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Bev Shea sings (Billy Graham will preach)

To all of us who remember at least the last half of America’s greatest century, the 20th Century, it’s hard to imagine Dr. Billy Graham getting anything but “top billing” when it comes to an evangelistic outreach. In reading an obituary of the late, great George Beverly Shea in The New York Times, the title I have chosen for this column was used as the headline for a mid-1940’s preaching meeting of the young Billy Graham. It made me smile.
George Beverly Shea died last week at the wonderful age of 104. Even though, as a culture, we “worship” singers, actors, ballplayers and politicians, it might be true that no other singer sang before as many people as Bev Shea — as he was known to his closest friends — did. He remained humble to the end.
Thousands of people were needed to support the famous Billy Graham Crusades throughout the years, but no doubt, God provided a team of three to lead more people to Him in the last century. That team was led by Billy Graham, but at his side, not behind, but at his side were Cliff Barrows and George Beverly Shea.
Before the Crusades, God was leading the young Mr. Graham to step out in faith in those war years. He was in Chicago and had the opportunity to have a radio program by the name of “Songs in the Night.” He had a problem. Even though he was a good preacher, he was unknown. Who would listen to him?
His idea was to engage the services of a well-known Chicago radio personality and singer. George Beverly Shea was already popular in Chicago and Mr. Graham asked him to join him in his new radio endeavor. It was the beginning of a professional relationship, but more than that. It was the beginning of a Godly encounter that will never end. Earth-wise, it ended last week with Shea’s death, but eternity awaits their reunion.
God works in mysterious ways and Billy Graham, the greatest preacher of the 20th Century needed Bev Shea, as he would come to call him. During their relationship of over 60 years, Billy Graham never underestimated the gifts and graces of George Beverly Shea. And vice versa.
Graham, in an interview with the Charlotte Observer in 1997, said about Shea, “I’ve been listening to Bev Shea sing for more than 50 years and I would still rather hear him sing than anyone else.”
When I say that Billy Graham needed George Beverly Shea, I really mean it. Shea was asked one time why Dr. Graham did not lead the singing himself, as many preachers do. With great Christian charity and tongue in cheek, he replied, “Mr. Graham suffers from ‘the malady of no melody.’”
In other words, the greatest preacher in American history couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket.
Graham did not have to carry a tune. He had Cliff Barrows and George Beverly Shea and God had the greatest, yet humblest, evangelistic team of all time.
As I think about the death of George Beverly Shea, I am saddened, but not at the loss of such a great singer. Shea has an assured solo spot in the heavenly choir and his rich baritone and distinct diction carries on in eternity.
The sadness comes from the lack of attention his death garnered. The thought of no recognition would not have registered with Shea. But for me, it just doesn’t seem right that we, as a country, were consumed by the evil efforts of two brothers in Boston, while the voice of a giant nightingale passed. Once again, we’ve got it backwards.