In his bestselling autobiography Just As I Am -- #11 on Publishers Weekly's top 15 non-fiction books of 1997 -- evangelist Billy Graham wrote that a student once asked him, "What is the greatest surprise you have found about life?"
He replied, "The brevity of it." Then he lived another 21 years, leaving behind 33 books he wrote, countless more books about him, and uncountable millions of souls touched.
Billy Graham didn’t change my spiritual course in life. But he did play a significant role in my career. In covering him, I learned how to cover the best beat in journalism – religion, spirituality, and ethics. What to ask. What to watch for. How to go beyond the words.
I knew nothing of how evangelism works until I first heard Graham when I was studying American religious history and culture on a fellowship at the University of Michigan in 1987. In a seminar in fundamentalist thought, the professor played an audio recording of one of his sermons. His deep, rich, compelling voice filled the room.
Then, professor Susan Harding, an anthropologist of religion, dissected the essential components of the sermon. I learned: It’s all in the words. An evangelist has no rituals. No liturgy. No paperwork. In the rhetoric of conversion, he or she speaks the Gospel, strips away listeners’ old ways of understanding experience, adds their life up anew and then asks them to tell their life stories from now forward in Gospel terms.
Over decades of covering many of his books, speeches, and sermons, I came to see his patterns. Begin with the familiar – the concerns of daily life and whatever fearsome and confusing issues are in the news. Then, move to connect these with the life and salvation message of Jesus. Create an image of how their hearts and souls would feel if they surrendered to the Son of God. Finally, gently coax them toward the Savior.
As I moved toward covering the faith beat full time, I learned the distinctions among the voices. Younger preachers made splashy headlines with very different messages and pumped out books by the bushel. Prosperity Gospel preachers made glossy claims that God wanted followers to be healthy and wealthy. The Religious Right awoke from its post-Moral Majority slumber to roar for Christian triumphalism and condemn anyone who didn’t share their social or political views.
Billy Graham made no such promises, no such condemnations.
I first interviewed Graham in 1992 when he was 73 and dealing with a diagnosis of Parkinson’s. Rumor had it he would be slowing down. Instead, Graham gave me another lesson: There is no retirement for evangelists. The lead on my story was, “Don’t fluff the pillows.” He had four crusades planned for that year alone. There was a war on. An election on. Yet another president wanted him nearby during dark nights of decision. There were eight more books yet to come. And just one message: Hope lies in the Gospel.
We first met in person in 1998. The voice matched the man -- a six-foot-three, Hollywood-handsome preacher with a big square smile, old square jokes (he made Woody Allen laugh) and a foursquare Gospel message. Even if he were testing the microphone before a radio interview with Larry King (he did 50 of those over the years) he would do it by reciting scripture.
This was the encounter where I learned about how humility sounds, how Billy Graham the Christian views judgment and compassion.
He was in Washington to speak at the annual National Prayer Breakfast (an event Graham co-founded in1953) where President Bill Clinton would publicly repent for his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky. Graham would give the closing prayer and when that time came, he said, he would be standing before all as much a sinner as anyone else.
Covering Graham – and eventually his son and heir Franklin -- introduced me to some of the nation’s premier historians, anthropologists, political scientists, sociologists, and clergy. Their interviews schooled me in the depth, breadth, and impact of faith.
Look for the turning point: That’s always a story, I learned from covering Billy Graham.
In 2005, Graham himself was at a turning point. His June crusade in New York would be the frail evangelist’s last major public event. A month before, I went to see Graham on his front porch at his mountaintop cabin in Montreat, N.C., to ask two questions. How do you spend your days? What do you see when you look out from that porch?
He came out to meet me, walking slowly, speaking softly, and as magnetic as ever. His days were spent in prayer (“Help me, Lord”) and his evenings watching movie musicals with his beloved wife, Ruth (who died in 2007).
What he could see now was the surge to the headlines of the Religious Right. But he had no part of it, no interest in joining those who claim that support for abortion rights or gay marriage would cause God to lift his favor from America. To that threat, Graham mustered a resounding, “Noooo.”
Graham was wistful over one thing, however. He had lived long enough to see American Protestantism splinter among factions that view “pluralism” or “inclusivity” as curse words.
“My world is passing me by,” he told me. “I see all this going on, but I just understand the basic principles that will be true in every generation.”
I wrote then that there was “no anger or complaint in his voice, just the calm of someone certain that another world awaits.”
Once again, Billy Graham taught me to ask another great question: How do people find peace of soul? He had an answer.
Cathy Lynn Grossman has been a news journalist since 1972, writing for The Miami Herald, USA Today, Religion News Service and Publishers Weekly and specializing for 20 years in covering religion, spirituality, and bioethics.