An old man was on his death bed, and wanted to be buried with his money. So he called his pastor, his doctor and his lawyer to his bedside. “Here’s $30,000 cash to be held by each of you. I trust you to put this in my coffin when I die so I can take all my money with me.” At the funeral, each man put an envelope in the coffin. Riding away in a limousine, the pastor suddenly broke into tears and confessed, “I only put $20,000 into the envelope because I needed $10,000 to repair the church roof.” “Well, since we’re confessing,” said the doctor, “I only put $10,000 in the envelope because we needed a new x-ray machine for the pediatrics ward at the hospital which cost $20,000.” The lawyer was aghast. “I’m ashamed of both of you,” he exclaimed. “I want it known that when I put my envelope in that coffin, I enclosed a cheque for the full $30,000.”
Evangelist Billy Graham preached live to more than 215 million people in 185 countries. He met with at least a dozen presidents and other heads of state. Graham appeared in the top ten of Gallop’s most admired men in the world 61 times, far more than any other person. (Ronald Reagan is his closest competition, making the list 31 times.) And when Billy Graham’s body arrived in Washington D.C. from Charlotte, North Carolina, by private jet, the revered evangelist joined a very select group of notable Americans to lie in honor at the U.S. Capitol. The list is a short one; just 33 Americans in the nation’s 242-year history, including eleven presidents (among these Lincoln, Kennedy and Reagan). And now the Rev. Billy Graham has just become the fourth private citizen. So why amidst all of the splendor is Graham’s casket made of plywood and built by prisoners?
The Louisiana State Penitentiary (LSP) is America’s largest prison. It is a maximum-security facility consisting of 6,000 inmates who are the worst of the worst when it comes to being criminals, all given life sentences with no chance of ever getting parole. And it is here that Billy and Ruth Graham come into the picture. Now the Grahams have always had a burden for prison ministry – a number of times having just-paroled prisoners at their private home for a gospel witness (including a home-cooked meal, a new suit of clothes, and a couple of hundred dollars). But their greatest inmate work is at LSP (which the locals call Angola). Angola is the name given to the old southern plantation that once housed slaves from Angola in Africa. The now-prison property sits on the old estate’s 18,000 acres. Here the Grahams donated some hundreds of thousands of dollars to build a large prison chapel at which Graham has preached and Bev Shea has sung. Today, on any given Sunday, upwards of 1,500 prisoners attend gospel services there. And as one inmate put it – “when it comes to the length of the sermon no one bothers to look at their watch, it’s not as if any of us are going anywhere”). The board of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association contributed funds for an in-prison 24 hour radio station (that plays southern gospel music) and a 24 hour television station (that broadcasts among other things, Graham’s old crusade sermons). As well, Billy and Ruth raised funds through the Southern Baptist Convention to start Angola Bible College, a four-year program where saved prisoners can earn a degree in theology while behind bars. So far, 29 convicts have completed the Bachelor of Theology course and serve as pastors and teachers at the prison chapel and do cell-to-cell visitation. And by the way, the Louisiana State Penitentiary, which was once known as America’s bloodiest prison, has seen a 380% drop in violence.
Now the casket. When an inmate dies, the prison woodwork shop builds a basic plywood box coffin (which is lined with mattress pads purchased from Walmart) for burials in the prison cemetery. The cost is around $200 each. Both of the Grahams (Billy and Ruth) are buried in these very same prison-made caskets back home in North Carolina. The only addition is a cross on the lid and the names of the born-again woodworkers etched into the side.
So when some of the country’s most powerful people filed past Billy Graham’s casket in the nation’s capital, they saw his name and three unknown ones; a preacher and jailed convicts, all just sinners saved by grace.
– – – GRAHAM GEMS – – –
“Our society strives to avoid any possibility of offending anyone, except God … God has given us two hands, one to receive with and one to give with … Many churches are hiring research agencies to poll neighborhoods, asking what kind of church they prefer. Then the local churches design themselves to fit the desires of the people. True faith in God that demands selflessness is being replaced by trendy religion that serves the selfish … Give me five minutes with a person’s cheque-book and I will tell you where their heart is … The gospel has never changed and I have never changed my message. I preach the Bible and I preach it with authority.”