For each of the last three years, June and Jim Bigham have packed a microwave and three suitcases in a frosted-tan Fleetwood sedan and spent up to 306 days away from their home in Oklahoma City. Their destinations ranged across the continent: Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Hartford, Connecticut; Anaheim, California; and Washington, D.C. In each place, they settled into a motel room or apartment for two or three months, at their own expense, and helped coordinate the thousands of details that produce a Billy Graham crusade.
To veterans of American evangelical church life, those crusade meetings flow with all the familiarity of an annual family reunion. George Beverly Shea sings “How Great Thou Art,” a choir several thousand strong rises for a harmonized hymn, and then Billy appears at the podium. Most of the people attending a Graham crusade experience it essentially as a solo performance, with the spotlight on one particularly gifted preacher.
But when June and Jim attend a crusade meeting, they see much more than that. They watch a full orchestra of volunteers tune up for a variety of tasks as “inquirers” come forward at the end of the meeting. “When the invitation is given, I can see the mechanics start to work,” June says.
During the two months preceding a crusade, the Bighams help prepare local church people to assist new believers into the community of faith. Before a springtime crusade in Washington, D.C., June answered telephone queries at the reception desk of the crusade office. Jim supervised mailings to local church volunteers, tinkering with a recalcitrant folding machine.
At the crusade meetings, they handled “counselor problems,” such as replacing lost or forgotten badges for church volunteers trained to meet individually with the people who respond to the meeting’s closing invitation. Once that task was finished, they scouted for two seats together, often winding up in the press section.
From a similar vantage point 30 years earlier, the Bighams first heard the gospel presented in a way that moved them.
They had never heard of Billy Graham when he came to the Oklahoma State fairgrounds in 1956. Jim recalls being one of six men collared in his church foyer and asked to usher at the crusade. Jim stayed for the preaching, and became increasingly offended night after night at the message he heard. “It was just too much for me,” he remembers. Graham’s emphasis on the need for a personal relationship with Jesus Christ presented Jim with a choice that shook his comfortable, Sunday-Christian presuppositions.
June was there as well, having made up her mind that she would not go forward without her husband. “I figured he needed it worse than I did. That’s how I rationalized it. But I certainly didn’t like hearing about hell and sin.” The Bighams had been married 13 years and had two children. “Our marriage was kaput. It was over. There was no hope, humanly speaking,” June said.
Church was no help. “Our church’s philosophy was, if you live right, the dying will take care of itself. We were trying to live right, but we didn’t have the power.” Finally, on the twenty-sixth day of the Oklahoma City crusade, Graham’s message hit home. When the invitation was offered, Jim reached out to June and asked if she wanted to go forward. “I had to run to catch her.”
No miraculous, overnight change occurred in their relationship, but both of them were challenged to develop a lifelong resolve to be in a right relationship with God. June was more enthusiastic, memorizing Scripture and accepting an invitation to join a women’s Bible study group. “I always tell people that I came to Christ with a big bang and Jim came with a slow burn,” she says.
Jim agrees. “I was gun shy—I didn’t want to become a nut.” But the Bighams joined a different church, and a persistent Bible instructor kept after Jim.
Gradually, the Bighams’ lives began changing. Eventually, June’s four brothers and sisters committed their lives to Christ. June became a Bible study teacher herself, and one day, June says, her 55-year-old mother approached with a question: “Do you think I’m too old to come to one of your Bible studies?” For June, “It was hard not to jump up and down and click my heels.”
When the crusade team returned to Oklahoma City in 1983, the Bighams did not have to be conscripted to help. They volunteered for the “Co-labor Corps,” staying up late into the night after each crusade meeting to index cards filled out by people who came forward. Church preference was noted for each individual, and a letter was sent that night to the person’s pastor or a compatible church. Cards with no church designation went to a separate committee for assignment to a local congregation.
As they helped out, June and Jim became aware of the meticulous preparation and follow-up invested in each Billy Graham crusade. An office for crusade staff and volunteers is established a year in advance, once Graham has accepted an invitation to preach. Pastors who represent the entire Christian community are recruited to encourage participation in classes held by Graham team specialists to train volunteer counselors. Committees engage the support of women, youth, ushers, and prayer warriors.
For the Bighams, even routine office work takes on profoundly fulfilling dimensions because of what the 1956 crusade meant to them. When they volunteered at the 1983 Oklahoma City crusade, Jim had been retired for six years from his job as a state management officer for the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. He and June had begun determining how they would occupy their time.
They told crusade officials they would be willing to help out at another crusade, and in 1984 they were invited to Anchorage, Alaska. The Bighams bought their plane tickets immediately. “We were there nearly six weeks,” Jim recalls. “We drove vans, made airport runs to pick up performers, and assisted with mailings.”
From January until March of 1985, June and Jim helped prepare Fort Lauderdale for its crusade. In April, they drove to Hartford, Connecticut. After wrapping up that crusade, the Bighams returned home to find a message on their telephone answering machine from the Graham Association saying, “Come to California.” They spent three days at home, packed up the microwave, and headed west for a crusade in Anaheim.
In 1985, the Bighams’ new Fleetwood covered 30,000 miles, and they learned how to pack at a moment’s notice for trips of several months’ duration. They travel light; the only treasure on display from home is a small photograph of Christian Eric Duffner, their grandson. June explains, “We took everything that is sentimental and can’t be replaced, and put it in the bank.” Adds Jim, “We have lights on timers and we have good neighbors.”
Their 1986 calendar included a volunteer stint at Graham’s conference for itinerant evangelists in Amsterdam and a crusade in Tallahassee in November. Columbia, South Carolina, and Denver hold crusades in 1987, and the Bighams will be there. As June puts it, “We figure that once upon a time, somebody had to do for us the things we’re doing now. The crusade in Oklahoma City didn’t just happen.”
They have placed their five-bedroom, custom-built home on the market. “Once we sell our house,” June jokes, “we may never go home.”
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