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Graham's pastor reflects on 'dear friend, mentor'


SPARTANBURG,S.C.—"I've prepared many messages in my life, and I've had numerous conversations with Dr. Graham about this moment, but I would be less than honest if I did not say that the privilege to stand over the casket of Dr. Billy Graham and share what I believe would be, in that sense, his last message, is a very humbling thing," said Don Wilton, who has served as Graham's pastor since 2008 and has been a close friend going back 25 years.

Wilton, pastor of First Baptist Church of Spartanburg, served with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association's schools of evangelism in the 1980s, but he didn't meet Graham until 1993. Wilton had just preached his first sermon as pastor of First Baptist. The service was televised as part of the church's TV ministry.

Russ Busby/BGEA

Don Wilton and Billy Graham on the porch of Graham's Montreat, N.C, home.

"Following my very first message, my telephone rang, and it was Dr. Billy Graham," Wilton said. "One can only imagine what was going through my mind."

Graham invited Wilton to visit him and his wife Ruth at their home in Montreat, N.C. "When I did, it seemed God forged an instant friendship," Wilton said. As the Grahams repeatedly invited him to visit, Wilton said their friendship grew over the next several years into a relationship "that went to levels and depths that leave me very humble today."

In 2008, Graham told Wilton it was his desire, after more than 50 years of membership at Dallas First Baptist Church, to unite with Wilton's congregation at Spartanburg. The church received Graham with joy, said Wilton, and Wilton became Graham's "personal pastor."

During his weekly visits with the Grahams (and, after Ruth died, with Graham alone), the two men spent a lot of time together. "There were countless times when we would sit together in the kitchen or on the lawn overlooking the Smoky Mountains," Wilton said. On other occasions, "we would laugh our heads off."

The aging evangelist had a hearty appetite for the all-American dietary staples of hotdogs, hamburgers and barbecue. He also enjoyed spending time with his dogs.

Graham, whose family "meant everything to him," also talked "endlessly" about his love for his wife, children and grandchildren.

Graham's home, "that little spot on the mountain," was his favorite retreat, Wilton said. After being absent for weeks or months on his evangelistic crusades, "coming home to his wife and children, eating a hotdog—that was the stuff for him," Wilton said. "He could be meeting the queen or be at the White House or Camp David, but when he came home—well, now we're talking."

As Graham's health and mobility declined, as did his sight and ability to speak, "so it was that the Lord allowed me the privilege through the years of holding his hand, of being his feet and seeing for him, until the Lord Jesus called him home," Wilton said.

Graham died at his home on Feb. 21. "He could not have gone to heaven from a better place, where his heart was most firmly entrenched," Wilton said.

When Wilton got word that Graham had passed, he was preaching in Boone, N.C., at a worship service at Samaritan's Purse headquarters, the Christian humanitarian relief ministry headed by Franklin Graham, Billy Graham's son. Wilton's plans were to "go down the hill" after the service to have lunch with Billy Graham.

"I felt as though the Lord was sending me a little message," Wilton said. "Jesus Christ made a determination that He wanted to have lunch with His servant Billy Graham."

Wilton left Boone and drove for an hour and a half through the North Carolina mountain passes to Montreat to be with Graham's family. On the way, he had time to reflect on the life of his mentor.

"My heart was just so overwhelmingly flooded with thoughts of the incredible gift of Billy Graham to our world," he said. "I was thinking of how remarkable it was that the Lord Jesus Christ would have touched a boy from a dairy farm in North Carolina—saved him, called him, empowered him, and placed the grace of God upon him—to the extent that people all over the world came to know Christ."

Wilton also experienced "floods of emotion" at his own personal loss. "In a human sense, I lost a very dear friend and mentor," he said. "It was an undue privilege to sit at the feet of Billy Graham all these years, to learn from him, to be mentored by him, to be prayed for by him," he said.

"There is a complex array of emotions that all people go through when we lose someone we love. In the world, we see Billy Graham as a great evangelist, but to many people, we have lost a very deeply precious man.

"I don't know why he loved me like he did, but I am eternally grateful to the Lord for the privilege to have been touched by his life."

Everything about Billy Graham was about Jesus Christ, Wilton said. "The Word of God tells us that God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble. Mr. Graham had an uncommon spiritual humility. His humility was the very expression of the massive outpouring of God's grace on his life. He was a man full of God's amazing grace." (BP)

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