Remembering Ruth

Religion | Thousands journey to North Carolina retreat center to celebrate "the glue that held many parts" of the Graham lives together

Issue: "The 2007 Books Issue," June 30, 2007

If the folks charged with planning the funeral of Mrs. Billy Graham miscalculated a bit on one or two logistical details, consider the difficulty of their assignment: Plan for a gathering of thousands, they were told-give or take a few thousand. The crowd will include some prominent people, both as hosts and as guests, so security will be an issue. The media might well swarm the place; but then again, the media might just ignore it. Summer thunderstorms are possible.

And oh, yes. No one knows exactly when all this will happen.

That's the nature of a VIP funeral. The guest list is a guess list-especially when the service is for an older person. Ruth Bell Graham's osteoarthritis had crippled her for many months; she was receiving nourishment via a feeding tube; then came word late in May that pneumonia was also taking its toll. The end seemed near-but "near" doesn't tell several hundred waiting volunteers exactly when they'll need to spring into quiet action, implementing months of painstaking preparation.

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The preparation showed, loud and clear, even though the big public event was just 48 hours after Mrs. Graham's death-which itself came only four days after her 87th birthday. The hurried schedule was dictated by the heavy summer booking of the 2,000-seat Anderson Auditorium at Montreat Conference Center in North Carolina, just a few blocks from the Grahams' mountain home. The Saturday afternoon time slot was the only opening available amid summer camps and conferences. But it also proved a handy time for a full house, many gathering two and even three hours early just in case seats might be hard to come by. Three closed-circuit overflow facilities were ready, but not needed.

The long wait was just what many guests needed for a quiet time to chat with folks not seen for years. With an hour to go, presiding minister Richard White stepped up to test the sound system: "The Lord is my shepherd," he said a couple of times. "I shall not want." Glenn Wilcox, whose travel agency had coordinated Graham events all over the world for the last 40 years, found friends everywhere. Duane Litfin, president of Wheaton College (where Ruth Bell and Billy Graham first met), had flown with his wife from Chicago that morning. "Strong, steady, and dauntless," Litfin said of Mrs. Graham. "She was the glue that held many of the parts of their lives together."

Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.), senator to the Grahams and wife of former presidential candidate Bob Dole, came in not long before the service began, as did Graham friends as varied as author Joni Eareckson Tada, actress Andie MacDowell, televangelist Robert Schuller, and politician's wife Lynda Johnson Robb.

All this for the woman sometimes referred to as the "first lady of evangelical Protestantism in America." Born in China to missionary parents (her father, L. Nelson Bell, was also a notable surgeon, writer, churchman, and promising baseball player), as a girl, Ruth hated the thought of going off to boarding school in what is now North Korea-and actually prayed when she was 11 that she could die a martyr. "I prayed that she wouldn't," says her sister Rosa Montgomery, "and my prayers were more effective than hers."

By everyone's telling-including her husband Billy-she anchored the Graham family while he toured the world for his evangelistic crusades. Her intellect, wit, and personal presence would have allowed her center stage wherever she might have wanted to go. But her clear desire was to be home with her three daughters and two sons. And to make the Graham home a haven to many, including down-and-outers who sometimes wandered by.

A vignette of the legendary Graham hospitality waited on each of the 2,000 seats at the funeral: a bottle of water, a fan, and a complimentary copy of Ruth Graham's popular book of photos and poems, Sitting By My Laughing Fire.

A big part of the crowd, of course, included present and past staff members from the Grahams' offices, the Graham radio stations, the Cove conference center near Asheville, Graham headquarters in Charlotte 100 miles to the east, and the headquarters of Samaritan's Purse 80 miles north.

Hundreds wandered to the front of the big auditorium to pause next to the closed plywood coffin, one of two matching items fashioned by volunteer prisoners in Louisiana. "They tell me," said Robert Seybold of Charleston, W.Va., "that it cost only $200. And it's a whole lot more beautiful than the gaudy metal models." Seybold and his wife had gotten up at 4 that morning to make the five-hour drive to attend the service.


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