Billy Graham as a neighbor during his stay in Rochester

Published 12:00 am Monday, July 31, 2000

Mentioning to a government lawyer in Dsseldorf that I live not far from the Mayo Clinic, he became puzzled.

Monday, July 31, 2000

Mentioning to a government lawyer in Düsseldorf that I live not far from the Mayo Clinic, he became puzzled. He had always thought Mayo was in the District of Columbia, because U.S. presidents seemed to go there often. So common are world figures that those who work within or near the clinic or the major hotels give scant attention to most. And most give scant attention to locals, surrounded as they are by their own entourages and preoccupied with their own medical interests. Evangelist Billy Graham stands in sharp contrast to the usual self-promoting celebrity and demonstrates he is as concerned for the souls of people in person as he is on the platform before thousands.

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Mr. Graham is still in Rochester, as of this writing, receiving additional outpatient care for problems consequent to his Parkinson’s disease. On those many occasions when he was admitted, the hospitals placed him in one of their security wards as much in concern for their own liability as for his protection. Certainly not because this people-person wants to avoid people, and we can see this from the way he behaves when he is free to make his own choices.

Recently two limo drivers were waiting in a Rochester hotel lobby for their fares, chatting with each other, possibly comparing notes as to how they have been treated by some of the high-and-mighty. Graham walked across the lobby carrying a paper sack and approached the men in their chauffeur uniforms. They may have thought he was but looking for directions. Instead, he engaged them in delightful, personal conversation.

Now, one driver is Roman Catholic and the other Jewish. Neither had ever attended one of the Billy Graham evangelistic rallies, nor had either ever bothered to watch one of his many television specials. They simply had never become interested in Graham’s brand of evangelical religion. In point of fact, one has a relative who has several times gently offered to describe to him his own personal faith, which is precisely that of Graham. The man had always politely declined the invitation and asserted his non-interest. The relative some while ago not so much gave up on his witness to faith as pulled back out of respect for the individual’s choice.

But then this man met the world’s premier evangelist, very possibly the most effective evangelist since the Apostle Paul. Nonetheless, it was not as an evangelist he met Graham. It was Graham the man, Graham the neighbor. Likely, they expected at any minute the evangelist would launch into a button-hole kind of you’re-on-your-way-to-hell routine. Not that Graham has ever done that, but there seems to be no end of wannabes who take that approach. They couldn’t be blamed.

It never came. Very possibly the evangelist made a greater impact on these men than any high-powered public event could have. Knowing Graham’s theology and methods, his concern was clearly not for a Catholic and a Jew but individuals with the same moral failures and spiritual needs to which he himself confesses. Someone who knows the men predicts Graham’s very next televised rally will have two particular Rochester viewers. Individuals who will listen to a sermon that they had already seen demonstrated in person.

Then Billy Graham took his paper sack and headed out to feed the geese.

Wallace Alcorn’s column appears Mondays