A Conversation with Howard O. Jones
August 1, 2002 - In 1957 Howard O. Jones, a 36-year-old pastor and evangelist from Cleveland, Ohio, became the first African-American preacher to join Billy Graham’s team of associates. For more than 35 years he and his wife, Wanda, traveled the globe on behalf of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA), boldly proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ to people of every race and culture. Recently "Decision" spoke with him about the challenge of joining the Graham Team during an era of intense racial division in the United States and about his insights on the recent Greater Cincinnati Northern Kentucky Billy Graham Mission, in Cincinnati, Ohio, a contemporary hotbed of racial turmoil.
by Edward Gilbreath
Q/ What is your perspective on the racial situation in Cincinnati and on Billy Graham’s decision to hold a Mission there?
A/ It is a very sensitive subject. We’ve heard the allegations of racial profiling and police brutality. We’ve heard about the killing of the young black man who was running from police and how tense things have been there. During the past year, some events have been canceled or boycotted because of the racial situation. And, of course, some African-American ministers asked Billy not to come to Cincinnati because of the social climate there.
But there are prominent ministers who said, "Billy, we want you to come, because we believe that your type of ministry is the type of testimony that we need in Cincinnati today."
Q/ What effect do you think the Graham Mission ultimately will have there?
A/ I’m praying that what happened at Cincinnati will play a major part in healing race relations in this nation. Through prayers from Christians of all races and the input of the Billy Graham Mission, Cincinnati could serve as a great testimony to our nation. I believe the power of the Gospel can change the hearts and lives of people in Cincinnati.
Q/ Cincinnati is just one example of racial strife in the United States. How do you view the status of race relations in America today?
A/ We’ve seen great progress. But we have a long way to go. We see a lot of progress in the areas of sports, music, business and media. But in churches, per se, Sunday morning services are still the most segregated hours in our nation.
If we Christians were really being the salt of the earth and light of the world, and loving people as Jesus told us to love them, things would look quite different. Jesus said, "By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, because you love one another."(1) Love is the distinguishing mark of the believer. If we could get together as Christians, forget all this foolishness and love one another, a change would come, and God would bring spiritual awakening to our churches and to our nation.
Q/ What does a unified church look like? Will congregations be more diverse? Some people point to cultural differences in worship style, for instance, as being something that will keep the races apart on Sunday mornings.
A/ That’s a problem, no doubt. But there are churches in the United States that are integrated with blacks and whites and Hispanics. Look at The Brooklyn Tabernacle in New York City—it’s made up of all races.
When we get to heaven, we won’t see blacks on one side and whites on the other side. In the book of Revelation the Apostle John wrote that he caught a vision of a throng around the throne that no one could count, out of every race, tribe and nationality.(2) That’s the true Church.
We will be integrated in heaven. So it seems to me that it’s about time we folks here on earth got the message and prayed for God to bring that love revival that we need so desperately.
Q/ The Cincinnati Mission is not the first time that a Billy Graham event has generated racial controversy. Forty-five years ago a Crusade caused quite a stir. How did that come about?
A/ At that time Billy was in the midst of his 16-week-long Madison Square Garden Crusade in New York City. It was drawing huge numbers, but Billy was concerned that the meetings were "too white," so he called upon a couple of friends to help him recruit a black preacher for his Team. I was that black preacher.
I had just returned to my church in Cleveland after a three-month evangelistic mission to Africa. The last thing I was expecting when I returned was that letter requesting my presence in New York.
Q/ What happened when you arrived in New York?
A/ After the Crusade meeting I went to meet with Billy. He was clearly tired, but he gave me a big hug and said, "Howard, we need you. I don’t know how to tackle this thing."
He explained that three years earlier he had promised God that he would never again preach to segregated audiences. His decision was brought on in part by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that set the precedent for abolishing segregation in schools. After that, Billy told all of his appointments in the South that he would no longer preach to segregated audiences. In fact, at one meeting he shocked organizers by personally taking down the ropes that divided the crowd by race.
When Billy asked for my advice on how to attract more blacks to the meetings, I said, "If blacks aren’t coming to your meetings, you need to go to where they are."
"What do you mean?" he asked,
I said, "Go to Harlem!"
Some years earlier I had preached on many of the street corners of Harlem and Brooklyn when I was a pastor there. And I knew many of the African-American pastors there. So Billy asked if I would set up meetings for him in the black sections of New York City, and I agreed to do so.
Q/ Mr. Graham took some flack for going to those places, didn’t he?
A/ Yes, he did. When the news broke that Billy was going to Harlem, many of his white supporters protested. They said, "Don’t go to Harlem. It’s too dangerous." Which was ironic, because some of those people were sending missionaries to Third World nations to preach the Gospel, yet they didn’t want Billy to go to Harlem.
Nevertheless, thousands of African-Americans turned out for the meetings in Harlem and in Brooklyn. Cliff Barrows led the singing. Bev Shea sang. Billy brought a message and gave an invitation; hundreds of people raised their hands to receive Christ as Savior.
And Billy invited the people to come to Madison Square Garden to the Crusade meetings. Because Billy had gone to where the black people were, the blacks began to attend the Crusade meetings. What’s more, Cliff Barrows asked Ethel Waters to sing at the Crusade, and she sang in the choir every night. One evening Cliff asked Ethel if she would do a solo. When she sang "His Eye Is on the Sparrow," it brought the house down.
Q/ Still, didn’t Mr. Graham face resistance from some white church leaders, especially when they learned that you would be joining the Team in New York?
A/ When the news broke that Billy Graham was adding a black man to his Team, some white ministers objected very strongly. They said, "You don’t need that black preacher on your Team. It will ruin your ministry." Others threatened to withhold their financial support.
But he did not back down. He looked at me and said, "I don’t care what they say, Howard. I’m going through with this if you’ll go through it with me."
Q/ What was it like for you as the first African-American evangelist on Billy Graham’s Team?
A/ It was difficult. I was usually the only black person around. I received piercing stares, and I often sat isolated on Crusade platforms because some people refused to sit next to me. After Billy preached, we associate evangelists would leave the platform to help counsel people. There too I got dirty stares from people. I’d go ahead and talk to people about Christ, but it was difficult for me.
There were times during that New York Crusade when the stress was so great. I remember one time when I lay awake, weeping in bed. I prayed, "Lord, I can’t take this pressure. It’s too much!"
Q/ But you persevered.
A/ By God’s grace. But the Grahams were always kind to my wife, Wanda, and me. I remember that when Wanda arrived in New York, one of the first people to greet her at Madison Square Garden was Ruth Graham. She ran up to Wanda and hugged her and said, "We love Howard as a brother, and we’re so glad you’re here." And that touched Wanda’s heart.
Q/ What lessons can we draw from that era?
A/ Racial healing and social justice have a cost. Billy paid a price. But what we saw in New York City was an important model—Billy going to the people to show that he loved them. And bringing in Ethel Waters to sing and later asking Martin Luther King Jr. to lead in a prayer—they were major. Following the Crusade in New York City, Billy and Ruth invited Wanda and me to a special dinner for Dr. King. What an unforgettable evening!
Billy’s willingness to sacrifice money and reputation for a principle was remarkable. He counted the cost but still chose to do what was right. That was a pattern that we saw again and again in other cities.
And I hope that the legacy of the Cincinnati Mission will be a city that got the message and will become an example of what true Christianity is when blacks and whites and other races come together to demonstrate their love through the preaching and teaching of the Gospel. I’m expecting great and mighty things.