My Answer: Marion’s Billy Graham Story
Warning: This narrative ends with a whimper instead of a bang, and maybe we can all be grateful for that.
After my week in Plains, Georgia, enjoying the company of Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter for a week, someone commented that the experience must have been THE highlight of my life. Well, no… Much as I loved the entire series of events in South Georgia, I would remind readers that Sally and I had a really nice wedding in 1972 in Columbia, SC. Highlight!
I was present for the birth of my two marvelous daughters in 1974 and 1983. Highlights! Fuzzy and I were in the Orange Bowl when Clemson won the National Football Championship in 1982. Highlight! I’ve been stuck in the sand in the Sahara Desert. I’ve sailed in a hot air balloon over Cappadocia in Turkey. I’ve been to the Holy Land and walked where Jesus walked (more or less). Highlights!
My Billy Graham story is a highlight. In April 1987, The State Newspaper asked me to review, critique, and comment on Billy Graham’s sermons during his Columbia meetings at Williams-Brice Stadium. The idea of critiquing Billy Graham was a bit daunting. I wrote one preview editorial, one on-deadline article each night, summarizing the content of his sermon, and one follow-up commentary after Graham and his associates had departed. It was a plum assignment.
Like every other well-bred Baptist, I was a Billy Graham fan. I had attended his crusade/revival in upstate South Carolina when I was a student at Clemson in 1966. Our seminary had a Billy Graham room in the library. I liked that he insisted his meetings be integrated. He was an advocate of peacemaking in an era of nuclear proliferation. There was a lot to like about Billy Graham. All of us young preacher-boys wished we could preach as well as he did, and draw crowds as he did.
At the same time, I was aware that his ministry had the great benefit of introducing the Good News of the Christian faith, and welcoming converts into the faith. Then, he left town. Local pastors had to do the hard work of attempting to corral these new believers into churches and to make disciples of them. I could be impressed by Graham’s awesome ministry and, at the same time, aware that his calling was not the same as mine.
After the first few days of the event, one afternoon my presence was requested rather suddenly and mysteriously. Someone from the Graham team (that’s what his staff was called), walked me from the newspaper offices next door to Williams-Brice into the innards of the stadium and ushered me into a room with some snacks and…
Billy Graham. Just the two of us.
He introduced himself, complimented my reporting, and the two of us conversed for fifteen or twenty minutes. He said it was hard to find someone who was a good writer who understood the evangelical milieu, who wasn’t mystified by the language of Zion, whose heart was good, and who was not as cynical as the national secular reporters who ordinarily wrote about him. Of course, I was flattered, and thanked him. I wasn’t prepared to interview him. I was, after all, a Baptist preacher and pastor, not a journalist. So we chatted over cheese and crackers.
After a while, he said he’d like for me to consider ghostwriting his “My Answer” newspaper column. Wow. I had enough ethics and sense about me to say that for the next week or so, I was committed to fulfilling my obligation to The State Newspaper. After that, if he was still interested, we could have a conversation. Of course, I was dumbstruck, but I didn’t want a mid-event commitment to the Graham team and their public relations agenda to tempt me to write only complimentary comments about the sermons and the revival/crusade services. He understood. We enjoyed more conversation and eventually, our time together was over. He was as nice a man as you think he was, genuine, generous, thoughtful, kind. My twenty minutes alone with Billy Graham.
I’ve mentioned this time with Billy Graham to only a few people, including the editor of The State Newspaper. Sally knew about it, of course, as well as a few close friends.
Nothing ever came of the “My Answer” offer. After a month, I wrote him a letter at his Montreat address, asking if he still had an interest in working with me. I received a pleasant and positive personal reply from him, typically gracious, and the answer was, in short, yes. Someone on his staff would contact me. His public relations firm out of New York did get in touch with me, eventually, and I think it’s fair to say I got the runaround. Who knows what happened? Did they do a background check on me and discover that I drink wine and smoke cigars? Did they learn I was more moderate theologically than Graham?
Thus, this episode ends with a whimper.
For which, ultimately, I’m grateful. I suspect my answers to the questions he was asked through the years would have been very different than Mr. Graham’s.
That’s my Billy Graham story.
Marion D. Aldridge
February 22, 2018