Back Row America

Chris Arnade earned a PhD in theoretical physics and spent 20 years on Wall Street making piles of money as a bond trader. In a season of disillusionment with his lucrative career, he began walking around New York City taking photographs of graffiti artists, Schwinn bike clubs, and pigeon keepers. That hobby led him to eventually become an irreplaceable photojournalist and chronicler of the down-and-outers and addicted in our ferociously polarized society. 

For three years, he went in search of those who “lived under bridges, in abandoned buildings, in sheds, in pits, in broken-down trucks, on rooftops, or, if they scored enough money, in per-hour motels,” he writes in Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America.Traveling more than 150,000 miles to has-been communities struggling to survive, he photographed and interviewed the poor and strung out in places such as Buffalo, New Haven, Cleveland, Selma, El Paso, and Bakersfield. “In each of these places, people have a sense of being left behind and forgotten – or, worse, mocked and stigmatized by the rest of the world as it moves on and up….”

Several years ago, he wrote an article for The Guardianin the U.K. titled, “The people who challenged my atheism most were drug addicts and prostitutes.” That was the first time he told the story of meeting Takeesha as she was washing her face at a trickling fire hydrant in the South Bronx. “She was working, wearing thigh-high faux-leather red boots and leopard-print tights, waving at every car or truck that passed by.” In conversation, he discovered her devastating backstory: Her mother’s pimp put her on the streets at twelve, she had her first child at thirteen, and was addicted to heroin. Arnade asked her the question he asks everyone he photographs: How do you want to be described? She replied without a pause, “As who I am. A prostitute, a mother of six, and a child of God.”

Sociologically, Arnade views the well-educated and upwardly-mobile (himself and his friends) as the kids who sat on the front row of the classroom, “eager to learn and make sure the teacher knew we were learning…. We valued what we could measure, and that meant material wealth. Things that couldn’t be measured—community, dignity, faith, happiness—were largely ignored because they were hard to see, especially from so far away.”

The subjects of his portraits were from the back row of the class, those who “couldn’t or didn’t want to leave their town or their family to get an education at an elite college, the people who cared more about their faith than about science.” Dignityis a humane and insightful mosaic of their images, dreams, and disappointments. Some of the narrative is gut wrenching. Yet the descriptions of the ravages and bondage of addiction are mixed right in with heartwarming stories of widows and widowers bonding over coffee in the mornings at McDonald’s.

“Often the only places open, welcoming, and busy in back row neighborhoods were churches or McDonald’s. Often the people using the McDonald’s were the same people using the churches, people who sat for hours reading or studying the Bible at a booth,” writes Arnade.

“When I first went to the Bronx, I expected that the people there, those most affected by the coldness and ruthlessness of the world, would share my atheism. Instead, I found a strong belief in the supernatural, and a faith that manifested in many ways, mostly as a belief in the Bible.

“Everyone I met there who was living homeless or battling an addiction held a deep faith. Street walking is stunningly dangerous work, and everyone has stories of being cut, attacked, and threatened, or stories of others who were killed. Everyone has to deal with the danger. Few work without a mix of heroin, Xanax, or crack. None without faith. ‘You know what kept me through all that? God. Whenever I got into the car, God got into the car with me.’”

Arnade describes the dirty Bibles found in crack houses and the “picture of the Last Supper that moves with a couple living on the streets. Rosaries, crucifixes, and religious icons are worn for protection and good luck. Pages of the Bible are torn out, folded up, and kept in pockets, to be pulled out and fingered nervously, or read over in times of stress, or held during prayers.”

In a world that is confused and terrified about how to deal with junkies, those sticking needles in their arms for a high are still clinging to the hope that the Good Shepherd does not turn his back on lost causes. Mainline seminarians may not buy into demons and the reality of evil, but Arnade’s circle of drug-addicted friends certainly do. They have seen the dark side up close. 

While churches of all stripes are currently getting bad press – and rightly so, in some cases – Arnade’s experience of low budget storefront churches is surprisingly redemptive. There are no coffee bars, but there are hugs and acceptance – even if your clothes smell like cigarettes.

“For many back row Americans, the only places that regularly treat them like humans are churches. The churches are everywhere, small churches that have come in and taken over a space and light it up on Sundays and Wednesdays,” Arnade writes. “They walk inside the church, and immediately they meet people who get them. The preachers and congregants inside may preach to them, even judge their past decisions, but they don’t look down on them. They have walked the walk and know the sh*t they are going through, not from a book, not from a movie, not from an article, not from a study, but from their own lives or the lives of their friends. They look like them, and they get them.”

These congregations understand the back row people of America, Arnade believes. “The churches are also the way out of addiction, a way to end the cycle,” he writes. “The few success stories told on the streets are of relatives, friends, or spouses who found God, got with the discipline and order of a church, and moved away: ‘Princess met a decent man who was dedicated to the Scripture. She got straight, got God, and last we heard was on a farm upstate.’ ‘Necee went to her grandmother’s and found God, and she now has her one-year chip.’”

Those testimonies ring true to a front row observer like Arnade. “When I walked into the Bronx I was an atheist. It was something I was sure about. After years of traveling America, I wasn’t so sure….,” he confesses.

“I could no longer ignore the value of faith, not as a scientist, not as a person who claimed to want to learn from others. Yet I still saw it as a utility – something popular because it worked. Still, after attending hundreds of different services I was beginning to realize there was more to it than that. My biases were limiting a deeper understanding: that perhaps religion was right, or at least as right as anything could be. Getting there required a level of intellectual humility that I was not sure I had.”

Reading Arnade’s book in search of a big conversion story or a fix-it program will be disappointing. He simply wants to give the displaced, addicted, and marginalized their moment to express their dreams for life – and give us the chance to hear from our back row neighbors.

“On the streets, few can delude themselves into thinking they have it under control. … It is easier to see that everyone is a sinner, everyone is fallible, and everyone is mortal. It is easier to see that there are things just too deep, too important, or too great for us to know. It is far easier to recognize that one must come to peace with the idea that we don’t and never will have this under control. It is far easier to see religion not just as useful, but as true.”

Steve Beard is the editor of Good News.

Shepherd to the fringes

Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles, but on a cross between two thieves; on the town’s garbage heap; at a crossroad so cosmopolitan that they had to write His title in Hebrew and Latin and Greek … at the kind of place where cynics talk smut, and thieves curse, and soldiers gamble. Because that is where He died. And that is what He died for. And that is what He died about. That is where churchmen ought to be and what churchmen ought to be about.”– The Rev. George Macleod, Church of Scotland clergyman and one of the founders of the Iona Community (1895-1991).

More than 20 years ago, I was sitting across the table in a Chinese restaurant in Nicholasville, Kentucky, when John Smith recited Macleod’s sentiments with righteous authority and a piercing gaze to describe part of the inspiration of the calling on his life. At that time, Smith, a well-known media commentator and evangelist to those on the cultural fringe in Australia, was doing doctoral work in missiology at Asbury Theological Seminary.  

As a well-scrubbed son of a Methodist minister and a brand new Bible school graduate in the late 1960s, Smith recalls driving past a “bunch of menacing-looking outlaw bikers parked by the side of the road. Oddly, I felt a surge of compassion for these guys who no one really wanted to know. I couldn’t see the local minister making much headway with people like that,” he wrote in his autobiography, On the Side of the Angels.

Smith began to pray that “God would raise up someone able to get alongside such outsiders and show them something of the love of Christ.” At that moment, he sensed the corresponding answer: “Why don’t you answer your own prayer.” Initially, he doubted the call – but eventually he became the president of God’s Squad Motorcycle Club and an authentic ambassador of Christ to the marginalized, rejected, and forsaken.  

John Smith died on March 6, 2019, after a long battle with cancer. He was 76 years old. Hundreds of bikers were in attendance at Smith’s funeral in Ocean Grove, a coastal community in the southeast of Australia, to pay their respects – including those from the Hell’s Angels, Gypsy Jokers, Bandidos, Coffin Cheaters, and Immortals. 

Sean Stillman, president of God’s Squad UK chapter and author of God’s Biker: Motorcycles and Misfits,described Smith at the funeral as an “academic, a pastor, a preacher, a prophetic voice, an irritant to a comfortable church, an advocate for justice, the poor, the marginalized, and the arts.” More significantly, Stillman said, was his role as husband to Glena, Smith’s wife, and father to his three children and 17 grandchildren. 

With a gregarious personality and an encyclopedic knowledge of poetry, pop culture, ecology, philosophy, and theology, Smith garnered attention and stirred controversy through his Christian message, advocacy for social justice, and roaring motorcycles. His appeal was infectious. Currently, there are God’s Squad members in 16 nations around the globe. 

Stillman reported on Smith’s ability to connect with men and women “whether it be in a smoky clubhouse bar, backstage at a rock ‘n roll gig, or in the corridors of political power, a chapel pulpit, a street corner talking to a complete stranger, sitting amid Indigenous communities, engaging in academic dialogue, or crying in the pouring rain at a graveside with a grieving family.”

Smith spoke at rock festivals, biker rallies, government hearings, secondary schools, and before the United Nations Human Rights Commission. But his real love was talking one on one with someone who felt alienated from God and the church.

“For Smithy, the road was the place of discipleship and mission, and like John Wesley, one of his mission inspirations, the world very much became his parish,” said Stillman. “It was where you worked out what it meant to be a follower of his hero, Jesus of NazarethThe road would take you to the marginalized. He taught us that the Gospel still ought to be good news for the poor and uncomfortable news for the powerful.”

Smith was a tireless advocate for human rights and indigenous peoples. Aunty Jean Phillips, an Aboriginal Christian leader from Queensland, testified at the funeral to Smith’s friendship with the Aboriginal community and recalled his “real heart for justice.”

An email from U2 frontman Bono was even read at the funeral. “To John the Bible was an incendiary tract – not some handbook on religion,” wrote Bono. “It was not a sop for mankind’s fear of death – it was an epic poem about life. It spoke about culture, about politics, about justice.” U2 first became acquainted with Smith while touring through Australia in 1984 during the “Unforgettable Fire” tour. 

Interestingly enough, the last time I saw John and his wife Glena was after a U2 concert in Chicago on Bono’s birthday during the Vertigo tour. John asked if my friend, Father Kenneth Tanner (page 13), and I could give them a lift across town after the show. They sat in the back and talked about loving the concert but being too tired to attend the after-gig birthday bash for Bono. We dutifully drove them up Lake Shore Drive to the Jesus People commune – silently wishing they had given us their passes to the after party.  

Bono’s message at the funeral was spot-on: “When Bob Dylan sang ‘always on the other side of whatever side there was,’ he might have been singing about John, an outsider in an outsider community, an outlaw of a different kind preparing the way for the coming of a different kind of world, speaking truth to power.

“In our last meeting he spoke truth to me, gave me a hell of a hard time, thought I had gone soft and become too comfortable around the powerful. Thought I was living too well,” Bono recalled. “He was probably right. I still think about it.”

That was John Smith. He had the arched brow of an Old Testament prophet but the tenderness of Jesus welcoming the little children into his presence. He was pastoral and irritating. Not everyone can pull that off. It just seemed authentic with John Smith.

“For 35 years, I have been discovering that the world isn’t nearly as hostile to the gospel as I thought it would be. It is not nearly as frightening as we have been told it will be,” he wrote in the pages of Good Newstwo decades ago. “Outside the walls of the church there are many people who want to be loved and would love to have a connection with someone that didn’t treat them like a prize to be won, but persons to be loved….

“I have spent most of my life rubbing shoulders with hippies, outlaw bikers, high school students, secular non-churched folk, artists, and just ordinary people,” Smith continued. “Sure, there are murderers and dangerous people out in the real world. But I have discovered that most people who look a bit scary are actually quite ordinary. At the same time, a lot of people who look very suave are actually very dangerous. The mafia doesn’t go around looking like hippies. They wear the best Italian suits. So if you are going to judge from appearances, you’ll fail from the start. As Jesus said, man looks on the outward appearance but God looks on the heart.”

That was the heartbeat of his message to the church.

John Smith “remained passionate about the need for the message of Jesus to be faithfully proclaimed in the public sphere, but he also taught us that it should be something that should be lived,” concluded Stillman. “Putting it into practice was not an optional extra.”

Ride on, Brother John. Thanks for the arched brow and the grin. RIP.

Shifting axis of Methodism

“I look upon all the world as my parish,” famously said John Wesley (1703-1791). One imagines he had no idea that the United Methodist Church – one very large aspect of his spiritual legacy – would be in ministry in 60 different nations around the globe. 

Within the last 20 years, a notable shift has occurred from the UM Church being a declining North American-centric denomination (6.9 million members) to one that reflects a growing 40 percent of our membership (5.2 million) found on the continent of Africa. An additional 200,000 members are found in the Philippines, Europe, and Eurasia. 

The trajectories of Methodism’s growth and decline in various time zones around the globe will continue to have massive implications for the future of the denomination. Those who have ignored the demographic shifts thus far are at a great disadvantage when it comes to interpreting the direction of contemporary Methodism. 

The 2019 General Conference of The United Methodist Church was simultaneously translated for delegates in French, German, Korean, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, and Swahili. The skilled bank of interpreters illustrate the unique international DNA of the denomination. 

The Christian population in Africa in 1900 was 10 million. Currently, it is 631 million. For the first time in history, the African continent is home to the greatest number of Christians on the planet. There are more Christian hymns being sung on Sunday mornings in Swahili, French, and other languages spoken in Africa than in English. 

In St. Louis, that new reality explains why a notable 30 percent of the 864 delegates are Africans – with 48 delegates alone coming from the North Katanga Conference in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And yet, that reality was never fully expressed because of visa issues for international delegates.

“Officially, General Conference was to have 864 delegates,” reported Heather Hahn of United Methodist News Service. “But of the voting delegates, 31 were absent, primarily because they were unable to gain visas.” That was announced in St. Louis by the Rev. Gary Graves, secretary of General Conference.

“Almost all annual conferences had at least some representation,” reported Hahn. “However, neither the two delegates nor the reserves in the East Angola Conference could obtain visas, the General Conference business office said Feb. 27.”

One assumes that all 31 of the missing international delegates will have their visa issues ironed out in time for the 2020 General Conference in Minneapolis.

The percentage of international delegates will continue to grow as United Methodism grapples with issues of just representation. When the denomination meets next year, 55.9 percent of the delegates will be from the United States, 32 percent from Africa, 6 percent from Philippines, and 4.5 percent from Europe. 

Quite simply, the energy, vitality, and growth within international Methodism is flourishing in different time zones, nations, and languages beyond the dominant American name brand Methodism of yesterday. According to the most recent statistics available from the General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA), the shift will define the dynamic of Methodism.

• More United Methodists reside in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (2.9 million) than in the Western, North Central, and Northeastern Jurisdictions combined(2.6 million).

• More United Methodists worship in Nigeria (520,212) than in all 12 states found in the entire Western Jurisdiction combined (295,308).

• Twice as many United Methodists worship in the western African nation of Cote d’Ivoire (677,355) as in Virginia (319,822).

• More United Methodists worship in Mozambique (136,707) than in Northern Illinois, which includes metropolitan Chicago (81,999).  

The axis of Methodism is shifting. The unmistakable tilt of the sociological and spiritual reality found in the newly emerging United Methodist Church is found in African cities such as Harare, Lubumbashi, Abuja, and Freetown. These urban epicenters may be the next Londons, Bristols, and Epworths in a tectonic shift of Wesleyan leadership. 

The United Methodist Church gained more than 143,000 members over the past few years. All of the growth, however, took place in two of the African regions: Congo and West Africa. Every other region of the world declined in membership. Congo gained more than 429,000 members. It is now the largest region in the church, exceeding even the Southeastern Jurisdiction. West Africa followed by gaining nearly 200,000 members, coming to over 1.7 million, making it the third largest region in the world, behind the Southeastern Jurisdiction.

This shift will cause many issues of tension to rise to the surface as different cultures make their voices heard. The comparative analysis between United Methodism in the Congo Central Conference and that of the Western, North Central, and Northeastern jurisdictions combined is worth revisiting. These three U.S. jurisdictions currently have a total of 23 bishops, compared to only four Congolese bishops. 

That kind of unjust and lopsided representation within a power structure such as the Council of Bishops is in desperate need of rectifying. The 23 bishops from the three U.S. jurisdictions represent one bishop for every 113,735 members. For the Congolese, there is one bishop for every 749,811 members.  

John Wesley’s declaration that the “world is my parish” has been a point of spiritual inspiration for generations in the Methodist movement. Today, it serves as a notable challenge for a denomination in dozens of nations. But it also serves as a compass for the course that United Methodism will take in the future.

Kind life, gentle death: George H.W. Bush

It had been three hard days for George H.W. Bush, the 94-year-old former President of the United States. Lifelong friend James Baker, Mr. Bush’s secretary of state and chief of staff, went to check on his neighbor – a man he called “Jefe,” the Spanish word for “chief.” 

“Mr. President, Secretary Baker’s here,” said one of the caregivers. Bush opened his eyes and looked at Baker and said, “Bake, where are we going today?” 

“Well, Jefe, we’re going to heaven.” 

Bush said, “Good. That’s where I want to go.” A few hours later, a kinder and gentler man took his last breath. 

“Depart, O Christian soul, out of this world; In the Name of God the Father Almighty who created you; In the Name of Jesus Christ who redeemed you; In the Name of the Holy Spirit who sanctifies you. May your rest be this day in peace, and your dwelling place in the Paradise of God.”

That is the eloquent appeal from the Book of Common Prayer to be read at the time of death. A lifelong and devoted Episcopalian, Bush would have anticipated those words. He was, after all, raised from childhood on the scriptures and daily readings from the Prayer Book – an incalculable gift to Christendom from King Edward VI and Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer in the 16thcentury. 

“We all knelt around him and placed our hands on him and prayed for him and it was a very graceful, gentle death,” reported the Rev. Dr. Russell Levenson, Bush’s pastor at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston. “We were silent for a full long measure as this man who changed all of our lives, who changed our nation, who changed our world, left this life for the next.” 

Once again, the Prayer Book intones: “Deliver your servant, George, O Sovereign Lord Christ, from all evil, and set himfree from every bond; that he may rest with all your saints in the eternal habitations; where with the Father and the Holy Spirit you live and reign, one God, forever and ever.” 

Bush’s friends in the Oak Ridge Boys sang “Amazing Grace” at his memorable funeral in Houston. Afterward, his body rode 90 miles on a specially commissioned Union Pacific railroad car, pulled by engine #4141, through Texas to his final resting place next to his wife Barbara and their daughter Robin who died at age three of leukemia. 

Washington D.C. was my home during the Bush 41 administration and I still recall the stark radicalness of his call for a kinder and gentler way of doing things in our public square. “Abraham Lincoln’s ‘better angels of our nature’ and George H.W. Bush’s ‘thousand points of light’ are companion verses in America’s national hymn,” observed Bush biographer Jon Meacham in his eulogy. “Lincoln and Bush both called on us to choose the right over the convenient, to hope rather than to fear, and to heed not our worst impulses but our best instincts.” 

Like many other grateful Americans who admired the grace, kindness, and compassion of the 41stPresident of the United States, I stood by the railroad tracks to pay my respects. The gorgeous iron horse rolled right past a legendary former saloon and brothel in Old Town Spring, right down the street from a bank rumored to have been robbed by Bonnie and Clyde in the 1930s. Every parking spot within a country mile was taken. American flags and homemade signs were displayed from the backs of pick-up trucks. Veterans saluted the former Commander in Chief and fighter pilot. 

“Those who travel the high road of humility in Washington D.C. are not bothered by heavy traffic,” observed former Senator Alan Simpson in eulogizing President Bush. On this rainy day, the sky cleared up and the track was clear. 

It was good to be reminded of Bush 41’s inaugural address: “We cannot hope only to leave our children a bigger car, a bigger bank account. We must hope to give them a sense of what it means to be a loyal friend, a loving parent, a citizen who leaves his home, his neighborhood and town better than he found it.

“What do we want the men and women who work with us to say when we are no longer there? That we were more driven to succeed than anyone around us, or that we stopped to ask if a sick child had gotten better, and stayed a moment, there, to trade a word of friendship.”

In the wake of his death, a list of life’s lessons learned by Bush is worth remembering. 1. Don’t get down when your life takes a bad turn. Out of adversity comes challenge and often success. 2. Don’t blame others for your setbacks. 3. When things go well, always give credit to others. 4. Don’t talk all the time. Listen to your friends and mentors and learn from them. 5. Don’t brag about yourself. Let others point out your virtues, your strong points. 6. Give someone else a hand. When a friend is hurting show that friend you care. 7. Nobody likes an overbearing big shot. 8. As you succeed, be kind to people. Thank those who help you along the way. 9. Don’t be afraid to shed a tear when your heart is broken because a friend is hurting. 10. Say your prayers!

One did not need to share his political leanings to marvel at his magnanimity and genteel demeanor. Those close to him testify to his overwhelming charm, curiosity, and decency. 

At a Christmas concert nearly two decades ago, President Bush raised his hand to receive a packet during an appeal to become a personal sponsor for a foreign child in need. “I want one,” said Bush, recalled Wess Stafford, the president emeritus of Compassion International. Two weeks later, Bush began writing to a seven-year-old boy named Timothy in the Philippines.

Stafford knew the sponsorship had to be kept secret. “For his own security, this little boy must not know that his sponsor was the President of the United States,” recalled Stafford in a Facebook post. They used an alias (George Herbert) and carefully censored the letters so no clues were given. The former president encouraged the young boy to love and respect the people around him. Little Timothy and Bush even exchanged hand-drawn pictures.

It did not take long before Bush fudged the rules. It began, according to Stafford, with a picture of his dog: “This is my dog Millie … she knows many famous people!” Of course, the English Springer Spaniel had become world famous during his tenure at the White House with the Bush family.

Another big hint of his identity was shared with young Timothy when Bush wrote during the administration of his son, President George W. Bush (43): “This year for Christmas we are going to celebrate with my son, at his house … he lives in a big White House!”

Stafford was able to later tell President George W. Bush about his father’s loving antics. The younger Bush teared up, smiled, and said, “Yup, that’s my daddy!”

As leader of the free world, George H.W. Bush knew great triumph. He also knew tremendous heartbreak. He was shot out of the air in war and lost two crew mates in the process, survived the death of a child as a young father, and lost the presidency of the United States. His resilience and faith, however, tethered him to hope. “Be strong,” Bush wrote in his diary after his election defeat. “Be kind, be generous of spirit, be understanding, let people know how grateful you are, don’t get even, comfort the ones I’ve hurt and let down, say your prayers and ask for God’s understanding and strength, finish with a smile and with some gusto, do what’s right and finish strong.” 

Fittingly, Bush’s pastor at St. Martin’s, called us to find inspiration in Bush’s virtues. “Some have said in the last few days, ‘this is the end of an era.’ But it doesn’t have to be,” Levenson said. “Perhaps it’s an invitation to fill the hole that has been left behind.”

At his passing, we gratefully return to the Book of Common Prayer: “Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant George.Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive him into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light.”

Amen.

Let’s go: Remembering Eugene Peterson

Known as the shepherd to shepherds, Eugene Peterson – author of The Message, a contemporary Bible paraphrase that has sold 20 million copies – died on Monday, October 22. He was 85 years old. One week prior to his passing, Peterson had entered hospice care.

“During the previous days, it was apparent that he was navigating the thin and sacred space between earth and heaven,” Peterson’s family reported. “We overheard him speaking to people we can only presume were welcoming him into paradise. There may have even been a time or two when he accessed his Pentecostal roots and spoke in tongues as well.

“Among his final words were, ‘Let’s go.’”

Peterson was ready. “The essential thing in heaven and earth is that there should be a long obedience in the same direction,” wrote German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), “there results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.” 

Peterson politely hijacked Nietzsche’s language and wrote a classic titled A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, lacing discipleship and a life worth living. Hepoetically and prophetically authored dozens of books, including Run With the Horses,The Pastor: A Memoir,and most recently, As Kingfishers Catch Fire.His crowning literary achievement, The Message, was a nearly decade-long ambitious project to utilize his Greek and Hebrew scholarship and wordsmithing to emphasize the vitality and unction of the Scripture in modern vernacular. 

As pastor, author, and scholar, he spent his life patiently pointing men and women to a rendezvous beyond the boundaries of this mortal life. On his death bed, it was finally his turn to no longer look through a “glass, darkly” but to see his Redeemer face to face (1 Cor. 13:12, KJV).

Bible teacher Beth Moore aptly commented, “Don’t you just sorta hope when Eugene Peterson finally sees the gorgeous, glorious face of the Savior he has so long loved and served, that Jesus is the type that might greet him with something from The Messagetranslation? Like, maybe John 21:12? ‘Breakfast is ready’” (MSG). Peterson interpreted many such memorable stanzas:

• “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, Generous inside and out, true from start to finish” (John 1:14).

•“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly” (Matthew 11:28-30).

As a young clergyman, Peterson began his ministry as an academic. But after taking a part-time job at a church while teaching in New York City, he came to believe that everything at the church was “going every which way all the time – dying, being born, divorces, kids running away. I suddenly realized that this is where I really got a sense of being involved and not just sitting on the sidelines as a spectator but being in the game,” he told Religion News Service.

Peterson became founding pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland. He served that congregation for 29 years before retiring in 1991. “I loved being a pastor, almost every minute of it,” Peterson told the Christian Century. After decades of ministering to the modest-sized congregation, he returned to teaching as professor of spiritual theology at Regent College, a graduate school of theology in Vancouver, British Columbia. It was during this time that Peterson began pouring himself into The Message. 

Although pastors have a special affinity for Peterson’s sage wisdom, The Messageproject was not for shepherds, but for sheep – those in the pews who were not interested in reading the Bible and those for whom the verses had “gone flat through familiarity, reduced to cliches.”

His endeavor was sparked during a Bible study on Galatians in his local church. “I began to realize that the adults in my class weren’t feeling the vitality and directness that I sensed as I read and studied the New Testament in its original Greek,” he reported. Peterson knew that the text was relatable to the contemporary era. “There’s hardly a page in the Bible I did not see lived in some way or other by the men and women, saints and sinners, to whom I was pastor – and then verified in my nation and culture.” 

Peterson used his literary and linguistic gifts to build a bridge to the ancient sacred texts. “I lived in two language worlds, the world of the Bible and the world of Today. I had always assumed they were the same world,” he wrote in The Message’s preface. “But these people didn’t see it that way. So out of necessity I became a ‘translator’ (although I wouldn’t have called it that then), daily standing on the border between two worlds, getting the language of the Bible that God uses to create and save us, heal and bless us, judge and rule over us, into the language of Today that we use to gossip and tell stories, give directions and do business, sing songs and talk to our children.”

One factor Peterson could never have imagined occurred in 2001 when Rolling Stoneasked Bono about his reading list. “There’s a translation of Scriptures – the New Testament and the Books of Wisdom – that this guy Eugene Peterson has undertaken,” the U2 singer told the magazine. “It has been a great strength to me. He’s a poet and a scholar, and he’s brought the text back to the tone in which the books were written.”

Peterson’s seminary students were stunned that their soft-spoken professor was in the rock ‘n’ roll spotlight. Friends began sending him press clippings from all over the world. For his part, Peterson had no knowledge of Bono or U2. 

That is a compelling irony in Peterson’s story. He would have never applied to be a rock star chaplain. In a world of Christian celebrity razzmatazz, Peterson was incapable of ostentatiousness. In a world of religious hype, he was gentle and sincere, deliberate and anchored, trusted and reliable. No smoke and mirrors. He intentionally lived far away from the maniacal fast lane of Christian celebrity that his fame afforded him. Instead, he liked practicing his banjo on the deck of his home overlooking Flathead Lake in Montana.

“In the dressing room before a show, we would read them as a band,” Bono writes about the Psalms in the forward to The Message 100,“then walk out into arenas and stadiums, the words igniting us, inspiring us.” It was a poetic, divine spark stoked into an artistic flame. You can witness the kinship of Bono and Peterson discussing the Psalms in a 2016 online video captured by Fuller Seminary.

Shortly after the death of his father in 2001, Bono told the Irish magazine Hot Pressthat he had read The Messagealoud at his father’s bedside. Since then, he has been anything but timid in promoting the Bible paraphrase – quoting it from the stage and dropping verses from the ceiling at concerts as confetti. 

“Bono is singing to the very people I did this work for,” Peterson told Angela Pancella of AtU2.com. “I feel that we are allies in this. He is helping get me and The Messageinto the company of the very people Jesus spent much of his time with.” That was Peterson’s heartbeat. 

It’s strange that what began as a meticulous scholar’s attempt to engage bored Presbyterians at a Bible study in a church basement ended up fluttering down through the air at rock arenas around the globe. The Lord works in mysterious ways, indeed. 

Look, keep your King James. Keep your NIV. Keep your NRSV. For the pure joy, however, dip occasionally into Peterson’s text. “He understands that for the word to live, for it to leap from the page and into our lives, the only time is now, the only place is here,” writes Bono. 

Peterson was an ordained poet. He also had the “heart of a musician, his intellectual rigor and humility saving him from the vicissitudes that have the rest of us banging tambourines as he lays out a feast on the altar,” wrote Bono. “While a lot of the time we’re all still babbling in Babel, … Peterson is often speaking in tongues – a language that decodes and deciphers us, the reader; a language to approach the very subject of God.”

With sorrow we say farewell to a gentle soul who extolled a long obedience in the same direction. With joy we know that he was welcomed to his home on the other side of the shore.

Steve Beard is the editor of Good News. 

Seeking Renewal at Aldersgate

When the Apostle Paul met early Christian disciples in the city of Ephesus, his first question to them was, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” After some explanation, Paul laid his hands on the new believers and “the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied” (Acts 19).

In many ways, Aldersgate Renewal Ministries has been asking the same question of fellow United Methodists over the last 40 years and providing a spiritual environment for a similar experience through its popular family conferences on Spirit-filled living (including their youth event called “The Gate”) and local church “Life in the Spirit” seminars, Lay Witness Missions, and “Lord, Teach Us to Pray” weekends. 

In mid-July, Aldersgate celebrated its 40th anniversary by holding its first three-day gathering at Lake Junaluska, North Carolina. Three weeks later, it held a second celebration during the first week of August on the campus of Asbury United Methodist Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Aldersgate has become known for its passionate preaching, colorful banners, energetic worship, and focus on prayer. Times of ministry provided opportunities for clergy and lay ministers to pray for individuals in need of physical, relational, or inner healing. 

“United Methodists need the power of the Holy Spirit in their lives and churches now more than ever,” Mark Barrow, executive director of Aldersgate Renewal Ministries (ARM), told Good News. “It is only by allowing the Holy Spirit to lead our lives, that we can truly walk, serve, and be the church that bears the name of Jesus Christ.”

The annual Aldersgate gathering attempts to educate the church on the work of the Holy Spirit in the world today, provide an encouraging environment for the use of spiritual gifts outlined in the New Testament, and promote spiritual renewal in the denomination. It seeks to combine Pentecostal power, spiritual gifts, and Wesleyan theology under one roof. It is named for Aldersgate Street in London where Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, felt his heart “strangely warmed” and experienced his own transformational spiritual renewal. 

“Birthed in 1978 out of the Lay Witness Movement and the Ecumenical Charismatic Movement, Aldersgate has faithfully taught and led the Church into fresh understanding and experiences of the Holy Spirit,” said the Rev. Gary Moore, retired executive director of Aldersgate. “It has ministered new birth, healing and wholeness, and Spirit-filled living to more than 50,000 persons at the national conferences over the past 40 years.”

Despite its faithful track record, Aldersgate is still a new discovery for many United Methodists. “Aldersgate is the best kept secret in Methodism and best thing happening in the denomination,” said Moore, who led the ministry from 1988 to 2008. “People are looking for something that has life and vitality. Aldersgate encourages a genuine encounter with God without going outside the denomination. It pursues the worship experience with the expectation of God’s real presence and anticipation of the ministry of the Holy Spirit with the worship service.” 

The ministry was launched in the historic wake of a massive and multi-denominational conference on charismatic renewal sponsored by mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics held in 1977. The early charismatic movement within the denomination was spearheaded by United Methodist leaders such as the Revs. Ross Whetstone, Robert Tuttle, Robert Stamps, Tommy Tyson, as well as Dr. William Wilson, M.D. Over the years, numerous other theologians, clergy, and laity have been instrumental in the movement. 

“Aldersgate Renewal Ministries occupies a crucial place in The United Methodist Church,” contends Dr. David Watson, academic dean of United Theological Seminary. “It provides a space for people who are earnestly seeking the power and work of the Holy Spirit to come together and share with one another about the gifts of the Spirit in their lives.”

United Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, provides a unique academic and spiritual experience for charismatic students by partnering with Aldersgate in offering a Doctor of Ministry group in supernatural ministry, co-sponsoring an annual Holy Spirit seminar, and hosting the Aldersgate-related Methodist School for Supernatural Ministry. 

“The theology of the Aldersgate Renewal Movement is thoroughly Wesleyan,” Watson said. “There are places in Wesley’s own writings that describe experiences much like the charismatic experiences that take place at Aldersgate gatherings.”

When the charismatic movement launched within the mainline churches, there was a lack of widespread teaching on the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit. “There was a concerted effort of the renewal groups in many mainline denominations to help the church utilize the power of the Real Presence of the Holy Spirit to accomplish its ministry,” recalled the Rev. Larry Eddings, retired evangelist of the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference. 

“From the time of its inception in 1978, the focus of Aldersgate has been to bring a new level of consciousness into the life of the United Methodist Church of the person, power, and the presence of God’s Holy Spirit,” said Eddings, a long time associate with Aldersgate. “As it was later stated, ‘Bringing the Life of the Spirit into the Life of the Church,” it has been an effort to call upon the church to rely upon the supernatural power of God’s Holy Spirit to accomplish the supernatural ministry to which it has been called by Christ. It cannot be accomplished by human effort alone.”

Prayer for the renewal of the denomination and the spiritual life of United Methodists has been a big part of the behind-the-scene effort of Aldersgate. “ARM has a long history of intercessory prayer for the church,” said Margie Burger, the author of Lord, Teach Us to Pray and retired ARM Director of Prayer. “We place a high priority on saturating the ministry and the church in prayer. Our heart is to see individuals and churches renewed by the power of the Holy Spirit. Fervent prayer for the church remains a priority at this time.”

Aldersgate will meet next July in Springfield, Illinois.

True Identity

“Growing up, we were German,” said Kyle Merker, in a television commercial for Ancestry.com. “We danced in a German dance group. I wore lederhosen,” he says in a voiceover of him dancing the traditional Bavarian Schuhplattler in his festive German regalia. 

“When I first got on Ancestry, I was really surprised that I wasn’t finding all of these Germans in my tree,” he said in the ad – as names of relatives pop up behind him on the screen. “I decided to have my DNA tested … and the big surprise is that we’re not German at all. Fifty-two percent of my DNA comes from Scotland and Ireland,” reported a grinning Kyle, who is then festooned on screen in a Scottish Tartan outfit. 

“So I traded in my lederhosen for a kilt.” 

Interestingly enough, Merker is not an actor. His was a serious case of mistaken ethnic identity – with no German DNA whatsoever. He had to rethink a lifetime of self-identity and a closet full of lederhosen.

Along similar lines, the late Dutch theologian and author Henri J.M. Nouwen (1932-1996) would testify that no matter how unimpeachable our family tree may be, we are all susceptible to being hoodwinked when it comes to our spiritual self-identity. “Who am I?” is a complex question. Nouwen believed we are tempted to respond in one of three ways:

1. I am what I do (accomplishments or failures within relationships and career).

2. I am what others say about me (good reputation or gossiped about behind the back). 

3. I am what I have (big house or foreclosure notice, picturesque family or estrangement, balanced check book or pile of debt).

For Nouwen, our identity is absolutely not found in any of these indicators. Instead, he argued, you are – most profoundly – the Beloved of God. (For emphasis, he would probably recommend reading that a second time.) Your worth as a man, your value as a woman, and your capacity to be loved by God have nothing to do with what you do, what others say about you, or what possessions you have. Long before you had a career, a reputation, or a mortgage, you were loved by God – from eternity to eternity.

No less than St. Paul made the extravagant proclamation: “Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

For some of our friends, negative pronouncements said over them – sometimes from childhood – have become a curse that has created a spiritual prison. Past failures can become the very bars of a cell – making freedom an illusion. “When we have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity, and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions,” Nouwen writes in Life of the Beloved. “Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the ‘Beloved.’ Being the Beloved constitutes the core of our existence.”

Nouwen did not write that flippantly. He was a brilliant theologian and scholar (taught at Yale and Harvard) who struggled profoundly with loneliness and depression. “Many of my daily preoccupations suggest that I belong more to the world than to God,” Nouwen writes in his spiritual classic Return of the Prodigal Son. “A little criticism makes me angry, and a little rejection makes me depressed. A little praise raises my spirits, and a little success excites me. It takes very little to raise me up or thrust me down. Often, I am like a small boat on the ocean, completely at the mercy of its waves.” 

Sometimes we are like the Scotsman dancing the Schuhplattler – not living in our true identity and dancing to the wrong music in lederhosen. In Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown writes that we “hustle for our worthiness by constantly performing, perfecting, pleasing, and proving.” Living as the beloved, we no longer have to hustle for worthiness. 

That is completely easier said than done. However, liberation begins when we allow the truth of our spiritual identity to be fully absorbed and take root in our hearts. “You will still have rejection,” Nouwen once said, “and you will still have loss but you will live no longer as a person searching for his or her identity. You will always live as the beloved. You will live your pain, you will live your anguish, you will live your success, you will live your failures as one who knows who you are.” 

Every Sunday, the congregation at Shepherd’s Grove Church in Orange County, California, recites a creed in unison: “I’m not what I do. I’m not what I have. I’m not what people say about me. I am the beloved of God. It’s who I am. No one can take it from me. I don’t have to worry. I don’t have to hurry. I can trust my friend Jesus and share his love with the world.”

Bobby Schuller, the pastor of the church, penned it as an intentional self-correcting statement of identity for his own soul. “Saying these words to myself as a daily practice pulled me out of the stressed out patterns of this world, of trying to prove myself, of feeling rejected and not enough, and brought me into the easy rhythms of grace,” Schuller writes in his new book You are Beloved. “I was training my will and character around the love of God in Christ.” 

Schuller wrote half his creed in response to Nouwen’s observations, and the other half because of his interactions with the late Dr. Dallas Willard, professor of philosophy at USC and author of The Divine Conspiracy. Willard had a great handle on Christian spiritual formation and was “always encouraging Christians to stop hurrying and stop worrying so much, to live every day with the serenity of the kingdom of the heavens at the forefront of our minds,” writes Schuller.

As a pastor, Schuller wants his congregation to be free from the bondage of mistaken identity. The temptation to measure ourselves against our co-workers, neighbors, family, and friends is intense. “As we compare our true, hidden self to others’ public shiny versions of themselves, we run out of energy trying to keep up with one another,” he writes. “We wake up hoping to outpace our peers while regretting the wasted years we could have spent being happy. The net result is everyone is tired because they are hurrying to be loved. Little do they know, they already are.” 

Being able to receive God’s acceptance and love is the grand slam in the ninth inning. After all, we concoct a million excuses why we are not loveable. “God sent his son Jesus to remove not only your sin, but also your feelings of shame and unworthiness,” writes Schuller. “The cross is a reflection of the vastness of God’s love for you. You were worth it. You may not think so, but God does.”

Self-doubt comes with the territory. It rushes in when vulnerability enters the room, when love comes to town. That is where faith in the goodness of God must stand with resolve. We can open our arms for the embrace – or pass on love. The invitation comes from the one who wore the crown of thorns. He heard them yell “Hallelujah” and “Crucify him!” in successive breaths. All the while, he knew his true identity was being the Beloved.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,” said Jesus. “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

Discovering our true spiritual identity frees us from the condemnation of past failures. We are loved by God. We always have been and we always will be. “In the shakiness of living, remember one simple thing: you are not what you’ve done, and you are not what you do,” writes Schuller. “You are a beloved child of God. No one can take that from you. You didn’t earn it. You’ve never lived a day where that wasn’t true.”

God is the First Love, Nouwen taught. It is the radiance of that love that moves all other loves. When we fully absorb our true identity as the beloved of God it frees us to love other people without expecting them to fill a void that only God can satisfy. “Every other love will be partial,” said Nouwen. And love and wounds are never separated – that is the price of true vulnerability. “We will be healed, but it will be painful. But if we are willing to let the pain not make us bitter – to prune us – to give us a deeper sense of our belovedness, then we can be as free as Jesus and walk through this world and proclaim God’s First Love wherever we go.”

Living Aloha

In a box of 64 crayons, there are 11 shades of blue. When looking out upon the pristine waters of the Pacific Ocean crashing on the beach in Hawaii, it seems like there might be even more. It is one of the many marvels that help explain the magnetism and grandeur of the Islands. 

I’ve been in love with the Aloha State since my first visit 30 years ago. Most recently, I visited over Mother’s Day with my parents and renewed my affinity with Polynesia. 

During this momentous visit, we celebrated my mom’s third victory over cancer – a glorious convergence of medical science and prayer. The previous year, Mother’s Day was spent at my mom’s bedside at the UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles as she went through a radical surgery. 

This year was different. My Dad and I took her to the gorgeous United Methodist church where my parents renewed their wedding vows for their 50th anniversary a few years ago. It is a congregation of Tongans, locals, and tourists. Every week, the congregation hand-laces fragrant leis to adorn the visitors. On this Sunday, my mom’s lei rested right near the practically invisible 9-inch surgery scar on her neck – like a flower bursting through a crack in the sidewalk. Mothers were called to the front of the sanctuary and rightfully honored. The Tongan choir sang stoutly in their native tongue. 

Interestingly enough, I actually grew up with Tongans at church. Although Tonga is 3,000 miles south of Hawaii – the only Methodist kingdom in the world – there is a large population in Southern California. Part of my dad’s 45-year ministry was helping create a Tongan congregation at our church in Santa Ana. The church service in Hawaii made my soul feel right at home. 

Aside from volcanos, pineapples, and the sunsets, it is the “spirit of aloha” that has the longest-lasting impact on visitors to the Islands. At least that is the hope. Aloha is the most well-known way to say hello and goodbye, but it has multiple meanings and represents deep philosophy, culture, and theology. 

Long before Western explorers arrived, the traditional greeting (called “honi”) between two Hawaiians involves the touching of foreheads and noses and sharing the same breath of air and responding with Aloha. It meant the “exchange of breath,” “face to face breath,” or “the breath of life.” As a meaningful lifestyle, however, aloha is expressed through love, generosity, and cooperation. It is a virtuous and respectful ideal – and especially practical when one faces the unique challenges of living on a remote and isolated island with other people. In other words, aloha is treating someone else as you would want to be treated.

More than 30 years ago, Hawaii enacted the “Aloha Spirit” law which recognizes the cultural standard of kindness and consideration. “This law is virtually impossible to enforce because it is a philosophy that directs a code of conduct and way of life. Nonetheless… all citizens and government officials of Hawaii are obligated to conduct themselves in accordance with this law,” Dana Viola, first deputy attorney general of Hawaii, recently told the BBC.

The late Hawaiian poet and philosopher known as Auntie Pilahi Paki wrote the aloha law and gave spiritual meaning to the word in the form of an acrostic:

A stands for Akahai, meaning kindness (grace), expressed with tenderness.

L is for Lokahi, meaning unity (unbroken), expressed with harmony.

O is for Olu`olu, meaning agreeable (gentle), expressed with pleasantness.

H is for Ha`aha`a, meaning humility (empty), expressed with modesty.

A stands for Ahonui, meaning patient (waiting for the moment)and persevering.

As a word, aloha is so pervasive in Hawaii that it almost loses its deep meaning. For those vacationing for the snorkeling and surf, aloha may simply be what is used as a greeting or farewell. But others who want to take home the true spirit of the islands are invited to find ways to allow kindness and humility, patience and generosity, tenderness and perseverance to be expressed through everyday life back home. 

For the Hawaiian Christian, aloha has deep spiritual roots. 

“We do not understand the meaning of Aloha until we realize its foundation in the power of God at work in the world. One of the first sentences I learned from my mother in my childhood was this from Holy Scripture: ‘Aloha ke Akua’ – in other words, ‘God is Aloha,’” said the Rev. Dr. Abraham Akaka in a historic sermon in 1959 celebrating statehood for Hawaii. 

“Aloha is the power of God seeking to unite what is separated in the world – the power that unites heart with heart, soul with soul, life with life, culture with culture, race with race, nation with nation,” he said. “Aloha is the power that can reunite when a quarrel has brought separation; aloha is the power that reunites a man with himself when he has become separated from the image of God within.”

For 27 years, Akaka (1917-1997) was the kahu, or pastor, of the historic Kawaiahao Church in Honolulu. A graduate of Illinois Wesleyan University and Chicago Theological Seminary, he would often play the ukulele in his sermons and preached in both English and Hawaiian. Kawaiahao became known as Hawaii’s Westminster Abbey, having become the official church of the Hawaiian kingdom. Akaka was a friend of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and was in Washington D.C. during the “I have a dream” speech. Newsweek once described him as having the “charm of a beach boy and the force of Billy Graham.” 

“When a person or a people live in the spirit of Aloha they live in the spirit of God,” said Dr. Akaka. “And among such a people, whose lives so affirm their inner being, we see the working of the Scripture: ‘All things work together for good to them who love God… from the Aloha of God came his Son that we might have life and that we might have it more abundantly.’

Akaka continued: “Aloha consists of this new attitude of heart, above negativism, above legalism. It is the unconditional desire to promote the true good of other people in a friendly spirit, out of a sense of kinship. Aloha seeks to do good, with no conditions attached. We do not do good only to those who do good to us. One of the sweetest things about the love of God, about Aloha, is that it welcomes the stranger and seeks his good. A person who has the spirit of Aloha loves even when the love is not returned. And such is the love of God.”

Aloha does not gloss over legitimate differences of opinion. It does not seek to eradicate deeply held beliefs. Instead, it seeks to allow those differences to be treated with respect. Akaka wanted to make it clear that aloha does not allow for exploitation or subservience, but shares the burdens of others and seeks the best for everyone. 

Although he was speaking in 1959, his message rings especially true in our modern age: “Today, one of the deepest needs of mankind is the need to feel a sense of kinship one with another. Truly all mankind belongs together; from the beginning all mankind has been called into being, nourished, watched over by the love of God. … Aloha is the spirit of God at work in you and in me and in the world, uniting what is separated, overcoming darkness and death, bringing new light and life to all who sit in the darkness of fear, guiding the feet of mankind into the way of peace.”

As I worshipped with that small congregation on Mother’s Day, I thought back to a time when going to church with my parents was the last thing I wanted to do. But here, I was at peace. Although it was not my church, it had become my sanctuary. 

Speaking with the Tongan pastor after the service, I shared a bit about my heartfelt connection to that church. Without hesitation, he placed his large hands on my shoulders, looked me in the eye, and said: “This is your home. This is your home.”

In that moment, we shared the breath of life. In that moment, it was my aloha. 

Into the arms of eternity

Wherever he landed around the globe, Billy Graham spent his life preaching a simple and sincere message of God’s love for all people, the urgent need for conversion, and the assurance that Jesus Christ walks with believers in the brightest and darkest of times. Throughout his illustrious ministry, Graham preached to nearly 215 million people in more than 185 countries and territories via his simulcasts and rallies. His audience exposure leaps exponentially when television, newspaper columns, videos, magazine stories, webcasts, and best-selling books are factored in.

Illustrative of his technological wizardry, Graham once spearheaded an event more than two decades ago that astonishingly utilized 30 satellites broadcasting taped evangelistic messages from Graham in 116 languages to 185 countries. 

The news of his death on February 21 at his home in Montreat, North Carolina, at the age of 99, was observed with both joy and sorrow. The lanky world-renowned evangelist was buried in a rudimentary pine plywood coffin made by men convicted of murder from the Louisiana State Penitentiary.

For Christians, Graham was a role model in holding firm to both evangelism and integrated social action, orthodoxy and generous ecumenism, grace and truth, love and repentance. In addition to preaching his life-transforming message, he was pivotal in helping form numerous evangelical institutions that will be remembered as part of his fruitful legacy. 

“Billy Graham was a man with beautiful integrity, clothed with humility, and combined with a sterling message of the gospel,” Dr. Robert Coleman, author of The Master Plan of Evangelism, told Good News. Coleman was a close friend and associate of Graham for 60 years, leading the Institute of Evangelism in the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College and serving as Dean of the Billy Graham International Schools of Evangelism. Coleman was one of a handful of United Methodists who attended Graham’s funeral along with Drs. Eddie Fox, Maxie Dunnam, and Timothy Tennent.

“Wherever we traveled around the world, Billy was a master of making a nobody feel like a somebody,” Coleman recalled. “You always felt lifted up in his presence. Whether you were a street sweeper or a king, Billy saw you as someone deeply loved and treasured by God.”

Although most well known as a Baptist, Graham had a special relationship with Methodists dating back to his early friendship with lay evangelist Harry Denman, a man Graham described as “one of the great mentors for evangelism in my own life and ministry – and for countless others in evangelism as well.” Denman, who died in 1976, was the leader of the Commission on Evangelism of the Methodist Church. In the forward to the book Prophetic Evangelist, Graham wrote: “I never knew a man who encouraged more people in the field of evangelism than Harry Denman.”

Methodist Bishop Gerald Kennedy’s position as chairman of the Billy Graham rally in Los Angeles in 1963 caused a controversial stir among fundamentalists and others who did not see a place for mainline denominations in Graham’s evangelistic efforts. In the premier issue of Good News in 1967, Kennedy wrote that he had hoped his position would be an opportunity to bring conservative evangelicals and mainline churches closer together. “We never succeeded at eliminating all our differences,” he wrote, “but we did make progress in talking to one another and trying to listen to each other with some appreciation.”

Over the decades, United Methodists were inspired by Graham’s message, temperament, and integrity. “No voice in the past half-century has been more powerful and faithful in pointing clearly to Jesus Christ than the message of Billy Graham,” Dr. Eddie Fox, former World Director of World Methodist Evangelism, said. “His message always led persons to Jesus Christ.” Fox was a speaker at several of the Billy Graham Schools of Evangelism. 

According to United Methodist News Service, the late Bishop Leontine Kelly, who headed the evangelism unit of the denomination’s Board of Discipleship before her election to the episcopacy in 1984, characterized Graham’s preaching as “electric.” “His purposes were clear and his commitment to Jesus Christ was unwavering,” said Kelly, who died in 2012. “We will always be grateful for television, which enabled his communication of the gospel of Jesus Christ to millions.”

Graham had unparalleled reach. A 2005 Gallup poll revealed that 16 percent of Americans had heard Graham in person, 52 percent had heard him on radio, and 85 percent had seen him on television.

“Only the large expressive hands seem suited to a titan,” biographer William Martin, author of A Prophet with Honor: The Billy Graham Story, observed. “But crowning this spindly frame is that most distinctive of heads, with the profile for which God created granite, the perpetual glowing tan, the flowing hair, the towering forehead, the square jaw, the eagle’s brow and eyes, and the warm smile that has melted hearts, tamed opposition, and subdued skeptics on six continents.”

Lived with regrets. With such a high-profile ministry for such a lengthy duration of time, Graham was often under intense scrutiny. Was his version of Christian conversion too simplistic? Was he merely a government mouthpiece when he preached in totalitarian nations? Did he do enough with his platform for the civil rights of African Americans? Was he too comfortable in the White House? Despite the enormous audiences of curious onlookers and spiritual searchers, there were long lists of theological and social critics – both conservative and liberal – who were more than happy to offer a critique of Graham’s ministry. While some of the concerns were superficial, there were others of a more serious nature that had to be addressed. 

In hindsight, Graham registered his regret for not participating in civil rights demonstrations. “I think I made a mistake when I didn’t go to Selma, [Alabama in 1965],” Graham confessed to the Associated Press in 2005. “I would like to have done more.” It has been properly noted that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. considered Graham an ally. “Had it not been for the ministry of my good friend Dr. Billy Graham, my work in the Civil Rights Movement would not have been as successful as it has been,” said King. Other African American leaders, however, regret that Graham was not more front-and-center in the struggle. 

“Graham clearly felt an obligation to speak against segregation, but he also believed his first duty was to appeal to as many people as possible. Sometimes he found these two convictions difficult to reconcile,” Martin wrote in A Prophet with Honor.

Close proximity to the corridors of political power – especially the Nixon White House – occasionally blindsided Graham. When asked in 2011 by Christianity Today, a magazine he helped launch, if there was anything he would have done differently, Graham responded: “I would have steered clear of politics. I’m grateful for the opportunities God gave me to minister to people in high places; people in power have spiritual and personal needs like everyone else, and often they have no one to talk to. But looking back I know I sometimes crossed the line, and I wouldn’t do that now.”

Of his regrets, those closest to home were the most sensitive. “Ruth says those of us who were off traveling missed the best part of our lives – enjoying the children as they grew. She is probably right. I was too busy preaching all over the world.” Ruth Bell married Graham in 1945 and the couple had five children. “I came through those years much the poorer psychologically and emotionally,” he reflected. “I missed so much by not being home to see the children grow and develop.”

Graham questioned some of the aspects of his jet-setting ministry. “Sometimes we flitted from one part of the country to another, even from one continent to another, in the course of only a few days,” he recalled. “Were all those engagements necessary? Was I as discerning as I might have been about which ones to take and which to turn down? I doubt it. Every day I was absent from my family is gone forever.”

Although Graham never had regrets about committing his life to preaching a Christian message, he wished he would have spent more time in nurturing his own personal spiritual life. “I would spend more time in prayer, not just for myself but for others,” he said. “I would spend more time studying the Bible and meditating on its truth, not only for sermon preparation but to apply its message to my life. It is far too easy for someone in my position to read the Bible only with an eye on a future sermon, overlooking the message God has for me through its pages.”

“He brought down the storm.” Three years ago, Bob Dylan called Graham the “greatest preacher and evangelist of my time — that guy could save souls and did.” The music icon testified in AARP The Magazine to having attended some Graham rallies in the 1950s and ‘60s and described them in a distinctly Dylanesque way: “This guy was like rock ’n’ roll personified – volatile, explosive. He had the hair, the tone, the elocution – when he spoke, he brought the storm down. Clouds parted. Souls got saved … If you ever went to a Billy Graham rally back then, you were changed forever. There’s never been a preacher like him. … I saw Billy Graham in the flesh and heard him loud and clear.”

Although he is most well-known for his relationships with politicians, straight-and-narrow Graham was best of friends with Johnny Cash, the blue-collar troubadour who, when they met in 1969, was making headlines for recording live albums in Folsom State and San Quentin prisons. The Grahams and Cashs grew to be very close. Not only did Johnny and June Cash perform at Graham rallies, but Billy and Ruth joined the Cash family on numerous vacation outings. 

“I’ve always been able to share my secrets and problems with Billy, and I’ve benefited greatly from his support and advice,” Cash wrote in his autobiography. “Even during my worst times, when I’ve fallen back into using pills of one sort or another, he’s maintained his friendship with me and given me his ear and advice, always based solidly on the Bible. He’s never pressed me when I’ve been in trouble; he’s waited for me to reveal myself, and then he’s helped me as much as he can.”

Despite what some perceived as a squeaky-clean piety that gravitated to the halls of power, Graham had a deep and abiding love for the outsiders and the spiritual searchers. “It was eleven o’clock on a Sunday morning, but I was most definitely not in church,” Graham wrote in his autobiography Just As I Am. “Instead, to the horror of some, I was attending the 1969 Miami Rock Music Festival.” Preaching from the same concert stage as Canned Heat, the Grateful Dead, and Santana, Graham wrote about his delight to speak to “young people who probably would have felt uncomfortable in the average church, and yet whose searching questions about life and sharp protests against society’s values echoed from almost every song.”

Graham actually donned a disguise to get a feel for the festival the night before he would preach. “My heart went out to them,” he wrote. “Though I was thankful for their youthful exuberance, I was burdened by their spiritual searching and emptiness.”

Although Graham was prepared to be “shouted down,” he was “greeted with scattered applause. Most listened politely as I spoke.” He told them that he had been listening carefully to their music: “We reject your materialism, it seemed to proclaim, and we want something of the soul.” Graham proclaimed that “Jesus was a nonconformist” and the he could “fill their souls and give them meaning and purpose in life.” As they waited for the upcoming bands, Graham’s message was, “Tune in to God today, and let Him give you faith. Turn on to His power.”

Graham’s well-known message also did not hinder his ability to reach beyond evangelical boundaries. He longed for improved relationships between Roman Catholics and Protestants and was a trusted friend of Catholic television pioneer Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. “We are brothers,” Pope John Paul II told Graham during a visit to the Vatican. 

In 1979, the late Muhammad Ali, three-time world heavyweight boxing champion, spent several hours with Graham in the evangelist’s home in North Carolina. “When I arrived at the airport, Mr. Graham himself was waiting for me. I expected to be chauffeured in a Rolls Royce or at least a Mercedes, but we got in his Oldsmobile and he drove it himself,” Ali recalled. “I couldn’t believe he came to the airport driving his own car. When we approached his home I thought he would live on a thousand acre farm and we drove up to his house made of logs. No mansion with crystal chandeliers and gold carpets, it was the kind of house a man of God would live in. I look up to him.” 

Ali told the press, “I’ve always admired Mr. Graham, I’m a Muslim and he’s a Christian, but there is so much truth in the message he gives, Americanism, repentance, things about government and country – and truth. I always said if I was a Christian, I’d want to be a Christian like him.”

Generations later, Graham’s magnetism never weakened. One month after the Irish band U2 played an unforgettably emotional halftime show at the Super Bowl in 2002 memorializing the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Bono responded to an invitation to visit the Grahams at their home. Inside a collection of the work of Irish poet Seamus Heaney given to Ruth and Billy, Bono had written a poem that refers to “the voice of a preacher/loudly soft on my tears” which was the “lyric voice that gave my life/A Rhyme/a meaning that wasn’t there before.” The poem is on display at the Billy Graham Library in North Carolina.

In a touching tribute to Graham three years later, Bono said: “At a time when religion seems so often to get in the way of God’s work with its shopping mall sales pitch and its bumper sticker reductionism, I give thanks just for the sanity of Billy Graham – for that clear empathetic voice of his in that southern accent, part poet, part preacher – a singer of the human spirit, I’d say. Ah, yeah I give thanks for Billy Graham.”

Evangelistic energy. In addition to calling men, women, and children – rich and poor, black and white, powerful and humble – all over the globe to a commitment to Christ, Graham was also reminding the institutional church of the foundational need to share the faith. In 1976, his efforts were recognized by the United Methodist Association of Evangelists as one of the earliest recipients of the Philip Award. Four years later, he preached at the denomination’s Congress on Evangelism on the campus of Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

“Many have moved from a belief in man’s personal responsibility before God to an entirely new concept that assumes all men and women are already saved,” said Graham in 1980. “There’s a spreading universalism, which has deadened our urgency that was had by John and Charles Wesley, Francis Asbury, E. Stanley Jones, and others like them.

“This new evangelism leads many to reject the idea of conversion in its historical Biblical meaning and the meaning historically held and preached and taught by the Methodist Church.”

Graham concluded his remarks by quoting Methodist leader John Wesley in 1784: “You have nothing to do but to save souls, therefore spend and be spent in this work.” He continued to quote Wesley, “It is not your business to preach so many times and to take care of this or that society; but to save as many souls as you can; to bring as many sinners as you possibly can to repentance and with all your power to build them up in that holiness, without which they will never see the Lord.”

Graham reminded the participants of their heritage. “Let it be remembered that the Methodist church began in the white peak of conversion and intense evangelistic energy,” he said. “Let it be recalled that the Methodist church is an evangelistic movement.”

Good News connection. More than a decade before his address at the Congress on Evangelism, Graham’s preaching played a key role in the conversion of Good News’ founding editor Charles Keysor. The evangelist’s encouragement was also an important inspiration during the ministry’s formative years. 

“I have always believed that The United Methodist Church offers tremendous potential as a starting place for a great revival of Biblical Christian faith,” Graham wrote in a personal note of encouragement to the staff and board of directors on the occasion of the 10-year anniversary of Good News. “Around the world, millions of people do not know Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, and I believe that The United Methodist Church, with its great size and its honorable evangelistic tradition, can be mightily used by God for reaching these lost millions,” wrote Graham in 1977.

“I have been acquainted with the Good News movement and some of its leaders since 1967. To me it represents one of the encouraging signs for the church fulfilling its evangelistic mission, under the Bible’s authority and the leadership of the Holy Spirit. At the forefront of the Good News movement has been Good News magazine. For 10 years it has spoken clearly and prophetically for Scriptural Christianity and renewal in the church. It should be read by every United Methodist.”

Everyone associated with Good News in that era – and subsequent generations – found great inspiration in Graham’s words. 

The message and the man. “Billy Graham’s ministry taught me to step out in faith and trust God in all things in my life,” Dr. Timothy C. Tennent, president of Asbury Theological Seminary, said in a statement after attending Graham’s funeral in North Carolina. 

“After preaching in Red Square in what was then the Soviet Union, Billy Graham stopped at Gordon Conwell, where I was a student. Someone asked Mr. Graham if he had been used as part of Soviet propaganda. He replied that he had preached the same Gospel in Red Square as he did around the world. This taught me not to worry about the discouraging naysayers and critics in my ministry. Even Billy Graham’s funeral continued to teach us about the grace and glory of God.”

There was one testimony of poignant grace at Graham’s funeral that caught the attention of the Rev. Dr. Maxie Dunnam, former World Editor of The Upper Room and evangelical United Methodist leader. “The most meaningful for me was the sharing of one daughter who had a painful marriage that ended in divorce,” he recalled. “She spoke about her shame and how dreadful it was to think of how this was affecting her Mom and Dad, but how redemptive it was when she was welcomed home by Billy with open arms.” 

“It was a powerful prodigal daughter story. There was no pretension of perfection,” Dunnam said. “The feeling was that we were at a large family funeral, friends gathered to remember, to share their grief and celebrate the life of a loved one. Again, the emphasis was not on the man but the message.”

When speaking about the end of his own life, Graham used to like to paraphrase the words of one of his heroes, D. L. Moody, an evangelist of a different era: “Someday you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. I will just have changed my address. I will have gone into the presence of God.” 

Graham’s admirers note the change of address with deep respect and love.

Hymn Swinger

The holy-rolling and guitar-swinging hymn singer who arguably gave birth to rock and roll and was buried in an unmarked grave for more than 35 years is finally getting the respect she deserves. For the fans of Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-1973), the posthumous adulation is bittersweet. 

Ignored and neglected for decades, she was finally inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on April 14. “She is the founding mother who gave rock’s founding fathers the idea,” the Hall of Fame acknowledged. Sister Rosetta’s obscurity is both regrettable and pitiable. Her music and talents were gender-eclipsing, genre-defying, and ground-breaking. She was a finger-picking, gospel-rocking trailblazer on the guitar long before Jimi Hendrix, Chuck Berry, or Eric Clapton. 

“Sister Rosetta Tharpe holds an important role in the evolution of American music; a great innovator, she not only unapologetically bridged the seemingly enormous chasm between secular and church music, she also helped pioneer the unique sound of rock and roll guitar,” Rhiannon Giddens, lead singer of the Grammy Award-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, has observed. “Her infectious spirit, impeccable musicality, and sheer joy in her faith are obvious in every recording and are a source of great inspiration.”

Tharpe grew up in a conservative church setting that was simultaneously progressive about women in ministry, loud musical instruments, and an expressive worship style that encouraged hand clapping and dancing. In some quarters, this lively expression was looked down upon and dismissed as undignified holy rollin’, but this was the high-octane incubator for Rosetta that gave her permission and a platform to express her gifts as a young woman. 

Tharpe’s mother was a mandolin player and a traveling evangelist with the Church of God in Christ, the African-American Pentecostal-Holiness denomination founded in 1897. Accompanying her mother, Rosetta began playing “Jesus on the Mainline” on the guitar at age four. After years of playing in revival meetings and church services, Rosetta moved to New York City in 1938 and became the first gospel artist to be signed to Decca Records. She performed with Cab Calloway at Harlem’s segregated Cotton Club and was featured at John Hammond’s “From Spirituals to Swing” sold-out event at Carnegie Hall.

“She sang some gospel songs that brought the house down,” Count Baise recalled. “She sang down-home church numbers and had those old cool New Yorkers almost shouting in the aisles. There were lots of people out there who had never heard that kind of singing, but she went over big.” 

Sister Rosetta’s star was on the rise. She was, after all, the first solo gospel artist to play at the famous Apollo Theater in Harlem. While the white audiences were thrilled to hear African American gospel music for the first time, many of her church supporters were aghast that she was taking what was known as “sanctified” music into nightclubs. Walking the tightrope between the tabernacle and the spotlight – and making a living as a musician – would prove to be both a burden and challenge for her entire life.

Sister Rosetta was famous for her raucous and rollicking music and mega-watt smile. But it was her guitar work that mesmerized audiences – saints, sinners, black, white, men and women. “Rapidly finger-picked notes press up against full-on power chords that linger languidly in the air,” Dr. Gayle Wald writes in her Tharpe biography Shout, Sister, Shout. “She squeezes notes from the high end of the pitch, relishing the gentle fuzz of distortion, then cajoles the instrument, commanding, ‘Let’s do that again.’”

In 1942, Billboard magazine called her music “rock-and-roll spiritual singing” – a decade before the phrase was commonplace. Tharpe attempted to “inhabit an in-between place where the worlds of religious and popular music intersected and overlapped,” Wald writes. “Even when limiting herself to a church repertoire, she stuck out as a loud woman: loud in her playing, loud in her personality. In concert, she combined the spontaneous fervor of religious revivals with the practiced production values of Broadway variety shows.”

The revolutionary nature of what she was doing didn’t  go unnoticed by up-and-coming superstars. “Sister Rosetta Tharpe was anything but ordinary and plain,” said Bob Dylan. “She was a powerful force of nature.” She influenced Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, and Karen Carpenter. “Say, man, there’s a woman who can sing some rock and roll,” Jerry Lee Lewis once said. “I mean, she’s singing religious music, but she is singing rock and roll. She’s … shakin’ man … She jumps it.” She was also Johnny Cash’s favorite artist.

“Elvis loved Rosetta Tharpe,” proclaimed Gordon Stoker of The Jordanaires, the back up vocal quartet for Presley. “Not only did he dig her guitar playing but he dug her singing too.” Before backing Elvis, The Jordanaires toured with Tharpe – flipping the cultural picture inside out as a white quartet sang back up for an African American performer.

In a belligerently segregated era, she was a striking figure with high heels and ornate sequined dresses accessorized by a Gibson SG guitar strapped over her shoulder. “As a black woman with few outlets for public speaking, Rosetta fashioned a distinct means to speak through her guitar,” Wald writes. “As a woman who could outplay her male counterparts, she managed the ‘threat’ of her virtuosity to men by undercutting it with disarming humor and a dose of feminine decorum.” Thankfully, modern day fans can watch a handful of grainy YouTube videos, including scenes where she was guest host of TV Gospel Time on NBC. 

Tharpe’s recording of “Strange Things Happening Every Day” with boogie-woogie pianist Sammy Price in 1944 was the first gospel song to make Billboard’s “race records” Top Ten. A smart case has been made that it might be the first rock and roll record. That’s why her fans find sweet comfort in the Hall of Fame nod. “All this new stuff they call rock ’n’ roll, why, I’ve been playing that for years now,” Sister Rosetta told London’s Daily Mirror back in the 1950s. “Ninety percent of rock-and-roll artists came out of the church, their foundation is the church.” 

The historic relationship between the church and rock has fluctuated between resentment to hostility – sometimes justifiably. Rosetta fought hard to stay in the good graces of the church that nurtured her. That didn’t always work out but she would be the first to remind the church that there must be some way for the amped-up joyful noise of ecstatic worship to be shared with those who will never enter a sanctuary. To those who would tell her “come out from among them and be ye separate” (2 Corinthians 6:17), she might respond, “let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:15-16).

During one spat with detractors, she responded: “God has said, ‘If I am for you, I am more than the world against you.’ He has also said, ‘Hold your peace, I will fight your battles,’ and that is what I am going to do and carry on for the Lord.” 

Sister Rosetta suffered a stroke in 1970 and died three years later at the age of 58. Her widespread popularity had waned in comparison to previous decades. Her funeral was far more modest than her larger-than-life personality. Sadly, she was buried in an unmarked grave. As word of this travesty was discovered by fans more than 30 years later, money was raised for a proper tombstone. “She would sing until you cried and then she would sing until you danced for joy,” it now properly states. “She helped to keep the church alive and the saints rejoicing.”