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.