The Rev. Billy Graham knew he’d made mistakes in life. After all, he preached, we are all sinners. But Graham, 99, who died at home Wednesday in North Carolina, became one of the world’s most admired men because of what he did so beautifully: share a racially, religiously inclusive message of love and redemption.
Graham was unique because he lived modestly. Graham was special because he rejected the racism so common to his time, region and Southern Baptist denomination. Graham integrated his crusades and had the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preach with him at Madison Square Garden in 1957. And Graham was radical because he, almost alone among Protestant evangelists, argued that good people of all faiths would join born-again Christians in heaven.
Graham’s missteps were notable, too. His support for escalating the war in Vietnam was misguided. And anti-Semitic comments that surfaced on taped conversations with President Richard Nixon decades later were a stain his heartfelt apologies could not entirely erase.
But Graham preached for almost 60 years, to extraordinary effect. His 1957 stay at Madison Square Garden would stretch to 16 weeks and include 4 million attendees. Legendary Olympian and World War II torture survivor Louis Zamperini, the subject of the book and movie “Unbroken,” credited a 1949 Graham crusade with turning him from a furious drunkard into a man who would spend the next 60 years helping others. President George W. Bush said a conversation with Graham persuaded him to quit drinking. Graham was a friend and religious inspiration to Queen Elizabeth II, and to president after president. And Graham helped thousands, perhaps millions, of people find God.
Today Graham seems most notable for what he did not do. He did not divide. He did not weaponize his beliefs in a culture war about abortion or homosexuality. He did not glorify wealth. He did not demonize.
Years ago, Graham said of his death: “I shall be more alive than I am now. I will just have changed my address. I will have gone into the presence of God.”
And deservedly so.