I was travelling south on Interstate 85 last weekend, returning to my home in South Carolina from speaking at a men’s conference in Charlotte, North Carolina, when I noticed the northbound side of the highway was empty. I suspected engineering works were to blame.
Then I noticed there were emergency vehicles on the bridge over the highway with their blue, red and yellow lights flashing. There must have been a major incident of some kind. Then as I continued south the next bridge was also crowded with police cars, fire engines and ambulances. The next bridge was the same. Then I noticed cars parked on the entrance ramps, people outside their cars watching the northbound side of the interstate, others lining the interstate standing in silence, watching and waiting.
As I drove on, the reason became clear. There was a motorcade moving north on the highway. A squadron of black vehicles was preceded by a police escort with blue lights flashing, and more bringing up the rear. The emergency vehicles had gathered as some sort of informal tribute to the passing motorcade. I wondered who the important person was. Could it be that the President was visiting the area? But he would fly into the nearest airport and wouldn’t travel by car up the interstate highway.
Then it dawned on me. I was driving through Charlotte, North Carolina, not far from evangelist Billy Graham’s home in Montreat. I soon learned that the motorcade was his cortege, heading from his home to lie in state in Raleigh, the capital of North Carolina, and after that he was to be given the honour of lying in state in the nation’s capital – an honour never before given to a clergyman.
Billy Graham was called “America’s Pastor”, and in this, the most religious of countries where we value both freedom of religion and separation of church and state, Billy Graham was the closest we will ever get to a universally admired national religious leader.
When I say “universally admired”, one of the many remarkable things about Billy Graham was that nobody had anything bad to say about the man. He had critics, of course. Intellectuals said he was intellectually naïve. Liberals said he was a fundamentalist. Fundamentalists said he was a liberal. Atheists may have disliked his religion, but nobody could fault the man himself. Although he was not a poor man, he studiously avoided all the flashy trappings of the crass television preachers. He maintained a simple dignity, and never deviated in his loyalty to his wife, Ruth. The crowds did more than love him. They believed him. He had an unmistakeable charisma through which he oozed integrity, radiated honesty and glowed with sincerity.
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