Reflections on Billy Graham

This past fall I read the book Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. This is the amazing story of Louie Zamperini, an Olympic track runner who ran in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Yet everything changed when he was drafted for WWII and became an Army Air Corps bombardier in 1941. His B-24 plane crashed over the Pacific, and in a remarkable feat of unwavering tenacity and endurance, he and two others survived on a raft. One person finally died, but the remaining two men were adrift on the raft for a staggering 47 days, only to be picked up by the Japanese and brought to Japan’s most brutal prisoner of war camp. Over the next two years, Zamperini experienced tormenting deprivation and torture by the hands of a sadistic prison guard known as “the Bird.” When WWII came to an end, Zamperini and other prisoners of war were finally released, and Zamperini returned to the US and lived in California. He married Cynthia Applewhite, yet his life was a mess, like many other returning soldiers who suffered from PTSD. He became an alcoholic, and his wife had filed for a divorce. He had suffered horrific nightmares every night, and was filled with revenge, having visions in the night of strangling the Bird, even waking up one night with his hands around his wife’s neck.

In the meantime, Billy Graham had begun evangelistic meetings in Los Angeles in 1949 that ran for a period of eight weeks. A young couple had asked Louie and his wife to the meetings, but only Cynthia responded. She met Jesus at the crusade, and as a result, she told Louie that she was not going to file for a divorce. Louie finally agreed to attend a meeting but finding too much talk about sin, he decided not to go again. Cynthia reminded him that she was no longer filing for a divorce, so he agreed to go to another meeting, on the condition that when Billy Graham offered the invitation, he would leave the room. She agreed. But this time Zamperini heard the words of the evangelist, that Jesus would forgive his sins if he put his trust in him, and that he would have everlasting life. He heard Billy say that when people are at the end of their rope, when they have nowhere else to go, people turn to God. And Zamperini remembered his vow to God while on the rafts. He remembered how God had brought him home alive, and yet he had turned his back on God. So he stood up during the sermon, and went to the prayer room. There he knelt down and made a confession of his faith in Christ that would change his life forever. Many years later he recalls this moment in an interview with Pastor Greg Laurie at Harvest Christian Fellowship: “I got off my knees, and somehow I knew I was through getting drunk, I knew it. I knew that I forgave all my guards, including the Bird. I think the proof of that is that I had nightmares every night about the Bird since the war and I haven’t had a nightmare since I made my decision for Christ, [from] 1949 until now.” That day Zamperini encountered Christ, and his life was forever changed. He served God the remaining years of his life, as founder and director of the Victory Boys Camp for juvenile delinquents until he died in 2014.

This is just one of thousands of testimonies of people who encountered Christ through the Billy Graham’s gospel proclamation. Zamperini had the privilege of giving his testimony at a Billy Graham crusade in San Francisco in 1958 (you can watch it on YouTube). While it is a great blessing to honor and reflect upon the legacy of Billy Graham, I am reminded that the real story of his life is that Jesus is changing people’s lives when his gospel is proclaimed. Jesus changed my life when I was in my late teens, and my encounter with Him would lead to a lifetime of devotion to the teaching of His Word. This is what Billy Graham had the privilege of seeing on a grand scale—lives forever changed through the gospel. As we reflect upon Billy Graham’s life and ministry, let us be renewed in our own commitment to share the gospel with friends, family members, and co-workers. Let us renew our belief in the power of the gospel to change lives. May we live out the reality of the gospel, as proclaimed by Paul: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16). This is why we at Casket Empty are committed to teaching God’s Word, because we believe that the gospel is the power of God for salvation, and that an encounter with Jesus gives meaning and purpose to our lives.

Dr. Carol M. Kaminski

Photo credit:

Lynley Champion