On Nov. 7, Rev. Billy Graham will celebrate his 99th birthday in the peaceful mountains of North Carolina where he is comforted by caregivers, family visits, and daily prayer.
His home today is a simple log cabin built more than a half century ago by his late wife, Ruth, who committed early on to provide an anchor for Billy while she raised four children and he preached around the world. The loss of his devoted partner in June 2007 is profound, but Billy finds comfort in his Savior’s promise of everlasting life.
To visit Billy in these simple, modest surroundings defies one’s ability to appreciate fully that you are in the presence of one of the most powerful, influential leaders of our time.
As relaxed as any personal conversation with Billy can be, the legacy of this incredible man of God is overpowering. Yet, Billy is down to earth and self-effacing. For him, “All the glory belongs to God. … I am just a spectator for His good works.”
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No place on Earth, no matter how remote, is beyond the reach of Billy’s message of hope and encouragement. For more than seven decades, Billy has circled the globe preaching in the name of his Savior. The message is as timeless today as it was in a Los Angeles tent in 1949 where his crusades were born.
Billy Graham held preached at 415 crusades attended by more than 84 million people. He has authored some 50 books, preached to more than 215 million in live audiences in 185 countries spanning six continents. Hundreds of millions more have heard his compelling message on radio, television, via satellite and now through his ministry’s website that attracts more than one million visitors a month.
Billy’s sermons have been lip-synced into 50 languages and dialects, thus bridging the limitations of culture, tradition and restrictions on religious expression. Much of this history is honored in the Billy Graham Library, which has welcomed more than 1.1 million visitors since it opened in Charlotte, North Carolina in 2007.
Now members of Billy’s family carry on their own unique missions.
Billy’s daughter Anne Graham Lotz projects an inspiring message of faith shared with the tone and uplifting delivery so akin to that of her father. Billy’s oldest son, Franklin, preaches and serves around the world through festivals whose total attendance now exceeds 10 million. Franklin serves as chairman of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association while leading and inspiring important relief efforts for victims of poverty, hurricanes, war, earthquakes, floods, disease, and famine.
In the past few weeks alone, Samaritan’s Purse and the Billy Graham rapid response teams have rushed to assist victims in Puerto Rico, Florida, Texas, Las Vegas, and northern California. Meanwhile, Will Graham, Franklin’s son and Billy’s grandson, is rising as a dynamic preacher in his own right.
I have been associated with Billy’s ministry for close to 50 years, many of those as a member of his board.
Throughout my newspaper and public-service careers, Billy was there for encouragement and prayer. In 1969, we asked him to dedicate a new chapel built in the concourse of the Pentagon. He was at my side when we were comforting the families of POWs and missing men during the Vietnam War. He delivered the invocation when I was sworn in as an ambassador and he invited me to serve with the leadership of two crusades — one of four bicentennial crusades in 1976 and in 2003, one of his final crusades, both in San Diego.
His followers have marveled at how he has led people out of the depth of depression and the ravages of natural disaster. He provided hope for millions behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War and has uplifted thousands held as political prisoners at the hands of ruthless dictators.
Though he struggles now with health issues, Billy Graham’s spirits are strong, stronger than ever. He knows where he is headed and speaks openly about such matters, longing for that day when he and Ruth will be reunited.
Legacies, no matter how profound or unique, are meant to be passed along as lessons for future generations. In that spirit, Billy Graham’s birthday is a time to remind ourselves that though his voice is weak and his health frail, he remains unwavering in his timeless message centered on prayer, integrity, humble service and trust in the Lord.
Dick Capen, a former publisher of the Miami Herald, is former U.S. ambassador to Spain and the retired director of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.