Chasing Ambulances – How Billy Graham’s “Rapid Response Team” Exploits Tragedies For Jesus

[While Billy Graham has personally been retired from active ministry for many years, his organization continues to operate in his name. As such, so too shall his name be tied to criticism when it is leveraged to exploit the suffering of others.]

When I was first contacted by a resident of Westerville, OH about this story a couple of days ago, I initially thought, “Meh, what’s the big deal?” That is because I used to be part of the problem and it took a series of follow-up conversations for me to filly recognize my previous role in similar situations of chasing ambulances… for Jesus.

Imagine, your town is struck with an unthinkable tragedy; an earthquake, a tornado, or, as was the case in Westerville, OH over the weekend, two police officers are killed in the line of duty while responding to a 9-1-1 call. The entire community jumps into action, superfluous events are cancelled, important services are organized in churches and gymnasiums, candlelight vigils are held and flowers are left at a makeshift memorial – the whole community comes together as an outpouring of support is shared across the nation for the families, friends, and colleagues of the victims. Pastors and teachers, police and business owners – the entire town puts their lives on hold in order to grieve together, heal together – as a community. Eventually you just want the television crews to leave town so that you can rebuild together, quietly, privately – relying on one another just as you did a week before. But, just then… what’s that rumbling in the distance? Just over the horizon… It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s the official Billy Graham “Rapid Response Team” rolling into town in their behemoth Mobile Command Center – they’ve come to save exploit the day!

The presence of the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team led to a couple readers emailing to express their confusion over the outsider’s presence in their town. One woman wrote, “When I asked one of them why they came to Westerville, they told me they were asked to be here. When I asked who invited them, they told me they were here as representatives of God who commanded Christians to share the Gospel.”

Indeed, when you read the press release on the Billy Graham website, it states, fairly ambiguously: “An initial team of eight chaplains has been invited to provide spiritual and emotional care to the law enforcement community and the community-at-large during the days ahead,” said Josh Holland, assistant director for RRT.

Invited by who, exactly? Is there an organization in Westerville that put up the “bat signal”, or are these just tricky semantics meant to obfuscate that it was BGEA who invited their own volunteers to town on their behalf? I reached out directly to Holland for clarification, but have yet to receive a response.

One local business owner pulled no punches when I asked how he felt about the Rapid Response Team coming to Westerville, “Honestly, they’re not much different than those Westboro folks. They’re just using our tragedy to get their faces in front of the cameras to put more money in their damn pockets. It’s just insensitive. I know other folks have been asking the city to have them move their rig out of the way of our vigil.” (Indeed, the RRT truck was eventually relocated Tuesday afternoon.)

One woman wrote on the Billy Graham Facebook page, “I just want to honor these officers in peace! Who do you people think they are? I shouldn’t have to push though a bunch of outsiders wearing black uniforms to leave flowers at the memorial. This is my town, these are our people! What if they were atheists or Buddhists that died and the families wanted no part of your religion? Who do you think you are?”

While this might seem to be the ungrateful perspectives from residents suffering from aftershocks of grief, these aren’t the only comments I’ve received on the subject of “opportunistic vultures swooping in and preying on our town during a time of unthinkable grief.” I spent the last couple of days reaching out to more than 40 local residents, area pastors from nine area churches, and city officials on the subject, I feel that it’s worthy of a closer look. (Given the traumatic time for the police department, I specifically chose not to contact any officers or staff. So who knows, maybe a grieving officer called in Billy Graham for backup?) While nobody wanted to go on the record (for reasons that should become increasingly clear), I was nevertheless pleasantly surprised with the frank openness among many clergy once I shared my own background in ministry.

Before we go on, I feel it might be helpful to understand such cynical views by reflecting back to my own time in ministry. I’ll never forget sitting in a conference room on 9/11, watching the news unfold live on an enormous projection screen just after the plane hit the second tower, but before the first tower fell. A colleague began organizing staff members to respond, “What resources do we have in stock on grief and tragedy? Get them featured for sale on the home page – right now!” This led me into a terse exchange over the difference between meeting needs vs. exploiting them. It was an argument that eventually led to my colleague’s disgruntled departure (before quickly finding refuge in one of the many organizations that heavily rely on such tactics). But, I must admit that it was also pinnacle moment that would later weigh heavily on my own disillusionment over what “ministry” is really all about.

It was only a few months after the twin towers fell that I found myself at a conference of fellow ministry executives in Nashville where I’d spent the morning giving a lecture on the use of “new media” to reach the next generations for Christ (long before Facebook and Twitter had even been invented). Later that afternoon I was part of a roundtable discussion on the nuts-and-bolts realities of operating faith based non-profits in the quickly changing 21st century. Seated around the table were representatives from large ministries, American Bible Society, International Bible Society, Campus Crusade and a few others, including the godfather of them all, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (with a budget of over $100 Mil/year). The main topic at hand was the “death” of the old ways of doing ministry, and the struggle to find new donors who’d be willing to pay the bills for new ministry ventures. In business terms, it was about changing markets and adjusting supply to meet changing demands. Big tent evangelism had seen it’s day, Bible distribution was proving to be a dead end, and all ministries seemed to share the same sense of impending doom given the trend of donors shifting their giving habits away from “save a soul” evangelism toward more tangible “critical need” actions. And, I should admit, we all had good reason to be concerned – every donor dollar being diverted toward tragedy response (terrorist attacks, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes) was coming directly out of the pockets of organizations that once relied on those dollars to keep their evangelistic ministries afloat. More and more donors seemed to be speaking with their wallets, “I’m sorry, but I’d rather support first responders on site of a tragedy than give money to another pastor holding a Christian rock concert in the park.” Indeed, some ministries had already closed their doors after the majority of their budgets had gone missing, diverted to secular organizations like the RedCross and UNICEF actively doing important, tangible work on the ground – with cameras rolling.

As the evening went on the discussion took a turn toward the obvious. If only there were a way to combine the two… tragedy and opportunity? What if, as Christians, we could get in on some of the limelight that was being showered on all of the courageous first responders? After all, what do people need more than Jesus? Nothing! What if we had our own shiny black trucks and official looking high-viz vests? They’re just handing out water, we’re the important ones offering a path to eternal life! What if we were able to insert ourselves into the middle of high-profile tragedies and make people (donors) see that Jesus (we) should be at the center of attention? We’d be heroes!

Nah, that would never have happened that way. Too tacky, right? Wrong. It’s not pretty, but this is how sausage is made. Give me a national tragedy like 9/11 and I’ll give you at leas three ministries that were launched as a direct (opportunistic) result. Yet, with the right carefully curated messaging being executed by the right ministry beyond reproach, such a ploy might not just be palatable, but applauded and, dare I say… lucrative! Indeed, for years Billy Graham’s RRT has been messaging it right, constantly reminding donors that they launched the idea in response to 9/11, the worst tragedy in anyone’s memory! And, it’s no mistake that their marketing is focused on using phrases like “deployment” amidst “chaos” where “rapid response” is needed – complete with photos of chaplains adorned in official first-responder wear. Tragedy sells. (There’s a reason other major ministries like American Bible Society also shifter their focus to new ventures like the “Trauma Healing Institute” – responding to crisis “sells” better than decades-old Bible translation.)

Yet, as one Westerville resident remarked online, “All they’re really doing is just standing around holding hands and praying toward each other. When somebody walks by they just pray louder, sometimes hollering out they’d like to pray with you. It’s like they’re begging to be seen. Why else would they need to park right in front of the memorial where all the cameras are? This is about publicity and it’s gross.”

In reviewing the 2016 Financial Report for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, it appears that the organization spent almost $3.5 MIL on the Rapid Response Team that year. While this may seem like spare change compared to the $16 Mil spent on Franklin’s political “Decision America Tour”, it is an impressive expense when you consider that all of the chaplains are unpaid volunteers. $3.5 MIL pays for a lot of gas and hotel rooms! Unfortunately, IRS rules don’t require non-profits to disclose how funds are raised, just how they are spent. Given the attention that Franklin gives the RRT in the wake of any well-covered national tragedy and the laser focus afforded by BGEA’s press releases, I’d be willing to bet the RRT’s income far exceeds the $3.5MIL in expense. But, for what purpose?

According to the BGEA’s latest Annual Report, a main communications piece used in non-profit fundraising, “RRT chaplains assisted nearly 143,000 victims by year’s end and personally prayed with over 35,700 individuals. We give God all the glory for the thousands of people comforted in Jesus’ Name and for the 1,132 individuals who chose to repent, and serve Jesus Christ as Lord.”

Well, there you have it – the most important metric, a hand raised is a dollar earned. Swoop in in the midst of a horrible tragedy, find those suffering in their darkest hours, and pray for prey on them, another “raised hand” to claim in fundraising reports. Some things never change… tragedy sells, but the ticket to fundraising success is conversion.

Cynical? Yes. Accurate? Absolutely.

When I asked one pastor if he felt his church was being “supported” as the BGEA press release states to be their mission, he laughed. “Do you really think we’re all just sitting around clueless when these things go down? You really think we’re just rocking back and forth, wringing our hands, hoping that the great Billy Graham is going to show up and take over? Please, nobody I know invited them. Why would they? We all have counselors on staff. We’ve all held memorial services and reached out to the families and fellow officers. I’d love to know who invited them because it’s an insult to those of us who have devoted our lives to the people of this community. But, nobody’s ever going to say that.”

Why not?

Also speaking on the condition of anonymity, one retired pastor (who still volunteers at the church he planted decades earlier) seemed to sum it up well. “You don’t question Billy Graham, it’s just not done. When his people come to town you’re expected to line up to kiss the ring. He’s the king, you know. Back when Billy was in charge,” [as I mentioned Billy Graham retired from ministry in 2000, before the RRT was created.] “he would have at least called you first. But now they just do whatever they want and we’ll do what we’ve done for decades now, just act like they’re the second coming of Christ or something, you know, Billy, now Franklin, they’re just Christian royalty up on their throne.”

“Rapid Response?” one youth pastor questioned. “We’d already had a bunch of events before they showed up. At a couple churches, at the high school. Then they show up? Why? I mean, I don’t know it just feels like they’re just here to stroke their own egos for a photo opp. I’m just glad Franklin is overseas right now. It’s like he wants to be the knight in shining armor or something. It’s like they’re here to take all the credit for healing a community that’s perfectly capable of healing itself. I could probably name every cop on that force and tell you wear they live and who their kids friends are. Rapid Response? I’m surprised they aren’t walking around with guns to feel more important.”

“Have no fear,” one pastor joked, “when tragedy strikes, the Billy Graham Team will be there!” After a short pause he adds, “To get their pictures taken and take donations.”

One city official was a bit more careful in the choosing words, “Of course it’s great to see an outpouring of support from across the country. Even the New York Yankees sent flowers and we appreciate all the love and support we can get. I’d just ask that next time they don’t park their enormous rig right in front of the memorial where mourners are trying to gather in peace.”

Fair enough?

– Horus Gilgamesh, abletochoose@horusg.com

EDIT: Even as I was writing this story, Franklin Graham was already deploying the Rapid Response Team to the site of the latest school shooting in Parkland, FL. After all, where there’s a tragedy (and cameras)…

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