By BRIAN GRAVES
“Someday you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead. Don’t believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. I will just have changed my address. I will have gone into the presence …
But on the calendar, it seems like an eternity itself, for it was that long ago when a lanky, tall North Carolina farm boy came to Cleveland, Tennessee, seeking out schooling to help him spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
It was Bob Jones College that brought Billy Graham to Cleveland those many years ago, and it was in two Bradley County churches history records he, as a 19-year-old, gave his first two sermons.
Those were the first of thousands from a man who became what some considered "The World’s Pastor," and the people he spoke to in those small churches became the first of billions to hear his voice deliver a message of hope and salvation.
Graham’s passing Wednesday morning at the age of 99 hit the community in a profound way.
That young man lived on what is now the campus of Lee University in what is now Medlin Hall, located on present-day Billy Graham Avenue, one of only five roadways bearing Graham’s name.
His first sermon was preached at Charleston Methodist Church and his second was at Antioch Baptist Church.
It was only fitting that a man of God in his 100th year be celebrated by the campus he called home so long ago which is also celebrating its centennial.
Lee University, along with the city of Cleveland, placed black bunting on the signs bearing Graham’s name along with a white ribbon Thursday afternoon.
Two wreaths of flowers were also attached to the front doors of Medlin Hall, the place where Graham resided as a student.
Lee University President Dr. Paul Conn, who was out of town, offered his salute to Graham in a statement to the Cleveland Daily Banner.
“We at Lee join the many people around the world who mourn the loss of Dr. Billy Graham,” Conn said. “He was the most influential Christian leader of the Twentieth Century, and his impact is incalculable.”
“At Lee, we have a special connection to Dr. Graham, and it makes his loss seem more personal. He lived on this campus, in Medlin Hall, when he was a student at Bob Jones College, and people at Lee have always enjoyed the thought that he walked these sidewalks and worked and worshipped on this campus,” Conn continued. “But beyond that, he provided the model of Christian witness in society which Lee seeks to follow – engaged, inclusive, unapologetic about the claims of Christ, but always reaching out with the good news of the Gospel.”
“He might be regarded as the primary leader of that brand of evangelical Christianity in our lifetime, and has been an exemplar for us all,” Conn said.
Mayor Tom Rowland, who became an acquaintance of the Graham family over the years, recalled a special request he sent by way of his daughter, Gigi, when she came for the dedication of the street which now bears his name.
“He asked Gigi to do three things,” Rowland recalled. “One was to take a picture of First Presbyterian Church where he worshipped while he attended Bob Jones College in Cleveland; a picture of Parks Belk, where he worked as a shoe salesman, and a picture of his dormitory room at Medlin Hall. All of those were accomplished.”
Of Graham’s days as a shoe salesman, the mayor said Graham once quipped he was “better able to save souls than to sell them.”
It was just a few months ago, on Graham’s 99th birthday, the city extended Billy Graham Avenue two more blocks, and Skyped the ceremony to his home in Montreat.
“Imagine the celebration in Heaven, when Dr. Graham walked through those gates,” said state Rep. Kevin Brooks. “There are thousands upon thousands of people there to greet him because of his decades of service in preaching the Gospel.”
“In Cleveland, we honored Dr. Graham by naming a street after him as ‘Billy Graham Avenue,’” Brooks said. “Today, Billy Graham is walking on streets of gold and has earned his ultimate reward in Heaven.”
Rowland said Gov. Bill Haslam had just named Graham as an honorary Tennessean and he had named Graham as an honorary citizen of Cleveland.
“I regret those had not already been sent to him,” the mayor said. “But, we will get those to the family.”
Rowland also spoke of Graham’s humility.
“I remember he never wanted to be called Dr. Graham,” he recalled. “He said he didn’t deserve it because his doctorate's were honorary and that would take away from those who had actually earned it.”
“In fact, he did not like to be called ‘reverend’ either,” Rowland said. “Even his music director, Cliff Barrows who also attended Bob Jones College here, always introduced him as just ‘Billy Graham.’”
At the special ceremony held Thursday afternoon at the corner of Walker Street and Billy Graham Avenue, Pastor Mark Williams of North Cleveland Church of God gave the prayers of thanksgiving for a life well lived and comfort to the family and friends who grieve the loss.
“I think to so many around the world, Billy Graham was a voice that was trusted,” Williams said. “He was an individual that people, regardless of political party or national citizenship, looked to him as someone they could listen to, they could trust and could believe in.
“I think the word that best describes him is ‘faithful,’” Williams said. “He was faithful to the Lord who called him and he was faithful in the message that he preached.”
Williams noted Graham was not a perfect person, but “he went from the hills of North Carolina to 185 nations of the world bringing his message to more than 2 billion people.”
“I think we have seen someone whose life truly affected the generation that he lived in,” he added “We hope to see someone like him again. We hope that daughters and sons will rise to follow in his steps. But, I’m not sure we will see anyone just exactly like Billy Graham again and maybe that’s the way it should be.”
Williams added that in these days of division and violence, Graham’s message is still relevant and resonates.
“He taught us how to live for Jesus. In death, he taught us how to die,” he said. “A man’s death can bring memories of their life that can still impact those who maybe have never heard him preach.”
“Billy Graham is an impeccable example of someone who kept the main thing the main thing and the fruits of his labor reflect that,” said Ruthie Forgey, corps administrator for The Salvation Army of Cleveland.
It is reported that Graham had made the plans for his funeral services years ago, emphasizing “the focus should be on the Gospel.”
The Graham family announced late Wednesday night that funeral services for Billy Graham will be held Friday, March 2, at noon in a canvas tent set up near the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The service will be private with 2,300 invitation-only guests and his son, Franklin Graham, will give the funeral message along with remarks from all of Graham’s children.
Having the service in a tent is a remembrance of how Graham’s public ministry was begun.
Graham will lie in repose in the Graham Family Homeplace on the library grounds from 8 a.m. until 10 p.m., where the public will be allowed to pay their respects on Monday and Tuesday.
He will be in a simple wooden casket which was handmade by inmates of the Louisiana State Prison in Angola in 2006, at his request.
Only one of the three inmates who made the caskets of Graham and his wife are still alive, and Graham had requested that they burn their names onto the caskets of both he and his wife, Ruth.
The Grahams had donated thousands of dollars to build two chapels at the prison, which its former warden, Burl Cain, said helped change the facility from “one of the deadliest prisons in the late 20th century to a place of spirituality in the 2000s.”
Graham will be buried beside his beloved wife, who died in 2007. The site is at the foot of the cross walkway at the Billy Graham Library. Burrows and George Beverly Shea, his musical associates from the beginning of his ministry, are also buried on the library grounds.
“I don’t want them to say big things about me because I don’t deserve it,” Graham said in an interview with ABC News about how he wanted to be remembered. “I want to hear one person say something nice about me, and that’s the Lord. When I face Him I want Him to say to me, ‘Well done, thy good and faithful servant.’ I’m not sure I’m going to hear it, but that’s what I would like to hear.”
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