The Preacher And The Protester

1970 protest

After the upheavals and the protests in Charlotte a couple of weeks ago my mind flashed back to another very turbulent time.

In the summer of 1970 Jeanie and I were attending Billy Graham’s crusade in Knoxville at the University of Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium.

We were there the night that a special guest came – President Richard Nixon. He arrived with his entourage and spoke some words of greeting.

Nixon was a polarizing figure, and his words that night were greeted with a mix of huge cheers, and loud jeers. The Viet Nam war was still going on. Cambodia had just been bombed.  The Kent State shooting of student protesters was fresh in everyone’s mind.  So that night there was a volatile mixture of adulation and anger.

Along with the worshipers there was a large section of students and others who had come to shout and protest as Nixon spoke. The crowd tried to drown them out with boos toward the demonstrators, and cheers for the president. The spirit that night was mean and ugly.

The next night was much calmer. Billy gave his usual invitation to come forward and commit to Christ. Hundreds poured down.

Among the seekers my attention was drawn to one young man, dressed like a hippie, with long hair, beads, and ragged jeans.  As he stood with the others he raised both hands high. On one hand he raised two fingers. On the other he raised one. As Billy spoke to those who had come forward the young man’s arms got tired and he rested them on his head

On the platform was an elderly black pastor who also was watching this scene. I saw him get up, leave the platform, and make his way through the crowd to that young man. Then he stood behind him and held his arms up until the closing prayer.

I was reminded of the Biblical scene where Moses raised his hands in prayer during battle and when his arms got tired his brother and others held his arms high until the battle was over.

Afterward I sought out that young man and asked what had brought him there. He explained that he was there as one of the crowd the night before, protesting against what he thought was an unjust war.

“But as  I listened to Billy Graham I heard him speak of the love of God and how Jesus died to bring us peace with God and each other.  I realized my heart had to be changed and that peace had to start with me. That’s why I came down tonight.”

And the raised fingers?

“The two fingers were the peace sign,” he said. “And the one finger was for the one way to peace God made at the cross.”

He invited me to his hippie house to meet friends the next day. We sat on the steps, they gave me some brownies (spiked or not I wasn’t sure) and we had a deep and meaningful conversation as we listened to one another. I later learned one of them had followed a call into ministry.

The memory of that night has stayed with me. And makes me think: if an older black preacher could stand behind a hippie boy and hold his hands up, and a group of hippies could invite an evangelist to share food and talk, why can’t it happen here in Charlotte?

It doesn’t need to be at a revival meeting.  It could happen anywhere.  Why can’t those of us who are older stand behind those who are younger, joined at the heart, listening to one another, and finding together the way to peace?

Leighton Ford

Originally published in The Charlotte Observer, October 2016.

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