Return to Transcripts main page
CNN PEOPLE IN THE NEWS
Profile of Billy Graham
Aired June 26, 2005 - 14:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
PAULA ZAHN, HOST: Hi. Welcome to PEOPLE IN THE NEWS. I'm Paula Zahn. The Reverend Billy Graham has been called America's pastor. From presidents to parishioners he's long been one of the nation's leading spiritual voices and its most influential evangelical Christian. But at the age of 86 and in poor health, Graham says he's sure his crusade in New York this weekend will be his last in America. Over the next hour, a look at the life of Billy Graham, a preacher who's become a fixture on our nation's religious and social landscapes. Here's Kyra Phillips.
KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Look up evangelist in the dictionary and you'll find the word comes from a Greek phrase meaning messenger of good news.
BILLY GRAHAM, EVANGELIST: God loves you. He receives you. He will put your name in the book of life.
PHILLIPS: For nearly seven decades, Billy Graham has traveled the world spreading the good news to the masses.
B. GRAHAM: This crowd has been brought together, I believe, by the spirit of God, using all of us working together.
PHILLIPS: He's written 25 books, counseled world leaders and spread his passion in person to more than 200 million people. Even at age 86, Billy Graham continues to pack stadiums with a loyal and growing flock. Long before he became a spiritual beacon, little Billy Frank Graham was, well, spirited.
WILLIAM MARTIN, BIOGRAPHER: I'm sure that if he had been brought up to date, he'd have been diagnosed as hyperactive. They said he was always just running and zooming.
PHILLIPS: The future evangelist grew up on his parents' dairy farm in North Carolina. With three younger siblings and plenty of chores, Billy was a busy teenager. It was one of his father's dairy workers who convinced the 16-year old to go to a revival put on by Mordechai Ham, an old school fire and brimstone evangelist.
CLIFF BARROWS, CRUSADE PROGRAM DIRECTOR: He got tired of Mordechai Ham pointing his finger and he thought he was pointing at him all the time, so he joined the choir to get away from him. But one night when he gave the invitation, Billy went forward and publicly made his commitment to Jesus Christ. PHILLIPS: At 18, Billy put aside his dreams of becoming a baseball player and headed off to Bob Jones College, a fundamentalist school then located in Cleveland, Tennessee. But with the college's rigid rules, including no dating, Billy lasted barely a semester. He transferred to the Florida Bible Institute.
B. GRAHAM: One night in the full moon and the palm trees around where our school was, I knelt down there, alone, and I said, Lord, I'll do what you want me to do, and go where you want me to go.
PHILLIPS: After graduating in 1940, he was ordained a Baptist minister. His next move, Wheaton College, just outside of Chicago, to pursue a bachelor's degree.
GEORGE BEVERLY SHEA, CRUSADE SOLOIST: While he was a student at Wheaton, he spoke at various churches and it was quite evident that he was going to be quite a preacher.
PHILLIPS: In 1943, Billy took a job as a pastor at the Western Springs Baptist Church near Chicago. He also became part of a Christian radio show called "Songs in the Night."
SHEA: It was at 10:15 to 11:00 Sunday nights and I did several solos and he spoke so wonderfully.
B. GRAHAM: I don't care who you are. Your intellect alone will never get you into heaven.
PHILLIPS: Billy was an evangelist at heart. He yearned to travel, to spread the gospel to large crowds. After a year and a half with the church, Billy moved onto a new job with Youth for Christ.
MARTIN: The great advantage he got from Youth for Christ was that it introduced him to church leaders all over America.
B. GRAHAM: We find that people are more concerned with things than they are with the things of God.
PHILLIPS: By 1948, Graham stepped down as head of Youth for Christ. Billy had a calling and a growing following. There was no room for compromise.
B. GRAHAM: They're more concerned with pleasure, more concerned with money, more concerned with the things of life than they are the things of almighty God.
PHILLIPS: Billy's message was simple and conservative.
B. GRAHAM: I believe that faith in God is a tremendous thing.
PHILLIPS: He preached temperance. He railed against excess, materialism and communism. In the dark early days of the cold war, he spoke of salvation.
TIM MORGAN, DEPUTY MANAGING EDITOR, CHRISTIANITY TODAY: He had a way, I think, of telling people the bad news, but giving them good news that trumped the bad news.
PHILLIPS: In 1949, a group of Los Angeles Christians invited the fiery preacher to hold a revival in a giant tent.
BARROWS: Canvas cathedral. We called it that. It was a tent erected at Washington and Hill. A tent that seated about 6,000, 7,000, I believe.
PHILLIPS: For two solid months, worshipers lined up to hear the sermons and songs.
CHARLES COLSON, EVANGELIST: It was a phenomenon fueled by his preaching, fueled by the holy spirit, fueled by the need of the moment.
PHILLIPS: There was also another reason for the strong turnout. Courtesy of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst.
MARTIN: I watched one Saturday. He came and the tent was just crawling with reporters and photographers. And Billy didn't know what was going on. And a reporter, he said, what's happening here? And a reporter showed him a piece of paper like something had been torn off of a teletype machine or something, and it just had two words, puff Graham.
PHILLIPS: With the phrase puff Graham, Hearst instructed his reporters to sing Graham's praises. The resulting media coverage thrust the evangelist into a whole different orbit.
MARTIN: He preached a strong, moral message. All of those things might have been appealing to William Randolph Hearst.
PHILLIPS: When we come back, Billy Graham becomes a household name while his own household deals with an absent father.
RUTH GRAHAM, DAUGHTER: He has said that he's frustrated, that he wasn't home for us when we were little.
PHILLIPS: And the woman behind the evangelist.
R. GRAHAM: You wouldn't have Billy Graham without Ruth Graham.
R. GRAHAM: Dear God, I prayed all unafraid, as we are inclined to do, I do not need a handsome man, but let him be like you.
PHILLIPS: The desires of a teenage girl growing up in rural China. Ruth Graham's daughter, her namesake, reads a poem her mother wrote.
R. GRAHAM: And let his face have character, a ruggedness of soul and let his whole life show dear God, a singleness of goal.
PHILLIPS: Little did 13-year old Ruth know just a few years later, she would meet that man of her girlhood dreams, a young man she would help become the most famous evangelist of the 20th century.
R. GRAHAM: She's been his closest adviser and confidante.
ANNE GRAHAM LOTZ, DAUGHTER: She's an incredible woman. You wouldn't have Billy Graham without Ruth Graham. I know that. He knows that, too.
PHILLIPS: The daughter of medical missionaries, Ruth McCue Bell was born in China in 1920.
R. GRAHAM: And it was a very happy childhood. Although outside the walls were bandits and warlords, and then overhead were Japanese bombers flying.
PHILLIPS: China and Japan were at war. Ruth dreamed of becoming a missionary in Tibet. But her parents said she was going to college. So dressed in hand-me-downs and size 7 saddle shoes, Ruth headed to Wheaton College in Illinois. That's where she met and later married Billy Graham.
MARTIN: Their courtship was humorous, in a way. He would ask her for a date, then not be in contact with her for six weeks, ask her again and then wonder, was he asking her, was he pressing her too much. And then finally she dated some other people and he said, you're going to date only me or everybody but me. So she said, OK. We'll do that.
PHILLIPS: Trading Tibet for the mountains of North Carolina, Ruth was not your typical preacher's wife. She had no problem speaking her mind even in front of the president of the United States.
R. GRAHAM: And Mr. Johnson was asking him for advice, some sort of political advice and my mother kicked him under the table. And my dad being my father said, why did you kick me under the table? Mr. Johnson looked at daddy and said, Billy, she's right. You stick to preaching and I'll stick to politicking.
PHILLIPS: Billy not only felt her influence, but so did her five rambunctious children, Gigi, Anne, Ruth, nicknamed Bunny, Franklin and Ned.
LOTZ: There was lots of love. And we had lots of fun. There was lots of fighting, because there are five children, all of us very strong-willed. Franklin was sort of the catalyst. Franklin and my older sister Gigi were probably the catalyst for a lot of the fighting.
PHILLIPS: Ruth did whatever it took to keep her kids in line.
FRANKLIN GRAHAM, SON: I was misbehaving and I was picking on my sisters. I was in the back seat of the car. She had warned me once to quit picking on my sisters, and I continued. And then she pulled the car over and grabbed me by my neck and jerked me out of the car and opened up the trunk and put me in the trunk and closed the trunk and away we went to town. My mother always -- she was a disciplinarian. If she told us to do something, we had better do it. PHILLIPS: While Ruth was home raising the children, Billy was on the road, often months at a time. And his success meant sacrifice.
R. GRAHAM: He really tried to stay in touch with us and be the kind of father that he wanted to be. He has said that he's frustrated that he wasn't home for us when we were little.
MARTIN: Ruth, she got lonely, of course. And at different points she would sleep with a sport coat of his just to kind of have the sense that he was near. But she has said, I would rather have Billy Graham 50 percent of the time than any other man 100 percent of the time.
PHILLIPS: While Billy lived out his faith for his children, largely from afar, Ruth lived out her faith in front of her kids every day.
LOTZ: It wasn't just something that was acted out on a platform or in a pulpit. And I would catch my mother on her knees in prayer.
R. GRAHAM: I have wonderful letters from my father. And we heard of lives being changed.
B. GRAHAM: If you're willing to make the kind of commitment I've talked about tonight, you're willing to come openly in front of everybody.
R. GRAHAM: Wonderful stories on what was going on. He kept us in the loop, as it were.
PHILLIPS: Did you ever realize your dad was famous?
R. GRAHAM: I did not. It wasn't until I was older that I realized my father was famous. My parents made very sure that we stayed grounded.
PHILLIPS: A discipline that came from Ruth and Billy's commitment, not just to their kids, but to each other.
R. GRAHAM: There is a light in my mother's eyes when she looks at him. And there's a light in his eyes when he looks at her.
PHILLIPS: Your mom and dad still madly in love.
R. GRAHAM: Very much so. Very much so. And it's so cute when you're with them now. He will sort of toddle over to her and lean into her to kiss her, and of course, you're afraid he's going to fall. But she's watching her movie -- she's sitting in a chair and he will lay across her bed and hold her hand while they're watching the movie. They look at each other with such love and tenderness and it's very sweet. He says this is the best time of their lives.
B. GRAHAM: I love her more now, and we are more romance now than we did when we were young.
PHILLIPS: A romance Ruth Graham put in a poem and a prayer more than 70 years ago.
R. GRAHAM: And when he comes, as he will come, with quiet eyes aglow, I'll understand that he's the man I prayed for long ago. And her prayer was answered. You know, my father is strong and straight and focused, and the lord answered that 13-year-old's prayer.
B. GRAHAM: This is the book of the ages forever, oh lord, thy word is settled in heaven. Forever!
PHILLIPS: By 1950, Billy Graham was a rising star across the American landscape, a powerful and passionate voice preaching the gospel with a homespun feel.
B. GRAHAM: Christians above all others should be concerned with social problems and social injustices.
PHILLIPS: As a spiritual leader, Graham believed he had God's blessing. As a preacher with a social agenda, he courted political figures, including the president of the United States. In 1950, Billy Graham and three of his aides put on their Sunday best and met with President Truman at the White House. The conversation was brief. The president good humored.
MARTIN: They started to leave and Billy said, could we have a word of prayer? And the president went, well, I guess it can't hurt.
PHILLIPS: Afterwards reporters mobbed the four visitors. Unaccustomed to White House protocol, Billy described every detail of the meeting. He even mentioned that they prayed with the president.
BARROWS: And the reporters said, well, would you pray again right here for us? And it's something that we wouldn't do that now. We didn't do it for advertising purposes, but we knelt there and prayed on the White House lawn.
MARTIN: And that picture was in the newspapers the next day. And it angered the president. When Billy Graham came back to hold a crusade in Washington, President Truman said, I don't want to talk with him. He's just interested in publicity.
PHILLIPS: For Billy Graham, that incident was a life lesson in the nuances of power. He became more politically savvy. In 1952, he urged General Eisenhower to run for president. When the general took office, Billy made himself available as an unofficial adviser.
MARK NOLL, PROFESSOR OF CHRISTIAN HISTORY, WHEATON COLLEGE: He became rapidly a friendly voice, a friendly contact, and at least on a few occasions with Dwight Eisenhower, a friendly adviser on matters of state, as well as on matters of religion.
PHILLIPS: By 1954, Graham began to spread his message overseas. His first stop? Great Britain.
B. GRAHAM: We have not come here to the city of London (INAUDIBLE).
NOLL: From that time, Graham begins to moderate his political opinions. He begins to be more cautious about what he says politically and about social events. He begins to sharpen the focus upon his Christian message, even as he takes it further and further abroad in the world.
PHILLIPS: In the states, Billy spent a summer preaching in New York. The meetings drew massive crowds and biting criticism from his own fold as being too liberal.
NOLL: There were conservative Protestants who wrote him off as a theological modernist. Graham has never been a theological modernist, but he has been willing to cooperate with the broad range of churches.
PHILLIPS: Graham also drew criticism when he began reaching out of to the African-American community. At a Mississippi crusade in 1952, Graham broke down a racial barrier, literally.
BARROWS: Billy himself went and took the ropes down and said, we don't have segregated meetings, whatever their reason for segregating them. They can sit anywhere they want to. And he took a stand for his belief that every man is equal before Christ.
HOWARD O. JONES, EVANGELIST: In his heart he knew it wasn't right.
PHILLIPS: Howard O. Jones, the first black preacher in Billy Graham's ministry, remembers the struggles when the evangelist brought his message to churches in Harlem.
JONES: They said, Billy, for God's sake, don't go to Harlem. Those savages will kill you. Now, when the news broke that he had added a black man on his team, he got a lot of nasty letters. They said, you don't need that "N" preacher on your team. And if you keep Howard Jones on there, we're not going to support you anymore.
PHILLIPS: Graham would push the cause of civil rights further, inviting Dr. Martin Luther king Jr. to deliver a prayer at his Madison Square Garden crusade.
JONES: A lot of whites stopped coming to the garden in protest. But all the people that left, God was good. He brought others in. The garden was still full every night.
B. GRAHAM: The Old Testament looks forward to him. The New Testament looks back to him. But the center of the scriptures is Christ.
PHILLIPS: By the early 1960s, Billy Graham was a man in full, a servant of God, a man of the people, and de facto chaplain for Washington's elite. At his first meeting with Lyndon Johnson, the two country boys bonded.
MARTIN: It was supposed to be a 15 minute meeting and it turned into five hours and they traded stories and went swimming naked. And Billy said they didn't have swimsuits. You just went as you were.
PHILLIPS: It would become a lasting friendship. But as he gained prominence, he also gained critics. As a spiritual leader with the ear of President Johnson, Graham's sharpest critics pointed to the Vietnam War.
MARTIN: He had opportunity, many people thought, to raise a prophetic voice against the war. Instead, he tended not to. And so some preachers criticized him and compared him to the biblical court priests who told the king whatever he wanted to hear.
PHILLIPS: After President Johnson left office, Graham continued to frequent the White House, visiting the man he called his old Quaker friend. Graham became close friends with Richard Nixon, actively supporting his earlier presidential race against John Kennedy. But where the evangelist saw friendship, President Nixon saw political cache.
MARTIN: The White House notes that I have seen memoranda where it's clear they were using him in any way they could to bring support, to bring his people. Must get Billy Graham and his people involved in this.
PHILLIPS: When our story of Billy Graham continues, the seductive halls of power and a controversial oval office conversation.
COLSON: The president of the United States sitting behind the desk, a certain aura goes with it and even Billy Graham is influenced by that.
FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Fredricka Whitfield at the CNN center in Atlanta.
Now in the news, one of five suspects held in the disappearance of an Alabama teen in Aruba will be released tomorrow. Police ruled that there was not enough evidence to hold disc jockey Steve Croes. No decision on how much longer the other four suspects being held in the Natalee Holloway case will be held. The judge is considering to keep them another eight days.
Beaches along northwest Florida have reopened following yesterday's shark attack that killed a 14-year-old girl. Many people are avoiding the water, however. The girl was attacked 20 yards offshore by a shark said to be at least eight feet long.
Experience the power of CNN video on your computer. Log on to cnn.com. Click on the video link and browse for the video you want to see. Watch what you want whenever you want free at cnn.com.
CNN is the most trusted name in news. More headlines at the top of the hour. PEOPLE IN THE NEWS continues right now.
ZAHN: Over the years, the Reverend Billy Graham has reached across political lines, providing counsel to generations of American presidents. But Graham's access to the White House has sometimes been met with stern criticism. Here again is Kyra Phillips.
B. GRAHAM: The Old Testament looks forward to him. The New Testament looks back to him. But the center of the scriptures is Christ.
PHILLIPS (voice-over): Billy Graham's singular message and unfaltering faith in god has made him a trusted resource for Americans of all backgrounds. But nothing cemented his status as the nation's premier preacher like his ties to the White House. And its chief residents.
JIMMY CARTER, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: I think all of us felt in the time of greatest challenge and responsibility of our public lives, that would be the presidency, that we needed Christian or religious counseling from a completely trustworthy and objective and fair source to guide us through those difficult times.
PHILLIPS: What started out as a historic and unprecedented single visit with President Truman became a regular occurrence with Richard Nixon. The powerful pair spent many hours together, publicly and privately, talking about religion, politics, and the pressing social issues of the day. But that cozy connection caused criticism when an old tape surfaced 30 years later. In 2002, the National Archives released a taped Oval Office conversation laced with anti- Semitic slurs. When President Nixon ranted about what he saw as Jewish media control, Reverend Graham joined in.
B. GRAHAM: This stranglehold has got to be broken or the country's going to go down the drain.
RICHARD NIXON, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: You believe that?
B. GRAHAM: Yes sir.
NIXON: Oh boy. I can't ever say that, but I believe it.
B. GRAHAM: No. But if you get elected a second time, we might be able to do something.
PHILLIPS: Graham's comments sparked outrage. Jewish leaders expressed horror that a role model with high access would tolerate, let alone actually make, such statements.
COLSON: I've been in those meetings. Nixon was a very dominant personality. He could do that. And of course, he's the president of the United States, sitting behind that desk and a certain aura goes with it, even Billy Graham is influenced by that.
PHILLIPS: In a written apology, graham said the recording did not reflect his true views. He also apologized in person to Jewish leaders meeting in Cincinnati. Abraham Foxman, president of the Anti- Defamation League, issued a statement accepting Graham's apology.
NIXON: I shall resign the presidency effective at noon tomorrow. PHILLIPS: In the wake of the Watergate scandal, the evangelist was forced to confront the notion that the man he considered a friend had not always been honest with him. And that he had been made a political pawn.
MARTIN: And he said, I knew what I had said to the president, and I knew what he had said to me. But when I saw all those memoranda circulating in the background, I felt like a sheep led to the slaughter.
PHILLIPS: Relations with future administrations would be different. Less political, more pastoral. The preacher to presidents set up a cautious space between his ministry and the Oval Office.
MARTIN: In an interesting turn, when Gerald Ford, who succeed Nixon of course, asked Billy graham, he was holding a crusade in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Ford's home state in 1976, and he had made a contact to see if maybe he could say something at the crusade, make an appearance, and Billy wrote to him, how different this is from his writing to Truman begging him to come, that, I don't think it would look good for either one of us for me to make a special thing. But we do have a VIP section and I'll be happy to recognize you just as I will recognize Governor Carter when he comes to visit.
PHILLIPS: Appearing at the White House less frequently did nothing to diminish reverend graham's stature. Billy Graham hopscotched the globe with his messages of salvation, freedom, and peace. But close friendships with two particular families brought him back to the U.S. and back to the White House. Despite being burned in the past.
MARTIN: With Reagan, they had been friends since the '50s. He had known Reagan for a long time. And visited the White House a great deal during the Reagan administration. But it was almost always kept private. He said, we never discussed politics. He also said, he wasn't really interested in politics, he wanted to talk about the old days in Hollywood.
PHILLIPS: Graham had also known then-Vice President George Bush, since his 1957 New York crusade. And even vacationed with the Bush family in Kennebunkport.
GEORGE H.W. BUSH, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: Just two hours ago, allied air forces began an attack on military targets in Iraq in Kuwait.
MARTIN: Before we were launching the first Gulf War, President Bush at the time invited Billy Graham to the White House, and then asked him to lead a prayer service the next day with the army brass and others in the Pentagon. And the White House.
PHILLIPS: Once again, critics questioned whether a U.S. president was using Reverend Graham to endorse a war, but others said it was natural for President Bush to call on his old friend at that crucial time. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And if there was ever a time that you want the reassurance that you're doing God's will, the reassurance that God is sovereign and watching out for you, that you have God's blessings, it's when you're in that crunch.
PHILLIPS: Graham says unlike many of today's religious leaders who speak out on hot button issues like abortion and gay marriage, he is content to stay above the political fray.
CARTER: Billy Graham always believed in the basic separation of church and state. He drew up a sharp dividing line between religion and politics. And that didn't mean any prohibition against religious leader like Billy Graham being a friend and a counselor to a president.
GRAHAM: I'm trying to stay out of politics. And I've been queried quite a bit lately why I don't take stands on certain issues. I just feel that my issue is the Gospel of Christ.
PHILLIPS: When PEOPLE IN THE NEWS continues, Billy Graham's personal and political influence.
ANNOUNCER: Now back to PEOPLE IN THE NEWS.
PHILLIPS: He was a mobster in training since he was a toddler.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I used to shake down the kids for their milk money. He was coming in with $10, $12, $15 a day.
PHILLIPS: She had a mental breakdown at 11 years old.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I was so bound up, I was just really filled with hatred.
PHILLIPS: Seventy-year-old Ron Jacobs (ph) and 41-year-old Joann Wells (ph) grew up in different times and different places. But one man's message connected them. They didn't know it then, but Billy Graham would change their lives forever.
1950s New York. The crime bosses ran the streets and recruited their young, including Ron Jacobs.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I was addicted to power. The guys who really were my role models were the top mobsters. I wanted to be like them.
PHILLIPS: At the invitation of some girls from his neighborhood, Ron attended Billy Graham's 1957 crusade at Madison Square Garden. Billy Graham was preaching on the story of Lazarus, the man the Bible says Jesus raised from the dead. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think it was that craving for power, paradoxically enough, that attracted me when I heard Billy Graham preach about Jesus. You see, I knew a lot of people that could kill you. But I had never heard of any that could make a dead person raise from the grave.
PHILLIPS: However, the power of the mob proved too enticing, so Ron continued a life filled with crime, cash, nightclubs and women. One night he met Essie Coleman (ph), a dancer in a nightclub that he owned, they fell in love and married.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, I didn't really know exactly that he was a mobster. But I knew that he was something else.
PHILLIPS: For years they lived life on the edge. Ron robbed casinos and committed other crimes he says he can't even talk about. But this mobster who had a passion for booze and bookmaking still had a hidden passion for Billy Graham.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In my bar, I had a little TV in the back, and I would sit there and guys would say, what are you doing? Listening to a lot of religious stuff?
PHILLIPS: In the meantime, Essie became a Christian and Ron's gangster life was about to catch up with him.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I became a target for a mob dispute and had 28 bones broken in both my hands, which are all bent out of shape even today.
PHILLIPS: Bandaged and broken Ron's life would take a turn.
B. GRAHAM: We have not come to put on a show.
PHILLIPS: After hearing a sermon on the same story he heard at the Billy Graham crusade 21 years earlier.
B. GRAHAM: Jesus said if someone was raised from the dead and would come back and speak to you, you still wouldn't believe.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That Sunday, I snuck out of the house to make a $5,000 bet on a ball game. And I realized I had lost my car keys and couldn't come home. So I figured my wife would be at Calvary Baptist church, so I went there. My pastor, he was preaching on Lazarus being risen from the grave. He gave an altar call, and I came all encased in bandages, and he didn't know whether it was a bad joke or an unusual conversion.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I was just so elated that, I said, thank God, thank God. Thank God.
PHILLIPS: In 1978, when Ron became a Christian, Joann Wells' life was spiraling out of control.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Just hated life, and just wondered, why in the world am I still here. PHILLIPS: Joann's childhood was tumultuous. She said she was abused by her father and teased by other children. In 1972, when Joann was eight, her mother took her to a Billy Graham crusade in Cleveland.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I remember laying on my mother's lap in the afternoon, and I can remember him talking about Jesus, and about the Father. And I remember just such a peace.
PHILLIPS: That peace wouldn't last. When she was in junior high, Joann was committed to a mental hospital, then sent to a group home. Eventually, she became a model. Drinking, drugging and dabbling in the occult.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You think you have control. And that was very alluring for me.
PHILLIPS: Joann desperately wanted out.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I just wanted peace.
PHILLIPS: The message she heard at that Billy Graham crusade was starting to hit home.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I was out on a drinking binge. And I went to this nightclub and I fell face first on concrete. I thought I was in hell. Three weeks later or so, I just had this overwhelming sense, God have mercy. Forgive me. You know, I want to come home.
PHILLIPS: Today Joann is a Christian writer, active in the prayer ministry of her church, and counselor for Billy Graham's crusades.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: According to Jesus, these are byproducts.
PHILLIPS: He's gone from being a mobster to a minister.
(on camera): What is it about Billy Graham that's so attractive?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think it's the simplicity of his message. He makes the direct point that we're sinners in need of a savior, and Jesus is that savior.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He has stuck to what he has been called to do, and he's done it faithfully.
B. GRAHAM: All your life you've been searching for peace.
PHILLIPS (voice-over): Lives changed by a man and his message.
B. GRAHAM: The peace that you long for.
PHILLIPS: When our story continues, Billy Graham prepares for what could be his final crusade. B. GRAHAM: I'm just sticking straight to the Gospel.
ANNOUNCER: Welcome back to PEOPLE IN THE NEWS.
B. GRAHAM: I'm willing to change my way of life. But you will have to help me.
PHILLIPS: There is a passage in the bible that reads, go ye all into the world and preach the Gospel to every creature.
B. GRAHAM: I want him to be lord of my life.
PHILLIPS: For nearly seven decades, Billy Graham has done just that.
B. GRAHAM: In Jesus' name. Amen.
My calling is to preach the love of God, and the forgiveness of God. And the fact that he does forgive us. That's what the cross is all about, what the resurrection is all about. That's the Gospel.
LOTZ: I think my father is a very ordinary man. But God leaned out of heaven for whatever reason and called him to preach the Gospel. The remarkable thing about my father is that he obeyed when he was called and for all of his life he's kept his focus.
PHILLIPS: Numbers can hint at the legacy of Billy Graham. More than 400 crusades around the world. More than 210 million people who have heard him speak in person. Countless others who have heard him on television and radio.
B. GRAHAM: This is your hour with God.
MARTIN: Most of the great evangelists in American history, their careers lasted a decade. And Billy Graham's in its sixth, seventh. He started in the '40s.
PHILLIPS: But numbers are impersonal. In times of triumph and tragedy. He's been a voice we wanted to hear.
B. GRAHAM: We've always need God.
PHILLIPS: A steady beacon of hope and influence on American culture for half a century.
CARTER: Other famous preachers could get on the same platform and say the same words and quote the same text from the Bible, but when Billy Graham did it, there was something special about it.
PHILLIPS: His journey began on a North Carolina dairy farm, and would see him become a spiritual counselor to presidents and to a nation.
BILL CLINTON, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: Unlike a lot of people, Billy Graham's really lived his faith for a long, long time now. Whether you agree or disagree with everything, he is a man who lives his faith. And that's, to me, the source of his enormous power. I just adore him.
PHILLIPS: He's been called America's preacher. But Graham's influence is international as well. He led controversial crusades behind the Iron Curtain, in China, and North Korea. Brushing aside criticism he was being used as a propaganda tool.
B. GRAHAM: God loves you.
PHILLIPS: There were visits to Europe, Africa, and Asia. In all, Graham has preached in 185 countries.
B. GRAHAM: He was not a European. He belongs to the whole world.
NOLL: Internationally he has been a proclaimer of the simple Christian Gospel, probably in more places to more people than any other Protestant leader in the history of humanity.
MARTIN: Hundreds of thousands of evangelists have been trained to go out and be little Billy Grahams. That will probably be his greatest unmeasurable but also immeasurable legacy.
PHILLIPS: For a growing evangelical movement, he's been a focal point.
NOLL: For the conservative Protestant world for which he came, he was a bridge builder out into broader arenas, and to greater interests in the nation and the world.
PHILLIPS: But in a world where the divides between religions seem to be widening, graham has also been a uniter. He preached a gospel of inclusion, reaching out to other religious leaders and faiths.
BROS. JEFFREY GROS, U.S. CONFERENCE OF CATHOLIC BISHOPS: There's been a long history in the U.S. of tensions between evangelicals and Catholics. Billy Graham has been a great bridge in overcoming some of those.
RABBI YECHEL ECKSTEIN, INTL. FELLOWSHIP OF CHRISTIANS AND JEWS: What I believe he did was really as a pioneer open up dialogue with the Jewish community build respect for the Jewish community.
B. GRAHAM: This may be the largest audience in the history of Russia.
MARTIN: His tendency has never been to draw circles and shut people out, but to bring in as many as he could.
PHILLIPS: Graham has had a pulpit that reaches millions of people. He's used it to preach, not get involved in politics.
B. GRAHAM: I just feel that my issue is the Gospel of Christ. That God loves you, and if God is willing to forgive you, put your trust in him. And I think that's my message.
PHILLIPS: While his reach has been global, his influence has been fundamentally personal. A walk in public would turn into an opportunity for people to tell him stories of how his crusades touched their lives.
LOTZ: One by one, they shook his hand and would say, Mr. Graham, it was New York, 1957, it was Baltimore such and such a time. It was Chicago. And they were just one after another telling him when they had received Christ by just giving the city and the date.
PHILLIPS: At age 86, Graham is no longer the same fiery preacher once nicknamed God's machine gun. Illness has slowed him down. And he says he's sure this weekend's crusade in New York will be his last in America. Heaven is something he looks forward to.
B. GRAHAM: It's a paradise that we're going to go into, because to be in the presence of God itself will be a paradise. And I have total, total certainty of that from scripture.
PHILLIPS: But before then, another crusade. And another opportunity for graham to answer the call that has guided his life to preach the Gospel.
ZAHN: This weekend's crusade is Reverend Graham's eighth rally in the New York metropolitan area. His last evangelical visit to New York in 1991 was the largest single-day religious gathering in the city's history.
That's it for this edition of PEOPLE IN THE NEWS. I'm Paula Zahn. Thanks so much for joining us. Hope you'll be back with us again next week.
TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.fdch.com