Mourners remember the late evangelist's humility on Friday at his funeral service in North Carolina
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — As it lay before more than 2,000 mourners in Charlotte on Friday, the Rev. Billy Graham’s casket was simple: pine, devoid of ornamentation, made by prison inmates.
It was humble — a word used over and over again to describe the late evangelist, who died last week at 99 at his home near Asheville.
Graham’s funeral, though, was anything but. An enormous, white canvas tent was set up in front of his namesake library. The list of civic and religious dignitaries attending the service was long: President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, and Texas televangelist Joel Osteen, to name a few.
To be sure, Graham’s influence was widespread, and he has frequently been referred to as “America’s pastor” over the last week. The tent was an homage to the Christian “crusades” under canvas tents that propelled the Charlotte-born evangelist to worldwide attention.
But throughout it all — and despite having the ear of U.S. presidents and an international audience — Graham remained genuine and as committed to his family as he was the Gospel, said his son, the evangelist Franklin Graham.
“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. “He loved his family. He stood by us. He left us an enduring legacy.”
Behind Graham’s casket stood his boyhood home, which was relocated from Park Road to the library/Billy Graham Evangelistic Association campus near Charlotte Douglas International Airport. It was in that house, said Graham’s sister Jean Ford, that a family dedication to Christianity grew.
“We learned hard work,” Ford said. “We learned to pray. We learned to love the Scriptures, and that’s never left any of us.”
Time and again, speakers at the funeral referenced Graham’s dedication to preaching.
The Bible “governed how (Graham) lived and it governed how he died,” said the Rev. Donald Wilton, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Spartanburg, South Carolina.
As famous as Graham was on the world stage for preaching, in his native Western North Carolina he was known for his ability to connect with people he met.
“His greatest strength is that he associated so much with the common working men and women of North Carolina, the country and the world,” former Gov. Pat McCrory said. “He saw everyone equally.”
McCrory, also a former longtime Charlotte mayor, said Graham humbled him more than once, including a crusade in 1996 at what is now Bank of America Stadium.
“I was a young, 39-year-old mayor, and I had to introduce him in front of 72,000 people,” McCrory told reporters. “While riding in the golf cart, myself and (former N.C. Gov. David Beasley) were waving to the crowd with our hands up in a very attention-focused mind set, and I leaned down to Rev. Graham and I said, ‘Isn’t this great — the welcome you’re getting back home?’
“And he said, ‘I’m embarrassed — the attention should not be on me.’ I’ve never put my arm down so quickly in my life. It was a lesson in humility.”
And in Black Mountain, the Buncombe County town near Graham’s home in Montreat, the evangelist was known as one of the locals.
“He was just like everybody else,” Black Mountain Mayor Don Collins said. “He came to the restaurants there in town, and everybody tried to respect his privacy and all that sort of thing, but he was just part of the valley.”
Graham was buried at the library next to his late wife, Ruth, who died in 2007. Franklin Graham described them as “soulmates.”
“His journey is complete,” Franklin Graham said.
Dashiell Coleman is a reporter for The Gaston (N.C.) Gazette.