"That word ... it was mysterious to me, yet beautiful. I carried the word around in my mind for years, repeating it to myself over and over so I wouldn't forget. I grew up wondering, 'What could it mean?'"
The woman telling me her story was originally from the Philippines. She was running a pawn shop across from the Fort Bragg military base in central North Carolina. Having spoken at a chapel service there, I stopped to browse in a Fayetteville pawn shop on my drive home. From her store, I came away with a treasure: A conversation that moves me to this day.
"Are you a Christian?" I asked. The woman said that she was, and I replied, "How did you come to know the Lord?"
Tears began to appear around her eyes as she told me her story. Emotion would soon grip me as well. She said that her earliest memory was of being in a crowd, back home in the Philippines. She was only four or five, and there a man lifted her up and held her in the midst of the crowd. And she remembered that the man held her with one arm, and with the other, a large book.
In a kind of reverent whisper, she told me, "The kindest face I had ever seen stared deep into my eyes and said a word. One word to me, that's all he said. And that word, I didn't know what it meant, and yet it never really left my mind."
She related how her family migrated to the U.S. and settled in New Jersey. Around the age of 13, she was invited to church by a friend from school. Going to a store-front church now many years and miles removed from the Philippines, once again she heard ... that word. The man at the front of the room spoke to the audience from a big leather book, reminding her of her childhood's most indelible memory. A number of times the man speaking repeated ... that word. "I somehow knew that this man would explain to me what I had heard as a little girl."
Her story moved me deeply, as she shared what "one word, sown in the ears of a child" would turn out to be the name of Jesus. "This pastor told me the Gospel and I realized that Christ loved me," she said. "The seed of faith that was planted in my heart so long ago, the name 'Jesus,' it resulted in my trusting in Him around age 13."
Her story was riveting enough, but something she learned as an adult made it all doubly meaningful. Her older brother, researching family history, came across an old news photo in which the little girl appeared. Amid a huge crowd of people, a decades-old photo showed a tall man holding a large leather book in one hand, and in the other, the younger sister. The gentle man, making eye contact with a child, uttered the name that would echo within the little girl for the rest of her life.
It was Billy Graham.
In whispering the word "Jesus," a seed was sown that the Holy Spirit would bring to fruition years later. How simple, how poignant, really, and yet how profound. The whole image speaks volumes.
And so for a week now, the world has been mourning the passing of Christendom's most traveled and prolific evangelist. It is hard to imagine a world without Billy Graham, and yet here we are.
Growing up, we always watched his crusades on TV. The Billy Graham-Cliff Barrows-George Beverly Shea Crusade Songbook had sat atop our family piano since before I was born, and I have it to this day. More than once in my youth, I remember my dad (a lifelong Presbyterian) and my mother (a lifelong Baptist) having discussions about the Bible / Christianity / life in general, and an impasse would be resolved by one or the other concluding, "Well, I agree with whatever Billy Graham says about it."
The words of Billy Graham was the final say for millions of seeking souls over the past six decades. This weekend I heard an elderly neighbor wistfully reflect, "Billy was the man you could trust." Indeed. The tributes filling network news and social media reminded me of the unique salvation journey of the Filipino lady from the pawn shop.
What an example of ministry to a little child, by the man who wore "the kindest face I had ever seen." To her description I would add, "...and who carried within him perhaps the most obedient heart any of us will ever see."
Billy Graham was a role model for Christians everywhere. He personified fidelity to II Timothy 4:2, which enjoins, "Preach the word ... instant in season and out." Translation: Talk with people about Jesus. Dr. Graham faithfully did this, even to the point of imparting a single word to a child.
Perhaps Christians will follow this period of mourning and reflection with an even greater sense of joyful resolve. The fruit of Billy Graham's laser-focused commitment to the Gospel is truly awe-inspiring. His purpose was to see that the whole world heard about Jesus. May God grant that it becomes our mission as well.
An unworthy, though grateful, follower of Jesus, Dr. Alex McFarland is also a religion and culture expert, Director for Christian Worldview and Apologetics at North Greenville University, national talk show host, speaker and author of 18 books, and host of the Truth for a New Generation conference. For more information, visit www.alexmcfarland.com.