In the not-too-distant shadow of a man whose name the world will long remember, another man, whose name you’ve likely never heard, watched him carefully. For nine years Chuck Wenger worked with Mr. Graham, tactfully observing him and gleaning the best of what he saw.
Mr. Graham lived an incredible story.
In the week since his passing, his life has been highlighted on every major media outlet, headlining the evening news and topping the trending charts across social media. The Wall Street Journal even called him perhaps the most significant evangelist since the Apostle Paul. Hard to disagree.
Today Mr. Graham becomes just the fourth private citizen of the United States to lay at rest in the US Capital Rotunda. Suffice to say the world knows his story.
I did not know Mr. Graham, but I did know Chuck Wenger.
After his near decade of discipleship around Mr. Graham, Chuck too went on to live an incredible story. This week, I’ve been reflecting on what Chuck learned from Mr. Graham and what made his story so great.
It wasn’t the Bible studies Chuck led, which started with a few men and grew into the hundreds.
It wasn’t the unimaginable success he experienced in business.
It wasn’t the fact that he made the bank teller and the grocery store clerk feel like they were the president.
It wasn’t even his trips to the Oval Office, the personal gifts from Ronald Reagan, or that he turned down a job from two different presidents.
Even more important, Chuck grew a healthy marriage and become a family man. During his final days in December of 2015, it was clear that Chuck was most proud of his children and grandchildren. But there was still more to it than that.
I once had the chance to ask him if he’d share the three most important things he learned from his ‘BG Days.” Chuck’s answers, in his own words:
1. Spiritual Maturity. It can be encouraged by others but can’t be accomplished by others for you. You can be in the best garden in the world and still become a weed. Your willingness to be tended and fertilized and grow is something you have to choose to do, it can’t be done for you.
2. Integrity is a way of life. Not a weekend visit. It’s 24/7 and is defined by how other people see Christ in you.
3. Don’t expect to get rich if your’e in Kingdom work, but expect to be extremely wealthy in your marriage, in your family, and in the things that last.
Chuck had been a “Christian” since his friend Gene (Eugene Brackett) shared the gospel with him at Fort Lauderdale High School in the early 1950’s. But he didn’t become a disciple until he met George Wilson more than a decade later. George had been a founding member of BGEA and met regularly with Chuck for four months before Chuck chose to follow Christ, “Not just as Savior, but as the Lord of my life” as he’d say.
Later that year, World Wide Pictures, the film evangelism branch of BGEA, needed someone to focus on marketing and negotiating contracts. Chuck’s business savvy made him a natural fit, but it took George half a year to hire him. He didn’t bring Chuck into the ministry until he saw how serious Chuck was about following Christ. And so Chuck went to work at World Wide Pictures. He’d attribute those nine years as his primary season of discipleship, meeting regularly with George and remaining attentive to Mr. Graham all the while, growing ever-more aware that Mr. Graham wasn’t just a man in the spotlight, he was the same person everywhere all the time.
Chuck was close enough to be a recognizable face to Mr. Graham, but distant enough for Mr. Graham to have to be reminded of his name before any big meetings. He once recalled a story of a time Mr. Graham called him on the phone and gave him a stern earful over his decision to allocate millions of dollars to fund three new films. “Charles” Mr. Graham declared, “I’ve just given all that money to feed starving children in Africa, don’t you ever allocate God’s money like that again, it is already gone. If God wants us to make those other films he’ll keep providing.” Chuck was more grateful for the lesson than he was embarrassed about the rebuke. And within six months all the money to fund the next round of films had come back in.
When prompted, and if the environment was small enough, Chuck would share other stories from the BG days. Like the time Mr. Graham put Muhammad Ali’s jaw on the floor. Evidently Ali stopped dead in his tracks, wearing a look of disbelief when he’d realized Mr. Graham didn’t have a chauffeur, but instead had driven himself to the airport to pick Ali up.
On another occasion, it was Chuck who was surprised, this time by Corrie Ten Boom, whom he’d worked closely with on the set of The Hiding Place. Corrie sat down beside Chuck and asked how she could be praying for he and his wife Charleen. As quickly as Chuck finished answering, Corrie seized his forearm tightly, head already bowed, immediately praying just what Chuck had requested. “At my age I don’t have time to waste not praying” she’d say to him after.
Chuck had stories like those by the dozens, but he was just a guy in the shadow of the man who lived a life in the spotlight. His legacy is far less known.
In the years following his wife’s passing in 1998 Chuck invited small groups of young men to his home in Fort Lauderdale, brought in some of the best pastors and disciple-makers he knew, put a curriculum together and taught the Bible while affirming in each young man that he was lovable, valuable and capable.
He called the group the Band of Brothers in Christ and before the Lord brought him home, he saw young men from nine countries and nineteen states own their faith and become disciple-makers. I am just one of the many undeserving beneficiaries of Chuck’s teaching, wisdom, and love.
This week I’ve been reminded that Mr. Graham lived a great story, and as much as we know about his life in the spotlight, I’d wager he had an even greater impact on people when he was off stage. I’ll never forget Chuck telling of the time Mr. Graham called an emergency meeting and showed up for it almost an hour late. Chuck had made some family sacrifices to be there and grew frustrated by the whole situation. When Mr. Graham finally showed up he gave no explanation for his tardiness and the meeting lasted just five minutes.
Chuck later found out that when Mr. Graham was leaving his hotel room a cleaning lady stopped him and asked if he was Billy Graham. After listening to her story, Mr. Graham shared the gospel with her and gave her a Bible. She prayed right then and there to accept Christ.
I don’t know about you, but I cannot relate well to the man who preached to millions at a time, but hotel hallways make sense to me.
Kingdom life is mostly lived in the space between where we’re coming from and where we’re going, and in the not-too-distant shadows someone is always paying attention.
On Friday Mr. Graham’s funeral will be streamed live. One last public proclamation of a race well-run. One last moment in front of a global audience.
As you remember Mr. Graham’s legacy, will you do me one favor?
Be reminded of what made Mr. Graham’s story, and Chuck’s story, so incredible. It didn’t matter if the spotlight was on or not, it was always about Jesus and not them. They lived with a confidence that can only come from knowing they had nothing personal to offer outside of the Gospel of the Resurrected Christ.
Thank you, Mr. Graham, for what you said to millions and what you didn’t need to say to a man who kept a close eye on you for nine years. The notes he took helped script an incredible story and help me daily as I live my own. I’ve also got over 100 brothers who are equally eternally grateful.
“Someday you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. I will just have changed my address. I will have gone into the presence of God.” – Billy Graham
….P.s. If you’re a college-aged guy and you want to change the world, don’t hesitate.