Billy Graham, the man known as America’s Pastor, passed away Wednesday in North Carolina at the age of 99.
The most famous minister of his time, Graham traveled all over the world to spread his message — including several times to Boston.
Graham grew up on a farm in North Carolina. Speaking at Harvard’s Kennedy School in 1982, Graham’s folksy charm was on full display as he joked about his humble qualifications.
“When I read the list of past speakers and some of the future speakers that you’re going to have here, I felt like the man I heard about in my part of the country who decided to enter his mule in the Kentucky Derby,” he said to laughter from the crowd. “They said you don’t expect your mule to win, do you? And he said, ‘No, but look at the company he’ll be in!’”
That same year, Graham planned to hold a rally at Boston University’s Nickerson Field as part of his so-called crusades.
Despite the city being overwhelmingly Catholic, Graham’s message appealed to thousands of Bostonians. But there was one big problem.
“[The word 'crusade'] is processed quite differently by Jews than by Christians," said Marvin Wilson, a professor at Gordon College, a Christian school just outside of Boston where Billy Graham served as a trustee. Wilson researches Jewish and Christian history, and he knew there was anxiety in Boston's Jewish community ahead of Graham's crusade.
"Christians hear 'crusade,' they think of a large gospel preaching rally,” Wilson said. “Jews hear 'crusade,' and they want to run."
Wilson helped organize a meeting between the Jewish leaders of New England and Billy Graham.
"It was very respectful conversation that went on in the room. There was no animus, no personal attacks. There was a genuine desire to listen and to learn," Wilson recalled.
In his speech at Harvard, Graham spoke to the strength of listening to those with different beliefs.
Of his own beliefs, he said, “the more I learn, the less dogmatic I become about some of them. My stance, as you know, is that of a Christian, who takes the Bible seriously. I realize this may not be your perspective and we may not come out exactly the same place always because we start with different reference points. But it is unfortunate that we often do not see what each others’ assumptions are.”
In addition to meeting with religious leaders, Graham also spent time working in ministries, non-profits and volunteer organizations. Bill Barker, another professor at Gordon College, says Graham wanted to endear himself to the community.
“Boston is a very academic town, but it's also a practical town,” Barker explained. “I think Billy Graham's desire to see real needs met really spoke to people in New England, and gave them a sense that the care was more than a veneer. It wasn't hypocrisy, there was real substance behind whatever the spin of his image was.”
Graham passed away Wednesday at his home in North Carolina.