Remember My Friend, Billy Graham

Billy Graham opened more doors for me than anybody in the world. I met him when I was twenty-six years old. There was a crusade in Fresno, California. My wife and I were missionaries with Overseas Crusades (now OC International), although we hadn’t yet gone into the mission field to preach.

I volunteered as a Spanish translator for Mr. Graham throughout the San Joaquin Valley. When Mr. Graham came to town for the Fresno crusade, I sat across from him at the team breakfast meeting. He didn’t know me at that point, so he started up a conversation.  He said, “What are you planning to do?” I said, “Well, I hope to have crusades. I’ve been learning about how you do citywide evangelism and I want to do the same in Latin America.” He gave me simple advice that I never forgot. “Go to the big cities,” he said. “The biggest cities you can afford. The cities are like mountains. When a man is in the mountain, his voice echoes all around. Big cities bless the small towns. Go to the big cities.” I followed his advice.

Because of Mr. Graham, I was invited to the first World Congress on Evangelism in Berlin in 1965, and to the second one in Lausanne in 1975.  It was there where I was asked to give a major address on mass evangelism. Billy Graham always stayed in touch, writing me letters, affirming me, encouraging me, and giving me opportunities to preach. He gave me another open door at the Congress on Evangelism in Amsterdam in 1984. On the second evening I had the privilege of giving the main address, speaking about the personal life of the evangelist, holiness, and integrity.

And he didn’t stop there.  Mr. Graham did it again in 1986, also in Amsterdam, inviting me to speak at the International Conference for Itinerant Evangelists. There were nearly 10,000 evangelists from all over the world. It was a time of recommitment to the Great Commission, and the event built confidence for our team to go all over the world. People trusted Mr. Graham, and Mr. Graham trusted us. What a life-long blessing that has been!

Through the years Mr. Graham would often say, “What can I do for you?” I always told him, “Please, speak well of me.” That was worth gold to me. And he did. He was a man of his word. Many times he invited me to give my testimony at his crusades or he opened doors for me in other cities. He was a blessing in our lives.

When I was in his presence, I could feel how he honored Jesus Christ. I remember when I was praying with him, he would often flip open his New Testament. He always carried it in his inner pocket, and he always had something fresh, very Christ-centered, to say. You could tell he was close to the Lord on a daily basis, not just formally or once a week.

He was very knowledgeable about the Bible. He was such a deep-thinking man, not only about Scripture but also about life, about history, and even political news as it related to the Bible. He had such a profound knowledge of God and of the world. He had always kept himself well informed, reading and absorbing all sorts of information.

One day I had the privilege of meeting his mother. She told me that when Billy was a teenager, especially after he was converted, he would take the Encyclopedia Britannica and lie on the floor in the living room of their house in North Carolina for hours, reading through the encyclopedia.

Although Billy Graham was extremely knowledgeable, he never took any credit for it. He would insist on saying, “To God be all the glory. To God alone the glory.” I remember one incident in particular that is a marvelous illustration of Mr. Graham’s humble spirit in that respect.

We were in Essen, Germany, for a youth congress. He and I were both speakers. One day we were in his hotel room, and T. W. Wilson, his assistant for many years, came in and said, “Billy, a young German evangelist wants to see you.”  Mr. Graham said, “Okay, bring him in.”

A tall, handsome, well-dressed young evangelist entered the room. He said, “Mr. Graham, I was converted under your ministry. I want to be an evangelist like you. I studied theology at the university. I’ve formed a team.” I think he said seventeen people. “I have money,” he continued, “but I get no invitations. What can I do?”

I felt so sorry for the young lad, and Mr. Graham did as well.  Mr. Graham was nonplussed. He had never had the problem of no invitations. He looked at T.W. and me as if he were saying, “I have no idea what you do to get invitations.”

Mr. Graham talked to the young man for fifteen minutes or so. His advice was to “pray about it, and befriend the other clergy and ask them of the possibility to do some kind of evangelistic event. Start small. Don’t think that overnight you can have a citywide campaign.”

As their time together was coming to an end, the young man said to him, “Mr. Graham, would you bless me?” Mr. Graham was again a little surprised and taken aback, but he said, “Let’s pray.” And he began to pray for this young fellow. It was very touching.  He was such a big man, and he was pouring out his heart to God for a young guy he’d never met before and would probably never see again. He was crying out to the Lord, “Lord, give him campaigns,” he prayed. “Give him his heart’s desire.”

I was brought up among the Anglicans and I always close my eyes when I pray. And I heard Billy Graham’s voice sound sort of muffled. It didn’t sound as if he was speaking out loud or with his head up. So I opened my eyes to see what was going on. Mr. Graham was literally lying flat on the ground, spread-eagled with his face on the carpet in the hotel room. Just spread out flat. It was so touching. The greatest evangelist in the world – one of God’s greatest servants – and here he was, on the floor, passionately praying for a young fellow he’d just met.

We got up and said goodbye to the young man. I was so moved by what had happened, I just blurted out, “Why were you on the ground?” He replied, “Well, Luis, the Bible says ‘Humble yourselves before the mighty hand of God that in due time He may exalt you.’” He continued, “I don’t care how theologians explain that verse. I think that we who are in the public eye, and whom people call by nice names, need to proactively humble ourselves before the mighty hand of God so that in due time He may exalt us if He chooses to exalt us.”

When I was young, I often wondered why Mr. Graham insisted on repeating that phrase, “To God be all the glory.” I later realized that when you are famous and people write books about you, there is a temptation to think highly of yourself. You’ve got to put the ego down. And I think he did that. Mr. Graham’s love was not for himself but for God and the Church. He loved the Church broadly. Interdenominationalism was one of the great lessons I learned from him: to love all people even when you disagree with them on doctrine. T.W. had a saying, “We are broad in our relationships but narrow in our message.” In other words, the message of the Gospel, the pure Good News, is very narrow. Not in a negative sense, but very clear. Very pointed. Actually, T.W. got that saying from Mr. Graham. We copied him shamelessly in the early years. I copied almost everything he ever did! I once told him that I had preached his sermons many times, which was true. Now my son Andrew preaches my sermons, and they’re Mr. Graham’s, too.

I remember Mr. Graham speaking many times at the annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. He knew how to pick the right stories and use history and even politics appropriately. He seldom made a mistake. Many a time the Prayer Breakfast was pretty bland. Sometimes the speaker would not be very clear. But when Mr. Graham would get up to give the benediction, his prayer was like a little sermon. He would say something like, “Because of Jesus Christ, His shed blood on the cross, and His resurrection, if you confess your sins now and receive Jesus Christ by faith as your Lord and Savior, then you can have eternal life.” He would enhance that breakfast because he always made sure to honor God. One of the things that Mr. Graham taught us, by his life and his actions, was 1 Samuel 2:30, in which God says, “Those who honor me, I will honor. Those who despise me shall be lightly esteemed.” I think Mr. Graham honored God every time. He honored the Lord, and the Lord honored him. I would put that fabulous verse under his picture: Billy Graham. “Those who honor me, I will honor.”