Billy Graham (copy)

Billy Graham

A lot of Waco residents have personal memories of their interactions with American evangelist Billy Graham, who died at the age of 99 on Wednesday.

Mine comes with about four degrees — well, several hundred yards — of separation: I once was in the same football stadium.

Graham brought his crusade to Jackson, Miss., in the 1970s when I was in high school there and, being the good Southern Baptist I was at the time, I was in the famous Crusade Choir led by Cliff Barrows.

The choir was several thousand strong, assembled from many of the church choirs in Jackson. Our choir had practiced several of the hymns planned for the rally a few weeks earlier — simple arrangements, nothing fancy in choral terms — then I, my fellow-tenor father and other choir members showed up at the stadium for a pre-rally rehearsal with Barrows.

I discovered why the arrangements were so simple. Getting several thousand singers to start and stop near the same beat is no easy matter, nor is tuning any chord of more than three notes. I don't even remember the songs we sang, outside of the "Just As I Am" that traditionally followed Graham's message, but I do remember the emotion of singing in such a large chorus.

Joining others in song builds a sense of unity and solidarity: You are part of something larger than you, and that something feels pretty powerful. Communal singing is a core activity in many religions and characterized the early decades of the American labor movement. Today, if you don't sing in a church or at school, that experience is largely limited to the National Anthem before a sporting event. Perhaps if our state and national legislators sang together before each session, it might remind them of a purpose beyond party, but I digress.

I don't remember what Graham preached on other than what he always preached on: the personal need to turn to God through Jesus Christ. His ethics and morality were conservative and orthodox, but always secondary and subsequent to that decision to follow Christ.

Millions knew Graham from television broadcasts of his crusades, but those rarely captured the extensive organizational work that went on weeks in advance and behind the scenes. Graham's city appearances required a commitment from local churches to cooperate regardless of denomination or members' race. Weeks of discussion, advertising and church prayer sessions put the crusade on the community radar.

Mass choirs not only help set the emotional tone of the evening rallies, but guaranteed a certain measure of attendance. And those hundreds of people streaming down stadium aisles in the initial minutes of Graham's call for decision? Counselors in the audience heading toward the stage to await and meet potential converts behind them. 

I'm not saying Graham's success was all stage dressing. Rather, it was the product of collective work, of hundreds of people cooperating for a common goal. Some bemoan the lack of a leader like Graham in today's America; I wonder about a declining sense of community and self-sacrifice for anything that doesn't have a political goal.

Some 40 years later, in the presence of America's great 20th century evangelist, I don't remember the message as much as I was a part of something.

Tribune-Herald entertainment editor