Mourners gather at Wheaton college for Billy Graham service
Ask Wheaton College religious leaders about the Rev. Billy Graham, and they will tell you about a humble man no different from his public persona.
And that's how the Rev. Stephen Kellough, the school's former chaplain, remembered the world-famous Christian evangelist on the day of his funeral.
Graham returned to his alma mater 25 years ago to give the commencement address on the 50th anniversary of his own graduation. The task of guiding Graham and his wife, Ruth, around campus fell to Kellough.
Graham wasn't whisked away from the attention that inevitably followed him at the college; he insisted on "meeting everyone that crossed his path," Kellough said.
"Showing no deference for age, gender, rank or position, Billy graciously gave his time to everyone, a remarkable evidence I think of the genuine humility with which Billy Graham lived out his Christian faith," Kellough said.
Kellough shared those memories with several hundred mourners who gathered at a Wheaton College chapel Friday for a memorial service for Graham, who died at 99 last week.
School President Philip Ryken and other leaders attended Graham's funeral on the grounds of his namesake library in his home state of North Carolina, while the gathering at Wheaton College watched a simulcast from the Edman Memorial Chapel stage.
"Our hope is that even though we are hundreds of miles away we will be able to fully participate in what they are experiencing there," said the Rev. Tim Blackmon, the school's current chaplain.
The crowd in the chapel did seem to take part in the funeral, singing hymns and breaking into applause after Graham's children read scripture passages and gave eulogies for their father under a sprawling tent on the library grounds in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Graham's youngest daughter, Ruth, shared a story about her divorce and subsequent marriage to a widower despite her father's misgivings. She quickly knew she had made a mistake and left her husband five weeks later. With tears in her eyes, she recalled her fears about her father's reaction as she headed to her parents' home in shame.
"My father was standing there waiting for me," Ruth Graham said. "As I got out of the car, he wrapped his arms around me. He said, 'Welcome home.' There was no shame. There was no blame. There was no condemnation. Just unconditional love."
The image of a father's embrace of a prodigal daughter stood out to Beverly Mason, who works in Wheaton College's undergraduate admissions office and went to the chapel service with her friend, Beth Howley.
"That's the picture of what it's like when you come to the Lord and he welcomes you in spite of your sins, your behavior," Mason said. "You're welcomed. You lay your life at his feet, and you are welcomed with loving arms and I think that picture was painted today."
The service also painted a picture of his influence on campus. A 1943 graduate, Graham married his classmate, Ruth, and preached on Sundays in downtown Wheaton. He remained a booster of the Christian school and sat on its board of trustees for decades.
The center that bears his name is one of the most striking buildings on campus. The Billy Graham Center houses "treasures" such as his ministry correspondence and copies of his sermons delivered at crusades around the world, Kellough said.
Graham's last trip to the school was in 1994 for the center's rededication. He remarked at the time that he hoped the center would become a hub of research and training for spreading the Gospel, Kellough said.
"And it is just that for Wheaton College and beyond," he said.
Campus tributes in the week since Graham's death have been a "celebration" of his ministry and legacy of "being bold in your faith," said Emma Halcomb, a sophomore from Minnesota.
"It is so meaningful to see our community reflect on the life of another faithful believer," she said.