Billy Graham just visited Oklahoma City for the fourth time. Previous stops included crusades in 1956 (the year of my birth) and again in 1983. He also came to town in 1995, immediately after the Oklahoma City bombing, to offer comfort to a community rocked by tragedy.
But I didn’t move to Oklahoma City until 1998. And, although I’ve lived many places in adulthood, my path had never crossed Graham’s before now.
For a mix of reasons—not the least being a fascination with celebrity—I was excited about the prospect of seeing and hearing 84-year old Graham, perhaps as he preached one of his last “missions” (today’s word for “crusades”). An added bonus was that George Beverly Shea, age 94, was also participating, along with that youngster Cliff Barrows, 82. That is the same gang that I remember growing up, when my evangelical Lutheran parents would force my siblings and me to watch every Billy Graham crusade on television. Reflecting back, I secretly enjoyed those broadcasts. They were fascinating, so entirely different from any church I had ever attended.
Now my family would have a chance—likely our only one—to see Graham in person, if only from the distance in an 18,000 seat arena.
Our church, located less than a mile from the arena where four days of services were held, encouraged members to attend the Billy Graham mission. We invited people on opening night, Thursday, to eat an early dinner together at church and then shuttle downtown in vans, carpool or walk together. This was the night that I—along with my husband and our two children—originally planned to attend.
But there was a complication. Our 11-year old son received a party invitation from one of his best friends for that same Thursday night. Should I make the pastor’s son, who is always in church, go hear Billy Graham, or to him “Billy Who?” How important should my reliving a part of my childhood faith experience be for him? While Graham is an icon of sorts, there’s really nothing magical about him, is there?
The solution: I would take my son to the Friday service instead. In fact, I also ended up not attending on Thursday, as media reported that those not in line before 5:00 were unlikely to find seats in the main arena. My husband and daughter opted to go ahead, sitting in an overflow area, where they watched via big screen. For me, that would defeat my purpose of seeing Graham in person, and I was glad my son didn’t have to forego a party just to see a TV image.
But concerns with lines and seats now meant that Friday’s plans were also in jeopardy. Because of scheduling problems, there wasn’t time for my husband to drive our son downtown, pick me up at work and deliver us both to the arena on his way to another event before 6:30.
After much internal debate, I went straight to the arena alone after work, getting in line at 4:45. Not only did I get a seat, but, unlike the night before, the main arena never did quite fill up. That meant my son could have attended after all.
Throughout the Friday service, I thought of the reasons it was better that my son was relaxing at home. Then the reasons I should have brought him along. He wouldn’t appreciate Bev and Cliff. But he probably would have enjoyed the 3,000-voice choir. Plus it was awesome to have 17,000 Christian people gathered together, of various colors and backgrounds, denominations and practices. Where else does that happen?
Personally, Billy and Bev and Cliff met all my expectations, each one still able to “bring it on.” Billy’s preaching, although not as forceful as decades ago (actually an improvement to me), was still Billy’s preaching. But my personal pinnacle was singing “How Great Thou Art” with George Beverly Shea.
Walking back to my car that night, I was spiritually and emotionally pumped—not my usual mode. But in some simpler, more youthful spirit, I let go and let that happen. All the while, however, I was still wondering about my son. Then another plan began to develop. I could take him to the youth service the next night!
And that’s what I did. My husband went too. (Our daughter had left town on a church mission trip by then.) Although I had tried to convey to my son the significance of Billy Graham—the history, the tradition, the fame, the wonder (and the fact that I don’t agree with Graham at every point)—an 11-year old couldn’t appreciate it all.
Several times late on Saturday night, however, my son spontaneously said, “Thanks for taking me. It was fun!” I think he meant the music, not the sermon so much. But I’m still glad he saw and heard the distant silver-haired orator who for over five decades has consistently called people to Christ.
So, I achieved my purpose of having my family experience Billy Graham live (okay, my daughter got the TV version). But in that tedious process, I was reminded that my spiritual heritage cannot be made over in my children. While I am glad to have shared Billy Graham with my son, our experiences of faith are unique and personal. With God’s help, this parent is going to try to remember that.
Karen Zurheide is executive director of Positive Tomorrows, a center providing support services for children and youth facing family life challenges.