Billy Graham is everywhere. He popped up this week on President Nixon's list of charitable contributions. His prerecorded presence graces American television screens several times a year. His syndicated column, "My Answer," competes with enlightened journalists' essays for editorial space in newspapers all over the country.
Somehow I had managed to escape him until this summer. I had changed television stations when he came on. I had opted for enlightened questions over Graham's answers. But beyond that, I am Jewish and I go to Radcliffe, and if that's not enough immunity from Billy Graham, there is no escape.
This summer, divine retribution stepped in: The Atlanta Journal assigned me to cover the week-long Billy Graham Crusade, held in Atlanta. Seven nights with Graham and his near-capacity crowds, seven days interviewing the members of his elaborate organization and seven mornings at the typewriter fighting to retain objectivity--I was literally swimming in the waters of the Lord.
It all began on June 15, when Graham whisked into Atlanta International Airport with a towering entourage of smiling, suntanned, seersucker-jacketed look-alikes. As he moved down the glass-walled corridor, Graham strode slightly ahead of his companions--his silver hair glistening a little more in the sunlight, his Hollywood tan more golden, his blue eyes more piercing, his big white smile more dazzling than the others'. Bystanders fought the blinding glare to gaze after his amazing grace.
The entrance was perfect--and then I met him. He was more a figure than a man, a walking mannequin who had sold his soul to the devils of modern image-making. His reverence was wrapped in Hollywood Holiness, and the whole package was better suited to a television screen or a stadium platform than a room filled with real people.
At the airport, Graham gave waiting reporters a canned version of the sermon he'd deliver in different forms for the next week. It went something like this: No man can solve the problems of poverty and oppression on this earth. But people can learn to find peace within their limitations, realize that this life is not the theater for our salvation, redirect their energies, accept. In acceptance lies the Answer.
Across town, groups of Atlanta blacks were preparing demonstrations against Graham's refusal to speak out about Watergate and his alleged neglect of the black clergy's call for Christian activism. At the press conference, Graham was asked to comment on the challenge. He declined, but said he'd gladly talk to the black leaders if they called him. They never did. Blacks continued to boycott the crusade throughout the week and the crowds who saw Graham in Atlanta were almost all well-dressed and white.
For the week of June 18-24 Graham staged his nightly spectacular in Atlanta Stadium, home of the Atlanta Braves and their great showman, Henry Aaron. At the time, Aaron was seemingly on his way to breaking Babe Ruth's all-time home run record. Graham had a tough act to follow, but he was prepared. In seven nights, he drew over 350,000 worshippers.
Most of the Crusade chairmen came not from Atlanta's religious leadership, but straight out of its power structure. At the top was Tom Cousins, a leading real estate developer and financier who brought the pro basketball Hawks to Atlanta, built the city's dazzling indoor athletic and cultural center, and is currently building a uniquely luxurious hotel that will aid the city's drive to become the national convention center by 1980.
Under Cousins, committee chairmen included the president of one of Atlanta's largest banks, the chairman of its rapid transit system, the president of its chamber of commerce, the country's number-one Ford dealer and several retired public servants. The chairman of the ministers' council was the pastor of the church where numerous Atlanta political and civic leaders do their praying.
At the next level was a group of men who did the actual footwork--for example, the middle-aged fellow who for 20 years had flown all over the world with Graham to organize local counseling programs to supplement Graham's message. In striking contrast to the sophisticated, glamorous, powerful men at the top, they are homey, plodding yes-men; they do drudge work; they carry pamphlets detailing The Way; they stutter and stare blankly when asked questions that aren't in the pamphlets. They are the peddlers. The glamorous leaders are the front men. And Billy Graham is their product--a very marketable product.
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