As I reflect on how Billy had a positive impact upon my life, I'm amazed at how Christ used him to soften even the most hardened hearts. In a loving tribute to Billy Graham, I am sharing how he had a profound influence on my husband, Tony's, and my mother, Dolly's, lives. Ultimately, their supernatural transformation not only changed them from the inside out, but it directly affected me as well as my three children's lives.
It seems like only yesterday when the love of my life became addicted to alcohol, drugs, and gambling. It was 1989 when my high school sweetheart and I were living in Las Vegas, Nevada; other wise known as Sin City. We had been newly married for one short year, yet our marriage was miserably struggling.
During this time, we both lived a secular life. Neither one of us attended church, nor had faith in Jesus. Tony grew up in a lukewarm Catholic home. His parents forced him and his siblings to go to church while they remained home.
As for myself, I grew up in a single parent family. When I was two years old, my dad divorced my mom to marry the "other woman." During the early '60's, this stirred up quite a fuss. Not to mention, a lot of gossip.
Upon the Catholic church catching wind of my parent's divorce, the priest scolded my mom. Then he hissed, "You're not welcome here anymore. You will burn in hell!"
No doubt, this negative experience not only shaped my mom's faith and beliefs about God, but it definitely had a ripple effect on my siblings and I. She felt condemned because she was cast out from church. Therefore, my sisters and I were not raised with religion or church. Based on our mother's nightmare with the Catholic church, it left a sour taste in our mouths.
In the early years of my marriage, I tried with all of my might to stop my husband from his destructive addictions. At first, I threatened Tony by saying I'd tell his parents. Then I tried to use reverse psychology, which is a method of getting another person to do what you want by pretending not to want it. I'd acted as if I didn't care when he overindulged or gambled. Instead of nagging, I pretended that everything was fine.
After each failed attempt I'd slam doors and have hissy fits. Regardless of what I said or did, Tony never budged. Despite marriage counseling, confiding in his parents, and detaching myself from our stressful situation, his addictions continued.
I couldn't change Tony. I felt helpless. I was powerless. It was the loneliest, darkest season in my life. And what only complicated the matter was that I lived clear across the US from my family who lived in Pittsburgh, PA.
Feeling disillusioned with my marriage, I longed for something more meaningful to give my life a deeper purpose. I couldn't think of anything more significant than motherhood. On May 27, 1991, I gave birth to our beautiful baby boy, Tony Lee. Having two Tony's in one household was confusing. It made perfect sense to give our son the nickname little Tony.
Following our son's birth my husband continued living his addictive lifestyle. Completely disgusted, I made up my mind to return home to Pittsburgh, PA. In determination to make major changes with or without my husband, I bravely said I'd no longer tolerate his destructive behavior.
The morning before Thanksgiving Day, 1991, I boarded American Airlines with my son, stroller, and diaper bag in tow. A defining moment when I dared to cross the fork in the road. When I didn't allow fear or uncertainties to hold me back. When being a new mom meant looking out for my baby's best interests to place his needs first. I firmly believed little Tony deserved a happy, healthy, and stable upbringing. Having this enormous responsibility compelled me to take a giant step in a new direction.
Two weeks after my son and I moved to Pittsburgh, my husband realized he wanted to keep our family intact. Coming to terms with his new role as a dad, he packed our furniture to join us. Briefly, we lived with my in-laws, while he earnestly sought employment. Once Tony obtained a steady job we rented a two-bedroom townhouse. We were excited for our independence and new beginnings.
Although I was relieved that Tony joined us in Pittsburgh, I desperately wanted him to seek professional help for his addictions. To acknowledge he had a serious problem. It was important to me that he'd be free from this. No more stumbling home drunk, numbing out to mind-warping drugs, or dwindling our bank account to zero.
The most gut-wrenching challenge was raising a child in the same home as an addicted spouse. There's nothing worse for a new mom than to stand by in utter fear when her innocent toddler's safety is at risk. Mere words can't fully explain the emotional torment a defenseless mom confronts as she observes never ending incidences of her child being harmed by an inebriated father. It was dreadful!
Despite feeling helpless, this was the precise time I reached my second turning point. My heart was crushed. Fear was my constant companion. What frightened me the most were the dangerous situations when little Tony was alone with his dad.
Time after time, I'd return home from a college class or grocery store to discover my toddler unsupervised. One time, I came home to find our table and lamp tipped over with my husband passed out on the floor.
When Tony wasn't under the influence of alcohol or drugs, he was a loving and gentle man. He'd never intentionally hurt me or our son. He wasn't violent or aggressive. By no means did I consider him physically abusive. However, I believed he was extremely irresponsible when under the influence.
What transpired from this point forward I consider an act of God. No other logic explains how such a disastrous situation was essentially turned around for good. It was the summer of 1992 when I began soul-searching.
On a gorgeous afternoon, I visited my sister, Denise, who lived nearby. As our children played in her backyard, I curiously asked, “Do you believe in God?” Pausing for a minute, she glanced up at the blue sky to sadly reply, “I don't know if He exists.”
Astonished by her response I affirmed my belief in our Heavenly Father. During this particular summer, Christ began working in Denise's heart. She caught me by surprise when she began attending church. Six months later, she became an active church member after gave her life to Jesus.
All the while, I struggled as a wife and mother. I had no idea of which way to turn. The only thing I was certain about was my husband's addictions and our unhappy marriage.
Throughout summer, Denise persistently invited me to church. She spoke highly of her young pastor, his wife, and small congregation. What I found intriguing was the fact she attended regularly, especially when she initially questioned God's existence. Her new change of heart had me stumped. What did she have that I was missing?
Looking back, I think divorce rips families apart. It can scar children for life. Little girls need their daddies, yet mine was distant and emotionally unavailable. It left a deep father wound.
When dads are missing in their daughter's lives it can cause emotional insecurity. Often, this leads to girls who grow up desperately yearn for love, self-worth, and acceptance. There's an unquenchable longing, emptiness, and pain, which only our Heavenly Father can fill.
During this time, I was unaware of Christ working behind the scenes in my life. He orchestrated events where He connected me to women of faith. My godless background became much more apparent to me. It was as if something were missing, which sent me on a spiritual quest to know my Heavenly Father more. One by one, little mustard seeds of faith were planted.
On December 13, 1992, I accepted Denise's warm invitation to attend her church. After declining repeated invitations throughout the summer, I agreed to go on this particular day because there was a remarkable change in her. What stood out the most was her soft and gentle spirit. Although it mystified me, I wanted whatever she had.
It was on this winter morning when I heard about Jesus dying on the cross for me. Never before had I heard those words. Instantly, it melted my heart and soul. Crying softly, I boldly surrendered my life to Jesus. Excited about my faith, I became an active church member and on fire for Jesus.
When I shared my new faith with my husband, he mumbled, “The church only wants our money.” Despite his negative attitude or false beliefs, I wholeheartedly jumped into ministry. Each Sunday, I eagerly invited Tony to church. Not wanting any part of it, he responded with a shrug of his shoulders.
On the morning of January 9, 1993, the day appeared to be like any other. What I didn't know in advance were the life-changing circumstances about to occur. They would ultimately turn our lives around.
On this Saturday afternoon, Tony planned to go with his friend to the Pittsburgh Steelers football game at Three Rivers Stadium. They looked forward to the tailgate party. It was the Steelers versus the Buffalo Bills. As a die-hard Steelers fan, Tony was thrilled to attend the game.
While Tony was at the football game, I joined my older sisters and our mom for a girls day out. The six of us were excited to go to the movies and dinner. My mother-in-law, Barbara, agreed to babysit little Tony so my husband and I could attend separate activities.
Following the movie, we went to dinner at a Chinese Restaurant. When we were eating, I suddenly felt a nagging, unpleasant feeling come upon me. It was a strong, uneasy notion as if something were terribly wrong.
By the time we finished our meal, I couldn't shake the uncomfortable feeling that something bad happened. My gut intuition sensed it was a loved one. Instantly, I thought of my son and felt an urgency to go home. As I quickly drove from the restaurant to my house, I was a nervous wreck. Silently, I prayed, “Oh, dear God, please keep little Tony safe!”
When I arrived home, I raced inside to find Barbara with the most solemn expression on her face. No words needed to be said. My gut instinct was correct. Something tragic happened. As I approached Barbara in the living room she nervously blurted, “It's not your son; it's your husband.”
Before I could speak, she reassured me that my toddler was upstairs sound asleep. She insisted not to wake him. A flood of relief brought me comfort knowing little Tony was safe, yet I was gripped with fear.
On edge, I nervously asked, “What happened to Tony? Where is he?” By then it was past 11 PM. The game was over and he should have returned home. Barbara explained that Tony had too much to drink before the football game.
Accidentally, he tripped over someone's blanket as he walked across the stadium aisle. Losing his balance, he fell five rows in front of him onto concrete steps, which inflicted serious injuries. Following his accident he was rushed by ambulance to a local hospital.
Hastily, Barbara urged me to wait until the next day to visit Tony. Reluctantly, I agreed and walked her to the front door. I thanked her for babysitting my son, reassuring that I'd wait until morning before going to the hospital. All the while, I was in shock and numb.
Sleep didn't come easy. I tossed and turned all night. Upon waking the next day, I tiptoed downstairs to prepare breakfast. On this bleak morning, as I struggled with negative emotions, God convicted me to let them go. I sensed Christ wanted me to surrender Tony to Him.
Standing barefoot in my kitchen, Jesus showered me with His glorious presence. Peace washed over me from head to toes. Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined peace this magnificent. Pure communion with my Heavenly Father. Utter words couldn't comprehend or fully explain the glorious presence of God.
Without an audible sound, the Lord boldly proclaimed He'd use Tony's accident in a powerful way. What the enemy meant for harm, He would use for His highest purpose. God's almighty presence continued to fill me with peace.
After dropping off little Tony at my mom's house, I drove to the hospital. At this point, I didn't know the extent of my husband's injuries. Seriously concerned, I was worried sick about him.
When I arrived at the hospital and walked into Tony's room, a male nurse was sharing the Bible with him. If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn't have believed it. Astounded, I was speechless! It was confirmation that God was at work in him. Not just spiritually, but physically and emotionally.
During my visit, I had the chance to discuss the extent of his injuries with his orthopedic surgeon. Evidently, when Tony fell onto the concrete pavement at Three Rivers Stadium his elbow and wrist were shattered. The surgeon politely explained the upcoming surgery, which required four pins along with a Hoffman device. The purpose was to set the bone fractures to promote healing.
Due to Tony's extensive injuries he would need to take one year off work. His lengthy recovery required extensive physical therapy to strengthen his tendons, ligaments, and muscles. Most importantly, the orthopedic specialist couldn't guarantee Tony would physically be able to successfully work as a journeyman carpenter or use his right arm.
In the blink of eye, our lives abruptly changed. It would never be the same. Consequently, this led to much agonizing stress. As a new Christian, I faced uncharted territory. Prior to salvation, I juggled problems on my own. It was a heavy burden to carry.
For the first time in my life, I had someone I could lean on and trust. I didn't need to carry this burden alone. Jesus lightened my load. He had the steering wheel, while I gladly sat in the passenger seat anticipating whatever He placed before me.
Six months following Tony's surgery, he started going to church with me. Without going to Alcoholics Anonymous or a rehab, he stopped drinking, drugs, and gambling. While there were no logical explanations, his temptations vanished. It was as if the enemies allurement no longer had a tight grip on him.
Meanwhile, I had heard about the Billy Graham Crusade coming to Pittsburgh, PA on June 2-6, 1993. All of my sisters and I had planned to go. Silently, I hoped that Tony and my mom would join us. So I prayed about it and was beyond surprised when they both agreed.
On that summer morning, more than 154,000 people from all walks of life filled Three Rivers Stadium. At Billy Graham's third and final Pittsburgh crusade in 1993, He said with a strong conviction these powerful words, “I have just one message. And that is that God loves you, He is interested in you no matter what your background, and He wants to forgive you and change you, if you will let Him come into your life.”
Following his captivating message, he opened up the stadium with an alter call, asking men, women, and children to come down to the football field to accept Jesus into their lives. One by one, people gathered onto the field as they were led to salvation. With tears rolling down my face, I watched my husband and mom accept Christ as their Savior.
What made this extraordinary was Tony's accident happened at Three Rivers Stadium. How ironic that God used the same location of his traumatic injuries as the exact place to save his very soul. The Lord took this painful experience to miraculously deliver Tony from his stronghold of alcoholism, drug addiction, and gambling. In addition, God lovingly restored my husband's right arm in which he successfully works as a journeyman carpenter.
As we say goodbye to Reverend Billy Graham, I wish that I could have personally thanked him for his profound impact on all of our lives. That I could have talked to him and shared with him how much I'm grateful for his life-changing influence in my husband, mother, and my life.
If I had the opportunity, I'd let him know that my precious mom who's battling stage 3 brain cancer has peace today because she's confident in where she will spend eternity. Although my heart breaks for my mother's struggle, I take comfort in knowing that Billy Graham led my mom to Christ.
Lastly, I am forever grateful for how Billy touched my husband in such a remarkable way. Had it not been for His dynamic event, I don't know how our lives would have unfolded.
In January 2018, Tony and I celebrated his 25th anniversary of being clean and sober. His chains of addiction are gone. My husband has been set free! All praise, honor, and glory to Christ who powerfully transformed Tony into a mighty man of God.
Note: Some of the details written in my tribute are from my memoir, Harvest of Hope: Living Victoriously Through Adversity.