When I woke up on the morning of February 21, I stumbled to the kitchen to make my first cup of coffee for the day. As I sat down and turned on the news, the headline story across the nation was that Reverend Billy Graham passed away at the age of 99. As I continued to see coverage, I refreshed my memory of his life and legacy. Then it occurred to me—I do not know a world without Billy Graham in it. I realized that most of us do not know a world without Billy Graham.
Graham was humble, authentic, genuine, and full of integrity, passion and compassion. He didn’t preach the wealth-gospel. He preached the joy of the gospel to the people of the world who needed to hear that God loved them. Each one of them.
I am astounded at the enormity of Graham’s influence and impact on the world. Since his death, I’ve been looking through photos, newspaper articles and film coverage of this humble man who was often in the presence of presidents, world leaders, kings and queens, sports stars and celebrities.
Anyone that had the privilege of knowing Graham described him as humble. Graham often referred to himself as “a country preacher.” His humility was only rivaled by his powerful messages about God’s salvation. He was not covered in scandal, and his goal was neither wealth nor fame. He preached a simple message and lived his life authentically. Listening to some of his crusades since his death, I would find myself in awe of the simple yet powerful teachings.
What many people may not know is Graham’s tie to the Tampa Bay area—it’s where his ministry began. In 1937, at the age of 18, Graham came to Tampa and enrolled at the Florida Bible Institute in Temple Terrace. He began his preaching career at small churches and on street corners in downtown Tampa, on North Franklin Street while attending school. It was reported that he regularly spread the gospel message to missions in downtown Tampa and throughout the city’s jails. By the late 1930s, Graham’s impromptu preaching would draw crowds of more than 1,000 people.
After graduation from the Florida Bible Institute with a Bachelor’s of Theology, Graham moved to Illinois. It wasn’t long before his captivating and heartfelt sermons began to gain more attention.
Eventually, he went on to hold indoor and outdoor rallies with sermons broadcast on radio and television. Word of his dynamic preaching spread and his audience grew. One of his television broadcasts in 1996 reached an audience of 2.5 billion people worldwide. His crusades ran from 1947 until his retirement in 2005.
In 1961, Graham held several of his crusades in the Bay area including Tampa, Clearwater and St. Petersburg. He again brought his crusades back to Tampa in 1979 at the Tampa Stadium. More than 175,000 people attended, and approximately 6,000 people became Christians. During this crusade, a permanent street marker was erected in downtown to pay tribute to Graham’s beginnings on the streets of Tampa.
Graham’s third Tampa Crusade took place in October 1998. It broke two consecutive attendance records for any local sports facility and was the first non-football event to be held in the new Raymond James Stadium.
Graham crusades are reported to have reached an estimated 215 million people in live audiences in 185 countries. As of 2008, Graham’s estimated lifetime audience, including radio and television broadcasts, exceeded 2.2 billion. Graham preached the gospel to more people in person than anyone in the history of Christianity. Even more astounding, an estimated 3.2 million people became Christians through his crusades. God used a country boy who grew up on a dairy farm in Charlotte, NC to change the lives of millions of people across the world. Even though his physical body is no longer with us, Billy Graham’s legacy will continue through his books, recordings and foundation.
For more information about his foundation, visit www.billygraham.org.