During the three-day conference held July 18-20, and hosted by Graham’s long time ministry partner Cliff Barrows, there had been a buzz about the possibility of Graham appearing, but the world-famous evangelist had been ill and treated for pneumonia at Mission Hospital in Asheville in May.
The scorching heat of summer and his frail physical state made any surprise appearance by Graham all the more unlikely since he was making fewer public appearances than ever.
Carol Marr, senior adult assistant for First Baptist Church in Cleveland, described what happened next.
“In the afternoon on Tuesday, the 19th, word was buzzing around and it got to all of us that (Graham’s daughter) Gigi — called the ambassador at large for the Cove — was talking about (Graham) looking like he was going to come that evening. We never expected that.”
No one at the event had expected to see the original trio of Cliff Barrows, 88, George Beverly Shea, 102, and Billy Graham, 93, on the stage again — perhaps for the final time. Barrows, the music and program director for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and Shea had shared the Gospel around the world with Billy Graham since the team’s first Crusade in 1949.
According to Carol, the auditorium only seats 500 and is “very intimate.” It has stadium seating and a platform for guests. A married couple was singing on stage to the 350 in attendance, when George Beverly Shea, 102, was wheeled in first.
Carol said early in his ministry Graham brought Shea in because of his “wonderful baritone voice.” Beverly was already a singer in his own right,” she said. Barrows and Shea were brought in by Graham himself more than six decades ago. Now the three would occupy the stage once again to an astonished crowd watching history come full circle.
“When we recognized it was Billy Graham who came in by a side entry, whispering started while the singing was going on,” Carol recalls. “Everyone stood up and started applauding. In the midst of all that, I looked around and saw many people had started crying.”
According to Carol, Graham was very gracious, smiling and reaching out to touch people as he passed by them.
“He passed right be me,” she said. “I was a bit in awe. I know he’s just a man but to be in close proximity with him was a bit overwhelming. The moment and the emotion was overwhelming. You can’t really describe it. To know how many people that man had been in the presence of is pretty awesome.
“I think that’s what a lot of people were thinking. Because you’re with senior adults. This was about them. Think about the history they’ve had with Billy Graham.”
As Graham was wheeled past Carol and her husband, David, her husband was also watery-eyed and taken aback.
“What a blessing it was to see a man who touched so many lives!” David said. “Of course, he’s just a man but this was Billy Graham! It was such an honor to be in the same room with him.”
“This was the very first time we’d been when Billy Graham was there,” Carol said. “We have been there when George Beverly Shea was there with Cliff Barrows. But we had never been there and had all three of those men together. We’ve been told they don’t even remember the last time they were together in public.”
The man millions grew up listening to and reading his writings was positioned on stage with his youngest child, Ned, and oldest child, Gigi, along with his long time ministry partners, Shea and Barrows. The unscripted conversation made for some lively banter and lots of laughter, according to Carol, who was impressed with the spontaneity and chemistry of the three ministry veterans who had the audience in stitches.
“We were all so blessed for being there,” Carol said. “I felt like I was a part of something historical. I was part of 19 people from Cleveland that were there. I felt privileged. Our minds went back to all the years we had watched Billy Graham. He’s someone in our lifetime, like all the other great men who came before him. We’re in this time frame of his. We’ve been a part of that in our growing up years. You just know him. You know that name.”
Graham, who has Parkinson’s disease, was mentally “sharp,” according to Carol, but he also spoke of “missing his wife terribly.” Ruth Graham died four years ago.
Although Barrows hosts the Senior Celebration two to three times a year to address the specific concerns of seniors, everyone welcomed the surprising reunion of Graham, Barrows and Shea in public together. Carol said she was touched by the humility and honesty of Graham.
“He’s a human being like anyone else and he’s the first to say he made mistakes in his life that he wishes he could correct,” she said. “But at the same time he was a morally outstanding human being who avoided scandals. He told Cliff Barrows and George Beverly Shea they were going to have to be ‘morally accountable men.’
“He also said, ‘We’ve been turtles on a fence post.’ That was a quote from Billy Graham, and George Beverly Shea and Cliff Barrows nodded their heads. He said they never forget all the people it took to get them there. They didn’t get on that fence post by themselves.”
Carol, the ministry assistant at First Baptist, said she and husband David would never forget the experience, opportunity and privilege of witnessing a legacy of longtime service together again on stage in Graham, Barrows and Shea.
First Baptist Church in Cleveland has 1,178 seniors age 57 and up among its 5,000 church members.