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Washington pauses to honor late Billy Graham in rare Capitol tribute


President Donald Trump, lawmakers and everyday Americans paid their respects Wednesday to the late Reverend Billy Graham, the influential Southern preacher who was bestowed the rare national tribute of lying in honor in the US Capitol.

The one-time backwoods minister, who rose to become a spiritual advisor to several US presidents and millions of Christian faithful via their television sets, died last week at age 99.

The bulk of official Washington — including Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, half a dozen cabinet members and many of the 535 lawmakers in Congress — were in attendance, alongside Graham’s relatives.

Mourners filed quietly into the ornate Rotunda under the Capitol’s massive dome, as a military honor guard carried Graham’s casket from a hearse up the steps for the somber ceremony.

After Trump and his wife Melania presented a wreath, the president walked up to the coffin, placed his hand on its wooden surface, and tapped it a few times.

Graham, sometimes referred to as “America’s pastor,” was the world’s foremost Christian evangelist, who earned fame and a massive following by spreading a message of spiritual redemption at tent and stadium revival meetings, in a career that spanned decades.

Trump offered a simple but poignant title for the reverend: “an ambassador for Christ who reminded the world of the power of prayer and the gift of God’s grace.”

Graham had a spiritual awakening at age 15 in 1934.

“That choice didn’t just change Billy’s life,” Trump said during the ceremony.

“It changed our lives. It changed our country, and it changed, in fact, the entire world.”

Trump and Pence plan to attend Graham’s funeral on Friday in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Despite humble beginnings, Graham became a plainspoken preacher of essential truths, whose message resonated far and wide, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said.

“Billy Graham lifted up our nation,” the Republican senator said. “A grateful nation pays respects.”

– ‘Big fan’ –

The event brought official Washington to a standstill — a break from overheated national debates about gun laws following a deadly school shooting, and as Trump’s administration is roiled by fresh controversy after his son-in-law Jared Kushner lost his top security clearance.

After the official ceremony, the first of what is projected to be thousands of everyday citizens began filing past the coffin to pay tribute and sign a condolence book.

Graham will lie in honor for two days in the Rotunda.

It is an imposing environment. Statues of nine presidents and Martin Luther King stand guard, and a sweeping fresco, “The Apotheosis of Washington,” covers the Rotunda’s ceiling, 180 feet (55 meters) above Graham’s casket.

The term “lie in state” is reserved for US presidents. The last to do so was Gerald Ford in 2007.

Graham is only the fourth private citizen to lie in honor in the Capitol. The most recent non-politician was civil rights champion Rosa Parks in 2005.

The Southern Baptist preacher was close to the family of former president George W. Bush, who once said that a private meeting with Graham in 1985 helped him quit drinking.

Bush and former first lady Laura Bush on Monday visited the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte to pay their respects. Former president Bill Clinton did so on Tuesday.

On Wednesday, Trump recalled how Graham addressed an audience of 100,000 at Yankee Stadium in 1957 — at the time, it was the largest single evangelistic gathering in US history.

“And I remember that, because my father said to me, ‘Come on, son… let’s go see Billy Graham at Yankee Stadium,'” Trump said, noting that his father was “a big fan” of the reverend.

For some lawmakers in attendance, Graham served as a model of an oft-forgotten character in power-hungry Washington: humility.

“His life memorializes this idea of a humble walk, and I think that’s something that all participants in the political process could learn from these days, given the way other approaches have been maybe in vogue of late,” congressman Mark Sanford told AFP.

For Sanford, whose affair with an Argentine woman while he was governor of South Carolina made national headlines in 2009 but who nonetheless managed to win a seat in Congress, Graham’s message was about the power of redemption.

“I’ve been the beneficiary of second chances,” Sanford said. “So in that regard, this idea of redemption and second chance is a pretty big deal.”

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