Billy Graham, Martin Luther King Jr., and Racial Tensions and Bridge Building Today by John C. Richards, Jr.

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“People are often led to causes and often become committed to great ideas through persons who personify those ideas. They have to find the embodiment of the idea in flesh and blood in order to commit themselves to it.” – Martin Luther King, Jr., February 13, 1961

For 20 years, I didn’t know a thing about Billy Graham. Over that time, he came to be affectionately known as America’s Pastor. But as an American, I had not heard one of his sermons or watched any of his crusades. As it turns out, I wasn’t alone.

As LifeWay Research recently pointed out, 33% of Protestant churchgoers don’t know Billy Graham’s ministry. I’d venture to say that a good percentage of those churchgoers are African-American. For 20 years of my life, that was true of me. As an African-American man raised in a Baptist church in the South, Graham wasn’t on my radar.

In fact, I stumbled upon Graham’s ministry accidentally. As I consumed biographical content about one of my heroes in the faith, Martin Luther King, Jr., Graham’s name and his relationship with King peaked my interest. Who was this man of whom King said, “Had it not been for the ministry of my good friend Dr. Billy Graham, my work in the Civil Rights Movement would not have been as successful as it has been?”

Graham met King during a 1957 crusade in New York. They soon became friends—a friendship that led King to ask that Graham call him by his childhood name, Mike. As I read more about Graham (via King’s life), I decided to listen to some of Graham’s Crusade messages. They were simple, yet profound. As I listened, I hoped one day to learn more about his life and legacy. Little did I know that one day, I’d be working at a Center named after him.

Evangelism Personified

A year and a half ago, I sat down with Ed Stetzer, the Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, to discuss my candidacy for the managing director role at the Center. After several years on staff at a Chicago-area church, the new leadership position at the Center was intriguing to me for a few different reasons.

First, if anyone embodied the primacy of gospel proclamation in our time, it was Billy Graham. He was evangelism personified. Conservative estimates show that Graham preached the gospel to 200 million people around the globe during his ministry. He preached the cross of Christ without compromise and is perhaps the most significant evangelist of the 20th Century.

Because Graham embodied evangelism in a way that I felt would inspire others to share their faith, I decided to commit myself to the work of the Center—resourcing the church to reach the world for Jesus. Besides, if I was going to grow more deeply in my personal evangelism, what better place to nurture the practice than at the center named after a man who committed his life to doing just that?

Second, (and this is very important for me), I felt that taking on a leadership role at a Center named after Graham was my small way of living in the tension I believe Graham experienced throughout his ministry. That is, navigating the sincere desire for gospel proclamation while being looked to as a voice to flesh out the social implications of the gospel message—especially as it relates to racial tension in America. For Graham, that tension wasn’t always pretty.

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Source: Christianity Today