never been to a prayer breakfast.

I was quite suspicious of the invitation. Our Sojourners Community was fighting for social justice, using the Bible as a text, but we didn’t have a lot of support from older, established evangelical leaders. We were the “Young Evangelicals,” as a book by that title would later call us. I wondered why they wanted me to come. Was I being set up for a confrontation? I didn’t know what to expect.

The next day I went to the Washington Hilton where the pre-Prayer Breakfast was to be held. I didn’t know where to park, so I arrived late, and by the time I entered, the place was full. I explained rather sheepishly who I was, and one of the staff said, “Oh yes, follow me.” I wondered why I was to follow him.

I was led across this room full of evangelical leaders to a table in the far corner. Looking ahead, I saw that sitting at the table was none other than Billy Graham! I almost stopped in my tracks. I had grown up in an evangelical family and we watched all the Billy Graham crusades on television together. He was a hero to us, and now here he was in person — and I was being led to his table!

Then I saw there was an empty seat right next to him. He looked up, saw me coming, seemed to recognize me and gave me a big smile. He motioned me over to sit in the vacant seat. I couldn’t believe I had been invited to this event to sit next to Billy Graham.

So I sat down, very nervous, wondering what my parents would think. Billy looked at me with those piercing eyes of his and said, “Jim, it is so good to meet you. I think that you will be one of the leaders for the next generation of young Evangelicals. I want people to know that I agree with you on more things than they would imagine, and I think we should start talking together.”

Over breakfast we had a lovely conversation about the Bible and social justice. I told him about the Sojourners experiment in which we found two thousand verses in the Bible about the poor. “We took an old Bible, Billy, and we cut out of it every single reference to the poor, and our Bibles were full of holes. They were in shreds and falling apart. I used to take mine and preach and say, ‘This is the American Bible, it’s full of holes!’”

That wonderful pre-Prayer Breakfast conversation in Washington was the beginning of our relationship, and in the years that followed we would meet and talk in different times and places.

On one occasion, we at Sojourners were planning a series of “justice revivals” across the country. We called it Let Justice Roll. I wrote Billy saying that if he had any advice, I’d love to hear it. He wrote back, saying he would like me to meet Sterling Huston, who was the director of all Billy’s crusades. So my team met with his team in Chicago, and his people spent the whole day advising us how to do our revival in cities around the country. It was wonderfully gracious of Billy to send his top leaders to give us such counsel. Huston told me, “Billy sees his ministry and mission as the proclamation of the Gospel of personal salvation, and he sees you as preaching the social implications of that personal salvation. Billy sees your roles as complementary. That’s why I’m here today, because he wants to help and support you in doing that.”

One day in late 1978, after Billy had been preaching behind the Iron Curtain in communist Eastern Europe, I received a letter from somebody in Austria. According to the writer, an Austrian newspaper had run a story about Billy visiting Auschwitz and saying something like “Auschwitz will be only a dress rehearsal for the Holocaust that is to come if we continue down this pathway of a nuclear arms race.”

I wrote to Billy, asking him if he had indeed said that at Auschwitz. I asked if this was a change of heart for him on nuclear weapons. And if so, I asked if I could interview him in Sojourners about the change.

He wrote back and confirmed that the report was accurate, and yes, it did represent a change of heart from the more hawkish position he had taken when he was younger. He agreed to be interviewed for Sojourners, and said that would be appropriate because we had taken a lead as Christians against the nuclear arms race.

The cover of the Sojourners issue had a picture of Billy with the phrase “A Change of Heart.” It was a very candid interview. What had happened was that like any good preacher, he had fallen in love with those he was preaching to. Preaching to Russians and Eastern Europeans, he realized they were the targets of American nuclear warheads, and we were the targets of theirs. And he began to think about this in new ways and came out against the arms race.

He didn’t get involved in the particulars of policy choices, but made it very clear that we were going in the wrong direction. We had to reverse the arms race. We were targeting each other, God’s children, with nuclear weapons, and this could become another Auschwitz.

I later learned that most of Billy’s advisors had been against him doing the interview, and people on the conservative side didn’t quite know how to react to it. But he did not speak as a politician. He would never have said that we should have x number of weapons. His response was not a political one but a moral, Christian one.

The last time Billy and I talked was a few years ago. I was at Harvard teaching a course at the Kennedy School of Government called Faith in Public Life, on Monday nights, and on this occasion Billy was also visiting Harvard. It was likely the last visit he would make there. On the Sunday morning before, when he preached in the Memorial Church at Harvard, many of the students had slept overnight on the sidewalk so they would be able to get in and hear him.

The following night Billy was scheduled to speak at the JFK Forum at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, the most prestigious university forum in the world. I moved my class and told my students we would be going to hear Billy Graham.

I was kindly invited into the green room beforehand by my friend Alan Simpson, former senator from Wyoming, who was at that time director of the Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School. Billy and I found ourselves alone together in the green room for a few minutes.

Billy said, “Jim, I’m really nervous tonight.”

“Why in the world would you be nervous?” I replied.

“I feel very weak physically, and am not sure if I will be effective answering questions from these Harvard students.”

At that moment, I had such a feeling of great warmth for him. “Billy, they slept overnight on the sidewalk to hear you preach,” I said. “The room is full. They’re not here to eat your lunch. They’re here because they want to tell their grandchildren they were in the same room as Billy Graham.”

His vulnerability, his humanity, was so much in evidence in that moment, and I had the chance to do what many of us have known with our aging parents — to give something back to them. I said, “I’ll be sitting right in the front row, and I’ll be praying for you the whole time. So if you get nervous, just look down and you’ll see me there praying for you. They’re here to hear from you. Just speak from your heart, from your soul, and they’re gonna love it.”

He gave me a hug and he went up to the podium, and a couple of times as he was speaking he looked down at me, and I put my head down and prayed for him.

Of course, despite his doubts, Billy gave an incredibly brilliant, statesmanlike talk about faith and public life. After the talk, there was time for questions. Harvard’s evangelical Christian triumphalists were all there, hoping to take full advantage of the fact that a man whom they regarded as one of their own was the speaker that night at Harvard.

The first questioner said, “Dr. Graham, Jesus said ‘I am the way, the truth and the life and no man cometh unto the Father but by me.’ Doesn’t that mean that all non-Christians, including Jews, are going to hell?”

Billy replied, “God will judge us all. This is a God of love and mercy but also justice. We all will come before the judgment of God, and I am so glad that God has that job and I don’t.”

The questioner looked disappointed. “Could you tell us what you think God is going to say?” he asked.

Billy replied, “Well, God doesn’t consult with me on things like that.” The despondent questioner walked away.

The second questioner was ready to try again. “At least Jews are monotheistic,” he said. “What about the Buddhists? They’re not.”

Billy replied, “I’ve been to Buddhist countries to preach the Gospel, and I’ve met a lot of Buddhists who, frankly, are more Christ-like than many of us as Christians are.”

The questioner just hung his head and walked away.

Another questioner said, “Reverend Graham, you spoke yesterday at the Harvard Memorial Church where the minister is openly and avowedly homosexual. How do you justify that?”

“I had such wonderful hospitality yesterday from Reverend Gomes and his staff,” Billy said. “It was a wonderful day for me. I’m not a member of the board of trustees of that church and I don’t deal with those kinds of issues. I just had a wonderful day there.”

His answers to questions were so humble and so wise, and he quietly put down the Christian triumphalists, demonstrating a grace and civility so often missing from too many Christian leaders today.

Billy was against bigotry and injustice, and this created a special bond between us. Just before he walked out to speak to that Harvard audience, we had a last moment together. He stood up tall and put his hands on my shoulders. “Some of us haven’t been as courageous as you have been to speak out against things that are wrong,” he said. “And that’s why I’ve always tried to support you as best I can.”

I went home that night and called my dad and mom to tell them what Billy had said to me. “And Billy Graham hugged me!” I told them.

So from the moment I met him at that prayer breakfast in the 1970s to the hug on our last meeting, he’s always been so affirmative and very supportive. Billy Graham has been a wonderful mentor, encourager, supporter and friend.

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