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The Man Next Door
Billy Graham preached several times in Canada in 13 cities. Always taking time to understand local cultures, he leaves a significant mark on Canadian evangelicalism.

In October 1979, Billy Graham preached to more than 50,000 people during a five-day crusade in Halifax – including 13-year old me. Graham preached about Zacchaeus and all the things that stand in our way of having a relationship with Jesus Christ.

Billy Graham
Photo courtesy Billy Graham Evangelistic Association

I don’t remember any of that. I do remember the thrill of watching the tall man with the floppy Bible and the warm voice with the mild North Carolina lilt. I remember sensing – even then, when Donny Osmond still gave me a thrill – that I was in the presence of someone and something very special.

And I remember the long, long walk down from the nosebleed section of the Halifax Metro Centre as the choir sang “Just as I Am,” the song that will forever be associated with the world’s favourite evangelist.

Billy Graham led crusades in 13 Canadian cities from his first in Toronto in 1955 to his last Canadian appearance in Ottawa in 1998. He has preached to an estimated 100 million people worldwide and, thanks to television, radio and satellite broadcasts of his sermons, reached an estimated two billion people with a very simple message, shared time and time again: God loves you and He wants to have a relationship with you. That’s what the Bible says.

At some point, the number of individuals and lives touched by Billy Graham will be beyond counting. It includes many Canadians as well as the Canadian Church culture as a whole. Don McCarthy is 80. He has been part of the Billy Graham scene in Canada since the beginning – literally. As a lawyer in Winnipeg in 1953, he was called upon through a family connection to help the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association set up a Canadian headquarters.

Donations were pouring into the American office from Canadians who listened to the radio program. Because there was no Canadian office, the association could not issue receipts. A Graham association official came on the 7 a.m. train from Minneapolis and left 12 hours later. On that one day “we opened an office, set it up with furniture, hired the first employee and registered the charity,” remembers McCarthy.

“When he left I was so exhausted I went home and went to bed.” McCarthy went on to serve on the Canadian board along with Billy Graham for years. (He’s still a member emeritus.)

“When you are with him,” says McCarthy, “you know you are with a special person. This is somebody God has touched differently from the rest of us. He has no ego.” Humility is a word that comes up again and again from those who know and have worked with Graham. For Canadians, humility spoke volumes, especially coming from an American evangelist.

Brian Stiller was president of The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada when he co-chaired the committee that brought Graham to Toronto in 1995. (Stiller has recently retired as president of Tyndale University College and Seminary, becoming its chancellor.)

“Graham practised humility: his body language, his verbal language, making sure others were speaking, not allowing them to feed his ego. He was always interested in what other people were doing and why. The other thing I found was that he was always asking me to pray for him. Frequently throughout a conversation, he’d put his hand on mine and say ‘Brian, would you pray?’ ”

Don McCarthy remembers being at one conference where Billy Graham staff from around the world had gathered to share ministry updates.

Billy Graham preached in several Canadian cities over the years.

“In the mornings Billy would sit in the audience when staff gave reports,” says McCarthy. “One time Billy got up to the microphone and said ‘One thing that bothers me is that I wish I hadn’t been convinced to call it the Billy Graham ministry. I keep hearing my name. For the next three days I don’t want to hear my name. I want to hear the name of Jesus.’”

McCarthy says he looked around and all he saw were people crossing things out on the papers they were yet to present. “Humility is an incredible part of him and, with his acclaim, it is really amazing.”

That humility went beyond Graham’s personal character to the institutional level – in the way his ministry interacted with the local culture to which the ministry had been invited to preach. Any crusade Graham did (“They don’t call them crusades anymore,” muses McCarthy, “they call them all kinds of funny names”), including the Canadian ones, were in response to an invitation by a carefully constructed committee that had to be representative and inclusive of the broader church culture in that city.

If it wasn’t, Graham would politely decline. Once an invitation was accepted, things really started to happen, including a Billy Graham staff person moving (often with family in tow) to the community at least a year ahead of time. An integral part of the preparation was the creation of a briefing document to introduce and update Graham on local culture, national and municipal events and anything else Graham should know about the city and country he was preaching in.

Lloyd Mackey is an Ottawa-based journalist who helped prepare the Vancouver report for the 1984 crusade. “Graham was always very good about understanding the culture he was going to. He understood there was a difference between Canada and the United States.”

Mackey was given a copy of the Edmonton report to use as a model for his own research and writing. “And it was written by Preston Manning,” remembers Mackey. Later, listening to Graham speak, Mackey says: “You could tell as he was preaching when he was referring to [the local report]. He didn’t quote it, but we knew he had read it. Not only that, he thought about it and absorbed it. That is one of the reasons why I think he tended to be accepted in all kinds of cultures. He recognized that Canada was more Roman Catholic than the United States. He recognized the kinds of issues that could cause tension between the United States and Canada.”

Graham had credibility, and, according to Mackey, it was contagious. “I think he helped a lot of Canadian evangelical leaders bring credibility to the Gospel. And he did it in a way that was modest and self-effacing but also in a way that brought tremendous energy to evangelism projects. He could bring in all these Americans who really knew how to do it, but he could have them work in such a way that the local executive committee could weigh things and see how they fit into our cities, whatever that city was.”

In 1998 that city was Ottawa. Back then Bob DuBroy was general manager of the Christian radio station CHRI and helped organize the Ottawa crusade. “Part of the ministry of CHRI is to unite Ottawa. To have someone like Billy Graham come and give traction to that gave it great credibility. It was powerful,” says DuBroy. “It let Ottawa know Christianity was not dead, that we could fill the Corel Centre and that there were actually more people interested in faith than interested in the Ottawa Senators” hockey team.

For DuBroy, a Roman Catholic, Graham’s emphasis on Christian unity was a welcome relief. “When Graham gave instructions to prayer ministers to send people back to churches of their own denominations to get fed there, that was huge. As a Catholic, that really speaks volumes to me. It has a healing effect for me.”

Lloyd Mackey agrees. “Ottawa was a striking example, and maybe the best example to date, of co-operation between Protestants and Catholics.

Among the several thousands of prayer counsellors trained for the event, a good 30 to 40 percent were Catholic.”

An interdenominational ministerial named Mission Ottawa, which has roots in the Billy Graham crusade, still brings Christian leaders together for prayer and ministry to Canada’s capital. This is music to Steve Wile’s ears. Wile is director of ministry for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association of Canada.

“Absolutely, part of our mandate is to leave the churches in a stronger position than before we partnered with them,” says Wile.

That strengthening of the Church happened on the individual level, congregation by congregation, as well as on the national scene.

Carol Sollows of Ottawa has been appointed president of the Canadian Baptist Women of Ontario and Quebec. Prior to attending the Billy Graham crusade in Ottawa in ’98, Sollows and her husband, Wayne, were nominal at best in their Christian life.

Everything changed that night.

“We went down and rededicated our lives. Billy preached on the simple message of John 3:16 and to love each other. It was such a simple thing but it impacted both of our lives. He seemed like the guy next door, that really nice guy.” Wayne Sollows changed careers from marketing to ministry. He’s now a fulltime Baptist pastor.

Graham’s calling of people forward into a new life in Christ, the building up of their faith through carefully planned and executed follow-up and the encouragement that they become involved in a local church – all have strengthened the Canadian Church probably millions of times over.

On the national scene, Christian newspapers have been started as a result of Graham crusades (see Lloyd Mackey’s story on page 18). Canadian evangelists have been trained, encouraged and brought into the Graham fold. City-wide ministerial associations have been created or made stronger because different churches have to work together before Graham would contemplate coming.

Even organizations like The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) can trace its roots back to Graham’s influence. Harry Faught, pastor of Danforth Gospel Temple in Toronto in the early 1960s, was the visionary who thought churches and denominations should be working better together. “He was fired up by Graham’s vision and started the EFC,” explains Stiller, the group’s former president.

Billy Graham’s international influence has also been remarkable, says Bruce J. Clemenger, the EFC’s current president. “His ability to transcend American culture enabled him to initiate movements like the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization that have promoted an understanding of the gospel that integrates evangelism and social responsibility.”

Bring up Billy Graham’s name in Canadian Christian circles and the stories start to flow. People remember where, when and how many times they heard him speak. It was almost a Canadian television ritual to gather around and turn the dial (manually of course) to a broadcast of the latest Billy Graham crusade.

In the personal spiritual history of many Christians in Canada, there has been a trip down a flight of stairs to the strains of “Just as I Am.” It may not have been the first time they said yes to Christ. It may not even have been the last time – but it was an important time. And they are grateful.

Karen Stiller is associate editor of Faith Today.

Originally published in Faith Today, July/August 2009.

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Used with permission. Copyright © 2009




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