Tucked in my heart are special memories of the Rev. Billy Graham.
“America’s pastor” died Feb. 21 at his home in Montreat, N.C. He was 99. His body lies in the U.S. rotunda Tuesday and Wednesday.
In 2001, when Graham held his third and final crusade in Fresno, I was The Bee religion writer covering the event with a team of three others.
My special memories of Graham began with his simple writings.
It was the late 1980s – soon after I made a profession of faith in Jesus – when I began immersing myself in reading the Bible. Couldn’t get enough. Commentaries written by Oswald Chambers, J. Sidlow Baxter and C.H. Spurgeon watered my devotional time.
But, truth is, I re-read their writings to understand them. Not so with Graham. He wrote with clarity, with conciseness.
After several years, I longed for more of Graham. So I tuned into TV broadcasts of his crusades. Then, to his “Hour of Decision” radio broadcasts. In both mediums, when he wound down to his altar calls, choirs sang the background hymn “Just As I Am.” And he beckoned the crowds with the same word: “Come.” That is, so they could make their way to the staging area to make their professions of faith.
Every time, I saw or heard, the result was the same: I wept.
Graham preached on the value of your soul. His voice still resounds in me: “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?” (Mark 8:36)
This pattern of Graham in my life continued for a number of years. Studying. Watching. Listening. Weeping. And the constant? I kept growing in my faith.
Then, it happened.
In fall 2000, I learned that the Central Valley Billy Graham Crusade was coming to Bulldog Stadium in Fresno on Oct. 11-14, 2001.
One reason: Graham was pleased how Central Valley clergy members had faithfully prayed for many years for their area, where crime and police nightmares had increased for some time. It had become fertile ground.
At the time, I was a veteran Bee sports writer. I had worked at the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles in 1984 and in Atlanta (more specifically, Columbus, Ga.) in 1996.
My first thought: The Bee needed to get Graham ready.
No planning, however, could have prepared all us for what happened next.
Tensions everywhere were sky high.
A month later, Graham arrived in Fresno. Here, a misstep resulted in a broken foot for him. So Graham hobbled one day into a news conference at Bulldog Stadium.
Someone asked about local police profiling. Graham gave a quizzical look, then balked at answering. Later, I asked about the focus for one of his writings on a devotional for that day. He answered. But I couldn’t help but wonder: “Who is this reporter asking this question ... ?”
When the event opened, I had a close seat with my fellow Bee reporters to the staging area. We sat at long media tables on the grass of the stadium in the southwest corner.
During the four days, I remember looking over my right shoulder into that southwest corner. There, people were given special headsets that translated Graham’s words into their own languages.
It reminded me of the scripture that in heaven says, “all tribes shall meet ... .”
In 2001, many people also will remember Graham coming onto the stage in his wheelchair.
On the fourth and final night, Graham’s goodbye was pushing The Bee deadline. Our lead reporter, Doug Hoagland, had his nose to his laptop and asked me to “dictate” what I saw – so he could input my words into his story.
To be accurate, I stood on my chair, peered through my set of binoculars and dictated to Hoagland what I saw as Graham left the stage, saying, that he “never looks back” at the crowd.
Such fond memories.
Ron Orozco is a retired Fresno Bee reporter who now teaches journalism at Fresno