Birthday Banquet Honors Billy Graham
'America's Pastor' receives more than 120,000 letters from people influenced by his ministry
November 14, 2008 - Billy Graham's 90th birthday has marked an occasion for celebration all around the world:
by Tom Bowers
On the day of his birthday, last Friday, Nov. 7, Mr. Graham’s children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, gathered at his home in Montreat, N.C., for a family birthday party. Daughter Gigi says that they gave him a kitten for his birthday present.
Meanwhile, thousands celebrated the evangelist’s birthday at the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, N.C., by touring the interactive facility and sharing stories of how God used Mr. Graham's ministry to influence their lives.
And in places around the world, people logged on to billygraham90.com to share a birthday greeting or story with Mr. Graham.
Banquet of Blessing
Six days later, on Thursday evening, Nov. 13, more than 500 invited guests honored Mr. Graham at a banquet. Seated at the head table with Mr. Graham were famous radio personality, Paul Harvey; the Reverend Pat Robertson and his wife; and founder of AOL (America Online), Mr. Steve Case, and his wife.
Cliff Barrows, George Beverly Shea, BGEA board members, many longtime personal friends of Mr. Graham, longtime staff members of BGEA, retired associates of Mr. Graham’s ministry, four of Mr. Graham's five children, nephews and nieces of Mr. Graham, his sister Jean Graham Ford, and a variety of special guests—including Fox News journalist Greta Van Susteren and her husband—all attended the banquet.
The evening began with videotaped birthday greetings from Rev. Tony Evans, Coach Mark Richt, Coach Tony Dungy, Bill Gaither, President and Mrs. George H. W. Bush, and President George W. Bush, who shared personal anecdotes of how Mr. Graham had ministered to them.
President George W. Bush said, “Some years ago, God used you to change my life.”
Rev. Richard Bewes, retired Rector of All Souls Church, Langham Place, London, a lifelong personal friend of Mr. Graham, led the opening prayer.
A Legacy of Love
After the meal, Mr. Graham’s oldest grandchild, Rev. Stephan Tchividjian addressed his grandfather:
“Daddy Bill, speaking on behalf of all your 19 grandchildren, we want to thank you for what you taught each of us.
You taught us:
- that we were not shoo-ins with God just because we were Billy Graham’s grandchildren;
- the meaning of an individual, personal relationship with Jesus Christ;
- generosity, by your example;
- to be inclusive, without compromising truth;
- how to love our spouses, by watching the love story that was our grandparent’s marriage;
- to honor our parents;
- to serve God, with excellence;
- grace, to love the unlovable;
- and to see life from an eternal perspective.
Daughter Ruth Graham shared, “Each of Daddy’s children, including me, has made serious mistakes in our lives – and each of us has experienced Daddy’s grace. My father is not God, but he has shown us what God is like, a God of grace and unconditional love.”
Friends in the Ministry
After the children, BGEA Board, and the BGEA staff presented Mr. Graham with three warm sweaters as gifts, Cliff Barrows, George Beverly Shea, and Michael W. Smith walked to the front of the room. Barrows approached the microphone first and told jokes about Mr. Graham from the early days. He also related that through the years, whenever a Crusade seemed especially successful, Mr. Graham would gather his staff and say, “Remember, we do not touch the glory. We give God the glory.”
George Beverly Shea then took the microphone and, looking directly at Mr. Graham, said, “You’re 90? That’s nothing, I’m 99!” He then looked out to the guests, chuckling, and said, “When I first met Billy, he was 21 and I was 30 or 31. He keeps trying to catch up, but the difference is still the same.”
Shea and Barrows then launched into a rendition of “Happy Birthday,” accompanied on the piano by Michael W. Smith. Next, Mr. Graham looked at the two candles, in the shape of a 9 and a 0, on his birthday cake and blew them out without hesitation.
In His Own Words
Next Mr. Graham spoke, saying, “I’m thankful for the extraordinary privilege of preaching the Gospel in so many parts of the world.”
As he reminisced about Ruth Bell Graham, his wife of nearly 64 years, he described the moment of her death:
“I was holding her hand. I knew she was on her way to heaven. Then one of my children said, ‘Daddy, she’s gone.’ I looked closely, and she had stopped breathing. We prayed. Then I went to my room, fell before God, and thanked Him for giving me a lifetime with such a wonderful woman, friend, companion, lover, spiritual counselor—she was everything any man could ever want in a wife.”
“I’m old and feel the weakness of age, but God gives me strength. I know it is from God.”
He continued reflecting for a few moments in a somber voice about old age and the end of life, almost as though he was preparing to say his final goodbyes; the guests were tearing up. Instead, Mr. Graham looked at them with a deadpan expression and said, "So, I want to invite you back to my 95th birthday party."
That brought down the house; laughter and applause erupted, followed by a standing ovation.
An Unforgettable Gift
Next Franklin Graham told the guests that more than 120,000 letters and emails have arrived from all around the world in response to an invitation for people to write Mr. Graham for his 90th birthday and tell him how his ministry had touched them.
As Franklin spoke, five large freight carts were wheeled into the front of the banquet room loaded high with boxes and crates containing all 120,000 letters and messages.
Read some of the messages online »
Franklin Graham told his father that the letter with a story from the longest ago was from a woman who heard Billy preach in 1938, when Billy was just 20 years old; she turned her life over to Jesus Christ in response.
“This letter is from a woman who was probably one of the first people ever to be saved as a result of your preaching,” said Franklin Graham.
Along with senior staff of BGEA, Franklin Graham then presented Mr. Graham with several bound volumes of letters and emails selected from the 120,000, suggesting that Mr. Graham’s personal assistant begin reading the letters each day to Mr. Graham.
As Mr. Graham began to look at the bound volumes, Franklin said: “Daddy, we love you.”
Without another word spoken, the room in total silence, Billy laid down the bound book of letters, reached up from his chair to pull Franklin’s face down, and kissed his son.
It was the emotional highlight of the evening.
Afterward, ministers Greg Laurie, Don Wilton, Ross Rhoads, and Sami Dagher led closing prayers for Mr. Graham.
In the final prayer that ended the evening, Rev. Sami Dagher of Lebanon said, “We know, O Lord, that in your eyes Billy Graham’s humbleness has been the key to his greatness.”