Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009
By Susan Shinn
CHARLOTTE ó Even as temperatures soared into the 80s on Thursday afternoon, the Rev. Dr. Billy Graham seemed very much a lion in winter.
With his long, white mane of hair combed neatly into place, Graham slowly made his way with the help of a walker and his son Franklin to the middle of the stage for the dedication of the Billy Graham Library.
Flanked by his son on one side and the three living former presidents on the other, Graham listened to their glowing accolades before he at last stood at the podium.
“I feel like I’ve been attending my own funeral!” he quipped after the warm applause from some 1,500 invited guests died down.
The large tent shading everyone from the relentless sun may have been meant only for shelter, but it also invoked the great tent revivals of Graham’s past.
In his characteristic, humble fashion, Graham quickly deflected the attention from himself onto the men and women who have been part of his ministry team for 60-plus years.
“The whole team has worked together, prayed together, traveled together and believed God would do wonderful things together,” said Graham, who will turn 89 in November.
His longtime friends Cliff Barrows and George Beverly Shea, 98, were in attendance.
Barrows and Shea led the “congregation,” as they called it, in singing two hymns, “How Great Thou Art,” ó for which Shea is best known ó and “To God Be the Glory.”
Barrows led the singing and often held a friendly hand on Shea’s back. Shea’s rumbling baritone still retained its familiar strength and depth.
By contrast, Graham’s voice was hoarse and softer than usual ó a mere echo of the powerful, clear tones visitors to the $27 million, 40,000-square-foot library will hear in numerous video clips about the evangelist.
With his familiar Southern lilt, he thanked all the people who worked so hard and prayed so hard for him through the years ó chiefly, his family.
Ruth Bell Graham, the evangelist’s wife of nearly 64 years, is bedridden and was too ill to attend the 90-minute ceremony.
The Graham’s have five children ó all of whom were in attendance, along with a number of their 19 grandchildren and 30 great-grandchildren.
After the ceremony, some 85 family members gathered in front of the homeplace for a group photograph.
But it was evident how much Graham missed the family matriarch.
He goes in her room several times a day, he said. “We remember all the great things we’ve shared together.
“I want to honor her by telling you how much I love her and what a wonderful woman she has been. More than me, she deserves to be here today.”
Graham said he was “deeply grateful” to President George H.W. Bush for delivering the day’s keynote address, and thanked President Bill Clinton and President Jimmy Carter, who he called longtime friends.
He also thanked Gov. Mike Easley and Mayor Pat McCrory ó both of whom spoke briefly ó for their attendance.
“I could call so many by name, but I want to thank you all for coming today and pray that God will bless each one of you.”
The three presidents ó of whom everyone but the Graham’s seemed in awe, gathered together as they were ó spoke of how Graham had affected them personally, not merely because of the high office they held.
Carter was asked to lead a Billy Graham Crusade ó without Graham present ó in 1967 in Sumter County, Ga. The event represented a breakthrough in integration in Carter’s county.
From the beginning of his ministry, Graham always insisted that his crusades be integrated.
Even though Graham was criticized for meeting with Pope John Paul II and preaching on the other side of the Iron Curtain, Carter said, “that was the kind of thing Billy Graham did.”
Carter remembered Graham as broadminded, forgiving and humble.
Even though Clinton met Graham in 1985, the former president said he’d known of the evangelist for 50 years.
When Clinton was governor, Graham visited his pastor, who was dying of cancer.
“He didn’t have to do that,” Clinton said. “He did it because of who he is.”
Clinton said that Graham’s visits, calls and letters received while he was president were “incredibly kind.”
Clinton said that the two most important commandments are to love God with all your heart, and to love your neighbor as yourself.
“I have seen him do it in private when no one was looking,” Clinton said. “When he prays with you in the Oval Office or the upstairs of the White House, you feel like he’s praying for you, not for the president.”
Bush said that Graham spent the night with him at the White House on that night in January 1991, when Bush launched Desert Storm, and talked about what a comfort that was to him.
Unlike Presidents Carter and Clinton, who are Southern Baptist, Bush is Episcopalian, and he said that his faith is “intensely personal. That’s just me.”
But he said that Graham had helped him have a deeper and more meaningful relationship with Christ.
Choking up just a bit, Bush said that Graham is “a spiritual gift to all of us.”
Even though Graham has said many times that his ministry is not about him but about the message, that message will continue on through the library.
The man who has preached to 210 million people around the world said Thursday that the Billy Graham Library is more than a building. It’s a tool to continue to spread the Good News, the message of Christ.
The library will open to the public on Tuesday, June 5. Admission is free.
Contact Susan Shinn at 704-797-4289 or firstname.lastname@example.org.