It was a rare photo op for the media Thursday. As the humble and famed evangelist Billy Graham stepped out of the cross entrance to a library that would continue his preaching for him, the crowd stood in applause.
Alongside Graham were three former presidents – George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton – whom he calls his long-time friends and all of whom were profoundly influenced by the 88-year-old evangelist.
"Every president is different and as an Episcopalian ... I've always viewed my faith as a personal matter, intensely personal matter," said Bush during the dedication ceremony of the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, N.C., on Thursday. "And there is nothing self-conscious, however, about my relationship with Jesus Christ. And thanks to Billy, I've come to understand this all-important relationship in deeper and more meaningful ways."
Each of the former presidents expressed deep gratitude not just for the Christ-like person he was, but for the God who used Graham to impact millions around the world in a public and personal way.
"Every life Billy Graham ever touched - including people who never became president, never spoke at a crusade - is better because he was a good and faithful servant of the two most important commandments (to love God with all your heart and to love your neighbor as yourself)," said Clinton in his speech.
He was a friend to every U.S. president since Harry Truman and every one of them "found both a need and a use for this one man," according to Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, authors of The Preacher and The Presidents, which will be published in August. No one else had done the same.
"We wanted to know why they all called: what was it about him, and about them, and about the presidency, that explained this abiding attention?" the authors said.
During Thursday’s dedication ceremony, Clinton expressed his appreciation, perhaps offering an answer to the question. "When he (Graham) prays with you in the Oval Office or the upstairs of the White House, you feel that he's praying for you, not the president," he said while highlighting the preacher's personal kindness.
Graham, whom the world came to hear and admire over the last six decades and who many regard as America's pastor, was testified as the same kind and respected man in private.
"[T]he Billy Graham that the world has seen publicly is the Billy Graham that we have seen at home. There's not two people," said Graham's son Franklin, who heads the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
Graham is believed to have spoken face-to-face with more people in more places than anyone in history, having preached to over 210 million people in over 185 countries, according to The Preacher and The Presidents.
"I'm just one of tens of millions of people whose spiritual life has been shaped by Billy Graham," said Carter.
As the long-time evangelist sat behind the podium, he felt humbled by it all.
"I feel like I've been to my own funeral, listening to all these speeches," said the elder Graham to a crowd that broke out in laughter.