When I heard that Billy Graham had died, my first thought was purely selfish. “I never got to meet him.” For more than 40 years, Billy Graham has been my spiritual hero. My dream was to one day shake his hand and thank him for the impact he had on my life.
Since that dream was now gone, I decided to at least travel to Black Mountain, N.C., and pay my last respects as his motorcade passed by on his journey to Charlotte. As a pastor, I wanted to do something to salute this man who had meant so much to the cause of Christ and to my ministry.
I stood outside the gate of The Cove retreat center with a couple hundred other people. I did not know any of them, but they likely were there because they also had been impacted by this humble man who was known by the world.
There was a lady standing across the street with a bouquet of white balloons. There was a man to my right with a large cardboard sign with pictures of Billy Graham. In bold handwritten letters, the sign summarized Dr. Graham’s ministry: “Servant, soldier and faithful steward of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” We all stood there by the side of the road, watching the gate and waiting for that moment when the motorcade would pass by.
I have seen other motorcades before, having had the opportunity to watch as Elvis, President Nixon and President Reagan passed by. In those situations, there was great excitement and people usually waved or cheered.
This was different.
When Billy Graham passed by, the crowd stood silent. We were not there because he was famous, we were there because he was faithful. No man has ever taken the Gospel to as many people. No man has been a better example for pastors as he ministered with integrity for more than 70 years.
I think that is why thousands of people lined the roadways and the highways from Black Mountain to Charlotte. Collectively, we all wanted a way to say “thank you.” We wanted to honor this humble servant of the Lord who was known as “America’s pastor.” If you watched the motorcade online or on TV, you likely saw lots of signs that said, “Thank you, sir,” and “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
In 1873, British evangelist Henry Varley said: “The world has yet to see what God can do with and for and through and in a man who is fully and wholly consecrated to Him.” The world has seen it now. In our lifetime, we’ve seen what God can do when a man lives his life fully surrendered to the Lord. Literally, millions of people will be in heaven one day as a result.
When I first started to preach as a 17-year-old, I naively thought I would be the next Billy Graham. I’m pretty sure I am not the only pastor who started out with that big dream! As I watched Billy Graham’s motorcade pass by the crowd outside The Cove, I realized there will probably never be another Billy Graham.
Then I remembered something that was said at my father’s funeral. My brother said, “We will never fill James Shorter’s shoes, but we can follow in his steps.”
That’s what I am aiming for. I can’t be the next Billy Graham, and neither can you. Those shoes are just too big to fill. I pray we can follow in his steps as we take the Gospel to a needy world.
— Keith Shorter is pastor of Mt. Airy Baptist Church in Easley, S.C., and immediate past president of the South Carolina Baptist Convention.