Residents reflect on Graham’s powerful influence in their lives

GREENFIELD – Sharon Feister stood on the floor of the Indiana State Fairgrounds Coliseum, surrounded by many others responding to his message that night in 1959.

In the weeks before Billy Graham’s crusade there, she was a teenager helping those who distributed pamphlets to neighbors, invited them to attend. A couple of people slammed doors in her face, but she recalls most people were friendly and receptive.

Feister, who attends Greenfield Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), found her own heart receptive, too, during one of those meetings in Indianapolis.

“I remember at the close of one of the services responding to the words and music of ‘Just As I Am’ as an invitation to make a profession of my faith,” she wrote in an email to the Daily Reporter. “I was close enough to Dr. Graham that night to see the eyes and facial expression of a true servant of God. This has been an amazing memory to have carried throughout my life’s faith journey!”

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As word of the Rev. Billy Graham’s death spread Wednesday, Hancock County residents were among those remembering the influence of his ministry.

Carolyn Swinford’s church youth group sat far in the back of McCormick’s Place in Chicago.

“As a kid, I remember thinking he really did have red hair (I am also a redhead) and that from our distance, he was only about 1 inch tall,” Swinford, who attends Otterbein United Methodist Church in Greenfield, wrote in an email. She was moved to go forward during the altar call, “but none of us could make it because of the crowd.”

Andy Smith was far back, too, near the top of Market Square Arena during Graham’s 1980 crusade in Indianapolis. But when Graham gave an invitation at the end of his sermon, without a word to Smith’s parents, “I just got out of my seat and went.”

He was 10 years old. Smith, who attends Park Chapel Christian Church in Greenfield, feels that decision guided other moments in his life, helping steer him through his high school years at Warren Central and meet his wife of nearly 30 years at church camp.

“I believe that God set my path early and helped me walk through those things,” he said. “Setting me on that path that early and calling me to him was huge.”

The Rev. Matt Wickham’s mother, Ann, didn’t have far to go when she responded to a Gospel message by Graham. She was a young wife and mother watching a crusade in the mid 1970s on television.

“She was one of those thousands of people over the years who knelt in front of her television set and prayed that prayer with Billy Graham,” said Wickham, associate pastor at Brandywine Community Church in Greenfield.

That set in motion a series of changes, he said. She told her husband of her commitment to follow Jesus, and Wickham’s father did the same. The family began attending church near their home in Massachusetts. Both sets of grandparents and some aunts and uncles also became Christians.

“The ministry of Billy Graham changed our family tree, for sure,” Wickham said. Also, “I don’t think I would be doing what I’m doing, were it not for that.”

Wickham also said Graham was an example of integrity for pastors. The Rev. Phil Edwards, senior pastor of Fortville Church of the Nazarene, had the same impression when he led a church in Princeton in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Area churches there organized a crusade in a junior high gym with one of Graham’s associates as the speaker.

“It was a great experience to be a part of the ‘team’ that organized this crusade,” Edwards wrote in an email. “From this, I learned that integrity in everything the BGC team did was of vital importance.”

Andy Flink, associate pastor of Brookville Road Community Church in New Palestine, was also impressed with the thoughtful planning that went into events by Graham’s organization. He thought back to the 1999 crusade in the RCA Dome in Indianapolis as well as the more recent “My Hope” initiative about five years ago, in which people invited friends into their homes to hear Graham share his hope for America via DVD message.

“I was blown away at the level of detail and follow-up that went into this project, along with some amazing times of group prayer,” Flink wrote. “His integrity and commitment to the Gospel have made him a role model for our churches and for our nation.

“We have lost a giant of our faith, but I look forward to those who will emerge to stand on his shoulders to continue the work of the Gospel.”

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Anne Smith is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at