Next month marks 69 years since my grandfather, Billy Graham, began the 1949 Greater Los Angeles Crusade that would change his life and, in turn, change the eternities of millions around the world as God used him to share the Gospel.
That historic outreach came to vivid life for me recently when I was asked to portray my grandfather in the film “Unbroken: Path to Redemption.” It picks up where the hit movie “Unbroken” – about the amazing life of Louis “Louie” Zamperini – left off, and tells of Louie’s post-war struggles and eventual acceptance of Jesus Christ at the crusade.
As I’ve thought about that amazing time in the fall of 1949, I’m struck by the power that one decision can have.
The first decision was my grandfather’s. Not many people know, but one month before the Los Angeles Crusade that made him a national figure, he faced a true crisis in his faith. Another evangelist – a friend and contemporary – was trying to convince my grandfather that his views were old-fashioned and that the Bible couldn’t be trusted. This caused my grandfather to struggle with doubt about the authority and inerrancy of the Bible.
However, through study and prayer, my grandfather reached the point where he fell to his knees and cried out to the Lord, proclaiming that He would accept the Bible as God’s Word by faith. That spiritual decision overruled all doubt and gave my grandfather a new authority and passion to proclaim the Good News of Jesus.
Just weeks later, he arrived in Los Angeles. The evangelistic campaign, which was held in a giant canvas tent on the corner of Hill and Washington, was scheduled for three weeks. It lasted eight. The tent was intended to hold 6,000 people, but they had to add an additional 3,000 chairs to accommodate the unexpectedly large crowds.
When it was all said and done, my grandfather spoke to 350,000 people, and 3,000 of them made decisions for Christ.
Louie Zamperini was one of those decisions and what a difference it made. After surviving the crash-landing of his WWII plane, floating for 47 days across the Pacific and then enduring horrendous treatment as a Japanese prisoner of war, Louie faced depression, alcohol abuse and what we now know as PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder).
His decision for Christ turned his life around, saved his marriage and led to the creation of Louis Zamperini Youth Ministries, which for over 60 years has brought a message of love, faith and hope to at-risk youth nationwide.
Jim Vaus also made a high-profile decision to surrender his life to Jesus at the 1949. He was the wire-tapper for L.A. mob boss Mickey Cohen, and he even brought my grandfather to share the Gospel with the mobster. Vaus’ decision allowed him a lifetime of hope and peace rather than crime and punishment.
Another of those decisions was by a famous singing cowboy and top radio personality named Stuart Hamblen, who then told of his conversion on air.
Hearing the famous entertainer’s story, another man made a decision during that time. It was the media mogul William Randolph Hearst, owner of the Los Angeles Examiner and many other newspapers. Sensing a story, he told all his editors to “puff Graham,” and in very short order, my grandfather was known across the country.
My grandfather would go on to preach the hope of Jesus to more people in live audiences than anyone else in history – nearly 215 million people in more than 185 countries and territories – through various meetings, including Mission World and Global Mission. Always driven to use emerging technology for the sake of the Gospel, he reached hundreds of millions more through television, video, film and webcasts.
There is no doubt God worked through his amazing gift of preaching, but he also worked through the decisions of many individuals.
Every decision is important. You simply never know what ripples will occur when just one stone is dropped in a pond; when you show kindness to someone, follow the leading of your conscience, or overlook an offense.
It’s no secret we’re living in polarized times, with anger and outrage on every side. As the anniversary of my grandfather’s Greater Los Angeles Crusade nears, I’m making a decision to be more intentionally aware that every person I come into contact with is fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God.
Whether they agree with me or not, whether they like me or not, they are loved by God and deserve no less from me.
What will you decide today?