At the height of his popularity, the Rev. Billy Graham spanned the globe to bring the simple message of hope through faith.
Its estimated the lanky, fiery preacher from South Charlotte reached more than 210 million people in 185 countries through his crusades.
He had the gift of making everyone in a crowded stadium think he was talking exclusively to them, and many of those who came answered his altar calls with life-changing professions of faith.
In recent years, Graham, limited by age and illness, has slipped from the public consciousness. His public appearances are infrequent and controlled, such as the recent celebration of his 95th birthday in Asheville, N.C., and his nationally televised The Cross sermon.
Billy Graham, said Ken Garfield, former religion editor for The Charlotte Observer, has faded into the midst of time.
Most people younger than 40 have limited understanding of Graham and his life of preaching the gospel, Garfield said.
Garfield has started his own crusade: to tell the every mans story, of Graham, how he rose from his dairy-farm roots to become the most influential man in modern Christianity.
Garfields book, Billy Graham: A Life In Pictures, is based not only on Grahams long list of sermons and books, but the stories Garfield wrote about him for The Observer, as well as personal exchanges between the two.
Its estimated Garfield wrote 650,000 words on Graham during his years at the paper, including coverage of six of his crusades. The best stories from the crusades, Garfield said, were often not based on the massive spectacles, but the testimony of the people who came to hear Graham.
Ive always loved writing about Billy Graham, Garfield said. It is a story so full of emotion, and I love writing about emotion.
At first, Garfields interviews with Graham were brief two minutes here, three minutes there. But over the years the two developed a relationship much like that of a sports writer covering the big hometown team.
When Graham finished with a press conference, a staffer might wink or nod to Garfield, a sign to stick around so Graham could give his hometown paper just a little more.
Billy Graham: A Life In Pictures is an easy read, each section filled with images of Graham through the years. Many of the images were taken by Charlotte Observer photographers.
It was also an easy book to write, Garfield said, most of it compiled on the dinner table of his Charlotte home. The challenge, he said, was to track down all the great photos in the book.
The book covers the pivotal moments of Grahams life.
Among them is when a teenaged Graham attended a revival by evangelist Mordecai Ham. Graham remembers not wanting to go, but then becoming spellbound by Ham, as if someone even more powerful than this man was talking directly to Graham.
One night, Garfield writes, this 16-year-old boy calmly stepped forward and never stepped back.
Standing next to Graham was a teary-eyed young woman. Years later that woman, Lela Eaves Campbell, would write to Garfield at The Observer of that famous night in a letter titled A Pleasant Memory. She said it was OK to share it because memories are what we cling to as the years pass by far too fast.
There is a section in the book about the first crusade in Los Angeles, where Graham appeared to come right out of central casting. He was passionate, a Bible in one hand, a newspaper in the other, and his theme simple get straight or else.
Garfield also recounts Grahams night in the San Bernardino Mountains, when he prayed about his doubts and questions, and then professed, Father I am going to accept this as thy word by faith! I am going to allow faith to go beyond my intellectual questions and doubts, and I will believe this to be your inspired word.
That night, Graham said, a spiritual battle in my soul had been fought and won.
Then there was the 1957 New York City Crusade, during which Graham preached at the citys most iconic places. He turned Time Square then home to dope addicts, alcoholics and harlots into a great cathedral. At Yankee Stadium, among those answering Grahams altar call were a priest and prostitute, Garfield writes.
But it was his personal encounters with Graham that showed the depth of the preachers caring personality, Garfield said.
When Grahams beloved wife Ruth was being treated at the Mayo Clinic, Garfield spent the entire day working the story, making at least 50 phone calls without success. When he got home that evening, the light on his telephone answering machine was blinking. Graham had called his house, leaving a message so long that the machine cut him off, Garfield remembered.
Then theres the memory of Grahams last crusade in Charlotte 1996 at what was then called Ericsson Stadium. Garfield found himself in front of the stage after the altar call. He rested in the golf cart that the staff used to move Graham around the stadium.
Suddenly, Graham sat down next to Garfield.
He looked tired and flushed, but his eyes glistened so brightly, Garfield writes of the encounter.
They exchanged a few words, difficult to hear over the noise of the crowd.
But I knew then that this was a moment of faith not be equaled in my lifetime, Garfield wrote. It was the Great Crusader at the close of another crusade. A moment in history made by a man for all times.
As treasured is a letter Graham sent to Garfield in 2003.
Garfield said he had written a silly column about loneliness, sparked by his daughters departure for college, leaving him and his wife, Sharon, as empty-nesters. The deeper theme of the column, Garfield said, was about the blessings of relationships.
Graham sent a letter to Garfields home. Its message was what he had preached to the world, Garfield writes, but this time he was speaking softly to one friend.
It is interesting how even in the midst of activity, in a crowd of people or watching an interesting movie we can have a sudden sense of loneliness, Graham wrote. I have always felt that this is actually loneliness that only God can fill.
The letter, as well as one recently received from Graham after Garfields book was released, are framed at Garfield house.
Part of Garfields own crusade is to carry forth the message that so much of what Graham preached is universal.
He articulated lessons that every synagogue, church and mosque can learn from, Garfield said.
Among those lessons are integrity and accountability in life, personally and financially, Garfield said. Another is taking the message of faith and using every medium to draw people in.
Graham was a master of social media before there was ever social media, using every possible communications channel to spread his message.
And there is the lessons of hope through faith and of caring, making a deep personal commitment to those you are in contact with, Garfield said.
Thats what Graham did every time he spoke, Garfield said.
He cared about you and was talking straight to you.
Don Worthington • 803-329-4066