Yesterday marked the passing of a great man of God: the evangelist Billy Graham. Though he did far more than preach the Gospel to millions and lead millions to the Lord, as founder of Christianity Today, leading his own organization, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and helped begin significant Christian groups like the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, and the Lausanne Consultation on World Evangelism, he will still be known as an evangelist. Clearly Billy Graham viewed evangelism as his highest priority.
He was also a good father and husband, and kept a team together for five decades. He trained some of the most capable leaders of our day, including his son, Franklin, who now leads the BGEA and Samaritans Purse.
My view of Billy Graham changed drastically after I became a believer in Jesus. I was raised a Jewish New Yorker, and Billy Graham was not someone I paid attention to or who had any impact on my life. Once in awhile, I would watch one of his sermons on WOR channel 9 in New York. I changed channels quickly, as every Jewish person knew that we should not watch or listen to Christian evangelists like Billy Graham. I found him easy to listen to, although I admit I did not quite know what to do with him. He evidently had integrity, but he seemed so “puritanical” to me and he was just very Gentile and the epitome of what I was not. On the other hand, he did speak with passion and fervency that I appreciated, even as a young Jewish teenager living in New York City.
After I became a believer in Jesus I understood that every other believer in Jesus was my brother or sister, including Billy Graham. I learned a lot about the Bible and how to share the Gospel from him. When I was a brand new believer I even volunteered to counsel for one of his other evangelists at some rallies in the San Francisco Bay area where I was living at the time. I was really helped by learning how to share the Good News using my five fingers (anyone remember the hand illustration?) and appreciated the way he stood for the Lord in the public square.
Billy Graham produced two films, which were of particular significance to me as a Messianic Jew. The first was His Land, which showed how modern Israel was the fulfillment of prophecy. I loved it and took all my friends to see it! Billy Graham connected me to my own homeland and I was better able to understand what God did in Israel through the lens of Scripture for the first time. I could tell at that point that Mr. Graham was a friend of the Jewish people and of the nation of Israel, which he proved over and over again through his long 99 years of life.
The second film was the story of Corey Ten Boom – The Hiding Place. This movie again gave a clear Gospel message that was a powerful tool for Jewish evangelism. I saw the movie in Beverly Hills in a theater packed with Jewish people and you could hear a pin drop through the movie as we watched a Gentile woman suffer for her faith and love for the Jewish people. I understood that Billy Graham had a deep love for the Jewish people and for the nation of Israel.
Later on as I continued in my ministry, especially in the greater New York area, I had the privilege of being part of a number of committees for the Billy Graham rally held in Central Park on September 25th, 1991. One of my mentors was the chairman of the campaign committee and brought me into many different areas of the internal organization of the event. We formed a group that worked with Cliff Barrows and Dan Southern, who ran the campaign locally, to organize the follow up of the Jewish contacts. We also wrote papers and met and prayed together in order to help the Graham organization better understand the Jewish nuances of New York City. I was humbled because the Graham team really listened to us and changed their usual Crusade model for something that would be friendlier to the variety of ethnic groups in New York City – including the Jewish people.
They did not use the word crusade, which is a sensitive term for Jewish people. They had Marty Goetz sing some Messianic songs on the platform and Kathy Lee Epstein Gifford share her testimony as a Messianic Jew. The entire experience was wonderful. I was proud to be part of it and with great joy we were able to follow up on dozens of Jewish people who had committed their lives to the Lord at the Central Park rally.
The icing on the cake for me personally was when Billy Graham decide to do his last series of rallies in New York City in the Borough of Queens, where I grew up. I was asked to pray on the Sabbath, Friday night, June 24th, 2005, at the rally in Flushing Meadows Park, the site of the 1964 World’s Fair. It just so happens that I was raised a couple of miles from this venue and I was able to stand up that night and pray for the Jewish people of the greater New York area. I sat behind Billy – he sat in a chair because he was already too weak to stand and preach. The message was only 15-20 minutes long and his gentleness, directness, and love for the crowd was apparent and actually overwhelming – you could just sense it. I sat stunned by the pristine simplicity of the message preached by this man of God. I even had the joy of praying with a Jewish man that night to receive the Lord.
Billy Graham, though he did not really know me outside of the night I prayed for the service, was a big influence in my life. I had a deep affection for this man. I am sure that I am just one of millions of lives that he touched so deeply. I thank God for Billy Graham and want to go record as one of the many Jewish people who admired and respected him for his godly example, Gospel conviction, love for Israel and the Jewish people, and desire to bring Jewish people to a saving knowledge of Jesus the Messiah. He will be missed by all of us until the reunion!