The world said goodbye today to the Rev. Billy Graham in a Charlotte ceremony attended by about 2,000 people. Clergy, siblings and his children delivered remarks. There were funny moments, such as when Graham’s first child, Virginia, said she was the longest loved.
“I tell people I don’t want to be called the oldest or the eldest in the family, I want to be called the one that daddy loved the longest,” Virginia Graham said.
And there were touching moments, such as Ruth Graham recalling her father’s love after she had made a poor relationship decision – a decision she said was the result of being “stubborn, willful, and sinful.” She returned home with trepidation.
“Many of you know we live on the side of a mountain. And as I wound myself up the mountain, I rounded the last bend in my father’s driveway, and my father was standing there waiting for me. As I got out of the car, he wrapped his arms around me. He said, ‘welcome home.’ There was no shame, no condemnation. Just unconditional love,” she said.
The 90-minute service demonstrated other themes from Graham’s life - his ability to bring together people of diverse backgrounds and faiths, and his use of technology to reach a wide audience.
It celebrated Graham's life, but also did what he did so many times - preached the gospel. Daughter Anne Graham Lotz, herself an evangelist, said her father's death was a sign from God.
“I believe this is a shot across the bow from heaven. And I believe God is saying wake up church, wake up world, wake up Anne. Jesus is coming, Jesus is coming,” she said.
Lotz drew shouts and applause when she pledged to continue evangelizing. Graham's youngest child, Ned, was brief, but had a lesson, too.
“I just want you all to know that my father was FAT. He was faithful, he was available and he was teachable. And I want each one of you to remember that - faithful, available, teachable. May we all be that way,” he said.
Graham’s other son, evangelist Franklin Graham, said his strongest memories are of his father in the pulpit. As a husband and father, he was no different, offering words of both encouragement and caution rooted in the bible.
“The Billy Graham that the world saw on television, the Billy Graham that the world saw in the big stadiums, was the same Billy Graham that we saw at home," Franklin Graham said. "There weren't two Billy Grahams.”
The white tent next to the Billy Graham Library was a big one - big enough for all, as Graham might have said. Guests and speakers included fellow pastors from the Carolinas and around the world, black, white, and Asian.
The president and vice president were there, as were North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper and former Governor Pat McCrory. The crowd included people from many faiths, including Catholics - who haven't exactly been welcomed by some Protestants, said Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York.
“I am so honored that his family would have invited Catholic representation. Billy was a bridge-builder. And listen – back in the 19 – late 40s and early 50s, to have welcomed Catholics, to embrace them, that wasn’t always – kind of – blessed. He did it well,” Dolan said.
Dolan stood out in the crowd in his long black cassock and red cardinal's cap. Celebrities stood out too, like entertainer Kathie Lee Gifford, who said she counted Graham as a friend. Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson was there, lingering thoughtfully in his seat after the service. Former governor McCrory drew a swarm of media all morning. He knew Graham from his days as mayor. He recalled getting a stern lesson from the evangelist in 1996, for waving to the crowd as they entered Bank of America Stadium for Graham's big revival that year.
“He reminded me that you need to be humble, you need to care and love for other people, and it’s not about you. It’s about something greater than all of us,” McCrory said.
Preaching in stadiums and arenas helped Graham get his message to the masses, beginning with the 1949 Los Angeles Crusade that launched him onto the national scene. He also pioneered in using television. Graham's funeral itself was an example - a full-scale multimedia production delivered by internet and satellite feeds to media and followers around the world.
TV preacher Joel Osteen was among the invited guests and says Graham helped create the idea of the modern public preacher.
“I think it influenced myself and all of us that pastor larger churches today, again … taking the message of Christ to the airwaves and to the public stadiums, you know, the basketball arenas and stuff, that just paved the way for us. He was a pioneer,” Osteen said.
After the funeral, Graham was laid to rest in a prayer garden on the library grounds, next to his wife Ruth, who died in 2007.