For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
John 3:16, KJV
From the bay window in the kitchen, the mountains beyond the patch of lawn in front of our house look dismal and gray, partially shrouded by thick, winter cloud cover. It is Saturday morning, just days before Christmas. Cold winds buffet the thick log walls of our home, Little Piney Cove, but the blazing fire in the kitchen fireplace holds off the chill. The house is abuzz with activity.
Refilling their coffee cups, Mother and Daddy urge my siblings and me to finish getting dressed. At eight years old, I do not need to be encouraged; eager for our departure, I am already layered in a turtleneck, thick sweater, and jacket. It is our annual "box delivery day," and soon my siblings and I will pile into the Jeep with our father to take gift boxes to some of the less fortunate mountain families who live in the vicinity of our village-Montreat, North Carolina.
In the kitchen, Mother-working with her secretary, Chris Jarrett, and our housekeeper, Bea Long-is still packing the boxes from our bountiful store: a table laden with an assortment of candy, fruit, meats, preserves, toys, and other Christmas gifts sent to our family by friends and associates. My siblings-sisters Gigi and Anne and brother Franklin (Ned is not yet a year old)-wander in one by one, and we hover around the table, watching closely as Mother chooses the items for each box.
We know better than to eye the table with longing. Mother and Daddy have schooled us in the business of giving. Gifts sent to our family are earmarked not for our own enjoyment, but for people in need. All too fresh in my memory is the beautiful soda fountain sent to Daddy after he appeared on the television program, This Is Your Life. To my profound chagrin (I won't deny it!), the soda fountain went the way of other gifts we have received. In this case, the beneficiary was a ministry for young people on the streets of New York City.
As soon as Mother puts the finishing touches on the boxes, Daddy, aided by John Rickman, our longtime helper, carries them out to the Jeep, and my siblings and I follow, bundled in hats, scarves, coats, and boots. We climb into the Jeep, some of us holding the boxes in our laps, and wait for Daddy to crank up the engine. Taking the gearshift in one hand and the wheel in the other, he maneuvers us into position to descend our steep mountain drive. Then, in a moment, we're off!
Watching the pine trees go by, glancing at Daddy as he confidently navigates the winding driveway, my heart is full with expectation. My father is not at home much, and when he is home, his time is mostly consumed with meetings and the work of the ministry; so the free time he gets to spend with us always seems like a gift. On this particular day, not only do we get to be with Daddy, but we also get to help him in his capacity as "Reverend Graham," which is what the locals call him.
We sing Christmas carols as we pass the modest homes and the shacks set back into the hillsides. Taking the bumpy dirt roads with care, Daddy shares memories of Christmas on the dairy farm in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he grew up: the cows always had to be milked, but Mother Graham worked hard to make the day special. He also talks with us about what we are doing this morning, explaining that we are to be grateful for what God has given us, telling us the importance of sharing what we have with others, until finally we arrive at our first stop, a small, two-room cabin with a droopy front porch and wisps of smoke curling from a stone chimney.
At the sound of the leaves crunching under our wheels, several children peer out the cabin's front window. A man, their father, ambles out warily, a cap shading his face as he eyes us; and the children, dressed in ragged sweaters and mismatched boots, follow hesitantly behind.
Daddy quickly gets out of the Jeep and extends his hand, smiling and introducing himself. By this time the man has recognized my father; he tips his hat back, exposing a lined, leathery countenance, and takes Daddy's hand, shaking it firmly. The two men exchange a word or two; then Daddy motions for us to get out of the Jeep and bring one of the boxes.
Together my siblings and I walk over to the men and hand our father a gift box packed to overflowing. We smile politely. Not quite knowing what to do, we turn to the children and begin tossing a ball with them. I watch my father from a distance. Dressed in slacks, an Eisenhower jacket, and a gentleman's hat, he is handsome and tall, but not intimidating. He gazes at the man in front of him, leaning in close to listen. His gestures are open and warm. He nods. His face shows concern and understanding. Looking on, I feel intense pride. This is my father. He is a good man, a kind man. And I love him dearly.
Daddy puts his arm around the man's shoulder and they bow their heads for prayer. They shake hands again. The man moves back toward the cabin and Daddy toward the Jeep. For a moment they look at one another knowingly; then each calls his children to come on.
"Merry Christmas!" my siblings and I yell out to the children as we climb back into our vehicle. Starting the engine, Daddy turns to us and smiles. "Well," he says, "are you ready for the next house?"
Called to Love
Before anything else, my father is an evangelist. He lives to reach out to people, touch their lives for good, and help them find God. That is what he was made to do. Evangelism is his passion and his joy-he flourishes doing it.
For the fifty-plus years of my lifetime, I have never seen my father waver in his purpose. A forward-looking man driven by mission, he has maintained his focus sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ throughout years of overwhelming challenge, responsibility, and turmoil on the world stage. He has remained passionate, single-minded, and committed, even today, as his body slows down, leaving him limited mainly to our home in Montreat.
"The evangelistic harvest is always urgent," he wrote in his memoir, quoting his opening address at the 1966 World Evangelical Congress in Berlin. "The destiny of men and of nations is always being decided. Every generation is crucial; every generation is strategic. But we are not responsible for the past generation, and we cannot bear full responsibility for the next one. However, we do have our generation! God will hold us responsible at the Judgment Seat of Christ for how well we fulfilled our responsibilities and took advantage of our opportunities" (JAIA, 565).
These are the words of a visionary, a man who knew he had a work to do, a man with his destiny in mind. In fact, his memoir, Just As I Am, took years to assemble, in part because my father was not convinced that spending his time looking backward would help him meet the pressing needs of his call. He is not inclined to ruminate; he doesn't want to be distracted from his mission; and in the case of his memoir, he did not presume that the world would be clamoring to read a book about his life and ministry, although he eventually conceded such a book could be helpful to others.
How does one explain the decades of resolute intensity that my father has applied to evangelism? What has kept him motivated? How has he sustained the level of passion and single-mindedness required to keep going, to keep dreaming, to keep planning? Rereading some of the letters he wrote to my siblings and me from his evangelistic meetings around the world, I have begun to understand.
Here is the kind of observation we read in Daddy's letters so frequently, this one written from the 1969 meetings in Auckland, New Zealand:
As you all know, we were here in Auckland ten years ago for just a two-day crusade. I wish that you could see some of the results of that crusade. Last night a handsome young doctor and his lovely wife came to call on us just before the meeting. Ten years ago they had no church relationship and were totally outside of Christ. One evening they were reading the newspaper and read an account about our meetings. The wife said to her husband, "Let's go and see what this is all about." So out of sheer curiosity they came, and that night they were converted. Now they are two of the Christian leaders of Auckland … Certainly this bears out the words of Isaiah, that God's Word "shall not return unto Me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it."
And from the 1967 Tokyo meetings, he wrote:
It's very wonderful to watch the people night after night bringing their notebooks and writing down everything that I say. There is an earnestness and a sincerity to learn about Christ Jesus and the Christian way here that I have not witnessed in any other country. I have made the invitation to receive Christ extremely difficult, and an average of over a thousand has responded every night. For a Japanese to be converted it means a tremendous break with so much of everything he has ever known. Therefore, the Christians in Japan must be among the most devout and self-sacrificing to be found anywhere in the world.
In these passages, and in many others like them, I can see the essence of what drives my father, what has kept him determined to press ahead in ministry, to push forward, to expand, to do more, to give more of himself. It is the very thing I witnessed as a girl when we delivered Christmas boxes to the families living around Montreat. It is love. Love for God. Love for God's work in the lives of people. And love for the world. Not just love for the human family in general, not just for nations and cultures-but love for individuals. For that young doctor and his wife in Auckland. For the people in Japan listening attentively to his message and writing in their notebooks. For the North Carolina mountain man standing outside on a winter's day facing a difficult personal need. My father's gentle, sensitive heart opens for people, breaks for people, and, ultimately, longs for them to know the personal God from whom the greatest love comes.
The Bible says, "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son" (John 3:16, KJV). As an evangelist, my father is called to extend that love-both with his words and with his life.
Sometimes my father's love for the world could be painful to me.
My father loves people intensely whether they are gathered en masse in a stadium or standing in front of him on the street. To the best of his ability, he makes time for people. As a child I never saw him express irritation toward anyone who might intrude on our privacy as a family in order to talk with him. I never saw him condescend to anyone. Our meals out together were frequently interrupted by people asking for autographs or wanting to share their personal struggles. Daddy was always very gracious, loving, and appreciative. He would stand to greet those who approached him, shake their hands, introduce us, and then listen.
I was not as generous in my heart when it came to sharing my father's time. He might not have resented the interruptions, but I must admit that I did. We had him at home with us so little-he estimates his long absences added up to about fifty or sixty percent of his life. And while I never doubted that my father loved me, often he was simply busy with someone else. I missed my father. I needed him. I needed his advice, his assurance, his affection, his encouragement-and, more than anything, I needed to be with him. But the unprecedented demands of his ministry required our family to make unique and difficult sacrifices.
I did not begrudge my father his work. I believed he was doing one of the most important jobs a person could do: sharing God's love through the gospel message. Mother constantly reinforced the significance of Daddy's ministry, telling us stories about people whose lives had been changed as a result. The adults close to us-my mother's parents, who lived at the bottom of our mountain; and retired missionaries who had settled in Montreat-frequently discussed reports from my father's meetings. Mother kept a globe in the kitchen so we could see where Daddy might be at any given time, and on Sundays, we would all gather around the radio to listen to The Hour of Decision, often broadcast from faraway places. "I'm Cliff Barrows," we would hear Daddy's close associate say, as he announced the program's location for that week, "and this is 'The Hour of Decision'!"
Being a part of my father's ministry, at least peripherally, was a privilege, but, on some level, I think I grew up feeling that my personal needs had to be sublimated for the greater good. The world needed my father. God needed my father. Again, I knew Daddy loved me. I knew I was important to him. But I also knew there was something else "out there"-a great work, a calling to tell the world about the love of God. And I just couldn't compete with that.
Mother did her best to mitigate the impact of my father's departures-perhaps for her own sanity as much as for ours-and we followed her lead. She simply didn't make a big deal out of his leaving. Taking Daddy to the train station in the nearby town of Black Mountain became an almost routine excursion. Mother never hung on to my father or cried and carried on when he left. She just kissed him, said good-bye, and we moved on to the next thing. Daddy was leaving to preach the gospel. That was his job. Meanwhile, I had homework waiting or dinner at my grandparents' house. Life went on. We didn't skip a beat. Mother got busy and began looking forward to my father's return, in the words of her adage, "making the most of all that comes and the least of all that goes."
In keeping with that same adage, Daddy's homecomings were a grand affair. Mother would generate a great deal of excitement as the date drew near for his return, and she would stage a celebration for his arrival. We would pile into the car, and she would drive us to the train station-this time to Old Fort, which is situated at a lower altitude than Black Mountain, in order to preempt the slow, uphill leg of the journey. We would meet up with friends and associates on the platform, making a contest out of who could spot the train first. And as the train pulled into the station, our crowd would erupt with applause, shouting, and cheering. There was Daddy, descending the train, eagerly searching for us, the grin on his face growing wider when he spotted Mother.
Once we got home, my father would gather us into his bedroom while he unpacked the scarred, brown leather suitcases, handing out special gifts from the places he had visited. He would tell us stories about the people he had met-the tall Watutsis, the small Pygmies, the proud Masai, the Chinese who had endured imprisonment for their faith. Once he told me about the young daughter of a couple he had met in New Zealand, and she became my longtime pen pal.
My father spent as much time as he could with us when he was at home. He played with us and took us on long hikes; walking stick in hand, he would lead us, and a pack of dogs (all of them ours!), along the mountain ridges. One spring he took us to Sears & Roebuck in nearby Asheville. We brought home bags full of clothes, which Mother perused and then promptly returned. The sales clerk told her that she knew the items Daddy bought us were not exactly what we needed, but that he was having such a good time she didn't want to stop him.
Most days, my father spent long hours in his book-lined study reading, preparing for his next series of meetings, and dictating correspondence; and we made adjustments to keep the house quiet. We changed our phone number each time he came home-frustrating our childhood friends. And Mother discouraged us from having our friends over to visit during these periods. Many days we would arrive home from school to find cables stretched across the driveway, a sign that Daddy was taping The Hour of Decision, and we knew to keep the noise down. Daddy told me I was free to interrupt him at any time; he always made me feel wanted, and I knew I would be lovingly received. But I thought twice about interrupting my father. I don't think I ever did interrupt him when he was working in his office, no matter how urgent my problem seemed to me.
Perhaps this is where my frustration came into play toward those who took my father's time from us. People who didn't have a right to his time-especially those who, it appeared, just wanted to be seen with him-seemed to interrupt my father freely, while those of us who did have a right to his time, and to his love, refrained. It didn't seem fair. Our time together as a family was so limited. When a camera crew from NBC came to the house to shoot footage for The World of Billy Graham, they filmed several takes of us driving with Daddy along a mountain road in our convertible singing a song we had learned one summer in Switzerland; and I remember enjoying getting to be with my whole family-even if it was staged.
My father's absences had other painful consequences. One day when I was about eleven, I decided to visit a friend whose parents had rented a house on the local golf course. Daddy was an avid golfer and played whenever he had the chance, usually soon after he got home from ministry events. It was a way for him to relax.
This particular day, as my friend and I were outside playing in her yard under some trees that lined the fairway, I saw a group of golfers in the distance and recognized one of the men as my father. He was chatting with the others, and his familiar voice carried. Excited to have a surprise encounter with Daddy, I went out to greet him, but rather than welcome me, he waved his hand in the air to caution me. "Little girl," he called out, "you're going to be in danger-you need to move off the course!" He didn't recognize me. And I was too embarrassed to speak up.
Stories like this sadden Daddy. He has often expressed concern that he was not a good father to us when we were young, but that is simply not true-he loved us dearly. Being gone so much, he often lacked understanding about the dynamics at home; and he was not always able to lay the kind of groundwork in relationship with us that, perhaps, would have made relating to us easier. When tired, burdened with concerns, and faced with the demands of fathering five rough-and-tumble children (we could be a wild bunch), he became short-tempered at times. But we learned to give him latitude. Mother taught us to let things go and "know Daddy's heart." And I knew my father's heart-it was full of love.
Keeping It Real
Though many of my father's trips would last for months at a time, I did not grow up conscious of the magnitude of Daddy's fame and position. We never talked about his work in those terms. I knew he was a preacher who traveled. I understood his work was extremely important. But outside of his being my daddy, I did not think of him as a celebrity. I remember being impressed when his close associate George Beverly Shea came to visit us in Florida one winter. I thought, "Now here's a really famous person!"
My parents worked hard to help us maintain a down-to-earth view of my father and his ministry. They kept it real, doing their best to give us a normal upbringing out of the limelight so that we would have a healthy perspective on the world and our place in it. Mother and Daddy did not think of themselves as entitled. I never picked up on any sense from them that our family was owed special treatment because of the ministry. My parents simply did not think like that. It was God, not my father, who deserved attention and accolades.
Perhaps the most important decision my parents made was to bring us up in the unassuming mountain community of Montreat. Many of the citizens-like my grandparents, who spent nearly twenty-five years in China-were retired missionaries and pastors who had traveled the world, so the nature of my father's work did not seem unusual. The adults in Montreat treated us like normal children, and if they saw us misbehaving they did not gossip, but prayed for us instead. No one in Montreat ever told me that I had to live up to a particular standard just because I was Billy Graham's child.
We did know that my father's ministry was impacting people around the world. Mother traveled to Europe. Daddy's assistants and associates, our honorary "aunts" and "uncles," traveled with him. We knew our parents had tea with the Queen of England. I can remember my father golfing with President-elect John F. Kennedy. When he was vice president, Richard Nixon came to our home (I was not present). And we certainly heard about my father's interactions with dignitaries and heads of state, frequently seeing pictures of these meetings in the newspaper. But my parents did not make a big deal over their relationships with people of influence. These relationships, though valued by Mother and Daddy, were accepted as part of the work of the ministry and viewed with the understanding that God alone deserved our highest regard, not people, be they famous or otherwise.
Seeing Daddy's World
Mother used to say that Daddy taking his family to his evangelistic meetings was like a general taking his family to battle, so we attended very few of my father's crusades as we were growing up. I remember going to the 1957 New York crusade at age six and being overwhelmed by the enormous crowds. Later, as a teenager, I attended the 1966 and '67 London meetings. We would arrive at each night's event by car with Mother or a staff person and park in a designated area. Though we remained anonymous, we sat in special seating, often with special guests, and prayed for those around us when Daddy gave the invitation. I loved the excitement, but it was only after I got married that I traveled to my father's meetings with any regularity, sometimes working as a counselor; at other times sitting anonymously in the crowd to support and pray for those going forward to receive Christ.
My father did try to include us in his work in other ways. He wrote us wonderful letters-individual and group letters-from wherever he happened to be preaching, giving us a window into his world.
"It is wonderful to be back in London again, seeing so many friends and seeing so many people that received Christ when we were here last June," he wrote in 1966, before I joined him for the crusade in that city. "Last night the Royal Albert Hall, seating nearly 7,000 was packed to capacity, with the converts of last June's Crusade. What a thrilling, joyous sight. How they sang! While I was preaching the Word to them I felt like they were little birds in the nest opening their mouths and taking in the food that was being offered."
In a quick handwritten note jotted to me from Switzerland later that year, Daddy, as he often did, asked me to pray for the work: "We are on the way to Berlin for a Crusade that begins on Oct. 16," he wrote, "and a World Congress on Evangelism that begins on Oct. 25-Please pray for both these important events."
Days later, from Berlin, Daddy set down this description of a haunting incident, allowing us to see with his eyes:
Then we had an experience I'll never forget. We went to the British sector and stood upon the platform looking over the wall into East Germany. The wind was biting cold. Immediately the Communist guards shined their spotlights in our faces and began to shoot off rockets to frighten us. We stood there for about ten or fifteen minutes watching this terrible sight: The wall, the mine fields, the barbed wire, etc. I certainly feel sorry for the people of Berlin. There are so many divided families that can never be reunited because of this terrible wall.
Here was the love again, coming out in Daddy's letter-his love for people; his love for the world; for the oppressed; the hurting; the lonely and desolate. That love seemed to touch my father's every observation. And he brought us into the love-into his heart. We might not get to be with him in person, but through his efforts to reach out, we could enter his perspective, as if we were standing there on the platform looking out over the wall with him, watching the rockets fire into the air, mourning the mines and the barbed wire, and sharing his love for those divided families in Berlin.
Experiencing the Love
Occasionally, my father did bring us with him into smaller ministry settings. I got to travel with him as his special guest on a few trips, and while I did not spend much one-on-one time with him at the events, just being part of his world and watching him in action made me feel included. He was always gracious in the way he treated me, greeting me with a smile, hug, and kiss; introducing me to the people we met along the way. Ever the gentleman, he made me feel the lady.
When I was thirteen, he took me to the World's Fair in New York City for Billy Graham Day; he and a crew from World Wide Pictures, the filmmaking arm of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA), had arranged a special makeup session and photo shoot for me. Holding my hand as we walked the fairgrounds, my father looked down at me and said, "People are going to wonder why I am holding hands with such a beautiful blonde!" I blushed, but I felt so grown-up and proud to be with him. My father's affection built my confidence like nothing else.
Perhaps most significantly for me, when I was ten Daddy took me to a revival at a Baptist church in Florida, where our family was wintering that year. My father's associate Lee Fisher was holding the revival in a nearby city, and Daddy attended in order to lend support. The sanctuary was small, and we slipped into one of the pews in back so as not to draw too much attention.
Near the end of the service, Mr. Fisher ("Uncle Lee," as we called him) invited people who wished to make a public confession for Christ to come forward. The pianist was playing a hymn, and I remember feeling self-conscious standing at my seat. I wanted to go forward, but what would people think? I was already conspicuous in the little church-despite his best efforts my father drew attention wherever he went-and I did not want to make more of a scene by going to the altar. What if I embarrassed my father? I dreaded being noticed.
But whatever my fears, they passed quickly. The "yes" to go forward became stronger than the "no" holding me back. Overcoming the awkwardness, I walked to the front of the church and stood before Uncle Lee with my eyes shut tight and my head down. I could hear movement and the sound of footsteps-other people coming forward. Then, suddenly, I felt a hand on my shoulder. I opened my eyes and recognized my father's hand. He was standing with me there in front of the congregation. The evangelist who had invited countless people around the world to commit their lives to Christ now stood with me, his daughter, as I responded and made that same public commitment. This was how my father so often had loved the world-and now he was showing that same love to me, in the most intimate way.
Showing Me the Way
Jesus said, "By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:35, NAS). Over the course of my lifetime, I have watched my father's love for others steadily deepen. Even now, spending most of his time in our home, he remains riveted to world affairs, constantly reading, staying current on news, and searching for ways to get help to those who need it. My father's love has always gone beyond preaching the gospel. As he showed me in childhood when delivering goods to the needy at Christmastime, his heart is to love the whole person, and that includes meeting practical needs.
Most recently, the effects of the December 2004 tsunami in Asia and Hurricane Katrina, which wiped out New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast in August 2005, have consumed my father. He spent hours in front of the television watching coverage of these disasters, talking of little else, and working with the BGEA Relief Fund-and my brother Franklin, president of the relief organization Samaritan's Purse-to come up with strategies for supporting the victims. I know my father feels discouraged that he can't be on the front lines helping in a hands-on way, as he would have done in years past.
Seeing his frustration, I remembered something Daddy's mother once said in an interview. "He didn't know how to say no," Mother Graham explained, referring to the many speaking invitations he received as a young man. In her words, Daddy was "always willing." Always ready to pick up and meet people's needs. That's my father-driven by love, driven to help, saying "yes" as often as he can.
Ultimately, I think, what my father has demonstrated throughout a lifetime of ministry is a commitment to love others to the point of self-sacrifice. He sacrificed his privacy, personal time, and relationships; and the work took a great toll on his body. Though it was my father's desire to say "yes" and give whatever God required of him, giving as he did wasn't easy. We sacrificed a lot in his absence-but so did he.
"For myself," he wrote in his memoir, "as I look back, I now know that I came through those years much the poorer both psychologically and emotionally. I missed so much by not being home to see the children grow and develop.… Our children could not possibly have missed their daddy nearly as much as I missed them and their mother" (JAIA, 702-3).
My father has set a high standard in giving himself wholeheartedly; I have sought more of a balance and tend to be more restrained. It may be that seeing my father give so much to others when I was a child caused me to become reserved in loving. I think I felt that he gave away so much of what was mine-attention, concern, love, and time-that I became protective of my heart. I was not willing to give everything away.
My reserve may be partly a function of my personality. I'm slower to engage others, more of an observer than a participant. Still, while learning to love in a way uniquely my own, I try to draw on my father's example. I would like to be more present with people-to respond in love to those who cross my path at an airport or restaurant; to reach out to the elderly, the needy, the forgotten. I regularly pray for a tender heart, a greater capacity to encourage others, and a willingness to be inconvenienced. Pictures of this kind of love, I realize, are my father's gifts to me. He has shown me the way, and whatever childhood hurts I might have experienced due to his absences, I am privileged to have as a father such a man-a kind, committed man who loves without holding back. A man who has sought to love the way God loves, so the world could recognize that love-and reach for it.
Taken from A Legacy of Faith by Ruth Graham. Copyright © 2006 by Ruth Graham. Used by permission of Zondervan