By Gisele McKnight
Retired Bishop George Lemmon has had many full years as a priest and then as bishop in the Anglican Diocese of Fredericton from 1989-2000. In those ministries he met and had a chat with Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. He baptized more than 600 people in Africa in Eldoret, Kenya, a companion diocese.
And in early March, he was invited to attend the funeral of American evangelist Billy Graham. He and his daughter, Mary Lou Hynes, were among 2,000 people to celebrate the historic event in Charlotte, North Carolina on March 2. Billy Graham died Feb. 21 at the age of 99.
George always admired Billy Graham and had a deep interest in evangelism that stretched back to his own calling in the Parish of Portland in Saint John. He hosted a crusade with Leighton Ford, Graham’s brother-in-law in the 1980s while serving in Sackville. His first meeting with Graham was at a conference for clergy held in Halifax.
“He offered it to clergy and I was very impressed with it,” he said.
In the early 1990s, just after George became bishop, Graham was coming to Fredericton, and George was on the planning committee. That led to an invitation from the Graham organization to speak at a clergy conference in Lake Louise, in the Canadian Rockies.
“I loved it. I met George Beverly Shea and some others,” said George. “They were simple, honest persons, loving and very committed. I really enjoyed it.”
George was a speaker for three years in Lake Louise — the reason that on Feb. 23, the phone rang in Fredericton. It was the Billy Graham organization calling.
“They said, ‘we want your father here as a representative of international ministries,” said Mary Lou. “It was a very personal invitation. They said, ‘we want Bishop Lemmon to be there.’”
When Lois, George’s wife, didn’t want to attend, Mary Lou volunteered, and the two began the process to accept the invitation and travel to Charlotte the following week. They drove to Portland, Maine March 1, and took flights to New York City and then Charlotte.
But the arrangements were stressful, with only 35 minutes to make the final connection. Both of them prayed about it and Mary Lou began making contingency plans for renting a car to drive from New York City to Charlotte, or even take a train.
But no need. God intervened. When they got to the airport and expressed their nervousness to the airline, explaining they just had to catch that flight to make it to Billy Graham’s funeral, they were told not to worry. They wouldn’t miss the connection because the same plane would be going on to Charlotte. They simply had to get off the plane, wait five minutes on the tarmac, and reboard.
On Friday morning, March 2, they arrived at the Samaritan’s Purse building, checked in, had their bags and pockets searched and received their invitations and credentials. Then they boarded a bus for the Billy Graham Library.
The funeral was actually held outside under a tent, and the bitter winds of a nor’easter just about froze everyone. But they endured through the two-hour funeral, listening to speakers from around the world, the children of Graham and music from the Gaithers, Michael W. Smith and others. US President Donald Trump, his wife and the vice-president sat about 20 seats away.
“There was a Greek Orthodox priest there in full regalia,” said Mary Lou. “And a Sri Lankan bishop. He spoke about how Billy Graham had reached his country.”
George sat beside Ruth Graham’s secretary, who shared how the family was coping and how busy the previous few days had been.
“There was a level of excitement,” said Mary Lou. “It was a celebration. I really didn’t see anyone crying.”
Mary Lou is thankful for the exceptional friendliness of the people in Charlotte, from the man who allowed George to wear his coat during the funeral, to a woman at Samaritan’s Purse who drove them to their hotel when they couldn’t get a taxi.
“People stepped up and everything fell into place,” said Mary Lou. “I feel very thankful I got to go with Dad and share this with Dad.”
George is still pinching himself about the whole experience.
“I was amazed they called,” he said. “I never expected anything like this. I never, ever thought that would happen.
“You might say I was honoured,” said George. “Here’s a man I had become a friend with. He had supported me and I felt I had to support his family at that time.”