This week, the world mourns the death of Reverend Billy Graham. He preached the Christian gospel to more than 215 million people worldwide during his lifetime. Graham also met with and advised every U.S. President since the World War II era.
Several Christian ministries Graham founded remain active, notably Christianity Todayand his own evangelistic association. He mentored and encouraged several next-generation leaders — Reverend James Robison among them, founder and publisher of The Stream.
One evangelical Latino leader has spoken for decades of his regard for Billy Graham. “I will never stop being grateful for the impact he has had on my life,” says Reverend Samuel Rodriguez, head of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.
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Aspects of Graham’s ministry can be seen in Rodriguez. While he preaches weekly at an evangelical church in California, Rodriguez also advises President Trump as a member of the White House Faith Leaders Initiative. He spoke in an interview after having traveled to Israel with one of Graham’s 19 grandchildren.
Evangelist to America — and All the World
The Stream: How did Billy Graham make such an impact on so many people?
Rev. Samuel Rodriguez: Billy Graham was the most influential evangelist since the Apostle Paul. No one else has done more to advance the gospel of Jesus than he did. He did so because not only did he preach the word of God, but he lived the word. The words integrity and character are synonymous with Billy Graham.
In a day and age where we are so driven by the number of likes and followers, Billy Graham was not defined by the number of likes. He was defined by the love of one: Jesus. He was not defined by the number of followers he had. He was motivated and driven by the message to follow Christ, to give him and only him the glory.
“Billy Graham was not defined by the number of likes. He was defined by the love of one: Jesus.”
You saw Jesus when you heard him preach. In such a clear and engaging manner, he reflected humility, authenticity and transparency. You could sense the spirit of Jesus upon him and through him. That’s how he changed the world
The Stream: When did you have the opportunity to meet Reverend Graham?
Rodriguez: Growing up in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the two most influential figures in my life were Billy Graham and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Today for me is as personal a loss as one can possibly have.
I met him through the conduit of serving at Christianity Today, the magazine he founded. I have been serving on the board there for nearly a decade and continue to. We spent some time together and it was one of the highlights of my life. His children Franklin Graham and Anne Graham Lotz are ones whom I consider dear friends.
Only 24 hours ago, I was with his granddaughter Cissie Graham Lynch in Jerusalem. I spent the last five days with her in Israel, along with ten other influential evangelical leaders. Cissie and I were talking about Billy, her grandfather. She was relating how, on occasion, he would communicate with her. Those moments with him were a great privilege.
Unifying Force Among Christians
The Stream: There is so much division among Christians today. How did Dr. Graham reflect Christian unity in his ministry?
Rodriguez: Billy Graham arguably did more to bring the church together in the name of Jesus than anyone else over the past 100 years. He embodied the spirit of Christian unity in America and globally.
When it wasn’t culturally acceptable in certain geographic regions to have white and African American followers of Christ together, Billy Graham demanded integration in his crusades. He would repudiate every vestige of segregation. He was a powerful, prophetic civil rights advocate. At a time when some were silent, Dr. Graham was not.
He facilitated the spirit of John 17:21, the prayer of Jesus: Father, let them be one as you and I are one. He brought the church together in America. Now we have Latinos, African Americans, Asians and all ethnicities worshiping together in many churches. Not only that, Baptists and charismatics both point to Billy Graham as a unifying force.
While divides still exist in certain theological quarters, he saw a larger global evangelicalism. Billy Graham was a bridge builder across the board.
The Stream: Could you give an example of him crossing lines that divide?
Rodriguez: When he was interviewed for his 95th birthday, he spoke about when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. It was 1989, if I’m not mistaken. They asked him, What does that mean for you in ministry? He said, “At the end of the day, here’s what I know. The Lord gave me this so I can be completely dependent on Him.”
“Billy Graham arguably did more to bring the church together in the name of Jesus than anyone else over the past 100 years. He embodied the spirit of Christian unity in America and globally.”
“I may need some help reaching the podium,” he continued. “But once I reach it, I know for certain the power and presence of the Holy Spirit will fall upon me.” These are words that are common among charismatic-Pentecostal pastors.
Dr. Graham resonated with this. He spoke the language of “being filled with the Holy Spirit.” He spoke about the power of Pentecost. Billy Graham never rejected, alienated or marginalized the Pentecostal-charismatic community. Quite the opposite, he embraced it.
Legacy of a Prophet
The Stream: Dr. Graham served as a spiritual adviser to twelve U.S. Presidents. Some scholars note his regrets regarding his relationship with President Nixon. How do you see his role on the national stage?
Rodriguez: Now this is only my perspective as a student of history and an über-admirer of Dr. Billy Graham. I would speculate that he never regretted his God-ordained assignment to speak prophetically into the highest corridors of power.
As it pertains to his relationship with President Nixon, some conversations took place with Nixon that were tolerated. I would not be surprised if Dr. Graham looked back and thought, Maybe I could have sternly rebuked the President or responded in a different way. He apologized for some words he regretted. I don’t think Dr. Graham ever regretted that God gave him access to the highest corridors of power.
One thing I admire about him is that he never endorsed a political ideology. He never, ever embraced one party over the other. This has inspired me to write about what I call The Lamb’s Agenda, defined by Billy Graham and Dr. King. My life’s mission has been to reconcile Billy Graham’s message of salvation exclusively through Christ with Dr. King’s march for justice.
The Stream: In tribute to Dr. Graham, today Christianity Today published articles from Christian leaders worldwide. How does the ministry continue to carry that spirit of Christian unity?
Rodriguez: The ethos of Christianity Today is centered on beautiful orthodoxy and truth. It is, to this day, one hundred percent Billy Graham.
As a member of the board, I can tell you firsthand that there is an unbridled commitment to continue the legacy, mission and vision of Dr. Billy Graham. They live every day at Christianity Today with that purpose.