American evangelists don’t get as good a press nowadays as they did when I was young. Any kind of assurance, blessed or not, is now greeted with suspicion – which makes it remarkable that so many people still have such good things to say about Dr Billy Graham, who died this month at the age of 99.
He preached conversion to vast numbers of people over the years. I was one of them, and I remember wanting to respond to his appeal to “get up out of your seats” when I attended his rally at Harringay in 1954, when I was about nine. But I was too shy to move.
Nevertheless I did become a Christian not long afterwards – just before my father died when I was ten and our family’s life was turned on its head.
A little more than 12 years after that, through a series of strange events involving a holiday in Somerset and an apparently chance meeting with a Scotsman, I actually moved to London from Norwich – surprising myself as much as anyone – and began work for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
No, I wasn’t an apprentice preacher. I worked for a newspaper called The Christian – a very old British national weekly that the BGEA had just acquired. I was an editorial assistant, and I met some interesting people, including a Birmingham typist called Stephanie Drew who I encouraged to leave and become a nurse. Not one of my more far-sighted moves, though it proved good for her.
I even met Dr Graham on a couple of occasions, and I have to say that despite being my employer, he impressed me. I also made some friends who are still close, if you can call Ontario and Leyton close. Roger Murray, our wedding photographer, emigrated to Canada and through hard work became wildly successful as a publisher, photographer, artist and graphic designer. David Coomes because a producer at the BBC: The Moral Maze was one of his best-known programmes.
I left The Christian briefly to complete a degree at Birkbeck College, and while I was away the BGEA sold the paper and made its staff redundant. I don’t blame Billy Graham: I doubt that he knew much about it. But it was a sad loss. Eventually I found a job at the Acton Gazette in West London and from there a few years later moved back to Norwich and a job on the Eastern Daily Press. The rest is history. In fact, it’s all history.
But Dr Graham’s death brought it back. Am I as sure now as I was then? I think you get less sure of the details of life, the universe and everything as you get older, but I am just as sure of the essentials that Billy Graham preached and which I grasped firmly but often failed to live out. But that’s what Christianity is about: not being good, but being forgiven.
I owe as much now to another prominent Christian: the Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Rev Graham James, who I admire greatly for his intelligence, kindness and his deeply held faith. I think he, like Billy Graham, would echo the words of another bishop, Stephen Verney, as to what faith is all about:
“Faith is being grasped by a truth which confronts you and which is self-evident and overwhelming, and then trusting yourself to the reality which you now see.”
That’s not something that goes away.