When Obama Visited Billy Graham, Each Man Prayed for the Other
On the occasion of Billy Graham’s 95th birthday, the president’s former spiritual adviser recalls a memorable encounter between Graham and Obama.
The following is edited and excerpted from The President’s Devotional: The Daily Readings that Inspired President Obama and Stories of Faith in the White House. With permission from HarperCollins.
Today is Rev. Billy Graham’s 95th birthday, which makes me think of the time President Obama spent a few quiet moments with Rev. Graham—and the surprising conclusion of their day together.
In late April 2010, President Obama and First Lady Michelle packed up their daughters and took them to a favorite vacation spot: the Grove Park Inn in Asheville, North Carolina, a picturesque little resort tucked away in the Blue Ridge Mountains. It was time for some rest. It had been a rewarding but difficult stretch—from responding to the economic crisis to winding down the war in Iraq—and the Obamas needed a little breather.
When I heard that the president was traveling to North Carolina, I mentioned to our senior staff that he might want to meet with Rev. Billy Graham during the trip (Graham’s home in Montreat was about a half hour away from the Grove Park Inn). It was an offhand suggestion: no one would’ve blamed the president for spending a few days with his family alone. But I was pleasantly surprised when word came back from the road that President Obama would in fact love to visit with Rev. Graham, and that he wanted me to join the meeting. I caught the next plane out of D.C. and met the president at his motorcade as he was preparing to depart to visit Graham. He looked rested, revived; the vacation had done the trick.
We hopped in “The Beast” (the massive armored car that shuttled the president everywhere) and began the short trip to Reverend Graham’s house. In the time since the visit was first scheduled, the joy of seeing Graham was tempered by tragedy: just a few days earlier, an explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia had claimed the lives of 29 coal miners, and President Obama was scheduled to speak at the funeral service for these men after leaving North Carolina. On the way to Reverend Graham’s house, we talked about the scripture he would use at the memorial service; he settled on the 23rd Psalm.
It was quite a sight to see a full presidential motorcade crawl slowly up the side of a mountain to Rev. Graham’s home, with neighbors standing along both sides, waving and smiling. After a steep ascent, we pulled into Graham’s circular driveway, hopped out of “The Beast” and were greeted warmly by the evangelist’s longtime assistant, who led us to the living room. There were four of us in the room: President Obama, myself, Graham’s son Franklin, and Reverend Graham.
I had no idea what to expect when we walked into that living room. I had heard stories about this great man of God: how he had counseled presidents and ministered to millions of souls around the world, never missing an opportunity to share the gospel. But I also knew that he had been ill, and in the twilight of his years. I thought that our visit might be limited by his health and age.
But what I found in Billy Graham surprised me greatly. Sitting in his old wooden chair, body hunched over but mind as sharp as ever, Graham effused something I hadn’t felt in as full a measure from another person before, or encountered since: he had an overwhelming, driving, powerful…humility. In fact, he was the most humble person I had ever met. His first words to President Obama were, “I am so proud of you!”, quite a sentiment from one of the greatest preacher who’s ever lived. He went on to say that he had followed the president’s career for years and had been praying for him every day. He related to Obama a story about President Truman (I won’t go into the details here, because it was a cautionary tale about keeping presidential advice private!)
Reverend Graham drew the meeting to a close by earnestly thanking the president for making the trip up the mountain. (We learned later that President Obama was the first sitting president to actually visit Billy Graham at his home, a fact surely not lost on Reverend Graham.)
Graham’s last words, were, of course, a prayer. President Obama drew close and Reverend Graham sidled up to the president in his sitting chair. Graham offered a beautiful prayer, one for the ages. But when the prayer reached its conclusion, something happened that shocked me: President Obama starting praying for Reverend Graham.
I don’t know why he did it. Perhaps it was a show of humility to a man whose grace was so palpable in the room. Maybe he was just grateful to God for the gift of Reverend Graham, and wanted to pray for the man who had prayed for so many. Whatever the reason, President Obama laid his hand on Reverend Graham’s knee and thanked God for him. And I found myself quietly thanking God for both of them: for the pastor to so many presidents, and for a president who knew the power of prayer.
As we said our goodbyes and walked back to the motorcade, I remember thinking, If President Obama can find the boldness to pray for Billy Graham, surely I can pray for all those whom I encounter as well, no matter who they are, or the circumstances in which I meet them. Since that day, I have hardly gone 24 hours without asking someone, “How can I pray for you?” And, God’s truth, it has never gotten a poor response.
Joshua DuBois is the author of The President’s Devotional: The Daily Readings that Inspired President Obama and Stories of Faith in the White House. He led the White House faith-based initiative in Obama’s first term.