This is turning out to be one of those embarrassing occasions where I latently discover my own ignorance of the legacy of famous people upon their deaths. Of course I know who Billy Graham is and the far rippling effects of his preaching of the gospel. But I didn’t realize until this week that I had not even once, ever, listened to one of his sermons. This is a curious realization in the Information Age. It’s like discovering that you don’t know how to read or text. This weekend I’m going to rectify this lack and listen to some sermons and interviews, and try to fill in another gap of my cultural education.
I did, though, always know that my grandmother and great aunt were at Wheaton with him, and that he was, one might say, a given, steady part of the Christian world in which they themselves lived. And I did know that he visited RVA, as my mother relates here.
Thinking about the first time I ever heard (or heard of) Billy Graham. I must’ve been about 10 years old — the age of one of my granddaughters now — when a tall, more than pretty-good preacher turned up at Rift Valley Academy in Kenya and spoke in the school chapel — a place which seemed huge to me at the time, but in more recent visits isn’t big at all. He was obviously wonderful–everyone thought so–but I couldn’t tell you what he said. A week later, all of us boarding school kids were taken off to Nairobi to listen to him speak at an open-air stadium, and what we liked best about that was getting to have a picnic on the grass. I grieve to say that I still didn’t pay much attention to what was being said. I was much more impressed by the early morning back at school when he was (I guess) leaving Kenya but was going to be flown over the Rift Valley in a small plane, and right over our soccer field. So someone (not me) wrote a message in white chalk on the field (“Thank You and Goodbye, Billy Graham”) and we all watched the plane and heard later that the pilot flying at 7,500 feet was surprised to find out how close he’d come to the field at 7,000 feet. So when I went home to Tanzania for the holidays and my grandfather asked me how things were, I must’ve mentioned among other things that someone named Billy Graham had come and preached. “Well,” said my grandfather, “did you introduce yourself to him and tell him that you were my granddaughter? No? Why not?” WHY NOT? It never occurred to me–the thought horrifies–and why should an unhappy, always-in-trouble-for-something ten-year-old walk up to a stranger and claim acquaintance with my grandfather? How was I to know that they knew each other from Wheaton, Illinois? Or that my sainted Aunt Kathryn was in his class in college, or that he wrote in her yearbook, “Glad to have met’cha. I bet’cha I’ll never forget’cha.”
I’m pretty sure that Aunty Kay and my Great Grandfather muscled their way to the front of the line to greet Billy Graham on his arrival home. But then, so did probably a lot of people. There was probably a mob. I bet it was pretty great.