How Billy Graham led people to faith

Nicholas Pepper was young and curious when he joined several thousand people for a Billy Graham Crusade at the Georgia Dome in October 1994.

He didn’t belong to a church and was skeptical of religion.

“I was an intellectual and logical thinker and was trying to research whether Jesus was even real,” said Pepper.

Worshippers listen to the Rev. Billy Graham speak at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., on Nov. 18, 2004. Graham, a North Carolina farmer’s son who preached to millions in stadium events he called crusades, becoming a pastor to presidents and the nation’s best-known Christian evangelist for more than 60 years, died on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018, at his home in North Carolina. He was 99. MONICA ALMEIDA / THE NEW YORK TIMES

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But while Pepper sat in the upper tiers of the stadium, the 23-year-old man’s views and life were forever changed. Here’s how Pepper describes the moment:

I couldn’t tell you what Billy Graham preached on or what he said. But what I remember like yesterday is at the end of his message he would simply tell people to come. I saw not just a few or a hundred people, but thousands of people being moved. That is when God opened my heart and opened my eyes. For me, that was the difference: It was no longer other people’s faith. It became mine. Billy Graham was not the person who saved me. It was the work of God, to see how God used his (Graham’s) obedience and faithfulness to go from city to city to do crusades like this is profound.

It was a turning point. After the crusade, Pepper, who was working for Equifax as a project manager in Alpharetta at the time, started spending his lunch break reading a Bible in his car. Within a year, he became active in a church. His friend Mala was the woman who invited him to join her to attend the crusade. They fell in love and got married. Pepper eventually entered the ministry. The 46-year-old is now the lead pastor at New Salem Baptist Church in Kennesaw.

Nicholas Pepper cherishes the program from the Billy Graham crusade in Atlanta in 1994.

Credit: Picasa

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Credit: Picasa

As word spread about the passing of Graham, people across the country and beyond shared stories about being deeply moved, inspired and even saved by the world-renowned evangelical preacher.

MORE: Evangelist Billy Graham is dead at 99

A journalist posted a photo with the words, “I’m a better man because I lived in the age of #BillyGraham.” A South Carolina football coach said on Instagram, “Billy Graham led me to Christ when I was 9 years old. I had no Dad, but thanks to Dr. Graham, I have never spent a day since not knowing that I have a Father.”

Meanwhile, Kathie Lee Gifford penned a poignant tribute on about Graham, the man who became her friend and faith leader.

Her first encounter with Graham came when she was 12 years old and entered a room in her home to see her mother and sister sobbing on their knees in front of the television.

In this June 27, 1954, file photo, evangelist Billy Graham speaks to over 100,000 Berliners at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, Germany. Graham, who transformed American religious life through his preaching and activism, becoming a counselor to presidents and the most widely heard Christian evangelist in history, has died. AP PHOTO, FILE

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“I thought maybe the president had been killed or something terrible had happened,’’ she said in the piece. “It turns out that no, they had both just watched a Billy Graham Crusade, and both of them had come to faith by watching the power of his message through a television screen.”

When Pepper heard about Billy Graham’s passing, he felt a wave of thankfulness. He pulled out the program from the 1994 Atlanta crusade, a program he keeps on his bookshelf.

“For me, not to be dramatic, but it’s like a baby picture or a wedding picture,” he said. “When something impacts you this much, you keep it.”

Pepper is planning to highlight some of Graham’s quotes in his Sunday sermon.

He’s already selected two of his favorites: “Being a Christian is more than just an instantaneous conversion; it is like a daily process whereby you grow to be more and more like Christ” and “I have never known anyone to accept Christ’s redemption and later regret it.”

MORE: The AJC's coverage of Billy Graham's final Crusade

PHOTOS: Billy Graham through the years