Two Funerals: Graham and Cone

Dwight A. Moody


Billy Graham was born in 1918 and one hundred years later he died. That was February 21, 2018. His funeral was held under a big tent on the grounds of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in Charlotte North Carolina. It was invitation only and I was not on the list.


I grew up in the white evangelical tradition and Mr Graham stood head and shoulders above everyone else in the movement. My first sermons were imitations of him and my first school papers were regurgitations of his sermons and books. He made an indelible impression on me as a person, a Christian, and a preacher. About once a decade for the next 40 years I made my way to an event where he was speaking. His sermon on loneliness at the Washington DC crusade in the mid 80’s remains one of the most memorable sermons I have ever heard.


I watched his funeral service. They streamed it on line. It was mostly his family giving testimony with a couple of sermons by international evangelists. I was inspired once again with his life, his ministry, his integrity, his influence…on me and on the world.


Not too long after Billy Graham was converted in a tent meeting in Charlotte. James Cone was born. He grew up in the black community of Beardon, Arkansas, shaped by the spirituality of the Macedonian AME church there. While Graham had but the basic college degree, Cone went on to earn two masters degrees and a PhD, beginning one of the most distinguished and influential theological careers of twentieth century America. Cones first book was Black Theology and Black Power.   It catapulted Cone to the front of the line among intellectuals of the Christian academy. He was the leading spokesperson for liberation theology, based on the two great narratives of the Bible: the Exodus from Egypt and the death and resurrection of Jesus.


Cone also died in 2018, just three months after Graham. His funeral was held in the famous Riverside Church in New York City, a sanctuary built by Baptist layman John D Rockefeller for the preaching ministry of Harry Emerson Fosdick.  I started seminary in 1974 and finished in 1982 and by then Cone had published five of his 11 volumes. I do not recall a single one of his books  assigned to me during my eight years in school. I thought nothing of it then but now it lingers in my soul and disturbs my spirit.  I would have been a much better minister, preacher, and leader if my white teachers had insisted I read the words of the black theologian.


Cone’s funeral service was also broadcast on line and I watched it. It was longer than Grahams, and a bit more formal, but frankly, it is hard to keep the liveliness and enthusiasm of black AME worship out of even the most sophisticated gathering.


These two funerals were alike in some ways: large crowds, important people, articulate speakers, inspirational music. In each, the eulogies drew attention to spiritual power and global influence. Songs and Scripture, prayer and processions: there was much in common, including the closing emphasis on what the creed calls the life everlasting.  But I sensed deep down the people attending the service in Charlotte and those attending the service in Manhattan had little else in common.  The rhetoric, the lyrics, the social and political allusions throughout the events described very different versions of the world, perhaps even of the gospel.


I wondered if any person, any single person, attended both, if there was one person who had a foot in each culture—in the white evangelical culture of North Carolina and in the black liberation culture of New York City. Not likely.  And this also made me sad.  I live now in both worlds, less in the Evangelical world than before, more in the black world than ever. I am still being shaped by both, I honor both. I give thanks for both.


But this I believe: that the church of Jesus Christ would be richer, deeper, truer to our Lord, if a little bit of what happened in February in Charlotte and a little bit of what happened in New York City in May could get emptied into the same ecclesial bowl, crushed and ground by the Lord himself, and baked into something new and fresh and tasty, a loaf of that good gospel bread.  Such a loaf served to all with bended knee and contrite heart is just the kind of communion we need in the church today. It is the kind of communion we need in the world also.


copyright 2018 Dwight A. Moody