Confessions of a Billy Graham Crusade Phone Operator

I used to answer phones for the Billy Graham crusade. After watching his broadcast while eating a delicious supper, I and other volunteers would sit down at a phone booth and take calls. Those who called the number that flashed across the screen would speak to people from all over Canada and the US. Some spoke to me.

I really hated the formula we were supposed to follow. We had a strict script, so it was really more like reading someone a choose-your-own adventure story. If someone answered “yes” to “have you ever received Jesus as your Lord and Savior”  we had to turn to page 15 and read the next question. After we had followed the book where it led us, it always ended in a prayer with the caller repeating what we read. The Graham people kept things tightly controlled.

I liked to go off script. First of all, most of the callers didn’t fit the tiny mold they were supposed to. Most of them weren’t calling because this was the first time they’d heard evangelical Christianity thrown at them. Nor were most of them ‘backslidden Christians’ repenting of their lukewarm ways. Most of them were just regular people with regular people problems. Instead of reading the book at them, I liked to listen to their stories, tell them they weren’t alone, and suggest other places they might go to next. I preferred if their first language was Spanish so we could talk without the supervisor checking how I was doing.

Many of my callers were lonely and just wanted someone to hear their problem and pray with them. Some were struggling with depression and beginning to reach out for help. Some had lost loved ones, homes, or jobs. Some were confessing things they regretted and needed someone to affirm they could change. After talking with them, I really felt I had helped.

There were people who called who wanted miracles like bringing someone back to life. I felt it my duty to counteract the rash things Billy had said to them minutes before. Like how faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains and exhorting people to demand miracles and expect them. What could I say though but that ‘God works in mysterious ways’ and sometimes chooses not to answer prayers? Especially with a supervisor walking around.

At the end of the night, we had to hand in our paperwork. Each person who called had their own sheet with their address and contact info and boxes ticked off as to what pages we read to them and what prayers they repeated. This went off to an official tally and someone would contact the churches closest to these people so they could contact them. We were to debrief, share hard stories, and of course, celebrate all the ‘saved souls’ we ‘brought into the fold’ that night.

I noticed a pattern. I had less and less ‘saved souls’, and more and more people who just needed someone to hear their story and encourage them to find a drop-in centre, new friends, or a good psychiatrist. I cared less and less about how many people rededicated their lives to Christ. I began to resent our script and the tally. I felt annoyed with my fellow phone operators who didn’t want to hear if my caller had depression but that they read the right prayer.

I kept going for a while because I found listening to people and encouraging them was rewarding. However, I began to feel that it was wrong of me to do that for an organization who only wanted me to read certain verses and prayers. By reading the Graham script, I felt that I was betraying the caller’s real needs, but by listening to the caller I felt I was deceiving the Graham organization.

11 thoughts on “Confessions of a Billy Graham Crusade Phone Operator

  1. TWF says:

    That’s a tough situation you were in. I never knew that they were bound so tightly to a script, but I guess it does not surprise me.

    The type of support you were provided off-script is exactly the kind of thing that I see as one of the great benefits of being part of a faith community; having that inherent support network to help you work through life’s problems. It’s a shame that helping people with what they needed did not mesh well with the overall Graham mission.

    • prairienymph says:

      The two of us who spoke Spanish were given the Spanish version so we could stay on script there too.

      I think giving extra help was Ok, but as long as it was secondary to rededicating one’s life to Christ and getting in contact with a local church. Priorities 🙂

  2. ... Zoe ~ says:

    That’s really interesting to hear prairie. You did the right thing.

  3. Michelle says:

    I once volunteered to be a “decision counselor” (ugh) at a Billy Graham Crusade, and had a similar experience. There was training for the event, and I was given material to basically memorize–if they say this, say that, etc. I was years away from leaving Christianity, but at the end of the few nights I did it, I just felt sick. It was just another red flag that would eventually fly among a field full of them.

    • prairienymph says:

      Wow. Decision counselor seems like a euphemism. At least I didn’t have to memorize anything. Were you allowed to say anything else but what they gave you?

      • Michelle says:

        Yes, that title sounds a little “1984” doesn’t it? 🙂

        We were allowed to go off script, but it was exactly like you said in a comment above–any extra chatter was supposed to be secondary to or in support of getting them to “make a decision for Christ” and follow up by connecting with a local church.

      • prairienymph says:

        Ha, exactly!
        Was Graham speaking in person at those events? I went to a few with our youth group. We were supposed to bring our non-Christian friends, but somehow they weren’t interested (or allowed?) to come.

  4. Michelle says:

    Yes, he was speaking at the big stadium events (not the smaller training sessions). He seemed very sincere, but there was a definite formula. 1. A few jokes. 2. The world is bad and getting worse. 3. Jesus has the answers you’re looking for. 4. Come get Jesus.

    That’s when people would flood down to the football field, and it was go time for us, the volunteers. There were a few nights for anybody, there was a morning event for small children (that Billy didn’t attend–it was costumed characters and kid stuff), and an evening for teenagers. That night was only really noticably different by the music artists who played. DC Talk was one of the groups, and they ushered Billy out to give him legitimacy for the young crowd. It was a big deal at the time, because many believed it would be Graham’s last crusade (it was in Louisville, KY), though he would go on to do at least a few more.

    Memories, memories. It’s weird to look back!

  5. […] reading the [Billy] Graham script, I felt that I was betraying the caller’s real needs, but by listening to the caller I felt I was deceiving the Graham […]

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