by Shannon Baker
Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware
WASHINGTON — On an uncharacteristically beautiful spring day, the calm before a Nor’easter storm, thousands of people waited patiently to pay respects to Billy Graham, “America’s pastor,” whose remains were brought to lie in honor in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda Feb. 28 and March 1.
The international evangelist, 99, died at his home in North Carolina on Feb. 21.
Though the public viewing would start at 1 p.m., the earliest guests arrived around 5:30 a.m., U.S. Park Police reported, and began assembling between the Supreme Court building and the Capitol.
Underneath the blowing flags poised at half-mast, people from across the nation shared with each other their individual memories of Billy Graham, whose funeral will be Friday (March 2) in Charlotte, N.C.
“Billy Graham was instrumental in my life,” said Glenn Swanson, who remembered when his parents brought him to a Billy Graham crusade in the nation’s capital. “I can remember … being there as a teenager, just waiting and seeing thousands of people come to know the Lord.”
Swanson, now pastor of Bayside Baptist Church in Chesapeake Beach, Md., said, “Like any pastor, he was instrumental in my call and my ministry, just seeing what God has called him to do — to reach people for the Lord. That’s just a reminder for all of us.”
Swanson brought along 14 others from the church to “pay our respects” to Graham and “thank him for a job well done.”
“He’s always stuck to the Gospel. That has been the greatest thing with me. Just sticking to the Gospel and pointing people to the cross, that’s been such a blessing,” he said.
His wife Sherri agreed, “I think his life in general is what has touched me the most. You hear so many positives and negatives [in the media] — and it was only positives with Billy Graham.”
Graham is the first religious leader and only the fourth private citizen to receive the honor of lying in the Capitol’s Rotunda, which traditionally accommodated military officers or elected public officials, including 11 U.S. presidents. Civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks last lay in honor in the Capitol in October 2005.
In the center of the domed Rotunda, Graham lay in a closed casket, crafted by Baptist inmates from the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola. The modest pine plywood casket, overlaid with a simple wooden cross at its head, sat atop a pine platform said to have been constructed hastily after the death of Abraham Lincoln.
Prior to the public viewings, Graham was honored in a special service organized by House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. President Donald Trump, with his wife Melania, Vice President Mike Pence and other invited guests from government joined the Graham family in remembering the evangelist.
In his remarks, President Trump recalled how Americans came in droves to “hear that great young preacher. Fred Trump was a big fan. Fred Trump was my father.
“In London, Tokyo, Seoul, Bogota, Moscow, New Delhi, Saigon, Johannesburg and scores of other places all over the world, Rev. Graham shared the power of God’s Word with more than 200 million people, in person, and countless others through television and radio where people loved to watch and listen,” Trump said.
Recognizing that Graham’s fame was not “a manmade success story for the ages,” McConnell said, “At first blush, the life of Rev. Billy Graham sounds like a personal success story par excellence … but the most remarkable thing about Billy Graham is that this isn’t his story.”
McConnell continued in Graham’s own words, “‘The secret of my work,’ he explained, ‘is God. I would be nothing without Him.’ That is what made Billy Graham America’s pastor.”
Ryan noted how Graham ministered to “all walks, from some of the greats whose statues line this very hall — Eisenhower, King, Ford and Reagan — to everyday citizens lining up to pay their respects. No matter how long the lines grew, no matter how much the times changed, his message never diminished.”
Graham was known for meeting and counseling with 12 U.S. presidents during his career.
After the remarks, Christian recording artist Michael W. Smith poignantly sang “Just as I Am,” a hymn Graham characteristically used during his crusade altar calls.
At the close of the service, Trump, Ryan and McConnell presented three wreaths of red and white flowers adorned with ribbons indicating their area of responsibility, the executive branch, the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate.
Members of the Graham family, including Graham’s daughter, Anne Graham Lotz, received the visitors throughout the day.
It was a historic day that Swanson was glad he didn’t miss.
“Billy Graham would be the first one to tell you that he’s only one, and God has called all of us to do what Billy Graham has done: to go share the Gospel, which is our Great Commission,” Swanson said. “I am thankful for his faithfulness for that. It’s all about reaching the ends of the earth.”