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Arts & Culture

Billy Graham Celebrates 95th Birthday With Friends, Celebrities, Dignitaries

Rev. Billy Graham

North Carolina icon and evangelist Billy Graham is 95 years old. He gathered with friends, family and celebrities Thursday in Asheville to celebrate. Greensboro Bureau Chief Jeff Tiberii was there and joined Eric Hodge to talk about the celebration.

ERIC HODGE: This was a big event at Asheville's Grove Park Inn.  How were Graham's guests celebrating his birthday?

JEFF TIBERII: It was a large crowd, as you might imagine, a ballroom full of folks at the Grove Park Inn. We estimated about 840 people, and it was a collection of friends, family, dignitaries from across the state, and some celebrities.  It really boiled down to a mix of celebration - there was Kathy Lee Gifford leading the singing of "Happy Birthday," there were remarks from Sarah Palin - and a video that aired during the celebration was broadcast on Fox, a 30 minute evangelical video. So it was part party and also part message. This is what Billy Graham has done for going on 70, 75 years now; spread the word about Jesus and salvation. Prior to the event, I spoke with Ken Garfield, a former religion writer with the Charlotte Observer. He's authored a book looking back at Graham's life.

KEN GARFIELD: I think this is just a sweet celebration of his lifetime, his legacy, while he's still here in a way, and that's a beautiful thing that we're able to celebrate with him. He's in a wheelchair. He can hadly see and he can hardly hear, but he's here and he's released this "My Hope" video that they're showing at churches around the country.

TIBERII: It almost strikes me that this is a living memorial; perhaps, for many people here, a last goodbye of sorts.

GARFIELD: I think that's fair. Franklin (Graham) is joking we'll do this again when he's 100 and we very well might; look back, look forward a little bit, give some testimony, probably have some humor. There's a mix of celebrity and political people here from Sarah Palin to Donald Trump. You could have a really healthy conversation about what's the meaning of that. I think it's probably getting a little bit of publicity, a little bit of press and maybe some fundraising. That's part of it. That's part of evangelism. You have to raise money.

TIBERII: Some folks might not know that Franklin is Billy's son. He's kind of the face of the whole industry at this point.

HODGE: Billy Graham has largely been out of the public eye for years, Jeff, but he was at the Grove Park Inn celebration last night. Did he speak?

TIBERII: He did, Eric. At one point, he sort of asked for the microphone; reached for it at an impromptu moment. He was sitting at his table. From his wheelchair, he then thanked several members of his family. Then, there was that 30-minute video that I mentioned and during that video, there was kind of a neat juxtaposition that happened several times in which there was a clip of Graham sitting on his porch, talking about the cross and talking about his religious beliefs, and then it was followed by a stronger Graham, a younger Graham, a more impassioned Graham during a crusade years ago. Here's one example of that. There were about half a dozen of these in the video.

BILLY GRAHAM (older): God no longer sees your sin. He no longer sees your own heart. He sees Jesus.

BILLY GRAHAM (younger): Now, I don't understand all about it. There are many things about the cross and about salvation that I do not understand, and I'm told that I have to understand it all. I'm told that I'm to believe.

HODGE: Quite a contrast there, Jeff.

TIBERII: Yeah, absolutely.

HODGE: Billy Graham has advised many presidents and he was an advocate of desegregation. He's preached to a lot of people. Is that how people will remember him? And if not, what is his legacy?

TIBERII: It's a great question and I think it's going to mean different things for different people. Obviously, he's 95 years old. He has been heard by - his folks estimate - 2.2 billion people in 185 different countries. And I think largely people who are maybe in their 60s and 70s view him differently than people who are in their 20s and 30s, but largely across the board, he has preached a message of love, acceptance and forgiveness, and that Jesus is there for everyone. He has not been someone who has condemned or done a wide amount of judging or anything like that. The first president he advised was Harry S. Truman and he's had different relationships with folks over the years. He had a good relationship with President Richard Nixon for a while. At the same time, he has been a registered Democrat. I think one thing that kind of struck me is that I think for a lot of people today, the word "evangelical" can be polarizing. I think that, to an extent, it sends people to their respective corners or maybe draws a line in the sand. With Billy Graham, he really has not been a polarizing person. He's known as America's pastor and I think that his legacy, for the most part, is going to be somebody who was really beloved. Somebody made the comment to me last night just in a side conversation. I thought it was kind of an interesting point. If you look back on the last 100 years, there's Andy Griffith, there's Michael Jordan, there's Billy Graham. They touched different audiences in different ways, but those are three of the most influential and significant North Carolinians of the last 100 years or so.

HODGE: Alright, Jeff, thank you so much this morning.

TIBERII: Thanks, Eric.

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