EVERETT — The Rev. Brian Harpell was 12 when he first saw Billy Graham. An already famous Christian evangelist by the 1960s, Graham came to Harpell’s hometown of Halifax, Nova Scotia.
“It was the first crusade I ever attended,” said Harpell, who for 30 years has been pastor of Everett’s First Baptist Church.
At 65, Harpell hasn’t forgotten that day, nor the man who influenced his life. From Canada, Harpell went on to attend Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
“It had a Billy Graham room, and a strong emphasis on evangelism. I had an opportunity to read a fair bit about his life. It had quite an influence,” Harpell said. “ I was always inspired by his incredible integrity and character.”
On his Facebook page early Wednesday, Harpell posted: “The Rev. Billy Graham has died at 99. He was a farmer’s son who became a pastor to presidents and America’s best-known Christian evangelist. Thanking God for this man’s faithful witness to Jesus Christ and authentic integrity!”
Graham died Wednesday at his home in Montreat, North Carolina.
Recalling the outdoor crusade where he saw Graham as a boy, Harpell said it was on the lawn of the Halifax Citadel, overlooking the harbor city.
“He would close his services with the invitation hymn ‘Just As I Am,’ ” Harpell said. Also the title of Graham’s autobiography, “Just As I Am” was the music Harpell said coincided with the evangelist’s call for people to come to the altar to “give their lives to Christ.”
Aspects of Graham’s ministry that stand out, Harpell said, include his early insistence “on racial integration in his evangelizing campaigns” and assuring that his Billy Graham Evangelistic Association was overseen by a financial accountability organization. “In this day and age, there are a lot of charlatans. There are legitimate concerns over how some pastors operate, and their affluence,” Harpell said.
Graham achieved renown and traveled the globe, but his message was simple. “He wanted to bring the simple message of the Gospel, that God loves everybody,” Harpell said. “He really meant it.”
Harpell said Graham mostly avoided partisan politics. One stain on his reputation was the National Archives’ release of tapes from a 1972 talk Graham had with President Richard Nixon. Both men disparaged Jewish people. “Did he get drawn in? Yes, but he acknowledged he got sucked in. He said ‘I messed up,’ ” Harpell said.
Asked about Graham’s legacy, Harpell said it’s more than being a pastor to presidents.
“Dr. Graham would say that this would be a different world if we realized God does love us, and called us to love one another. I think that is relevant today,” Harpell said.
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; firstname.lastname@example.org.