Breaking Down More Barriers
IN PLACES NEAR AND FAR
Billy's tour of Africa was just the beginning of my international service with the Graham Association. In my thirty-five years with the organization, I toured the United States and Canada and more than a dozen other countries. I traveled both alongside Billy and as a solo associate. There was no shortage of drama wherever I went, whether it was outbreaks of political uprising (as was the case in Ghana in 1965) or the heartbreaks of racial discrimination (London in 1966 and South Africa in 1973). Through all these travels, though, I was constantly reminded of two facts that kept me going despite moments of despondency: the shared sinfulness of all humanity and the astounding love of God that miraculously saves and transforms fallen lives.
After four years of exhilarating ministry in Liberia, a combination of things made it evident that God was calling us back to the States. My brother, Clarence, who had taken up
our dad's plastering trade, died tragically after a work-related accident in 1962. Since I was scheduled to begin a major crusade in Nigeria the following week, and because the first available flight to the United States was a week away, I regrettably could not make it home for the funeral a situation that saddens me to this day.
Later Cheryl, Gail, and Phyllis asked if they could attend high school at the Wheaton Christian Academy in Illinois. After praying it through, Wanda and I agreed it would be a good move for the girls; we even escorted them back to the States. However, upon returning to Liberia, Wanda and I almost simultaneously came to the conclusion that our tenure as residents of Africa was coming to a close. In our hearts, we knew we needed to be closer to family especially with my parents advancing rapidly into old age. What's more, my work with the BGEA afforded me the opportunity to be based anywhere in the world. We realized at this time in our lives it was better for that "anywhere" to be in the United States.
Saying goodbye to our dear friends in Liberia proved to be even more painful the second time around. Nevertheless, this time we knew the work God had called us to do there was complete (at least our small part of it was). We were thankful for the countless people who had come to a saving knowledge of Christ through the ministry of our radio programs, the Bible studies that we hosted in our home, and the regular evangelistic tours that I made throughout the region. We would forever hold a special place in our hearts for the people of Liberia. We knew petitions for their well-being and for the work of ELWA and other missions to Africa would become a permanent fixture on our prayer list.
And my prayers for that war-torn and politically unstable nation continue to this day.
GHANA: CAUGHT IN THE CROSSFIRE
In 1964 we moved back to New York to live again with our dear friend Miss Woolward. When she heard we were returning to the States, she insisted we stay with her. Since those early days at Bethany Church, twenty years earlier, she had moved out of her cozy apartment in the Bronx into a large house in St. Albans, Long Island just minutes from John F. Kennedy airport. I liked the idea of Wanda and the kids (David, twelve, and Lisa, almost four) living with Miss Woolward, since I would frequently be out of town on business with the BGEA team.
That year a young black seminarian and pastor contacted me about doing an interview for one of his class projects. His name was Ralph Bell and he was a student at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. He had read about me in different places and was interested in writing a scholarly paper about my ministry. I was flattered, of course, but wondered silently whether I had enough ministry under my belt to qualify for term paper status.
When Ralph and I finally met, we hit it off right away. I was at once impressed by his confident but understated demeanor and his ardent passion for evangelism. I invited him to accompany me on a couple of my domestic crusades and gave him some of his first opportunities to preach the gospel before large audiences. He handled those challenges superbly, and after praying about it, I sensed this young man had a special gift. For years, Billy had expressed an interest in
adding another black associate to his team. It didn't take me long to realize Ralph would make a strong candidate for such a position. And after he met the BGEA team and participated in a few crusade meetings, everyone believed that Ralph Bell was the man. In 1965 Billy invited him to come on board as an associate, which Ralph gladly accepted.
Later that year, Ralph accompanied me to Ghana for some small evangelistic meetings there. Both Ralph and I preached in villages surrounding the capital, Accra. During one of the meetings, a Southern Baptist missionary approached Ralph and me about going deeper into he interior of the country to preach to some villages in the bush country. I had commitments in Accra that I could not break; yet the invitation seemed like a wonderful opportunity to take the gospel to a needy audience. I asked Ralph if he would be willing to go without me. At first he was hesitant, but after giving it some thought (and some persuasive words from me), Ralph agreed to go. He would rejoin me in Accra the next day. We prayed together and went our separate ways.
I went to bed that evening unaware that one of the most explosive events in Ghana's history was unfolding right outside the walls of my hotel. Early the next morning, I awoke to the radio's news bulletin that a violent coup had taken place in Ghana, and that the nation was in turmoil. A group of rebel soldiers had overthrown the government of Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah, causing rioting and violent skirmishes in the streets. Nkrumah, who had slowly picked up the reputation of a corrupt and dictatorial leader, had managed to escape. But the country was unstable. All Americans and other foreigners were ordered to stay inside. My first thought was of poor Ralph. I had convinced him to travel into the bush
country for an unscheduled meeting he was not wholeheartedly committed to doing. Was he OK? My mind immediately raced with possible worst-case scenarios. Heaven forbid that he was caught in some ugly crossfire, or was captured by rebel soldiers. Finally, though, I rebuked such thoughts and desperately asked for God's hand of protection over my young colleague.
Later that day, I had yet to hear anything from Ralph. And there was little else I could do but continue to seek God on my friend's behalf.
Another Southern Baptist missionary with whom I was working arrived at my hotel and coaxed me into keeping a dinner date at a nearby home. At first I had no intention of leaving the hotel, but this missionary assured me he knew a roundabout route that would avoid the potential hotspots. So I relented, even though I felt the Lord telling me to stay put.
Sure enough, we were not five minutes from the hotel before we ran into a roadblock. A handful of armed rebel soldiers approached our car and ordered us to get out. I could feel my pulse racing, even as I sent prayers up to the Lord. And we obliged, though we probably couldn't have moved even if we wanted to. In the backseat was a box containing tracts for our crusade meetings.
"What is in the box?" one of the soldiers demanded.
"Tracts," we told him. But this didn't made sense to him. So he ordered us to hand him the box. He opened it to find hundreds of evangelistic pamphlets. The copy on the front read: "NEW LIFE FOR GHANA!"
"New life for Ghana?" he said. He showed the pamphlets
to the other soldiers. Suddenly, their faces began to soften a bit. "You can go," the soldier finally told us.
We got back in the car, and I insisted that we return to the hotel. This time the missionary concurred.
We were almost back to the hotel when we were stopped again by a different group of soldiers who also ordered us out of the car. These guys seemed a little more intense. They pushed us against the car and patted us down. But as they were doing this, the previous team of soldiers drove by in a truck and yelled to our captors to leave us alone. "They are 'New Life for Ghana' men!" they declared. And the soldiers allowed us to go.
I was thankful to make it back to the hotel without any major incident, but Ralph was missing in the interior. And the occasional gunshots outside did not help put my mind at ease. But I continued to pray.
A few hours later, after midnight, I heard a knock at my hotel door. I opened it slowly to see Ralph standing there. We immediately hugged and together gave thanks to God.
On his way back to Accra, Ralph also had been held up by rebel soldiers. They detained him for a while, but finally let him go when they realized why he was in the country. It turns out that the resistance forces were all fascinated by this notion of "new life for Ghana." Indeed, the whole reason for the coup was to shake the nation loose of Kwame Nkrumah's oppressive grip. Ralph and I prayed that the rebels and Nkrumah's people alike would come to recognize Jesus Christ as the only lasting key to peace and stability in their nation.
For four days, Ghana was at a standstill. All flights to and from the airport were suspended. The radio stations were
taken over by the resistance forces. And Ralph and I were trapped. We learned later that, although Nkrumah escaped, all of his people were either imprisoned or executed.
Things eventually did settle down, and Ralph and I caught a flight home. After a brief stopover in London, we finally made it home.
In my rush to get home, Ralph and I never found a moment to contact our wives to let them know that we were all right and on our way home. So when I finally made it back to New York and rang the doorbell at Miss Woolward's house, Wanda's reaction when she opened the door was one of shock and joy. In fact, she was so happy to see me that she slammed the door in my face.
I kissed and embraced my dear wife for a long, long moment, and then I grabbed each of my kids. It was the best reunion yet! I soon learned how gut-wrenching a wait it was for my family the phone calls to the BGEA, the State Department, and to Ralph's wife, Jean. Billy actually called at one point to console Wanda, even though he had no idea how we were doing.
With the crisis over, we rejoiced and praised God for His love and protection. But it was hard to shake the visceral feelings of helplessness and peril that confronted Ralph and me in Ghana and our families back home in the United States. Still, it was a timely reminder that the work of the Great Commission brims with dangers as well as blessings.
LONDON: KICKED OUT
A year later, just prior to Billy's London crusade, my blood pressure was sent racing upward again when, because of my
skin color, I was told to vacate a London hotel room that the BGEA had booked for me months before. When Billy got wind of this news, he ordered the cancellation of all BGEA's leases for the flat and instructed team members in London to relocate to a facility that did not discriminate according to race. I was able to stay with a friend across town until the BGEA was able to secure new housing for its team members.
The incident made worldwide news. In fact, it was Walter Cronkite's announcement of it on the CBS Evening News that first notified Wanda of the matter back home. At first I chalked up the episode as just one more example of racism in the world. But as the week went on, the situation lingered in my head like a bad aftertaste. Even though I knew racial injustice was a ongoing reality in society, that knowledge never lessened the blow of its reality when it hit me personally.
Thankfully, when Billy heard about the situation, he arranged at once for Wanda to join me in London. Having her by my side provided me with a huge emotional boost.
HARLEM: CRUSADE AT THE APOLLO
Despite its low moments, 1966 also was filled with incredible high points. Perhaps my most memorable solo crusade domestically was the Harlem rally at the Apollo Theater. Sponsored by the Harlem Crusade Association, the week-long event drew more than twelve thousand people and the total of one thousand came forward to dedicate their lives to Christ. This was not my biggest crusade; the 1962 meeting in the Congo, which attracted forty thousand people, was my largest and probably most successful meeting internationally. But in the United States, for sheer excitement and energy,
none compared to the Harlem event.
As I stood on the stage preaching or singing songs of praise, I was hit at once with the history represented by the Apollo Theater. I was standing where superstars such as Duke Ellington and Count Basie and Sarah Vaughn had performed. As a boy, I had dreamed of one day playing a concert hall such as the Apollo. Now, here I was God had make my dream a reality. It wasn't exactly as I had envisioned it, but I decided then and there God's version was much better than anything that I had imagined.
The Apollo crusade featured a huge gospel choir directed by a dynamic young Christian named Henry Greenidge. Today Henry pastors the Irvington Covenant Church in Portland, Oregon, but back then he was a sought-after worship director and a student leader with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. His contribution was immeasurable.
Another major part of the Apollo event was the special music provided by The Jones Sisters Trio. By this time, the girls were twenty-one, nineteen, and seventeen, and they were just reaching the peak of their talents. They had performed at churches across the United States and Africa and were featured at several Billy Graham events. In fact, they had already recorded two albums with Word Records. The Trio's rich, melodic harmonies stirred the crowds, preparing their hearts to receive God's Word. I was proud of them and their commitment to using their gifts to serve the Lord.
Though the Harlem crusade had drawn good numbers, it probably would have drawn even more had we enjoyed the widespread support of white ministers in the New York area. While several black churches worked with us to promote the event, several of the white church leaders we approached explained
that they were too busy to help us with the crusade. One shining exception was my friend Dr. Stephen Olford, who is today recognized as a champion of expository preaching. Back then he was renowned as the senior pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in New York City. Stephen did all he could to get the word out about the event, and he was the featured preacher one of the evenings.
A book's worth of poignant testimonies came as a result of the Harlem event, but one woman's story stands out to me. This woman, whom I'll call Rhonda, had killed her husband after she discovered he had cheated on her. Rhonda served a ten-year prison sentence and was released just before the start of the Harlem crusade.
Rhonda had paid the penalty for her crime and was now a free woman except she wasn't free inside. She fell into a deep depression and decided that she would commit suicide. But one night as she walked down 125th Street in Harlem, she saw the marquee lights at the Apollo Theater, and she read some of the words on the sign: CRUSADE. FREE. HOPE. GOD. As she drew closer to the theater, she could hear the exuberant voices of the choir singing inside. Moved by their joyful spirit, she took a deep breath and went inside. The place was packed, but Rhonda found a seat just in time to hear me as I began speaking on stage. That night I preached on the power of the Cross. I told the crowd about how Jesus had left heaven to enter a sin-cursed world where He lived among men and women to show them a better way. "On the cross," I said, "Jesus bore all of our sins every one of them! I don't care what sin you've committed today adultery, greed, murder, pridefulness. Whatever it is, Jesus bore it on the cross. He died to liberate us from the bondage of those sins."
Rhonda listened carefully and when the invitation to come forward was extended, she stood to her feet and dashed to the foot of the stage." This was the night that I was going to take my life," she later told a counselor. "But it became the night that I found life."
The testimonies that sprung out of the Harlem crusade reminded me that the gospel is not some pie-in-the-sky prescription for going to heaven. No, it is much more than that. The gospel is a now message for redeeming, restoring, and rebuilding broken lives. Andrae Crouch's classic chorus would later proclaim "Jesus is the answer for the world today ... " And I couldn't agree more.
Yes, God wants us to repent and turn our lives over to Him so we can spend eternity in heaven. But He also has something for us right now. We don't have to wait until heaven to experience God's peace and joy and transforming power. He gives us His Holy Spirit the moment we believe in Him, and from that moment on we are beneficiaries of His abundant life. It may not mean that we get rich or that we get out of jail or that we escape the immediate consequences for the sinful things we've done. However, it does mean God has taken control of our lives, and He will walk with us and give us strength and grace for whatever circumstances we must face. Time and again, I saw people in Harlem whose futures were revolutionized the moment they grasped this simple but amazing good news.
Throughout the remainder of the '60s and into the '70s, I was privileged to lead many crusades at locations across the United States. My weekly radio ministry which was by this time known as the Hour of Freedom also continued to grow during this period. Even today, I run into people who tell me
stories of how their lives were transformed from listening to our radio broadcasts. One Air Force pilot was flying over South America one day in the early '70s when he picked up our broadcast on his radio. What a joy it was to hear the gospel explained so clearly at 37,000 feet in the air, he told me years later. I also received a lot of letters from prison inmates who listened to the broadcast or who were inspired to ask Christ into their hearts after I preached at their facilities in person, which I tried to do on a regular basis at prisons throughout the country.
SOUTH AFRICA: STANDING FIRM
Probably one of the most controversial crusade stops for Billy was his 1973 campaign in South Africa, then a hotbed of legislated racism. The popular term for the country's ugly brand of discrimination, of course, was apartheid.
For years, South African church leaders had beseeched Billy to do a crusade in their nation, but Billy refused to come unless they could promise him the meetings would be integrated and that his integrated team of associates would be welcomed. Church leaders backed off when they realized there was no way to lawfully meet Billy's demands.
By 1972 things had begun to change. A group of evangelicals in South Africa invited Billy to speak at a special conference on evangelism. The BGEA informed them that Billy's requirement that the event be racially integrated still stood, but this time the churches and the government agreed to meet his demands.
So in March 1973 the South African Congress on Mission and Evangelism convened in the coastal resort city of
Durban. It was a fully integrated affair with some seven hundred Christian leaders of all races and Protestant persuasions.
There was also a fully integrated evangelistic rally in Durban where more than 45,000 people (half of them non-white) gathered to hear the gospel proclaimed. More than 3,000 people came forward during the invitation. That meeting was followed a week later by an even bigger rally in Johannesburg. That event attracted a diverse audience of 60,000, and more than 4,000 people streamed forward to accept Christ.
It was a historic ten days. Many people remarked that it was the largest interracial event held in South Africa up to that time. Zulu music mixed with European-style gospel tunes to create a rich mosaic of praise and worship. Billy's challenge to the crowds was bold and blunt: "Christianity is not a white man's religion, and don't let anybody ever tell you it's white or black. Christ belongs to all people!"
I had the opportunity to speak at a satellite meeting held at a Dutch Reformed Church in Durban. It was an Afrikaners congregation brimming with white faces. Though I was a bit nervous at first given the social and historical context of the country I felt the Holy Spirit speaking through me that day. I spoke frankly about the gospel of freedom and grace and that there is now neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free in Christ Jesus. Afterward, an Afrikaner came up to me and said, "You're the first black man to preach from that pulpit. I never thought a black man could preach like that." I smiled and chose to take it as a compliment.
Though we challenged South Africa's racial status quo left and right during our evangelistic events, it was clear that, outside the imported tolerance and evangelical atmosphere at the stadiums and conference hall, it was business as usual in
the streets of the nation. Yes, the hotel that we stayed in agreed to accommodate both blacks and whites. However, outside those walls the spirit of segregation prevailed.
Whites, for instance, were the only ones who could stroll the white sands of Durban's beautiful beaches; mixed race and black persons were restricted to the less pristine stretches of the seashore.
A handful of us from the BGEA team got an up close look at the country's structures when on two occasions we attempted to pick up a late-night meal at local eateries. The first time, we tried to dine at a restaurant that displayed a "Whites Only" sign on its window. They refused to serve us (or, more specifically, me). So we decided to keep looking until we found a restaurant that served both blacks and whites. After nearly an hour of driving around the city, I told the men with me to go ahead and get something to eat without me. Instead, we ended up buying fast food and eating it on the side of the road. "I'm so sorry, Howard," my colleague Leighton Ford said to me. "I've never seen anything like this before."
A few days later, in a different part of the country, we again searched for a late-night meal. We found a diner that didn't display a sign in the window, but once we walked through the door we realized it was run by blacks. The patrons stared at us for a long, uncomfortable time before the owner finally explained that I was welcome there but my associates would have to leave.
Later, Leighton chatted with me again about what had happened that evening. "Howard," he said, "now I know how you must feel sometimes not only in this country but back in the States as well."
Since those days, much has happened in South Africa to move it away from it's system of apartheid and into a more just and humane structure. Power has been restored to the black citizens, and the country has slowly started down a path toward reconciliation. Obviously, both blacks and whites have a long way to go there. But it's heartening that some progress has been made.
I like to think our meetings there thirty years ago played some small role in nudging the nation toward racial healing. I pray God will continue to break down that nation's barriers both those in the political structures and those in the hearts of men.
Chapter Fifteen || Table of Contents