I wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for Billy Graham. You read that right. I really wouldn’t. Do you ever wonder who it was in your life that was the crux of it all that led to your existence? Have you ever stopped to consider that maybe YOU are the one that will be the prompt to someone else’s opening storyline? There isn’t a single story on this planet that doesn’t matter. I want to tell you how important just one person can be in another’s story.
The influence of arguably the most influential evangelist in modern day history didn’t just impact one side of my story. His influence was present on both sides of the story of me, passed down by my mother and my father.
It starts with my Mom. She knew Billy Graham all of her life. He wasn’t just some famed evangelist that most of the world has heard of at this point in history. No, to her, he was always “Uncle” Billy. My Granddaddy, T.W. Wilson, and his brother, Grady, grew up with the man I’ve always known as “Uncle” Billy in Charlotte, North Carolina. Uncle Billy’s Dad was a Dairy Farmer and my Great Grandfather was a Plumber. They each had ordinary, humble, beginnings but were devoted to prayer over their families. I’m a living answer to those prayers both physically and spiritually. I’m reminded of what Mark Batterson says, “Each prayer is like a seed that gets planted in the ground. It disappears for a season, but it eventually bears fruit that blesses future generations. In fact, our prayers bear fruit forever.”
Both Granddaddy and Uncle Grady had profound ministries before they joined the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association Team. When Uncle Billy asked them each to come alongside what God was doing through BGEA, they did, and they spent the rest of their lives traveling the globe alongside “Uncle” Billy and the rest of the team, sharing the gospel and supporting God’s man for the hour.
People often ask me how I’m related to Billy Graham when it comes up in conversation. There are a few family marriages that did make us technically family, but what you have to understand is that all of the Team members’ kids and grandkids grew up calling and valuing the other Team Members as “Aunt” and “Uncle.” It’s the bond of Jesus and serving Him as a Team that made us all related.
But you see, there’s so much more to my story than just knowing this faithful preacher of the Gospel as “Uncle” Billy. So much more.
A Reckless Life Becomes Recklessly Abandoned to Christ and His Calling
My Daddy, Jerry Pereira, had a hard life from the beginning. His dad died at age 38, when my dad was just 6 years old. Grandpa Glenn left behind his widow and three young sons in their hometown in California. My dad was the middle child and was often in trouble, despite his mother’s efforts to try to keep him in check. Daddy was an altar boy, went to parochial school, and even lived right across the street from their family church. None of that stuff was good enough to get him into Heaven. Never once heard the gospel growing up. Not once. He heard about being a good person, but it never clicked with him that there was nothing he could do on his own to be a good person. Not for years.
He lived recklessly but he also lived with some sense of responsibility. It was as if his soul was waging war between living for what made him feel good in the moment and what would make him know what real goodness was.
He was in a severe wreck as a teenager while driving under the influence of alcohol. He not only lost his license, he also had two steel pins inserted into the arm he nearly lost. But that accident wasn’t the thing that got his attention.
No, what got Daddy’s attention was the carnage of his friends’ bodies he cleaned up off the side of a cliff as a firefighter. That night, he lay awake in bed, speaking to the God he did not know personally yet, “God, if you’re there, don’t let me die before I meet you.”
It was either join the Army or stay on a path that would lead to jail or death that he had left to choose from. He shipped off to Germany and it was there he finally met the God He was looking for and understood that none of his goodness could ever secure his standing in eternity. It had to be God’s goodness and forgiveness through Jesus that Daddy accepted in order to know God personally. A man named Harold Brown, part of the Navigator ministry, was the one who guided him to the One who changed his life.
Who is this Billy Graham Guy?
Daddy was hungry to know more and learn more about the One he chose to follow from that day forward. On an R&R break, he hopped over the English Channel to London for an event called “SPREE ‘73” at Earl’s Court Arena. A man named Billy Graham was preaching at this “Spiritual Re-Emphasis for England” event. Having already met God as his rescuer, Daddy answered the Holy Spirit’s call on his life to be a preacher at this meeting.
He barely knew a thing about Christianity at this point, but he knew this much: his life’s purpose was to know Jesus and to make Him known. He asked the guy next to him more about this Billy Graham character in terms he could relate to.
“So, is this guy like the heavyweight champion of Christianity or something?” The man smiled and answered yes.
“So what is he? I mean, what sort of “religion” or whatever is he?”
“Well, he’s a Southern Baptist,” the man replied.
So Daddy kept growing more in his faith and eventually found a couple Southern Baptist schools back in the states at which he would go on to attend college and seminary.
Meanwhile, my mom (Sally Wilson at the time) was engaged to another man. That engagement ended in a lot of heartache, but it was far less severe than the heartache that would have occurred had she married that man. While all her friends were getting married and she was hurting through a broken engagement, God was preparing her future husband’s heart to be in tune with Jesus’ heart and she was working in the Library of the Billy Graham Office.
Mama’s boss came to her one day at work and told her that if she did not come hear this young preacher boy, Jerry Pereira, at her church’s revival that week, she’d fire her. So, she did. That night, her boss’s husband drove Jerry to where he was staying as he listened to him open up about how he longed for a godly wife who would partner with him in the ministry. The man smiled, knowingly, and let him in on a secret: she was just around the corner.
And she was. Daddy came to the office the next morning to lead staff devotions in Billy Graham’s own office in Montreat, North Carolina. That was literally where he met my Mama. Come to find out, they had actually been in the same place at the same time on no less than 5 separate occasions years before, but God saw fit that this is where they would meet. This was the cross roads where their stories intersected to soon become one story. They were married around six months later. And I was born about a year and a half after that. No, without Billy Graham, I wouldn’t be alive.
Often, all it takes for a new story to begin is for one person to point to the first word for the next chapter. Without Billy Graham’s commitment to take the gospel everywhere and anywhere he could on this earth, my Daddy, that reckless boy from California, would have never heard the same message of conviction to preach the gospel himself. He might never have gone to the colleges he did and thus might never have been preaching that revival in Asheville, North Carolina or led staff devotions in Billy Graham’s office, where he would meet my mother that day.
What’s This All About, Really?
But it’s not just about my life and the breath that I’ve been given because of Billy Graham’s influence I am telling you this story. No, it’s about the lives that have been rescue from darkness because my dad heard that call to preach at his meeting all those years ago.
You see, Daddy went on to be a pastor, where he preached the gospel faithfully and led many to Christ. He partnered with BGEA to lead schools of evangelism in addition to pastoring our church, preaching revivals, and other ministry opportunities. And then, one day, that reckless Altar Boy from California got a phone call for another opportunity to join efforts to expand the kingdom of Heaven. The man running for President of the North Carolina Baptist State Convention was given a bad prognosis: cancer. He knew he could not fill this role given this diagnosis. As that man thought through who he would he might ask to consider leading the entire state’s body of Southern Baptists with the most integrity and commitment to the authority of God’s Word, my dad is who he called.
Daddy became a two term President of the North Carolina Baptist State Convention just shy of 30 years after he learned what a Southern Baptist even was while listening to Billy Graham preach. But there was another cancer prognosis involved in this story. This time, it was Daddy’s. 6 Months and 2 days after the doctors delivered the earth shattering news, he was in Heaven.
Pastor to Pastors
What people often fail to remember is that Pastors need Pastors, too. But who do you go to for spiritual encouragement when you ARE the pastor? And what Pastor ministers to the family of a Pastor’s family once he goes to Heaven?
Just a few months before Daddy died, Uncle Billy came down the mountain to my grandmother’s house, where we were staying for Daddy’s needs at the time. Daddy could barely talk and Uncle Billy could barely hear. It was a bit problematic. But they scooted close together, both with frames over 6 feet tall, knee to knee. And Uncle Billy whispered comfort into the heart of the same man who became a pastor when the Holy Spirit spoke through his own booming voice years before. Daddy went to Heaven on Uncle Billy’s birthday just a couple months later and was buried in one of his hand-me-down suits.
The last sermon Daddy ever preached was filmed in his church office to be aired at the State Convention, should he not make it. From all that was left of his bag of bones, he preached on the Breath of God. Even in his weakest state, that was the strongest message of his life.
I could tell you so many more stories of what growing up with Uncle Billy as a constant in my life and how being a BGEA Team grandkid taught me what it meant to live with the utmost integrity to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
I could tell you of how Uncle Billy and Aunt Ruth came to meet me soon after I was born.
I could tell you how when I met Johnny Cash backstage as a four year old and jumped into Uncle Billy’s Arms clinging for dear life when the Man in Black boomed, “Come to Uncle John,” to a little girl who thought that sounded terrifying (but later came to love his music.)
I could tell you of the cherished memories of simple shared family meals through the years, special occasions, meeting up with him and Granddaddy at a local Mexican restaurant, or what it was like when he spoke at my Granddaddy’s funeral.
I could also tell you about how when we went up to his house for a visit shortly after my Daddy died, he stepped in as a surrogate Granddaddy to give me a big hug and a kiss on the cheek to say, “Emily, I’m proud of you, and I love you,” words I missed hearing from my Daddy and Granddaddy so very much.
Or, I could tell you how the last time I visited with him in his home, bringing my husband to meet him for the first time, I knelt down beside him and spoke right into his ear, “Uncle Billy, it’s Emily,” and he reached over to grab my hand.
I could tell you all of those things and more.
What I really want to tell you, though
But what I want to tell you about Billy Graham’s influence in my story is that it all comes back to the power of Jesus Christ.
Billy Graham’s influence in my very existence has everything to do with a simple message that he proclaimed, my Granddaddy proclaimed, my Daddy proclaimed, and now I’m proclaiming. And that message is this:
God loves you. There’s nothing you can do on your own to have true peace with God. Only Jesus can offer you that. You see, Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life, no man comes to the Father but by me.”
Maybe you’re like my Daddy. Maybe you’re living a reckless life, but also have heard that if you’re a good person overall you’ll be alright. Maybe you’ve never heard that “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
Or maybe you’re like my Mama. Maybe you grew up in the church, surrounded by the story of Jesus, but have come to a crossroads in your life where you have to choose which way you want to walk yourself and not depend on your parents’ faith. That was my story, too.
No, I wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for Billy Graham.
But were it not for the same message that he preached, and my Granddaddy preached, and my Daddy preached… if it were not for the One person who brought me into the assured hope of Heavenly existence… the Jesus of that message… I wouldn’t have the peace with God that I would one day live eternally.
God Loves You Enough to Send His Son Jesus to Die For You
Friend, your story is so very important. Don’t waste it. Nothing you have done and nothing you’re hurting because of has to define your story. No matter how good a person you think you are, it’s not enough. God loves us and understands that we are not perfect. He understands that we hurt and that we mess up. That’s why He gave the world His perfect only son to die on the cross to raise from the dead three days later. He did that because He knew we couldn’t. He did that because He knew we didn’t have that kind of power. He did that so we could live eternally with Him and to finally… finally… have peace.
I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Billy Graham. But I wouldn’t belong to the citizenship of Heaven if it weren’t for the same Jesus of the Bible that he preached.
What’s your story? Who is the one whose influence nudged your life into existence? Whose nudge will you choose to follow into eternity?
Choose Jesus, my friend. He will never leave you or forsake you.
And once you choose Jesus, dear soul, use your story to help others stories be changed by the Greatest Story ever told.
Photo Credit: BGEA