A Prayer for the Complicated Legacy


bethany suckrow - prayer for the complicated legacy-3

It was a rainy morning drive to work, and I was tired. My golden retriever decided not to sleep the night before and my anxiety decided to keep him company, so I only got three hours of sleep. I was recovering from a nasty cold and, of course, I was noticing the telltale signs that my menstrual cycle was about to start over again.

As I was drinking my coffee that morning I glanced at my phone and noticed a Facebook message from an old family friend whom I haven’t talked to in years. She found my mother’s name written in her Bible and wanted to let me know she was praying for me and that she hopes I’m still walking closely with God. And then a report on NPR caught my attention, and somehow this strange cocktail of feelings and exhaustion converged and I found myself crying in my car about the death of Billy Graham.


America’s Pastor.

The man who arguably had the greatest influence on American Protestant Christianity in the latter half of the Twentieth Century.

The central figure of Western Evangelicalism as we’ve known it.

The man who referred to Jews as having a “stranglehold” on the news media in a call with President Nixon. [1]

The man with a conflicted relationship to the Civil Rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr. [2] The same man who opposed the Democrats’ efforts to provide welfare support for low-income and minority Americans, saying, “Their greatest need is not more money, food, or even medicine; it is Christ. Give them the Gospel of love and grace first and they will clean themselves up, educate themselves, and better their economic conditions.” [3]

The man who said AIDS was a judgment from God (although he later apologized for that statement), and staunchly opposed marriage equality. [4]

The man who didn’t believe women should be allowed to teach the Gospel, but changed his views when his own daughter decided to lead a Bible study without his permission. [5]

The man who, in a 2005 interview with Larry King, said that he wouldn’t make a judgment on where non-Christians spend eternity. “That’s not my calling,” he told King. “My calling is to preach the love of God and the forgiveness of God. In my earlier ministry, I did the same, but as I got older I guess I became more mellow and more forgiving and more loving.” [6]


What am I grieving? I drove the rest of the way to work, wiping my tears in confusion.

Some may revere Graham, but for me and many other post-evangelical Christians struggling to rebuild our faith, he’s the father of a complicated legacy. I think about the way that legacy has woven its way into my own family. I think about my parents’ faith and the way it shaped my own. I think about the expectations that still weigh heavy on my shoulders, the hopes of all the people who remember my mother, who knew me before my faith began to change.

I’m grieving the shattered illusion of a perfect family, a perfect community, a perfect faith, and a perfect daughter who could live up to all of it.

I am coming to terms with the way that familial connection has become my metaphor for deconstructing my faith. In the same way that the illusion of a perfect parent is shattered as we grow older, so is the illusion of a perfect faith leader and a perfect faith community. We find out that our parents have their own biases and prejudices. We see their behavior in a different light, a much less benevolent and flattering one. We see the ways in which our family dynamics have been toxic and hurtful, and in some cases, abusive. And if we’re really paying attention, I think we can see the ways that we’ve inherited all of it and the work we need to do within ourselves to create a different legacy.

I’m coming to terms with the fact that no matter how much I change, this is my family and faith of origin. White supremacy, nationalism, homophobia and transphobia—these things are part of my history as a white evangelical Christian, just as much as the good stuff. I’ll spend my life deconstructing all of it and trying to live a better legacy, but I’ll never be perfect either. The best I can hope for is a growing capacity for vulnerability and empathy.

I have no way of knowing what Billy Graham truly felt at the end of his life. I hope that interview with Larry King was an authentic glimpse into his transformation—a faith that had softened, a human heart that had mellowed with the experience of not having it all figured out.

May it be so for all of us.

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2002/03/17/us/billy-graham-responds-to-lingering-anger-over-1972-remarks-on-jews.html
[2] https://www.cnn.com/2018/02/22/us/billy-graham-mlk-civil-rights/index.html
[3] https://www.patheos.com/blogs/unfundamentalistchristians/2015/04/one-nation-under-god-how-corporate-america-invented-christian-america/
[4] https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/billy-graham-leaves-painful-legacy-lgbtq-people-n850031
[5] https://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=141215977
[6] https://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0506/16/lkl.01.html