Billy Graham died yesterday. Like millions of other people, I see him as a hero. So just like the other millions of people, I am going to drag out my Billy Graham stories for you. I hope you enjoy them.
I remember my episode like it was yesterday. I was a 20-year-old sophomore from the University of Nebraska. While performing my internship, I spent three weeks with the army of volunteers who planned the National Prayer Breakfast from their office in Roslyn, Virginia. I had two of the coolest internship supervisors any man could imagine. One was John Coe, 24 years old, tall, and as charismatic as any person I have ever met. The other was Lyston Peebles, a fun-loving and crazy thirty-something Young Life leader from North Carolina. (Lyston Clyde Peebles III is his given name.)
My dad had just driven me out from Nebraska, and I was going to spend four months in the “big city” – Washington, DC. When I arrived, things were hopping. Ronald Reagan had just won his first presidential election and moved into DC about the same time I did. As you may or may not know, the president has attended the National Prayer Breakfast on the first Thursday each February, every year since 1952. And if you’re familiar with the prayer breakfast, you’ll recognize that it is really more of a convention than a breakfast. All told, about 4,500 of your closest friends from 100 different countries are in attendance. All over the Washington Hilton Hotel suites are rented in order to host guests from all over the country, and all over the world. That’s enough background, I hope you get the picture.
Lyston was shuffling me all over the hotel, doing the things that interns do: call this person, and deliver this, pick up that, bring the speaker to his next audience. At 10 a.m. Wednesday, the day before the breakfast, he told me to go to a certain meeting room and sit in on a meeting. “Don’t say anything. Sit in the back and observe what’s happening,” he told me, with some serious warning.
I found the room, and made my way to the back corner, as far from the main door as I could go. It wasn’t long before I noticed the room was full of church leaders and evangelists from all over the world. I recognized Louis Palau, Bill Bright, Charles Colson, U.S. Senator Harold Hughes, Doug Coe, the Reverend Richard Halverson, and I would say about thirty more gathered for their annual meeting. It seemed as though each person was taking turns talking about his (yes, they were all men) ministry. I think there was a five minute time limit, but no one paid attention. Each person was taking more time than he was allotted, so I assumed that everyone would not be able to share. Soon I heard commotion coming from the rear entrance. It looked like a mob scene, but I could see the tall Billy Graham in the middle. The other guests clamored for his attention. Billy made his way to the podium to give his address. It seemed as though it was his meeting, and I assumed he had invited all the guests. Billy’s remarks took all of about two minutes. He told men how much he appreciated them coming and offered his help in any way he could. He pointed out a few persons in attendance, and didn’t say much more. The entirety of his remarks could not have taken more than two minutes.
When he was done, Billy began to make his way toward the door. He probably had another appointment he needed to attend. The mob surrounded him again. Then, before I really realized what was happening, he turned his head to the back corner of the room. He made a left turn, leaving the group of glad-handers, and made a beeline towards me. I didn’t know whether to be honored or fearful. Billy Graham walked straight up to me and put out his hand.
“What is your name?” he asked.
”My name is Brad from Nebraska. Lyston sent me down to observe your meeting.”
”So what brings you to the National Prayer Breakfast?” he asked.
”I am an intern helping with the prayer breakfast. John and Lyston are in charge of my time.”
”And have you been learning a lot?” he asked. About this time, I felt like the most important man in the building. Billy’s genuine interest ignited a flame inside me.
"Yes, I’m just getting started, but I’m learning a lot."
Our conversation probably lasted three minutes or less. And I’m sure that the men in attendance wondered whom in the world Billy Graham had gone so far out of his way to address. As Billy talked to me, I got the feeling that there was no one else in the world he cared about except me. I’ll never forget it. After a short but intentional conversation with me, Billy Graham turned and headed back to the mob. He shook a few hands and exited.
My friend, Jack Campbell from Lincoln, tells a similar story about his Young Presidents Organization Group. These groups are comprised of extremely ambitious and successful young businessmen. While these men were waiting for their speaker, Doug Coe poked his head into the room.
“I have somebody here I want you to meet.”
Don’t ask me how Doug Coe knew who was in the group or where they were meeting, but Doug had the knack for connecting with all kinds of extraordinary people. When Doug opened the door, in walked Billy Graham. He made his way around the room, having intentional discussions with each person he met. He shook every hand, and repeated every name. And he left. When the person in charge walked into the room, he began making his way around the room and shaking hands, as Billy Graham did. But after a few handshakes, he gave up and said something like, “It will take too long for me to shake everybody’s hands, so I let’s just start the meeting." Under his breath, one of the men replied, ”That’s okay, you don’t have to shake our hands, but Billy Graham just did.” The room erupted with laughter. Everyone understood the joke except one.
Most people will remember Billy Graham for his immense speaking abilities, his worldwide travel, his massive revival gatherings, his relationship with every president in my lifetime, the books he authored, and the fame that he couldn’t avoid. But the rest of us, and especially those who knew him best, will remember him for his spiritual leading, his love for family, and his immense relational skills. And though his health issues kept him from the limelight the last few years, this world will miss him.
I will look forward to time with him in the next.
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