Billy Graham died early Wednesday morning. A towering figure in the 20th century, Graham was an evangelist to millions, an adviser to Presidents and monarchs, and the face of the evangelical movement for decades. In the following tribute from 2006, Chuck Colson described the role Graham played in his conversion, Graham’s life-long commitment to integrity, and his primary concern for sharing the Gospel.
Twenty-seven years ago, my life was dramatically changed. In the midst of Watergate, seeing all of the things I had worked for and the President (Richard Nixon) whom I had served falling from grace, a good friend told me one evening about Jesus Christ. I left his home that night but I was crying so hard I couldn’t drive my automobile. In a flood of tears, alone in my automobile in my friend’s driveway, I surrendered my life to Christ. Nothing has been the same since or ever can be again.
It turns out the man who witnessed to me, Tom Phillips, then the president of Raytheon company, had been converted at a Billy Graham crusade in Madison Square Garden in New York City in 1968. How unlikely are God’s ways? Here was the head of one of the largest corporations in America going forward with a stream of repentant sinners and then returning to his business where, four years after I left the While House, I returned to be his Washington counsel. Phillips shared his faith with me at the darkest moment in my life. And from that encounter has come my experience in prison and then the launching of a ministry that is now active in 88 countries, reaching into literally thousands of prisons, touching countless hundreds of thousands of lives. This is how the gospel spreads, Graham to Phillips to Colson.
So, it is that I am a Billy Graham disciple, one step removed, but my debt to Graham goes far beyond that. I had known Billy when he came to the White House to visit President Nixon. He was the preacher; I was the President’s chief political operative. But after my conversion I came to know him in a much different way. Billy reached out to me, befriended me, guided me, and counseled me. He has served as a role model, a person I could emulate as we built our ministry.
I have many rich memories of my experiences with Billy Graham, but none more meaningful than the day he and I toured the Memphis Federal Prison. He had spoken outside to 1000 inmates gathered from three separate institutions. After it was over, I asked Billy if he would go into the maximum-security segregation unit to see those men who could not come out to hear him speak. Though his aides were pulling him back to the hotel to rest up for a crusade that night in Memphis, Billy instantly agreed. We toured the cold, stark cellblock, and I watched Billy Graham—clearly the greatest evangelist of the twentieth century—as he sat on the floor talking through the grate in a cell door to lead an inmate to Christ. There was no press present, no crowds to impress. This was the real Graham, caring for the least of these and not willing to leave that prison until even the outcasts of that institution had heard the gospel.
For me, Billy Graham has not only been a spiritual mentor but a public figure who has never failed his trust. He has remained humble and God-fearing, resisting all the temptations that come with celebrity. He will be remembered for many, many things, not the least of which is his authenticity.
Excerpted from Billy Graham: A Tribute from Friends, compiled by Vernon McLellan (FaithWords, 2006).