Remembering Billy Graham and Christian Arabs
The Rev. William “Billy” Franklin Graham Jr. died this week at the age of 99. During his life, Graham once held the Palestinian Christians of Bethlehem in the highest esteem. And when my mother passed through one of his evangelical conventions one day, Graham held her hand high up in the air and declared that she symbolized one of Christianity’s greatest gifts, a Christian who was born and raised in the Little Town of Bethlehem that many Christians today have forgotten
By Ray Hanania
The day we met Billy Graham.
My mother held our hands as my sister and I walked down Michigan Avenue on a bright summer day in the early 1960s.
We had just visited my father, who worked at the Sinclair Company, meeting him on State Street at the diner in the old Woolworth’s Building where we had lunch.
It was fun. As a young child, the buildings around us looked massive and intimidating. People actually lived and worked at the top of those massive structures.
But it was while back to the bus stop to catch the Jeffrey Express — 25 cents fare for my mom and 12 cents each for my sister and I — that my mother walked past a street crier who was handing out mimeographed flyers and calling on “the Christian Faithful” to enter into the “House of God.”
I didn’t know God actually had a house and wondered what neighborhood he lived in. My mom and dad spoke to us young kids after moving into our home on Luella Avenue, cautioning us about “walking too far” and “having our neighborhood.”
Although we always thought it safer in the 1960s than it is in today’s crime-ridden world, the truth is dangers lurked around us even back then.
But the man at the entrance to the building stopped us and declared that my mom “looked so beautiful.” He asked her, “Where are you from?”
My mom, blushing and a little shy, declared proudly that she was born in Bethlehem, the little town of Jesus in Palestine, the Holy Land.
The man went crazy with excitement. He grabbed my mom’s hand and pulled her into the entrance. My sister and I flew along like ribbons in a gust of wind. He wound us through the hallways and into a large auditorium where a man was speaking loudly on a speaker system about Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit and religion.
We were Christian. But we were a mix. My dad was Catholic. My mom was Orthodox. And we were being raised Lutheran, mainly because the Orthodox Church was too far from our new home on the South Side of Chicago. It was located at 1149 North Humphrey in Oak Park. We’d go there occasionally, mainly for the Orthodox Easter celebration and Orthodox Christmas celebrations which usually occurred a week or two after the traditional Christian holiday dates.A proud Christian family from Bethlehem, before the violence of the Israel-Arab wars. Photo courtesy of Ray Hanania
My parents were religious. Although we were Christian, my mom and dad put a Mazuzah, a small decorative metal replica of the Jewish Torah which included a piece of parchment, a klaf, inscribed with specific Hebrew verse, on the frame of our home’s front door. Back then, Many Christian Arabs admired the strength of the Jewish faith, although that was later challenged with the rise of Israel’s anti-Christian policies, the occupation and increasing fanaticism in Israel.
But that day, none of that mattered, especially to the man who dragged my mother up the center aisle waiving to a man who carried a large Bible in his left hand and held his right hand palm open in the air as he led the crowded auditorium in loud prayer and hallelujahs.
The man was yelling to the speaker. “his woman is from Bethlehem! She is from Jesus’ city.”
The speaker stopped, smiled and reach down to my mother who walked up the stairwell to the stage, still tightly holding my hand and I held my sister’s hand.
The speaker was Billy Graham, the popular Christian Evangelist who my parents often read about in the newspapers. They might hear him speak on radio on Sundays, or hear our pastor at the Protestant Church mention his sermons.
Graham was handsome. Light hair and squared jaw. A real “David” who could slay the Goliath of sins. A Christian Protestant who was ordained a southern Baptist Minister, Graham held my mom’s hand in the air and asked her, “Are you from Bethlehem, the city of Jesus Christ?”
My mom said yes, still not realizing that we were now the focus of some 600 or more people in a giant hall with audience members loudly praising Hallelujahs and Hosannahs.
My mom told him she was born in Bethlehem and that her father and mother and siblings had fled the violence there in the 1950s, but that cousins and extended family still lived there. They lived near the Church of the Nativity, the hallowed sanctuary that marks the place where Jesus was born.
They were so excited. Bethlehem, the Christian Arab city, meant something to American Christians back then. But some how, over the years, Bethlehem transformed into little more than a framed and colored photograph that hung in the homes of American Christians. Bethlehem was distanced from them by the politics of the Palestine-Israel conflict.
Today, when you say you are from Bethlehem, people will often ask if my dad worked in the steel mills near Allentown and Philadelphia. No, I would correct. My mother’s family is from Bethlehem, where Jesus was born.
“You telling me there are still Christians there?” they would ask with shock.
I remember one woman in the days after Sept. 11, 2001, scolding me, saying, “I can’t believe you abandoned your Christian faith to become an Arab.”
But with my mother in a stage holding the hand high in the air with Billy Graham, this was long before American Christians had forgotten their religious roots, praying to framed icons while forgetting about the reality of Calvary and The Cross.
My mom would always remind us as we grew up about how Billy Graham introduced her to the Christian World from a stage in downtown Chicago.
It was a memorable moment. At that time. Billy Graham was revered by Arab Christians because he spoke truth to power, love against hate and championed the justice of Jesus. That message has long ago faded, of course. The Cancer of Israel’s anti-Arab politics has metastasized that message. And Graham’s son, William Franklin Graham III, often known as Franklin Graham, was only months older than I was at the time. Maybe he was in the audience, but he clearly did not learn from his father’s message of love. Franklin Graham has often demonized Arabs and Muslims, painting us all with an evil message of anger and hatred, rhetoric that you wouldn’t have heard from his father’s mouth that day in that summer in downtown Chicago.
Billy Graham held the hand of a beautiful Palestinian Christian from Bethlehem high in the air and proudly declared she was a true Christian from one of Christianity’s most sacred cities.
This week, Billy Graham, the reverend, passed away at age 99. His voice had faded as he aged, and his platform taken over by his more combative son Franklin.
Although I miss my mother, I am glad she isn’t around today to see how ugly and hateful many American Christians have become against Christian Palestinians, Christians like Nikki Haley who have denied the existence and the rights of Palestinian Christians in her anti-Muslim diatribes at the pulpit of the United Nations. (Haley is Indian Sikh by birth but identifies as a Christian, Methodist today.)
But there was moment, though, brief, when Christians in America were proud of Christians who were born in Bethlehem, the little Town where Jesus Christ was born.