By Greg Asimakoupoulos
When I was a kid, three Billys defined my life. Uncle Billy was one. My dad’s brother lived outside of Lewiston, Idaho. Billy Crayton was another. My best friend lived down the street. And then there was Billy Graham. According a radio broadcast our family listened to every Sunday night in our home, the famous preacher could be reached in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The announcer reminded us “that’s all the address you need.”
As one destined for ministry in an evangelical denomination, I looked up to Billy Graham as a role model. I took my cues from him. Billy Graham was a larger than life figure for me. In addition to tuning in “The Hour of Decision” each week, our family subscribed to Decision Magazine published by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. My pastor-father subscribed to Christianity Today, a magazine of Evangelical theology and thought founded by Billy Graham.
Like many families throughout America, we watched Billy Graham’s crusades on television religiously. I could mimic the evangelist’s familiar phrases framed in his signature southern dialect. “The Bible says…” “God loves you…” “The buses will wait…”
When I was a senior in high school nearly half a century ago, I was given a scrapbook designed to collect classroom memories. Each page had a theme. One page was titled, “The Influencers.” Beneath the headline at the top of the page were these words…
“Quite a few friends have helped you become the person you are now. Your parents, teachers and friends, local, national and world leaders. You’ve learned from them and been influenced by them. Here’s your chance to give them credit…”
This 17-year-old knew exactly who he wanted to credit. The page is pasted with pictures of my dad, my sixth grade teacher, my maternal grandfather, a favorite uncle, Jesus Christ and Billy Graham. Each one had been a key influencer in my personal development, although Billy Graham’s role had been indirect.
It was about this time that I received a copy of Living Letters, a portion of the New Testament in everyday language. This special edition of Ken Taylor’s paraphrase of St. Paul’s epistles (the first installment of what would become The Living Bible) was distributed through the ministry of the Graham Association. Thanks to Billy, the Word of God came alive to me. Reading it more frequently than my King James Version, I began to sense a call to pastoral ministry.
As a young pastor with a penchant for writing, I submitted one of my first faith-oriented articles to Billy Graham’s nationally syndicated periodical. Imagine my delight when I received a letter from the editor of Decision magazine indicating my piece had been accepted for publication.
In one of my first ministry assignments, I served a church that was in the same area where Billy Graham’s nephew was a youth pastor. Kevin and I spent time together. His references to his famous uncle only served to validate my respect for “a friend I had never met.”
Through the years I began collecting memorabilia related to my ministry mentor. My collection includes an original portrait taken by Mr. Graham by a Seattle photographer the year I was born, a Christmas card sent out by the Graham family, vintage news magazines with Billy on the cover, an autographed copy of Living Letters, a program from the famous Madison Square Garden Crusade in 1957 (that lasted 16 weeks), a crusade songbook and an 8×10 color photograph of Billy preaching at the funeral of President Nixon with the living presidents and their wives hanging on his every word.
When word of Billy Graham’s death was announced, I retrieved my collection from storage. I was invited to display it in the lobby of the retirement home where I currently work.
As I arranged the memorabilia related to Billy’s life and ministry in the display case, it occurred to me that the most significant part of my collection is not behind glass. It is in my heart.
Thanks to this man I never had the privilege of meeting, I have a settled assurance that God loves me “just as I am.”