In 2005, I had the opportunity to chair the Billy Graham Crusade in New York City, which Dr. Graham said would be his final crusade. We did a press conference together, and for a community leader such as myself, the founder and senior pastor of the Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn, appearing alongside Dr. Graham was an outstanding moment.
Reporters from nearly every media outlet imaginable questioned this outstanding statesman of evangelical Christianity. As he took question after question, Dr. Graham was able to concisely answer each one. He did not allow the journalists to lead him in a direction that he did not want to go. He was very polished, very respectful, but he stood by his convictions. Of course, I sat there amazed.
“I am going to refuse to answer questions on subjects that maybe twenty years ago I would have answered,” Dr. Graham told the reporters, anticipating that some might try and entangle him in a political controversy of one kind or another. “I think that at my age, that I have one message,” he explained. “And that is that Jesus Christ came, He died on a cross, He rose again. And He asks us to repent of our sins and receive Him by faith as Lord and Savior. And if we do, we have forgiveness of our sins.”
Dr. Graham did not waver. He expressed love and compassion to all in every community regardless of the particular things that they were wrestling with, but he remained consistent on the overall plan and purposes of God and the calling upon his life.
Dr. Graham understood that every interview was his interview, no matter what the question. He knew the interview was his opportunity to get his message across, and if he could do so by answering the question, then so be it, but if not then he would focus on taking advantage of that platform, that opportunity, and I thought he did that amazingly well.
It is often difficult to stay on task. New York City is the media capital of the world. As a person of color who is the pastor of a mega-church with a multicultural ethnic body of 36,000 members, I deal with journalists and politicians on both sides of the aisle. We have liberals here, and we have the extremists. Believe it or not, we even have some Republicans. To navigate through all of the differing factors without getting trapped or losing composure takes a lot of skill, maturity and experience. Dr. Graham has set the example for the rest of us.
When you’re strongly rooted in your convictions, you can sit at the table with people who disagree with you, who differ in their beliefs, who differ in their values, and you don’t feel shaken. Dr. Graham modeled that strong foundation for me.
There are some Christians who become unraveled when they’re dealing with people who have a different opinion, especially if they’re very strong in that difference of opinion. But Dr. Graham didn’t. The principles that Billy Graham lives by are eternal. They remain the same. They remain constant. They are obviously the anchors of his soul.
Dr. Graham’s principles didn’t change with fashion and pop culture. In 1957, he invited someone like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to share the platform with him at his revival in Madison Square Garden, which was to become the longest of his career, extending it to sixteen weeks from its original schedule of six. “A great social revolution is going on in the United States today,” Billy Graham told the gathering. “Dr. King is one of its leaders, and we appreciate his taking time out from his busy schedule to come and share this service with us.” He had asked Dr. King to present a greeting at a time when segregation and racism were very strong. And yet he was willing to cross that line and take some of the heat. Not everyone was willing to take that kind of risk, but Billy Graham was. I’m sure he did not know at the time that Dr. King would become a global icon of the civil rights movement.
President Bill Clinton spoke of such moments when we both shared that stage with Dr. Graham during his final crusade in New York. Addressing an audience of more than 70,000, the President recalled: “When I was a young man and he came to Little Rock, we had just had a terrible crisis. The schools were closed over school integration. And all the powerful white people tried to get Billy Graham to speak to a segregated audience. And he said Jesus doesn’t want me to speak to a segregated audience. I’m not coming unless everybody can come to my crusade. And I was just a little boy. And I never forgot it. I’ve loved him ever since.”
As I told the crowd that night, Dr. Graham is “one of the most respected icons of Protestant Christianity in the twentieth century.” Throughout his more than sixty years of preaching, Billy Graham has been an incredible statesman for the body of Christ. He has left an indelible mark on my heart, my life, and my ministry.