With the passing of the Reverend Billy Graham, many are sharing stories about him and his ministry. I have my own personal story. I was a guest at a Billy Graham Crusade when I served as the Rabbi to the Jewish community of Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada.
New Brunswick is part of the Canadian Bible Belt. In fact in many ways it makes our American Bible Belt look liberal. For example, on one occasion when I organized a visit to Moncton by Israel’s Ambassador to Canada, I arranged his itinerary for the day which included an address to the clergy of the area. The Ambassador met with a group of some 40 clergy. He addressed the issues of the day and of course the perennial peace process as well. After the presentation he invited questions from the floor.
The first question proffered was, “Mr. Ambassador, we understand that it has been reported that an individual road into Jerusalem on a white ass through the Eastern Gate- Messiah Gate. Would you comment please?” Taken aback by this bizarre question, the Ambassador replied that this was a spiritual matter and threw the question to me. It fell to me to explain that when Suleiman the Magnificent rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem including its gates as they were originally, he closed up the Eastern Gate where tradition has it the Messiah will enter Jerusalem. To insure the Messiah would not enter, the Muslims developed a cemetery just outside the gate believing that a “holy man” would never pass through a cemetery. The disappointment felt by the clergy present was palpable.
And so one day I received a phone call from my friend Dr. A. Paterson Lee, Pastor of First Baptist Church of Moncton. He explained that he was faced with a huge problem. Many of the Baptist, Wesleyan, United, Methodist, Pentecostal and Presbyterian Churches in the Moncton area had gotten together to organize a three day Revival which was to be held at the Moncton Coliseum, home to the New Brunswick Hawks. Paterson was made chair of this major event. It was a massive undertaking which included raising funds for its publicity etc. The Coliseum sat 7,200 and it was expected that it would be filled to capacity at each of the three services. Moncton City Council had agreed to allow the Revival to take place in the Coliseum gratis. Billy Graham Ministries was committed to run the Revival with Dr. Leighton Ford, Billy Graham’s brother-in-law leading the Revival. Subsequent to all the arrangements being put into place, a group had protested the providing of the Coliseum gratis to the Revival. The City Council reneged on their original offer and were demanding a hefty rental fee for the use of the Coliseum. Paterson could see no way to raise this daunting sum in time for the event. He was at a loos as to what to do.
I suggested that I would write a letter to City Council condemning their reneging on their commitment to the Revival suggesting that all citizens of our community should welcome their neighbors’ recommitting themselves to the ethical and moral values of their religious Faith. And while it is true that a rabbi serving in the hinterlands has a rather modest flock, he being the ONLY non-Christian clergyman in hundreds of miles can have a rather influential role to play in the general community. He is well known as at each and every public event, he serves as one of the cleric “troika” invoking G-d’s blessing. And while the priest and minister vary, he is the only rabbi available and therefore offers prayer at EVERY event.
My letter to City Council was printed in the local newspaper as well. That the Rabbi of Moncton would chide City Council for reneging on its commitment to the Revival to provide the Coliseum free of charge, was too much for the council members to bear. They immediately took an emergency vote and once again offered the Coliseum gratis to the Revival.
Paterson was overjoyed as were his entire committee of clergy organizing the Revival. At a pre luncheon prior to the Revival held at the Beausejour Hotel in downtown Moncton, Peterson asked me to attend so that a formal thank you for my intercession on the Revival’s behalf could be extended to me. In front of the 1,000 in attendance, Chairman Rev. A. Paterson Lee extended the group’s heart felt thank you for my support of the Revival. Paterson as well apologized to me as they had arranged for the Hotel to provide me with a kosher lunch but a mix up in plans somehow did not allow for the flying in of the meal from Montreal. At the close of the luncheon event many in attendance came over to me to personally thank me and “bless” me for saving this unique and significant city wide event. I thought that was that but it wasn’t.
On the eve of the third night of the Revival, Paterson called me at home. He told me the Revival was a huge success. The first two tonights saw capacity crowds and it was expected that tonight, the third and final service, would see an overflowing attendance. Dr. Ford had asked him to call me to ask me to attend the final service so that he might thank me in front of the entire assemblage for my support which was key to the staging of the Revival. I responded by saying I was concerned that the overzealous faithful would see my attendance as a tacit acceptance of Christ. Paterson told me Dr. Ford had considered this and had told him to assure me that his remarks would be geared to thank you and in no way would be able to be interpreted to mean anything more. I agreed to attend and was told to come to the locker rooms an hour before the event began.
What an experience! Thousands were parking their cars, carrying their Bibles, in their Sunday best to receive and rekindle “the good news” once again in their lives. Arriving in the locker rooms which were filled with pastors from many local churches who would “work the crowd,” I was immediately escorted to a private room in which Dr. Ford was resting. A fellow American, we spent some time talking baseball.
When the moment arrived we walked upon the stage hand in hand and sat down next to each other in the first row of seats. Looking beyond the stage lights I could see many quizzical faces. What was the rabbi doing on the stage at the Revival they seemed to be asking.
The service began as Billy Graham Revivals do with the singing of a number of spirituals and short speeches by the “warm up” pastors. When Leighton Ford was introduced he was greeted with thunderous applause. He responded, “good evening.” The crowd repeated “good evening.” He then said “bonsoir.” The crowd responded with a resounding “bonsoir.” New Brunswick is the only bilingual province in Canada. He then at the top of his voice shouted “shalom.” A somewhat questioning “shalom” was the retort from the assemblage. Dr. Ford continued speaking of the love for the Jewish People and the support of the State of Israel which were a hallmark of the message of his brother-in-law Dr. Billy Graham. He then took a few moments to introduce me and thank me for my valuable assistance in ensuring the staging of the Revival. I was asked to stand to prologned applause. He continued preaching “the word” reminding folks how important it was for them to live a loving and caring Christian moral life. Then, as at every Revival, he asked those who wanted to receive Christ to come forward while the choir sang “I come.” When all who had been inspired arrived at the foot of the stage, Dr. Ford offered a prayer with them.
As I left the Coliseum that evening hundreds upon hundreds of folks approached me to thank me for my help in ensuring the Revival could be held. Blessings for my health and the welfare of my family abounded.
It was an interesting experience to say the least. It brought new respect to the Jewish community of Moncton. Yes, I was an honored guest at a Billy Graham Crusade. I suspect few rabbis can make this claim.