By Jeff Mason and Greg Lacour
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Reuters) – The faithful from small towns gathered on Friday with President Donald Trump and other powerful politicians in North Carolina for the funeral of evangelist Billy Graham, who preached to millions around the world in a 70-year career.
The service for Graham, who died on Feb. 21 at age 99, comes after he lay in honor at the U.S. Capitol in recognition of a clergyman who counseled presidents and became the first noted evangelist to take his message to the Soviet bloc during a time when its communist regimes were hostile to organized religion.
The North Carolina native will later be buried in a pine coffin made by a Louisiana prison inmate, and laid to rest next to his late wife, Ruth, at the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte.
Ahead of the ceremony, a steady stream of mourners braved brisk winds, some of them sharing how Graham’s preaching enriched their lives.
Margaret Zook, 74, came with her husband Bob, 71, from Sterling, Virginia, to mourn the man who had been an inspiration since she was a little girl.
Bob Zook said what he valued most about Graham was “the unbridled joy he had, the joy he had in delivering the Word.”
The 90-minute funeral service is scheduled to start at 12 p.m. EST (1700 GMT). It will be held under a canvas tent emblematic of Graham’s 1949 Los Angeles revival that marked his breakthrough as an evangelist.
Trump, a Republican, will take his place among about 2,300 invited guests, along with first lady Melania Trump and Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, Karen, organizers said. Ahead of the funeral, Trump met with Graham’s family, pool reports said.
Graham became the de facto White House chaplain to several U.S. presidents, most famously Richard Nixon. He also met with scores of world leaders and was the first noted evangelist to take his message behind the Iron Curtain.
Graham’s son, the Reverend Franklin Graham, will deliver the eulogy at the funeral service.
Graham’s headstone will carry his name, dates of birth and death and the inscription “Preacher of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ” above the Bible reference “John 14:6.”
According to his ministry, Graham preached Christianity to more people than anyone else in history.
But Graham found himself at times in controversy over his disapproving stand on gay rights, as well as over a secretly recorded conversation with Nixon in which the cleric complained that Jews had too much influence on the U.S. media.
(Additional reporting by Ian Simpson in Washington and Jeff Mason in Charlotte, North Carolina; writing by Ian Simpson and Jon Herskovitz; editing by Cynthia Osterman and Jonathan Oatis)