The television would be on and there the show would be on or there might be an advertisement for it just before it was to start. This was my cue to call Grandma and tell her that Billy Graham was going to be on channel whatever. Sometime Grandma would beat us to it and the phone would ring our short two rings indicating to the others on our telephone party line that it was our call not theirs.
Dad was still out finishing up milking or not in the house and my mom and I and sometimes my brother, would watch it. I don’t remember Dad being in the house for it, maybe he had, but knowing what I know now, that wasn’t something he would watch.
My mom would love the singing before hand and usually George Beverly Shea would sing, “How Great Thou Art” or “I’d Rather Have Jesus”. Because it was a big deal to my mom it became a big deal to me and for years I would think about everything this whole thing was about. Why is his name Beverly? Why does he make that note on “gold” stretch out so far and annoyingly? Did I know anyone who sang that low? I was always a bit disappointed when I didn’t get to hear the “How Great Thou Art” because it painted a picture for me in my mind. Beautiful song. I sing it now when I walk on our road…alone. We never sang “I’d Rather Have Jesus” as it wasn’t in our hymnal. I would ask myself, “You there, old man (probably then way younger than I am right now), you would rather have Jesus than silver and gold?” Amazing. “The fencer just broke, the manure spreader froze up, the milk check is late, my mom is making me clothes and you would rather choose Jesus? I love Jesus, but some silver and gold would help out right now.” No judgment on Mr. Shea, but rather just observing.
Then there might be a singer before him, like say, Ethel Waters. Ethel Waters was a miracle to me. I didn’t know that she was so famous until I was grown. I didn’t see many people of color on television unless they were in a comedy role or on a late night talk show. I thought that if she was on there she must be something special. I really didn’t enjoy it much, but I took note.
Then a man named Cliff Barrows was doing the announcing and I think he also directed the choir. I was suspicious of his name being Cliff. It sounded sort of gimmicky, but he seemed sincere and I was surprised that he seemed to do two jobs at that crusade. Still he seemed sort of shiny and I was not completely falling for it.
Then Billy Graham came on and I listened with much boredom. He was theatrical and I wasn’t used to that though it made it more interesting. He didn’t wear a church robe so that made me wonder about him. His hair flipped up like my dad’s hair and that was nice. He had a southern accent and a different way of presentation. He had a bible in his hand mostly the whole time he spoke and I thought that was important. I tired to listen and take in what he said.Still, it was hard. I was a kid.
That is an odd match because I am from the Lutheran tradition and some of the things he said didn’t seem to be what I learned and yet there we were. Us calling Grandma and sitting around listening, listening. It was like Sunday sermon all over again except I was on the living room floor. As I got older I asked my mom about some of the points and it made us dig into the scripture to see what was what.
I really liked the altar call. It seemed brave for those people to come up there and then be on television to boot. We didn’t do something so bold during the Lutheran worship.”Just As I Am” was not sung in our church, but I know all the words today even though they now appear in a great larger number of hymnals. I liked it that Billy would call people to come down to give themselves to Jesus, he would share some scripture with them when they got to the altar and he would have a prayer with them. He said, “Come now.” Most importantly I remember him saying, “I will wait for you.”
I am sure there are things that he said that even now in my more adult, heavenly shook up and modified state I would not necessarily agree with…but I don’t remember the threatening, scary stuff that most likely was in the messages. What I do remember is how much he seemed to care if I was listening to God and letting Jesus track me down and make me his kid forever.
It is not lost on me as I am struggling with spiritual matters especially these last few months if not my whole life, that Billy Graham up and dies today and then that reminds me of the consolidation of the commandments, Love God “How Great Thou Art” and love your neighbor as yourself, “Come now, I will wait for you.”