WASHINGTON (RNS) — They stood patiently in line, young and old, with memories and stories, to pay their respects to an evangelist who they say changed their lives or the lives of their loved ones.
As Billy Graham became the fourth private citizen to lie in honor at the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, people drove for hundreds of miles, boarded buses and took the train to bid him farewell.
The first in line outside the Capitol was Jim Meyer, a funeral director who drove through the night from Niles, Mich., and arrived at 5:30 a.m. Wednesday (Feb. 28).
“Reverend Graham was so focused on Jesus,” said Meyer, 62, a member of the Evangelical Free Church. “That resulted in an honorable and respectful life, well deserving of this honor. That drew me here.”
When Meyer was in college, he went to a Graham crusade and worked with organizers for it, and he reads Christianity Today magazine, which Graham founded in 1956.
Others in line, from Baptists to Bruderhofs, spoke of other personal connections with the longtime evangelist, even if they never met him or saw him in person.
Denise Linton of Manassas, Va., arrived about an hour after Meyer.
“It’s such an honor for what he did for the world and in respect to my father,” said the Church of Christ member, tearing up as she explained why she came. “My father loved him and I remember as a little girl, my dad would sit by the hour and watch his crusades on television.”
A generation later, the 59-year-old retired schoolteacher still watches Graham’s crusade “classics” on the Trinity Broadcasting Network “whenever I can catch him on there.”
Members of Congress and invited officials attended a private service in the rotunda before crowds outside were scheduled to walk by Graham’s coffin.
Those in line recalled Graham speaking at locations ranging from Harvard University’s chapel to a crusade in Indonesia to a missions conference in Urbana, Ill.
Though many were of the generation that attended his crusades, others learned about him on their travels this week to the Capitol, where they stood in line across the street from an at-first longer line of observers waiting to watch oral arguments at the Supreme Court.
By 10:30, more than 200 people were waiting in the sunshine of the late winter day, eating Pop-Tarts or drinking coffee.
Mary Ann Merritt, 55, traveled from Richmond, Va., with her 90-year-old mother, Betty, who had been a Southern Baptist missionary in Nigeria and called Graham a “wonderful man.”
The Rev. Joyce Daniels of Aberdeen, Md., said she came because Graham’s voice was heard across the globe.
“He was one of the sons of thunder,” the hospital chaplain said, her clerical collar showing beneath her hooded jacket.
“Billy Graham had a very simple message: If you need to get right with God, do it now,” said Norm Gordon, pastor of a Presbyterian Church (USA) congregation in Falls Church, Va.
He said Graham was a leader of evangelicals as their movement shifted from fundamentalism to more mainstream acceptance to its current association with the religious right, including Graham’s son — evangelist Franklin Graham.
“It’s almost fitting that he’s dying now because his son is in a very different place ideologically and it sort of says we don’t know where this movement’s going,” Gordon said.
John Jordan, 18, of Orleans, Mass., said he learned more about Graham on his coach bus as he traveled with a home school group affiliated with the Community of Jesus, an ecumenical Christian movement in the Benedictine tradition.
“He was a really important figure and he was really important to a lot of people that we know,” Jordan said, referring to the parents of teens in his group. “He changed a lot of people’s lives.”
As scores more joined the line outside the Capitol, and the 11 a.m. ceremony was about to begin inside the white building gleaming in the sun, a couple too far away to get there in person was represented by an arrangement of white and red roses.
Flower deliverer James Brown from Lee’s Flower and Card Shop had tried to deliver them into the Capitol on the South Beach, Ore., couple’s behalf. Earlier he had successfully delivered five other arrangements to honor Graham; now, with access restricted, he had to wait to determine when he could make the couple’s delivery.
Though he was working, he too paused to remember Graham.
“He was a great religious person,” said Brown, a Baptist who attends a D.C. church. “Watched him all the time.”