Walking Billy Graham’s Sawdust Trail

By Douglas LeBlanc

For about the first decade of my life, nearly everything I thought about God centered on St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Baton Rouge, which in those years was a broad church with a spice of Anglo-Catholic piety.

I served as an acolyte for years, and worked to look very pious each time I donned a black cassock and white surplice. I fantasized about a church fire in which I saved the processional cross. My family grew close to Fr. Donald George, a blind priest who served as a missionary to Barbados.

But my understanding of the gospel was impoverished. I thought it amounted to this: God is holy, we are not, and at the end of time our lives will be measured for the balance between good deeds and evil deeds. I knew Jesus died on the cross, but I thought it was because he was too good for this world and the time when he was present in it.

In the early 1970s, God brought many changes to the spiritual life of the LeBlanc household. My older brother, Randy, became a Jesus Freak, as hippies-turned-converts were called then, through a coffeehouse ministry called the Looking Glass.

My father was bewildered and thought Randy had joined a cult. Dad began reading Scripture more, and I think he was searching for a verse in which Jesus said, “Follow me, but don’t be a nut about it.”

I adored my older brother, in the way that causes older brothers endless grief: I wanted to hang out with him, to be friends with his friends, and to let some of his hippy magic rub off on me. Because of this, I responded well when Randy helped me grasp the more personal nature of Jesus’ death on the cross. It took the Jesus Movement for me to learn about the Atonement.

For a time the faith I shared with my brother felt like a great struggle between the with-it kids and their square parents, which gave it a flavor of forbidden fruit.

But then the Billy Graham Crusade came to town, stopping at LSU’s Tiger Stadium in 1970. Mom sang in the crusade’s choir, just as she sang in the choir at St. Luke’s. I cannot remember if Dad attended the crusade with us, but Graham’s message — which included references to Jesus’ Second Coming and the Last Things — began sowing seeds that what my brother had discovered might not be so fanatical after all.

What sealed my father’s spiritual awakening was the Faith Alive movement, which visited St. Augustine’s in North Baton Rouge. My parents attended, and when Faith Alive’s leaders invited parishioners to commit their lives to God, Mom and Dad responded.

The change in Dad was phenomenal. The man who came home drunk with some frequency and had spent the night in jail on a DWI arrest suddenly lost his interest in drinking. His temperament shifted from steady agitation and occasional yelling to gentleness and only rare touches of anger. He stopped cursing (something I’ve never quite achieved, to my great shame). In time he became a regional coordinator for Faith Alive.

Graham’s influence in my life continued past that time. In the library at my public high school, I spotted a magazine called Campus Life. That led me to the awkwardly named HIS, published by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, and later to Christianity Today, which Graham helped create in 1956.

While attending LSU, I became part of InterVarsity. By about then I finally found the word for what I had become — evangelical — even while remaining an Episcopalian.

I have since learned that evangelicals have a rich history in the Church of England and the Anglican Communion. When a fellow Episcopalian associates the word with fundamentalism or the cartoon figure of Elmer Gantry, I invoke William Wilberforce of blessed memory.

Through Graham’s crusade I came to a deeper understanding of what it means to be a Christian, and I learned to be an unapologetic evangelical. I give thanks for the creative tensions that come into my life as an evangelical Episcopalian, and I give thanks for Billy Graham.


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