Billy Graham is 93 years old today. And all over the world, people are discussing his influence and impact and remembering their own encounters with the world's leading evangelist.
I, too, am thinking Billy Graham -- more specifically, I'm recalling with great gratitude and fondness the first time I met him.
Sojourners had just settled and started up in Washington D.C., and I was still in my early twenties. The annual National Prayer Breakfast was approaching and, as was the custom then, a pre-Prayer Breakfast meeting for top evangelical leaders was organized to enable a more informal time of fellowship and discussion. Again it was a breakfast, the day before the big event where the president traditionally speaks to members of Congress and the Senate, most of the cabinet, and about 2,000 invited special guests from around the world -- all about the contribution of faith and prayer to our public life.
I had never been invited to the famous prayer breakfast, and certainly had not to the very-established evangelical leaders' meeting just beforehand.
Imagine my surprise when I got a personal invitation to the "leaders' breakfast." Why are they inviting me, I wondered, quite suspiciously to tell you the truth.
At Sojourners we were speaking out strongly for social justice, challenging racism in both the society and the church, and especially in opposing the war in Vietnam -- not commitments the evangelical world was known for at the time.
Why would they include me in a meeting like this? What do they want from me? Do they want to argue with me, or perhaps hope to try to co-opt me?
I arrived a little late -- not used to getting to fancy hotels and finding parking -- and the room was already full. But when I gave my name, the hostess seemed to know right where to take me.
"Follow me," she said. As we began to wind our way through the very old-looking crowd of white men, I saw that she seemed to be taking me to a table in the far corner of the hotel banquet room.
Then I saw him. Billy Graham was sitting at that table!
I almost stopped in my tracks. Graham was a household name in my evangelical family as I was growing up, and we faithfully watched all his crusades on television. No person in the world was more respected by my parents, or by our little evangelical Plymouth Brethren Church.
I noticed there was an empty chair right next to him. And then Graham looked up, saw me coming, and motioned to the open spot and for me to sit down.
I was stunned and speechless. But I sat down in the chair that had apparently been waiting for me, to Graham's dazzling smile, the warmest greeting, and embracing handshake that has mesmerized people all over the world.
Graham looked at me with those penetrating eyes and said, "Jim, it is so good to meet you. I think that you will be a leader for the next generation of young Christians. And I am a leader for the older establishment of evangelicals. There are people who would divide us, and pull us apart; but we can't let them do that. I want them to know that I agree with you on more things than they would imagine, and I thought we should start talking together."
So we did, over one of the most memorable breakfasts of my life. I soon realized that he had something to do with my surprising invitation to breakfast with the evangelical establishment that day. More conversations followed over the years and, in one of them, he said to me, "My calling is to preach the gospel of personal salvation, and yours in to preach the social implications of that same gospel. So I think our ministries are complementary."
Looking back now, I can hardly believe how gracious that early invitation and conversation was. We were just a bunch of rag-tag young evangelicals proclaiming a gospel of justice and peace, and were both willing and sometimes eager to challenge the establishments of both church and state on that message.
As the preeminent evangelical leader of the day, Graham didn't have to engage us at all, let alone put his arm around the back of the chair next to him at breakfast and ask a young evangelical what he and his generation thought about a lot of things. All of which showed what kind of leader -- and man --he always has been. Not only gracious and warm, he has been a bridge builder, mentor, and an encourager.
Graham has always been a life-long learner, passionate about preaching the gospel but always ready to understand more about what that gospel means in the world. It was never surprising to me that this southern-born-and-raised American evangelist decided early on to insist on preaching only to racially integrated coliseums and crusades, when many others just went along with their culture.
Later, as a result of falling in love with the new congregations he was preaching to in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, Graham had a "change of heart" on the nuclear arms race -- which we featured in a cover story interview with the evangelist in Sojourners magazine in 1979. (See below for images of the '79 story titled, "A Change of Heart," or click the following link to read the text in PDF form: A Change of Heart)
Graham also has been willing to admit his mistakes and grow from them, which is something all of us as "leaders" constantly need to learn. And while he has been a conservative evangelical all his life, Graham was never drawn to the hard-edged and politicized fundamentalism of the "Religious Right," but instead often winced at them.
Gratefully, Billy Graham is still with us at 93, even though we miss his active voice in so many ways today.
His wisdom, grace, and compassion is not always present in all or our leaders today, but his example is still very important.
Thank you Billy -- and happy birthday!
Jim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: A Guide for Economic and Moral Recovery, and CEO of Sojourners. He blogs at www.godspolitics.com. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.