One of the most world renown Christian evangelists, Bill Graham, passed away on Wednesday at the age of 99. Reverend Graham never feared death. In fact he famously said in his eulogy for President Richard Nixon, ”John Donne said that there’s a democracy about death. ‘It comes equally to us all and makes us all equal when it comes.’ ”
Graham met many U.S. presidents in his long lifetime, advising and meeting with every single sitting POTUS from Harry Truman to Donald Trump. He traveled the world, bringing his message of the gospel to countless millions around the world. But you probably already know this. What you may not know is that Graham wanted to be a military chaplain.
Billy Graham had hoped to join the Army Chaplain Corps during World War II, but he was prevented by illness from completing his application. His attempts to be an official chaplain to the troops may have been thwarted by sickness but he never let that stop him from being their volunteer minister. He would go on to visit thousands of troops in Korea and Vietnam.
Billy Graham’s voluntary tour of duty took him into the very heart of the combat areas of Vietnam. He went as a volunteer seeking to bring spiritual strength and encouragement to the troops, at the invitation of General William C. Westmoreland, commanding general of the American forces. Billy was accompanied in 1966 by four of his members, song leader Cliff Barrows, soloist George Beverly Shea, pianist Tedd Smith, and the late Dan Piatt, tour manager.
According to firsthand accounts by Tedd Smith: the team toured field hospitals, servicemen’s centers, Vietnamese villages, mess halls, officer’s clubs, improvised chapels, and schools built by American servicemen for Vietnamese children. Graham also spoke to large groups of chaplains, not only those under American colors, but also to chaplains from Australia and New Zealand, who were equally committed to the war effort.
Refusing to stay in the Saigon area with the touring entertainers, the reverend insisted on going north toward the DMZ (demilitarized zone). At An Khe the troops stood in boot-top mud and held 4,000 burning candles at a Christmas Eve candlelight service he led. In Nha Trang he hosted a fellowship dinner for missionaries and chaplains and Vietnamese pastors. Graham and his team also took helicopter tours to visit schools and dedicate chapels.
At each stop, candlelight services were held, and at each stop the men were challenged to commit their lives to Jesus Christ. They came to see him by the thousands. The headquarters staff chaplain, Col. Walter Sugg, summed it up: “The Billy Graham team’s ministry was warmly received, and the response was an inspiration. Hundreds and thousands of men came in brilliant sun, steaming heat, rain, and mud. Their reluctance to depart following each service evidenced the depths the message had reached.”
Two years later Graham made a second Christmas visit to Vietnam. The team then flew further north to Phu Bai, where they were met by General Richard Stilwell. Five thousand troops listened to Graham preach in the pouring rain saying “I come to bring you greetings from millions of Americans who are proud of you and what you are doing.” It no doubt brought comfort to hear those words despite the many war protests going on at home. Graham would continue to show the same respect and admiration to those troops when they finally returned to American soil.
Graham’s Christmas trip then continued with a visit to a naval hospital ship and the carrier USS Ranger where he conducted a service in the hangar bay. Several other ships in the group pulled alongside to watch the service on closed circuit television.
Of course not all military members are Christians and even now, just a day after his death, you can find arguments online about his efficacy, legacy, and some of his more controversially conservative positions. But Reverend Graham showed an unwavering commitment to the U.S. military. His support and calls for respect were relentless. His organization, the Billy Graham Evangelical Association held annual retreats for injured veterans and their families, marriage retreats for military couples, and training opportunities for military chaplains.
Graham believed in living every day to its fullest. In his own words, “I urge each of you to invest your lives, not just spend them. Each of us is given the exact same amount of seconds, minutes and hours per day as anyone else. The difference is how we redeem [them]. … You cannot count your days, but you can make your days count.”
Featured Image courtesy of Billygraham.org