Billy Graham, the Ecumenical Evangelist He had an ability to reach across denominational lines and ‘speak to the common believing heart.’

You know the miraculous life of Louis Zamperini, whose story was told in Laura Hillenbrand’s epic, lovely book, “Unbroken.” Louis was the delinquent, knockabout son of Italian immigrants in Torrance, Calif., who went on to run for America in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, then joined the Army Air Corps before Pearl Harbor. He crashed in the Pacific, drifted in a raft on open sea for 47 days, came near death—shark attacks, storms, strafing by Japanese bombers—and survived, only to be captured by enemy troops. He spent two years in Japanese prison camps—beaten, tortured, brutalized as much as a person can be and still live.

Billy Graham by Yousuf Karsh
Yousuf Karsh’s 1972 portrait of Billy Graham, which hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.

He came back a hero, shocked to be alive. But his life went from rise to descent—rage, alcoholism, destruction. He couldn’t focus enough to make a living, couldn’t stop the downhill slide. His wife, Cynthia, announced she was leaving. One day a neighbor told them of something going on in town, in L.A. An evangelist named Billy Graham had set up a tent and invited the public. Cynthia grabbed at the straw, but Louie refused. He wasn’t going to watch some con man screaming. Cynthia argued for days and finally fibbed. Billy Graham, she said, talks a lot about science. Louie liked science. So he went, grudgingly, and they sat in the back. The following quotes are from “Unbroken.”

This is what Billy Graham looked like: “His remarkably tall blond hair fluttered on the summit of a remarkably tall head, which in turn topped a remarkably tall body. He had a direct gaze” and “a southern sway in his voice.” Studio chiefs saw a leading man and offered him a movie contract. Graham laughed and said he wouldn’t do it for a million a month. He was 31 and had been traveling the world for years.

It cost him to be Billy Graham. He wanted to end his crusades, but their success convinced him “Providence had other wishes.”

This is what he hid: He was wearing out. “For many hours a day, seven days a week, he preached to vast throngs, and each sermon was a workout, delivered in a booming voice, punctuated with broad gestures of the hands, arms, body. He got up as early as five, and he stayed in the tent late into the night, counseling troubled souls.” His weight dropped and there were circles under his eyes. “At times he felt that if he stopped moving his legs would buckle, so he took to pacing his pulpit to keep himself from keeling over.”

This is what Billy Graham was not like: Elmer Gantry. Louie expected “the sort of frothy, holy-rolling charlatan that he’d seen preaching near Torrance when he was a boy. What he saw instead was a brisk, neatly groomed man two years younger than himself.” This man was . . . serious. “He asked his listeners to open their Bibles to the eighth chapter of John. ”

This is what Billy Graham said: “Here tonight, there’s a drowning man, a drowning woman . . . a drowning boy, a drowning girl that is lost in the sea of life.”

He spoke of the Pharisees surrounding Jesus that day in the temple and presenting the woman taken in adultery. Moses in the law commanded us, they said, that she should be stoned. What say you? Jesus stooped down and wrote with his finger on the ground, as if he hadn’t heard. They pressed; he wrote. He lifted himself and said: “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” They were convicted by their own conscience and left. Jesus, alone with the woman, asked: “Has no one condemned thee?” No man, she said. He said, “Neither do I condemn thee. Go now and sin no more.”

But what was Jesus writing on the ground? Graham suggested Christ was enacting the writing of the facts of our individual lives: “God takes down your life from the time you were born to the time you die.” He will see the truth. “You’re going to say, ‘Lord, I wasn’t such a bad fellow.’ ”

Louie felt something tighten. He felt “a lurking, nameless uneasiness,” like “the shudder of sharks rasping their backs along the bottom of the raft.”

And so began his conversion. He went on to a life of greatness, helping boys as lost as he’d once been.

That is the importance of Billy Graham. We talk about the “friend of presidents” who “moved among the powerful,” but he was a man who wanted to help you save your soul whoever you were, in whatever circumstance. And there would have been millions.

“Louis wasn’t the only one in the tent,” Laura Hillenbrand said this week, by phone: “Without Rev. Graham, Louie would not have lived.”

“What reached into Louis’s soul,” she added, “was Graham’s ability to reach into the individual, the person in front of him—of God being interested in him personally.” Louis had to come to terms with two huge things, the mystery of his suffering (why did this injustice happen?) and the mystery of his survival (so many others are gone). But you didn’t have to float on a raft and be tortured to suffer: “Everyone suffers. Louis was no different from anyone else in the tent that night.”

He’s still no different from anyone else in the tent.

Here I want to say: I think there was something different and special going on between Catholics and Billy Graham. They saw, as Louis Zamperini, raised Catholic, saw, his earnestness, his confidence in his message. They saw him swimming against the modern tide, as they often felt they were. And maybe they looked and imagined the cost.

I asked the archbishop of Philadelphia, Charles Chaput, if he saw this also. He emailed back: “When I was growing up, back in the 1950s, relations between Catholics and Protestants were still wary.” But Catholic families “felt that Billy Graham was the Protestant preacher they could feel a real kinship with. He had the ability to reach across all the fractures in Christianity and speak to the common believing heart.” Archbishop Chaput compared him to C.S. Lewis. “In a sense, he spoke the same kind of ‘mere’ Christianity that Lewis did so well, but with an American accent.”

As the big thing to be desired now is that we hold together as a nation and not split apart, Graham’s ecumenical force should be noted among his achievements.

Throughout his life Billy Graham had an air of “I’m not important, God is important.” It didn’t seem like a line but a conviction. He said once: “I am not going to Heaven because I have preached to great crowds. . . . I am going to Heaven just like the thief on the cross who said in that last moment, ‘Lord, remember me.’ ”

And Christ said: “This day you will be with me in Paradise.”

Graham’s son asked what he wanted on his gravestone. He thought and said, “Preacher.”

Since Wednesday morning one of his quotes was all over social media: “Someday you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. I will just have changed my address. I will have gone into the presence of God.”

Rest in peace, American preacher man.

On to paradise. “Flights of Angels take thee to thy rest.”