Travelling to Charlotte, North Carolina with my mum for the funeral of Rev Billy Graham was like going to a family reunion.
My childhood was spent traveling all over the world as my parents served on the Billy Graham team. Both of my parents served on his team for nearly 30 years. My dad, Rev Bob Williams, was the Director of International Ministries for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) for twelve of those years - overseeing everything the organisation did outside of the USA and Canada. He was still serving the BGEA in this role when he died in 2000.
My parents were more than co-workers with the Graham’s; they forged a deep friendship from being on mission together.
I don’t remember going to my first Billy Graham Crusade, I was too young. He was in my life from the very beginning - even praying the blessing at my dedication.
He was also the first one to arrive after my dad passed away when I was 17 years old. And he prayed for me when I started seminary on my journey to becoming a preacher myself.
When we all arrived in Charlotte for the funeral, it was a bittersweet experience. We were excited to see each other, but each of us was grieving too. We'd lost a man who means so much to us.
Yet Dr Graham had always talked about how he looked forward to the day he would leave this earthly life and begin to live his eternal life with Jesus. This perspective was shared by those who had gathered, which resulted in a celebration of a home-going and very few tears of sorrow.
While we gathered for dinner the night before the funeral with over 30 retired Billy Graham team members, stories were told about the adventures they experienced in countries all over the world. Each person took the time to mention how they would do it all over again for the sake of the gospel. Billy Graham was spoken of with reverence and love as each person expressed what it meant to them to be a part of this important time in the history of our faith.
“God gave Billy Graham the gift of not truly knowing who he was.” This sentiment was shared by one of those gathered and the whole room agreed. Billy was constantly trying to refocus any attention from himself to the deepest love of his life, Jesus Christ. He never sought out the acclaim or attention. He always requested modest vehicles and never insisted on any special treatment. The spouses of the team members recalled how he would invite them into the conversations surrounding the work they were doing. They expressed how often they felt so validated by him and seldom overlooked. Even though they were not officially employed by the organisation they were treated as an internal part of the team.
A tent meeting
The large white tent hovered over the car park of the Billy Graham Library. Secret service and police were sprawled throughout the area because of the level of security needed for the high-profile guests who were coming to the funeral (not least the current President of the United States). There was yet another paradox to have guests of honour, many who typically are welcomed to grand ballrooms and board rooms, sitting in a canvas tent in a car park.
All who were there heard music glorifying God, heard stories told of Dr Graham’s legacy from his children and heard the gospel preached by his son, Franklin. Many began to refer to this moment as Billy Graham’s final crusade.
Stories have been told over the years about Dr Graham himself coming to faith in a tent meeting at an alter call by the evangelist Mordecai Ham. Canvas tents were some of the first gathering spaces for Billy as a young evangelist beginning to preach the gospel. So as we celebrated a life well lived, what started under a tent came to an end in the same fashion.
People have asked me over the years: “will there ever be another Billy Graham?”
My automatic answer is: “of course not!”
What I have come to realise through this wonderful man’s legacy is that there will never be another Reverend Billy Graham, but there will never be another Reverend Stephanie O’Brien. And so it is with all of us. We have the same opportunity as Billy Graham to passionately pursue the call God has on our lives - no matter what the cost.
Pastor Stephanie Williams O’Brien is Lead Pastor of Mill City Church in Northeast Minneapolis. She is also a professor of ministry at Bethel University and Seminary in St Paul, Minnesota. Stephanie has opportunities to coach leaders around the country through speaking, coaching and her podcast Lead Stories with her friend Jo Saxton. She blogs at pastorsteph.com.