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On Free Speech and human foibles

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The Rev. Billy Graham

“There is good and bad in everyone.”

– Paul McCartney
and Stevie Wonder

By Leslee Kulba – Asheville City Council offered up a resolution in memory of the Rev. Billy Graham. It was accepted by Graham’s friend, Glenn Wilcox, and his grandson, Will Graham, who shared impromptu words of gratitude. The resolution offered condolences and mentioned landmarks in the size of Graham’s ministry, reaching over 200 million people in 185 countries, performing with large choirs, counseling twelve presidents, and forging friendship with England’s royal family.

Graham was an evangelical minister, and it is customary in the Christian religion to say nice things about people in their eulogies. One of the best tributes at Graham’s passing, given by Speaker Paul Ryan at the service held in the Rotunda of the US Capitol, is worth repeating:

“In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ Billy Graham woke up every day and did just that. He shared his love of God. That love had no end. That love had no barriers.

“He ministered to all walks, … No matter how long the lines grew, no matter how much the times changed, his message never diminished. That love was so infectious, wasn’t it? The man had such a gift for connecting with people. When listening to Reverend Graham, it is as if he is right there next to you, praying with you, and turning you to the glory of God.

“He did not profess to have all the right answers. ‘Look to the Bible,’ he would say. But he sure did point us to all the right questions, and challenge us to look up and look within, to reflect, to repent.

“And in those moments when we felt weak in spirit, when our country was on its knees, he reminded us – he convinced us – that is exactly when we find our grace and our strength.

“Few loved others as Billy Graham did, and few were as beloved as he was.

“Here lies America’s Pastor, a man made great not by who he was, but by who he served, with all of his heart and with all of his soul and all of his mind. We give thanks to God for the life and the works of this humble servant, now and forever.”

While council’s resolution, by contrast, was entirely secular, some found it offensive. Casey Campfield read some quotes attributed to Graham. “We traffic in homosexuality at the peril of our spiritual welfare,” “Is AIDS a judgment from god? I could not be sure, but I think so,” “[Homosexuality is a] sinister form of perversion,” “At 93, I never thought we would have to debate the definition of marriage,” “Only when Christ comes again will the little white children of Alabama walk hand in hand with little black children,” “[Prominent Jews] are the ones putting out the pornographic stuff … This stranglehold has got to be broken or the country’s going down the drain.”

Addressing council, Campfield closed with, “The fact that you would use this platform to honor Billy Graham without even a single mention of his checkered past is beyond cowardly and a great disappointment to many of your constituents.”

Next, Elizabeth Schell commended council for making the resolution as lackluster as possible. She said she had only intended to sit in the audience with a protest sign, but decided not to when she saw members of the decedent’s family. She did not want to compound their grieving, but she supposed Graham would not have been so sensitive. She spoke against Graham’s, “homophobia, racism, and toxic masculinity,” saying, “The decades of hate speech of this man … destroyed countless lives.” She then unfurled a rainbow flag displaying the words, “When we honor hate, we dishonor love.”

At least all present found common ground on enthusiastically honoring the life of Zelda Fitzgerald, who passed away 70 years ago. She died in a fire, locked in her room at Highland Hospital, where she had been receiving electroshock treatments for schizophrenia. Zelda was the wife of F. Scott, but he wasn’t mentioned because Zelda always lived in his shadow, their rocky relationship often blamed for her life’s trauma.

Her proclamation said she was an icon of the Jazz Age and the first American Flapper. Jim McKenzie, who received her proclamation, said she was a “painter, dancer, writer, and provocateur,” adding, “I think Asheville would really just adore her if she were still around.”

Members of the public were encouraged to take part in the many celebrations occurring throughout the week. They include art exhibits, a video game contest, a book club discussion, readings, literary karaoke, a discussion of practices at Highland Hospital, and a Roaring 20s cocktail party and costume contest.

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