No.15: BILLY GRAHAM
My life has fallen into a few stages.
As a child, I lived in Box Hill when it was a Village. I then became Pastor to the
Slums of Inner Melbourne for eight years. I was then a Country Parson and a
Teacher at a One Teacher Bush School out at Jackson Creek in Western Victoria
and then for thirteen years, I was a Suburban Minister in one of Australia’s
largest suburban ministries.
And now, for more than 20 years I’ve been Superintendent in Sydney of Wesley
Mission, Australia’s largest church ministry.
I’ve told you stories of people in each of these places.
Tonight I want you to come with me into the heart of the city.
When Billy Graham first came to Australia in 1959 he had a tremendous impact upon Christian people in the community in general. His crusades were well attended everywhere he went.
The crowds in Sydney filled both the Sydney Cricket Ground and the Sydney Show Ground. In Melbourne the largest crowd that had ever gathered until that time had gathered in the Melbourne Cricket Ground with 120,000 people present. They were allowed to not only pack every seat in the grandstands but also in the grass and far surpassed the previous highest attendance, which was during the Olympic games.
While Billy Graham was in Melbourne he had a special school for evangelists. I had seen this advertised some months earlier but I was only a third year Bible College student and didn’t qualify. However, I wrote to the Head Office of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in America and requested that I be granted permission to attend the School of Evangelism. I explained that while I was not an evangelist at that time and was only in my third year of training, the fact was that one day I would be an evangelist. It was my ambition to preach the Gospel to many people in public buildings, open air rallies, on radio and may be even on television. I wanted to take advantage of what Mr. Graham would have to teach us. I was overjoyed when I received a letter indicating that I could attend. I was the youngest by far and in that gathering were all the well-known identities in church leadership and evangelism in Victoria.
At the end of one of his lectures on evangelism I dared to ask Mr. Graham a question. I explained that I was only a young man learning to be an evangelist and asked him what are the things about which I should be aware of in my life as an evangelist. Billy looked on me kindly and replied, “There are three great dangers. The first is women. You should make sure your life is morally pure and never get engaged in any entanglements with women nor even give the impression that you are friendly with anybody else except your wife. The second great danger will be money. You should always be scrupulously honest in the way you handle money. God will enable a lot of money to pass through your hands, if you allow none of it to stick there. The third danger is pride. If you manage to avoid the first two dangers then you will probably fall into the trap of pride.” I have never forgotten Bill’s answer and I have always kept his warning clearly in my mind.
Twenty years later, Billy Graham again came to Australia, and this time when he came to Sydney I was the newly appointed Superintendent of Wesley Mission. By this time the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association had already come to know of some of my evangelistic endeavours during the 1970’s and therefore I was invited earlier in the year to join with members of the team to give a lecture to 800 clergy in the Billy Graham School of Evangelism. Again I was among the youngest in the audience and to be lecturing these 800 New South Wales church leaders and evangelists on how to do their own work was a great responsibility and one that could easily have put me off side with so many who were more senior and experienced than I was.
The Sunday of the opening crusade meeting I held a morning service in the Lyceum Theatre with Billy Graham’s special soloist Evie Tornquist. She was a gorgeous blond with a marvellous singing voice and the Lyceum Theatre was packed with 1300 people present. I had asked Dr T W Wilson to speak, an associate evangelist of Billy’s and a man who had become my close friend back in 1959. More than 40 years later we are still exchanging letters and cards with each other. The Sunday afternoon that Billy spoke at the first crusade meeting proved to be a gorgeous day. The stands at Randwick Racecourse were packed and I had been given the privilege of saying the opening prayer which was heard not only by the 50,000 people present but which was part of the world wide radio broadcast and part of a television programme that would be screened to millions of people world wide. This was a great honour and I thoroughly enjoyed the exposure.
After that service I received the message that Mr. Graham would like to see me during the following week. That one meeting turned into three private meetings. Billy Graham asked if I would like to join their team as a special lecturer in the Schools for Evangelism. He had heard reports and had heard me personally and asked if I could come four times a year to wherever he was conducting a major programme anywhere in the world to give some lectures to others on evangelism.
This was a great honour and I was deeply moved. I wrote in my diary on the 18th of May “ I have met with Billy three times. His friendship was warm and genuine. Every member of the team has been very encouraging. Billy has discussed with me his invitation to be a major lecturer in his Schools for Evangelism Church Growth and Nurture to each of his four major crusades around the world each year this invitation deeply moved me and for one of those rare times I felt very humbled. The generosity of the travel conditions will be very useful to Wesley Central Mission and thus should open the way to world contacts with Christian leaders. This is unquestionably a great opportunity and one I want to share with Beverley to the uttermost.”
However I was not to accept his invitation. The work at Wesley Mission in those days was precariously balanced with a great deal of financial trouble. It really needed a consistent and steady hand and to be away four times each year would be too much. I wrote and thanked Mr Graham for his invitation and indicated that I would be honoured to once a year go to a major centre where he was conducting a crusade to give the lectures.
The first such invitation came in October the following year 1980 and it couldn’t have come at a worse time.
Thanks to the help of Professor Alf Pollard I had the Mission’s finances well structured and therefore to take a week away in America fitted in to the diary quite well. I travelled via San Francisco to San Jose. This is in the heart of Silicon Valley and I was to preach in a number of preliminary crusade meetings before Mr Graham arrived. On the day the Billy Graham arrived I was having breakfast with about thirty members of the team. Billy came in to the room, greeted some old friends and went and sat at his place at the head table. After grace he looked up saw me in the distance and came over and asked me to come up to the head table where I was given a position between himself and Cliff Barrows. My first appointment as an associate evangelist was to speak in the San Quentin prison. Hundreds of prisoners sat there listening to the musicians that were with the team. They were a couple of cowboys called the Agajanian Brothers and could play country music incredibly well. I didn’t have a great impact on the prisoners of San Quentin although scores of them spoke to me afterwards with words of appreciation. I gave a lecture the first of three in the large Bethel church of San Jose. There were 2000 ministers gathered there from around the United States to listen to my lectures and those of other dignitaries that travelled with the Graham team on evangelism. I made some very good friends there that day that have lasted until now.
People who work with Billy Graham, and Billy himself supremely live a life under threat from crazy gun toting people who believe if they can shoot the evangelists they will get a lot of notoriety. On this particular trip when I preached in one last church seating 2,500 people to two packed services one after the other, I was met in the car park and immediately told by some people to get out of my car and come with them immediately and someone would park the car for me. They whisked me into the back door of the church at a speed of knots which astounded me. I was taken up back stairways until I came into the church vestry. There were several armed guards in the foyer of the church and one outside the door of the vestry. I was told that the police had been notified that that morning an attempt would be made to shoot the preacher during the telecast service. I was the preacher! Only one of the services was to be telecast but on this occasion they were going to telecast both services and I had been asked to prepare two different addresses one of which would be used in a subsequent week. It was not know when the attempt on the life of the preacher was to be made but it would be during one of the two services.
When the time for the service began I had prayer with the elders and the other ministers and walked onto the platform and sat in the pulpit while other people led the opening exercises of the service. There was a large orchestra accompanying the organ, piano and the magnificent choir of some 250 voices. The church was packed for both services. Sitting in the pulpit with me was an armed guard holding a firearm. Immediately in front of the pulpit facing the congregation was another armed guard. I preached the sermon surrounded as I was with such armed protection and at the end of my sermon was immediately ushered out through a back door of the pulpit and into the protected vestry. I was not allowed to meet people at the front door of the church or greet any body. Obviously nothing happened that morning but it was an illustration of the queer events that surround us when we proclaim the gospel.
Another unusual thing that happened to me during the Billy Graham Crusade in San Jose had also to do with security. I was assigned a car driver and a security man. The security man was a senior police official from the Jose county who had volunteered his time and like other members of the force were given security tasks of caring for various speakers. This meant that whenever I went on an official function I had to have a security guard travel with me. The other was the driver who drive a big American limo. I was not allowed to walk to the crusade entrance or to go in through any of the gates I had to be driven and we were taken in by a different entrance which was a high security entrance and driven to the back part of the platform from which we spoke. I obviously understood how Dr Graham had to live in this tight web of security but I didn’t understand why one of his associates or helpers should have to also have that high degree of security. But unfortunately the number of people in America who are crazy enough to make an attempt on the life of such a person in such a public place is sufficiently large to warrant such security. I become close friends with my senior police security and also with my driver. One day when I was travelling in the limo with my driver I said to him “Now I know you are a volunteer doing this service but it is obvious you are not a taxi driver. What were you doing before you started doing this work of driving as a volunteer for the Billy Graham association?” He looked at me and said “I was in prison”. “Why were you in prison” I asked, and he replied “Because I had failed in my Christian duty. Because I became swelled up with pride. Because I forgot the Ten Commandments. And because I was guilty of a serious crime.”
Later that night we had coffee together and he filled me in on the details. He was the son of a judge in an affluent New England State. He had a privileged life and it was expected he would go into law. He went to Harvard Law School and graduated with the highest possible honours. He was immediately made an associate of one of the most distinguished judges in his home state. He had a career path clearly set before him and it would be possible that he could have become a judge of the Supreme Court of the United States. He was intelligent, extremely dedicated to the law and highly competent. He married a very fine woman from one of the best and well connected families in New England. In law or politics his future was guaranteed. He had a large home, horses, a farm, and a beachside house. He used to invite people there for holidays and it was there he found some of his guests involved in taking cocaine. After a period of time he succumbed to the temptation to try cocaine and began to sniff cocaine himself. Then some of his friends had difficulties in getting quantities of cocaine. They needed both large sums of money to buy the cocaine in the purity and quantity that they needed. Within a matter of a year or so he had financed several very large importations of cocaine from South America. That returned enormous amounts of money to him and he enjoyed the benefits of being so wealthy.
Of course eventually he got caught. He and learned lawyers connected with his father put up spirited defence but he was a convicted felon, convicted on the grounds of importing and distributing prohibited drugs. He went to prison. It was while he was in prison he was converted through watching a Billy Graham televised Crusade. Other Christians within the prison helped him grow in his faith. At the end of his prison sentence upon release the Billy Graham organization accepted him as a volunteer and gave him the task of driving me around during the San Jose crusade.
I kept in contact with him over the years that followed and eventually rejoiced when for the first time in history the bar association in his state accepted him back into practise as a lawyer.
Incidentally that story had an interested sequel. About six months later, I was preaching in a large Anglican church in Sydney when I met an intelligent and competent man who told me he drove taxi’s for a living. I told him that having listened to him speak to me during our discussion that he had an education and a background that didn’t fit in with his occupation as a taxi driver. He told me he was a lawyer but had been disbarred. I told him about my friend in San Jose and within a week or two and within a week or two had offered him a job working with us at Wesley Mission. I am proud to say that he is working with us at Wesley Mission still, is one of our most highly regarded Christian men, and it was my privilege some years ago to help support an application for him to be re-submitted to the bar. God’s grace is seen constantly in the changed lives of people who give themselves to Him in total commitment.
On the Sunday morning of the San Jose crusade I was invited to speak at the Crystal Cathedral with Dr Robert Schuller. I had met Dr Schuller several times before the first being back in 1972 and then subsequently when I spoke on the platform with him at some Church Growth and Evangelism workshops in Australia. Dr Schuller very generously invited me to share his platform. His interview guests that day were Bonnie and Jack Wraither. They were millionaire film producers from Hollywood. Gathered with us was Roger Williams the pianist. Bonnie Wraither was the producer of all of the Lassie Come Home films and Jack Wraither had produced had produced the series The Lone Ranger and many other television specials. He was the man who had purchased the famous Spruce Goose the largest wooden plane ever to be flown by the eccentric multi millionaire Howard Hughes. Jack had also purchased the Queen Mary, then the largest floating vessel in the world and tied her up to a wharf near the Spruce Goose. Together they owned the Disneyland Hotel and had a million acre ranch in Western Australia about which they wanted to talk to me.
Schuller explained the problem. Veterans day was coming up and he wanted to buy a 32 foot American flag. He was saying that financial pressures were so great that he wasn’t able to afford the $6000 price tag. I instantly recognized what Bob Schuller had in mind and opening my wallet took out a $20 US note and put it down on his desk and said to Jack and Bonnie “ Why don’t we buy Schuller the flag together. I’ll put a deposit on it and you can handle the instalments.” Jack Wraither laughed and promised Schuller he would pay him the remaining $5980 on the flag upon which I had placed the deposit. So together Schuller stated his need, two men used there resources and the problem was solved. Schuller has his flag and you will see it in every telecast each Veterans and Memorial Day from the Crystal Cathedral.
However things were not happy at home. When I had left to go to San Jose for the week, Beverly was very troubled about her sister Gwen. Gwen lived in Melbourne with her husband Jim. They didn’t have children and were Uncle and Aunt to our children whom they loved dearly. Gwen had developed cancer in the pancreas and very quickly became week. She was quite ill the day I left for the San Jose Crusade but in the first three or four days that I was away she went downhill quickly. Beverly spoke with her every few hours on the telephone but the disease rapidly advanced throughout her body. While Beverly was talking to Jim on the phone Gwen quietly died. Beverly immediately left Sydney and flew to Melbourne and my secretary Faye Overtone shifted into our home at Roseville to care for the four children. Gwen had been a wonderful sister and she and Beverly had been as close as two sisters could be. Gwen was a tremendous friend to us all an ideal sister and a wonderful Aunt to the kids. I was so shocked to hear on ringing the family that she had passed away so quickly.
I rang Beverly in Melbourne and immediately made inquiries of Qantas to get the first flight back home. But there was no way in which I could get a plane back home in time for the funeral. I not only lost a day flying back across the International Dateline but the difference in time between America and Australia meant I couldn’t have arrived in time for the funeral. It was a most unusual experience that night at the crusade in Spartan Stadium. I was sitting next to Mr Graham at his request. Cliff Barrows had announced that my wife’s sister had just died in Melbourne and in the opening prayer Gwen’s life and death were remembered. Billy Graham preached a powerful sermon that night to 25,000 people present. Some 980 came forward in commitment to Christ. But the point that I will never forget was that while I was on the platform and Mr Graham was speaking in San Jose Beverly and our loved ones were in Melbourne attending Gwen’s funeral. My eyes were filled with tears as across the miles and across the ocean our hearts were united. Our faith had united our hearts. I wrote in my diary that night “It was a sad time. I was in tears often. Billy started speaking at 8pm which was 1pm Melbourne time the exact starting time of the funeral. I imagined the church the people in it the family and friends gathering and every moment that went past I imagined what was happening back home. I prayed and shared in the events half a world away it was a queer experience to be on a Wednesday night 8pm in a stadium in California when in Australia it was Thursday afternoon 1pm and all of my loved ones were in a church mourning the death of my wife’s sister.”
I was to meet with Billy Graham on many other occasions in other crusades. It was also a privilege on his behalf to attend a number of Schools on Evangelism, Church Growth and Nurture and to lecture students at Wheaton College and on behalf of the BGEA to speak in great churches in Memphis and Fort Worth and Norfolk Virginia.
Mr Graham followed those lectures with an invitation to lecture in 1984 in Amsterdam to 10,000 evangelists who gathered there for the first International Conference on Evangelism. This was followed by another such conference in 1986 when 10,000 evangelists from around the world gathered. On each occasion I was asked to speak on the theme of ‘The Social Responsibility of the Evangelist’. It was a privilege to meet with leading evangelists from around the world and a network of friendships developed between these men and women who give their lives to proclaiming the gospel in every corner of the earth.
That was not my role. I was the pastor to the people who met at Wesley Mission and the Superintendent of Wesley Mission exercising a ministry of social responsibility as well as preaching the gospel in settled place.
I had no calling from God to be an itinerant evangelist nor to preach on the international platforms of the world. I had a strong and deep commitment to the people of Australia and to the people of my congregations in Sydney. That’s where I would spend my life with occasional visits to join with others in teaching evangelism.
My personal knowledge of over forty years is that in Billy Graham we have seen one of God’s great preachers, one who has honestly and fearlessly proclaimed the gospel and fulfilled in the most honourable of ways the work of an evangelist. Now in frail health we still honour Billy Graham not only a great evangelist, but a good man.
The city of Sydney would grow to be one of the world’s great cities and Wesley Mission would grow to be one of the world’s great churches and I was privileged to spend each day in the heart of both.