ASHEVILLE, N.C. — They were there to honor Billy Graham on his 95th birthday, and lots of them had personal stories to tell.
"My entire family came to faith through Billy Graham," TV host Kathie Lee Gifford said Nov. 7. "I felt the Lord speaking clearly and simply to me: 'Kathie, I love you and if you trust me I will make your life better.'"
She said Graham had attended one of her first Christmas pageants, which she called "his first secular show," and described how he had been there for her "when I went through a lot of tough stuff."
When her marital woes with husband Frank became public, she said, "the first call I got was from Billy Graham. He talked to Frank and convinced him of God's love for him."
From the lectern at Omni Grove Park Inn, a wood-and-stone mountain lodge close to Graham's home in Montreat, Sarah Palin addressed the nearly 1,000 people who had come to pay tribute to the legendary evangelist and spiritual adviser to presidents.
"If it weren't for Billy Graham, I don't know where I would be," the former Alaska governor said. She told how her mother was looking for "something more" and tuned into Billy Graham. "My mom led the rest of the family to Christ. ... We need Billy Graham's message today more than ever."
And there was Pastor Lon Solomon of the McLean (Va.) Bible Church, a Jew who became a Christian and a board member of Jews for Jesus. He was a new believer in 1971 when he watched Billy Graham give a sermon on television. He was moved to tears.
"The power of God emanating through him was so captivating that I literally had goose bumps," he said. "As a brand-new Christian, I was acutely aware of what the Lord Jesus had done for me in forgiving my sins and granting me eternal life, but hearing Mr. Graham recount it was overwhelming to me."
The guest of honor, dressed in a coat and tie and blue V-necked sweater, was wheeled into the ballroom by his grandson just before dinner, his famous long white mane crowning his erect head, an oxygen tank attached to his chair, wearing a hearing aid and at times dark glasses to shield his eyes from the bright lights. "Happy birthday to all of you," he said. "Thank you for coming."
He was unable to speak from the podium but a video — The Cross, also shown that night on Fox News — was shown, giving Graham a chance to preach "the Lord Jesus Christ" one last time. It showed a man building a cross, interspersed with flashbacks from Graham's rousing sermons to hundreds of thousands, and served as a reminder of exactly how powerful a preacher he once was.
"God loves you," he thundered in that familiar drawl. "He's willing to forgive you for all of our sins. ... To many people the cross is offensive because it directly confronts the evil in this world. ... There is no other way to salvation but through the cross and Christ. ... Jesus is the only one born in this world without sin. Today I'm asking you to put your trust in Christ."
Country music singer Ricky Skaggs, in black with flowing white hair, remembered having hot dogs ("he likes to eat real food") with Billy Graham two years ago. "I've been asking God for one thing," Graham told him then. "I'm asking God to let me preach one more time."
"It's really smart the way the Lord worked it out," Skaggs said. "He may reach more people tonight with the video than he ever has before. Only when we get to heaven will we know how many people he has helped."
Also among the adoring crowd were Rupert Murdoch, Donald Trump, Greta Van Susteren, and from Washington, philanthropists Catherine and Wayne Reynolds and Bill Marriott.
During the opening prayer, Bishop George Battle of the A.M.E. Zion Church said that Graham "could have been anything he wanted to be, but he chose to be a gospel preacher. ... He came from a dairy farm to reign over the world of evangelism."
Franklin Graham, Billy's evangelist son and the master of ceremonies, spoke afterward, saying that "for a long time I didn't want God controlling my life." But then, he said, he became "sick and tired of being sick and tired. My father wants to make you understand that God loves you but we have to come to him with repentance. He'll come into your life if you ask him."
Franklin thanked Murdoch, chairman and chief executive of News Corp., for televising the video on Fox News. For the "greatest news in the world," he said, "God is using the greatest news channel."
As for Murdoch, he said he thought the film was "very inspiring. I don't know anyone who could not have been affected."
At the celebrity table next to Graham's, Trump delivered his own tribute: "My father loved Billy Graham," he said. "I grew up with Billy Graham in my living room. I've known him and Franklin for awhile. They're fantastic people."
Billy Graham's daughter, Anne Graham Lotz, said her father "needs encouragement" as he ages: "He doesn't see himself for what he has done." She said he got very upset when the family took his wallet away. Then, at a board meeting, she said, everyone threw dollar bills at him. He keeps them in his bedside table.
"At 95, he has not lost his person," Lotz said. "His heart for the gospel message is so strong. Some people in the ministry can be disappointing. To reach Daddy's level and remain faithful and still have a heart, still be sweet and humble — he's not disappointing."
Lotz is astonishingly candid about her feelings toward the church. It's clear that others connected with the church have disappointed her. She has written an extraordinary book, Wounded by God's People, in which she says she has been discriminated against in the church as a woman.
"The majority of people who used to be in church are not going because they have been hurt by the people in church," she wrote. "There is so much bitterness, rejection and unforgiveness. I believe it makes God weep."
In the book, she does not name names. "I do not want to become a wounder," she said.
North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory remembered riding with Billy Graham in a golf cart in a stadium, with the crowd going wild. Graham, he said, was embarrassed. "'This is not about me,'" McCrory recalls Graham saying. "He's the most humble man you can be. ... He doesn't even like this attention for his birthday. But he knows it's not about him but about the cross."
Everyone sang Happy Birthday twice, and Billy Graham sang along. Candles were lit on the individual cupcakes at the tables and blown out.
The bishop spoke for many of the celebrants at the birthday party when he said, "We know tonight our lives will be changed. We'll never celebrate a night greater than this. Thank God for 95 years of the real, authentic Billy Graham."