It was 1949, I’m almost sure. My mother dressed me in my Sunday finest, but we weren’t going to church.
Memories of those days revolve around going to church, the Seventh Street Bible Tabernacle on the corner of Derby and 7th street in Pekin, Illinois. As they say, when the doors opened, we were there.
It was a church that was nondenominational, yet loosely ensconced within an organization–the Independent Fundamentalist Churches of America. That association continues to offer the most biblically centered teaching to be found, in my view. And I mean to denigrate no other church organization.
We were going that day in 1949, I was told, to Peoria, a city about 10 miles across the Illinois River from Pekin. We often went there for Mom and her sister, Auntie Bet, to shop.
I hated those trips with all that was within me. A boy of 6 or 7 years of age gets no pleasure out of shopping trips–then, or now.
The only saving grace on those trips as I remember was that my Uncle Horace and I could sit and wait for Mother and his wife, sitting in his big, black Buick that I fantasized to be like the one driven by one of my radio heroes, the Green Hornet.
It was extremely humid and hot on those summer days in Peoria, but listening to my favorite baseball team play, whose big star was Stan the Man Musial, made the heat bearable.
So it was when Mom dressed me in my Sunday finest I wanted to know why I had to get dressed to go to Peoria. Usually, it was just shirt, shorts, and tennis shoes on those hot days.
We were going to hear a preacher speak about Jesus, I was told.
Oh, just going to church, huh? That was most likely my response.
You know how you have bits and memories from your childhood at that age. Well, mine, on this occasion, remains relatively clear in some spots, not so much so in others, and vivid yet again in others.
We arrived at this enormous building. It was probably just a very large church as compared to ours back in Pekin. What I remember most was descending into the basement area. The basement was cavernous, as I remember. People were milling, and chattering, and seemed excited about something.
It was a different atmosphere than the usual church setting back at the Seventh Street Bible Tabernacle, where people kind of talked softly, then settled in. But the congregants did quiet down finally, there were some hymns sung–probably a solo, too–then somebody introduced the speaker.
I remember a tall, thin man in a suit and tie of about my dad’s age stepping to a large podium. The eyes were what were so arresting, as I remember from my childhood perspective. Those eyes seemed to pierce right into your brain.
Next, the way he spoke captured my young imagination. He was an exciting guy, I could tell. He held captive my thoughts, although I can’t remember but two words he spoke that day in that huge basement.
The word were “Jesus Christ.”
This was my first awareness of Billy Graham. He had not yet made it big in conducting evangelistic crusades, etc. But, in my 6- or 7-year-old mind, this guy was a star, not unlike ol’ Stan the Man Musial.
Now, I was prone to mimic all of my heroes, whether it was the Green Hornet, Stan the Man, or…now…this preacher they said was Billy Graham.
I remember standing out in my backyard of the basement house where we lived (yes, there was just a basement at the time), and pretending I was Billy Graham, the guy in Peoria. I indeed gave a dynamic message that day–in my own mind.
Now, I’m not saying that it was Billy Graham who was responsible for the message that led me to accept Christ not long after that basement message he delivered and the “message” I thought I was preaching that day in the back yard. But I did come to know the Lord for salvation a short time later as a very young child.
What a homecoming the Lord must have prepared for this faithful servant! He also has one prepared for each of us who name the name of Jesus Christ, when we come to him through the portal of death as did this great man at age 99, or through the Rapture, which, literally, I believe, is on the very brink of happening.