Billy Graham’s final journey brings up so many memories for so many people, the Nagas included, the Nagas of a certain generation.
Billy Graham was here. In Kohima, my hometown, in the Naga Hills, my homeland. I was a witness so I cannot resist writing about it.
The year 1972 in Naga history will always be remembered as the year a huge Billy Graham crusade was held in Kohima. It was in the month of November, a few weeks before the real cold settled in. But the evenings had become chilly. We were in class IX that year and eagerly participating in the big event as Girl guides. Way before that, preparations for the crusade had begun in the previous year. At chapel, our school was visited by Mr Lungshim Shaiza who requested all students and their families to welcome our visitors, Billy Graham and his team, to Kohima. He advised that we could invite them home and offer them a cup of tea! What a precious time that was where an organizer of the crusade could come to school and offer such advice to students!
In order to raise funds, every church participated in digging what came to be known as the Billy Graham Road. Every family had to be present and offer their labour. The digging was hard, and one could not help wondering what kind of a road could possibly come up atop the rock surface that would not give way to our small spades. But it was eventually dug and it is with some amount of pride that people of my generation can state that we built the BG road, even if it is only half true.
That was a very different Kohima. No hotels worth the name and no guest houses available. Home stay was not even heard of. Maybe the Tourist guest house was in existence, but certainly not suitable to host a team such as the Rev. Billy Graham’s. The residences of the ministers in Ministers’ hill had recently been built but were not occupied. It was in five of these residences that the team was housed, each with its own group of hosts and hostesses attending to their needs.
On the day of their arrival, crowds lined up the road on either side to greet them. I know we are used to that kind of thing nowadays after the mammoth crowds that gathered to greet funeral corteges of our national leaders. But this was before all that, even before Indira Gandhi’s visit in 1974, so there was such a thing as crowd control for the first time, because the crowds of people pressed forward and came into the way of the cars carrying the Christian heroes.
When the crusade started, the local photographers had a field day. The rumour was that a town studio made a small fortune selling photographs of the pianist Tedd Smith, the soloist Archie Dennis and of course, the star attraction, the Rev Billy Graham. He charged about 5 rupees per print which was supposedlya princely sum back in the day.
Aside from that, the remarkable thing about the Billy Graham crusade was the way the whole town caught the excitement of the preparations first and then, how all members came together and contributed to making the dream come true. Many months of uncertainty about their visas preceded the glad news that the team had been granted visas by the ever-vigilant Indian government at Delhi. When that many prayers had gone up, even governments had to yield to the higher government.
Villagers in and around Kohima came to attend the crusade and the evangelist’s name had become a household name almost overnight. But they completely nativized it by calling him Billy Bahar. I heard accounts that many wept when the last day of the crusade dawned and it became clear that the beloved evangelist was going to leave our hills the next day.
The video on Facebook is so worth listening to because it is part of our recent history. There are people who use the crusade as a marker for turning points in their personal lives. A reformed alcoholic still proudly claims that he became a Christian in the year of the crusade when the local organisers visited home after home to apprise them of the crusade and prepare their hearts for it. This is how the Billy Graham crusade has come to stay in our history.
Doubtless many more memories will pop up in conversations around this era of our lives, and hopefully, there will be space for those memories too.