(RNS) — With the death of evangelist Billy Graham, the world turns to theologians and historians to measure his impact. But perhaps we should turn first to the everyday people who filled the stadiums, arenas and parks where he preached for a half-century or who heard him on simulcast — 215 million people in all, from his breakthrough crusade at New York’s Madison Square Garden in 1957 to his last, in 2005, at Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens.
At those places and others, the faithful whose lives he touched could have most eloquently expressed why we mark Graham's passing with gratitude and grief: He offered the promise and comfort of Jesus to the last person in the last row in the most distant venue on earth.
His simple message never changed, nor was it sullied by scandal. And though he came to counsel presidents (and by his own admission allowed himself to get too close to the powerful), his legacy lies with the lost and the restless: those even in the last row who felt he was talking directly to them, giving them hope, promising them that life can be better and that heaven awaits.
I covered the legendary evangelist for a dozen years as the religion writer at his hometown paper, The Charlotte Observer, running around stadiums, trying to capture the spectacle on deadline. From New York to Charlotte to Tampa to Germany, I embraced the fervor and came to appreciate the legacy of the most enduring figure in modern Christendom.
He built a model for religious organizations everywhere, even the little church down the block, by avoiding financial and personal scandal, living a modest lifestyle in small-town Montreat, N.C., and blending evangelism and entertainment with integrity.
He left us a cautionary tale as well, about speaking truth to power, which he admitted he failed to do most famously during Richard Nixon’s anti-Semitic rants preserved on tape.
Graham figured out how to effectively connect with his audiences through live events, on TV and radio, in books and magazines, even in full-length movies. One example of his ingenuity: He condensed a crusade held over several nights into an hourlong TV show and bought time on stations across the country.
I can’t begin to tell you the number of North Carolinians who have told me they grew up watching Graham on TV. Under Franklin Graham’s leadership — whatever you think of his politically conservative bent — the ministry that bears his father’s name is effectively harnessing the internet. If Billy were still at it, he’d probably be tweeting.
But I also write about Graham’s life and death from another perspective, this one more poignant, for I got to know him and his family through the years, away from the pulpit. I’ve eaten a lot of Big Macs in my life, but only once with Billy and Ruth Graham in their home as he reminisced about hosting Muhammad Ali for lunch in 1979. Graham gave the champ an autographed Bible. Ali handed it back to Graham and said: “How about printing ‘Billy Graham’ under that. I want people to know it’s you when I show it to them.”
Or there was the time I spent sitting beside him on a golf cart after the last night of his crusade in Charlotte, his face still flush from the fervor. Or the message he left on my answering machine at home, updating me on his wife’s condition at the Mayo Clinic. It was the voice of a worried husband, not the fiery evangelist, and he went on for so long, the machine cut him off.
This may be most pivotal in understanding Graham’s impact and legacy: His fragile humanity came through, even in his younger, more electrifying days, deepening his connection with the masses, helping people see that he was one of them, on the same journey, facing the same struggles. I put it all into a book celebrating Graham’s life and sent him a signed copy. A few weeks later, I received a letter of thanks from him in the mail. I look often at his shaky signature at the end of the letter, reread his words of gratitude, and how his assistant had to read a bit of the book to him because his eyesight had failed him.
I framed that thank-you letter. Years from now, I’ll glance at it for the thousandth time and think again about the farm boy from North Carolina who found a place in our hearts, and who devoted his life to reaching out to the last person on the last row.
(Ken Garfield covered religion at The Charlotte Observer and wrote “Billy Graham: A Life In Pictures.")