Rocky Mountain News

Billy Graham as newspaper columnist: His farewell piece answered an obvious question

Billy Graham as newspaper columnist: His farewell piece answered an obvious question

During the years I worked at The Rocky Mountain News, one of my favorite people was the great columnist Gene Amole. Frankly, most people in that newsroom would have said the same thing about him.

Amole was all about simplicity and writing with his own, unique voice. For example, his columns always opened with single-word ledes. One word, like I simple jab.

So when the crusty World War II vet announced that he had cancer, everyone could imagine how his final column about this fight (The Los Angeles Times noted that the 78-year-old Amole kept writing columns every single day -- for 17 weeks) would begin.

Sure enough, Amole started with: "Goodbye." Then he said what he had to say.

Now, when Americans think of the Rev. Billy Graham, they probably think of lots of things, starting with his preaching.

However, lots of his preaching and other commentaries were -- for decades -- filed away or transcribed and then filed by topics. When people wrote him letters with questions, this material was used in Graham's short "My Answer" newspaper features for the Tribune syndicate.

Thus, when Graham died, you knew that there was a syndicated column that had been filed away many years earlier, during his prime, to answer a logical final question, one that I am sure the great evangelist heard many, many times (almost as many times as the "who will be the next Billy Graham?" question).

That question: "Mr. Graham, how would you like to be remembered?"

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Three points and a poem: How would Billy Graham have handled Donald Trump?

Three points and a poem: How would Billy Graham have handled Donald Trump?

Over the past few days, I have heard one question more than any other: How do I think the Rev. Billy Graham would have handled the current divisions inside American evangelicalism? When you dig a bit deeper, what people are really asking is how Graham the elder (as opposed to Franklin Graham) would have handled Donald Trump.

GetReligion readers will not be surprised that this topic came up during this week's "Crossroads" podcast. Click here to tune that in

In the old tradition of Southern preaching, I would like to answer with three points and a poem.

(I) How would Graham, in his prime, have handled Trump? Well, how did he relate to Bill Clinton, another man who had a loose connection to truth and fidelity? Graham praised the good in Clinton and then gentled criticized the bad, primarily by affirming basic Christian standards of life and behavior. He didn't endorse, but he provided personal support. He never, in public, attacked Clinton or his partner, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Graham took flak for this stance, but he was used to that.

(II) My second point is a story, a kind of parable, about the 1987 Graham crusade in Denver's Mile High Stadium.

One morning during the crusade, the evangelist's crack media team called all of the major newsrooms in that very competitive news market (where The Denver Post and The Rocky Mountain News were fighting an epic newspaper war). They wanted us to know that Graham was going to preach that night -- his first sermon on this topic -- about AIDS. This was news, because of Graham's de facto status as the Protestant pope, in the eyes of editors.

Graham's staff knew that reporters would be on deadline that night (press runs for early state editions would have been soon after 10 p.m.) and would need to line up quick telephone interviews with people who could react to whatever he said in the sermon.

Through a series of connections, I ended up interviewing a local associate pastor in an LGBTQ-affirming congregation. This man was a former Southern Baptist pastor, now out gay, who was HIV positive. As a child, he had made his profession of Christian faith at a Graham crusade. He still considered Graham a hero, although he disagreed with the evangelist's beliefs on sexuality.

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US Catholics sort of hug ELCA: Why do liberal, oldline flocks always seem to make news?

US Catholics sort of hug ELCA: Why do liberal, oldline flocks always seem to make news?

If you walked the religion-news beat in the 1980s, and especially if you covered mainline Protestants and the Episcopal Church, then you probably knew Bishop William C. Frey.

At that time, he was the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado and he eventually (a) was the symbolic evangelical/charismatic candidate to become U.S. presiding bishop, then (b) he became president and dean of the evangelical Anglican School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pa. He now lives in retirement near San Antonio, Texas, and -- it helps that he speaks fluent Spanish -- remains active in ministry in that region.

Among reporters (of all theological stripes), Frey was known as one of the most candid and, with his previous work in mainstream radio, sound-bite articulate figures on the national scene. His wit was legendary.

So what does this have to do with this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to listen) about that ecumenical document signed by U.S. Catholic leaders and the liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America? We are talking about the one that led to statements (see previous post here) that there were "are no longer church-dividing issues" between them.

Host Todd Wilken and I were curious as to why this document received so little attention in the mainstream press, since -- in the past -- this was precisely the kind of progressive, ecumenical event that drew banner headlines and then appeared in lists of the Top 10 religion-news stories of the year. Thus, we talked about why the oldline Protestant churches have always received so much attention and why, all of a sudden, that coverage may have faded.

This brings me to a classic Frey soundbite. Working on a column for the late, great Rocky Mountain News, I told the bishop about statements from several other local religious leaders who wanted to know why Colorado Episcopalians were always in the news. Some of them expressed what sounded like envy -- which made Frey laugh out loud.

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Memory eternal: The life and quiet ministry of 'Ann B.'

One of the complicated subjects that religion-beat professionals talk about behind the scenes, if they are themselves religious believers, is how to pick out a safe congregation to join in the city that they are covering. The goal is to find a good one, but not one that has a history of making news. During my Rocky Mountain News days, for example, my family joined what I thought was a nice safe, rather low-key parish near downtown (at this stage in our pilgrimage we were evangelical Anglicans). Lo and behold, the priest promptly became active in ministry to urban teens and gang members. Go figure.

That parish also put me in the path of a major news complication. Before long, one of my closest friends in the parish was a young man who was a leader at the local St. Francis Center for the homeless. On top of that, he was the son of one of the state’s major newsmakers, the charismatic (in multiple senses of the word) Bishop William C. Frey, head of the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado. I immediately told my editors and then met with the bishop to establish ground rules for contacts with his family which were acceptable to him, to me and to my editors. I will leave the details private, but it helped that the bishop was not the kind of man who ducked questions.

You see, over the years several branches of the Frey family tree lived in a rambling old home in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood at one time or another, along with a wide variety of other interesting families and individuals. If you went over to watch a Denver Broncos game with one of the Frey sons and his family, that meant the bishop was probably going to there too, most of the time.

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So long, GetReligion

It was about eight years ago exactly when I surprised Terry Mattingly by shouting his name as I encountered him on the street. His visage was familiar to me because I’d grown up reading him in “the Rocky” — the Rocky Mountain News of Denver, Colorado. My parents had always encouraged my siblings and me to read the newspapers and I devoured both the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News every day. Front page to last page. I was interested in journalism from a young age, starting a newspaper at my elementary school and eventually editing the Yearbook at my high school in my junior and my senior year.

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