CHICAGO, IL (February 21, 2018) – Covenanters shared on social media and in interviews today about their memories of Billy Graham and the life-changing impact his ministry had on them. The evangelist, who was at one time called “America’s pastor,” died this morning at the age of 99.
“In contexts where I ask people to describe how they came to faith in Christ almost always someone shares how Billy Graham influenced their new or renewed faith commitment,” said Beth Seversen, the Covenant’s director of evangelism. “God powerfully demonstrated his glory in and through Dr. Graham. He had the extraordinary ability to share Jesus and help people of diverse backgrounds understand with compelling clarity and conviction the complexity of the gospel and their need for Christ’s forgiveness and leadership.”
Lon Allison, a former Covenant director of evangelism who served as executive director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College from 1998 to 2013, has a forthcoming book titled Billy Graham: An Ordinary Man and his Extraordinary God. He shared today, “Mr. Graham is home with God. My mind is a bit numb filled with both real and historical memories of God’s amazing servant. Over the past six months I’ve spent a couple hundred hours reading of his life as I wrote the little book about him. What a gift I was given. I know what he would say to us all: “Remember Jesus, not [Billy Graham], and be glad.”
But people will remember him for the difference he made in their lives. Graham preached the gospel to 215 million people at more than 400 crusades, missions, and evangelistic rallies that were held in 185 countries and territories. His books and movies produced by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association reached countless others.
Scott Christensen, the pastor of the Covenant Church of Baudette, Minnesota, gave his life to Christ at Soldier Field in Chicago on what was the closing rally of an 18-day crusade held at Chicago’s Soldier Field. “I didn’t go forward, because I was so little, but I repeated his prayer from my seat.” He added he remembered the day well because temperatures had reached 100 degrees.
Retired Covenant leader Mark Olson was there the same day because his grandfather was on the planning committee. Earlier in the week, Mark had committed his life to Christ at McCormick Place, where the other rallies of the crusade had been held. He also sang in the choir that week.
“I surrendered my life to Christ in 1973 at the movie Time to Run, a Billy Graham film,” said Paul Knight, pastor of Hope Covenant Church in Grand Forks, North Dakota. “In the film, Dr. Graham preached a message that gripped my heart. I went forward, the summer between 8th and 9th grade, clear that apart from Jesus’ forgiveness I would be destined for eternity apart from God.”
Phil Hakanson, a retired Covenant minister, was amazed at the size of the crusades. “I was present at the Billy Graham Crusade in the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1963. The Sunday afternoon attendance was over 137,000! People actually sat outside the stadium and listened on loudspeakers. It was unforgettable!”
Covenanter Pegi Thompson shared that she rededicated her life to Christ “in 1958 when our youth group went to the city to work the week of the crusade. [I sang] in the choir when they came to San Jose much later in the ’80s. My doctor was his personal physician while there, and he was very impressed with Rev Graham’s genuine humbleness!”
Even in his later years, Billy Graham still was calling people to faith. Mike Bechtold, associate pastor for youth at First Covenant Church in Red Wing, Minnesota, said he was a teenager when he answered an altar call at a 1996 crusade in Minneapolis.
Several future Covenant ministers attended Explo 72, what was then called the “Christian Woodstock,” in Dallas, Texas. Graham spoke six times during the weeklong event sponsored by the BGEA and Campus Crusade for Christ. (Among the musical guests were early Christian rock pioneers Larry Norman and Randy Stonehill, as well as artists such as Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, and Rita Coolidge).
Thomas Miller, pastor of Hope Covenant in Indianapolis, said that for him, as a young Christian, “It was just a WOW and powerful week.” Steven James Anderson recalled, “that week opened the door for me to be reading and willing to receive God’s call into pastoral ministry two weeks later.”
Covenanter minister Carol Shimmin Nordstrom attended the same gathering but as a youth worker, who brought teens down from Minneapolis.
The impact Explo 72 had on Rick Lindholtz, pastor of Valley Covenant Church in Stillman Valley, Illinois, was indirect but also life changing. His future wife, Alicia, her seven brothers, and another future brother-in-law, all gave their lives to Christ during that week.”
Several Covenanters said that hearing Graham speak at the Urbana missions conference in 1981 inspired them to ministry. Jodi Mullen Fondell, who most recently served at the American International Church of Paris, said she had a “very profound experience” when Graham spoke. “He had this uncanny ability to make you feel like he was speaking right to you even though you were in an arena with 20,000 other people. I too made a decision to pursue ministry in missions at that conference which ultimately led me to pursue a full-time call to pastoral ministry. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Urbana ‘81 was a key part of my deciding to go into ministry and to this day I still remember how I felt like Graham and I were sitting at a table having a conversation while he was preaching. I’ve heard many great speakers since then, but that ability to draw you close in the midst of a huge crowd was a unique gift of his.”
Janet George Ziegelbaur, a Covenant missionary in Cameroon, also attended the conference. “After hearing Billy Graham, I totally committed my life to Christ, and also made a commitment to cross cultural missions,” she said.
Many Covenanters participated in churches that followed up with people who had gone forward in response to altar calls or to answer phone calls from people who had watched Graham on TV. Paul Bengston sang in the San Diego Crusade choir in the mid 1960s, and then worked on the follow-up team in Chicago while working for Chicagoland Youth for Christ in the 70’s.
Several Covenant ministers recounted meeting Graham in person.
Lisa Holmlund, pastor of youth and family ministries at Grace Community Church in Olympia, Washington, had one of the more unusual encounters with the evangelist who had ministered to kings, queens, and presidents.
“I met him about 10 years ago by the bathrooms in Maggianos (an Italian restaurant) in Charlotte, North Carolina,” she recalled. “I told him that my mom worked for the national office at Youth for Christ and how grateful I was for his ministry. Then, just like the Pope, he put his hand on my head and said, “Oh bless you.” Talk about a holy bathroom experience!”
As news outlets reported, Graham, sometimes was referred to as “the Protestant Pope.”
Covenant minister Andrew Sturdy wrote, “My dad worked for him for a number of years in the Twin Cities, I met him a couple of times, and one time I happened to have my Bible. He took it from me, held it and gave it back and told me to ‘keep this close to my heart and allow the pages to speak deeply to me’ I was young but still remember those words.
Bud Palmberg, a retired Covenant minister, served on the executive committee for two Graham crusades and sat on the platform with the team. “I will never forget meeting with Billy Graham and five other pastors and having him pray for us and our congregations by name. What a choice man of God to millions.”
Other Covenanters have connected to Graham through relatives. They include Eric Filkin, pastor of Bridges Covenant in Tavares, Florida, whose grandfather Jack Sonneveldt was an early bandleader for Graham.
Bengston shared an often-echoed sentiment: “Only the Lord knows how many lives have been forever changed by God’s Spirit through his ministry, but I will always be I will forever be inspired by his passion and integrity.”
In his 1997 autobiography, Just as I Am, Graham shared, “I know that soon my life will be over. I thank God for it, and for all He has given me in this life. But I look forward to Heaven… Most of all, I look forward to seeing Christ and bowing before Him in praise and gratitude for all He has done for us, and for using me on this earth by His grace—just as I am.”