Words always matter at a funeral. But at Tuesday’s service for Cliff Barrows, what was spoken often took second pew to what was sung.
During a two-hour service in which massive Calvary Church in south Charlotte became a virtual performance hall for some of Barrows’ favorite songs, Billy Graham’s lifelong friend and longtime music director was memorialized as a lover of God, man and music.
Before the start of “Blessed Assurance,” Barrows’ friend and ministry partner Tom Bledsoe told the 500 mourners on hand “to brush the tears away.” Then he led the church choir and audience through a rousing performance of the song’s final refrain that, speakers said, served as shorthand for Barrows’ long life.
“This is my story, this is my song.,” they sang. “Praising my savior all the day long.”
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Barrows and Graham were the founders of what would become the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association – and a worldwide Christian crusade. Graham once said that the friends spent so much time together that their names should have been hyphenated, and at first Barrows shared billing on the association’s title.
When it was later suggested that his name be removed and the brand built around Graham, Barrows quickly agreed. Over a partnership that dated back to 1947 and an opening crusade in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Barrows served as emcee, musical director and Graham’s right-hand man.
What began as Graham’s either-or/heaven or hell ultimatum softened with time to become more a message of love. Friends and associates said that Barrows set the tone for the crusades with his welcoming spirit and his resonant voice.
“What a man, what a voice, what a life,” said Dr. David Bruce, Graham’s executive assistant, said of Barrows. “He was the table setter. What set him apart was an unique ability to prepare people to hear the word of God. He would set the table ... to the moment when George Beverly Shea would sing and Billy Graham would preach. You could have not had one without the other two.”
Now after a combined life span of almost three centuries, only Graham remains. He’s 98, home bound, mostly blind and, according to aides, keenly aware but speaking in one-word sentences.
Shea, the Canadian baritone-bass whose recording of “Safe in the Arms of Jesus” greeted Barrows’ family members as they entered the church, was 104 when he died three years ago.
Barrows was 93. His life changed when he and his first wife Billie met Graham on their honeymoon. Eventually, the so-called “Graham Trio” will be buried together, alongside Billie and Graham’s wife, Ruth, on the grounds of the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte.
In his 2010 interview with the Observer, Barrows spoke of the importance of music at the crusades.
“It’s like opening the door to their heart,” he said. “They’ve come from a busy week or from burdens, grief and struggle. And if you can get them to focus on the message of the song and begin to sing, it’s the time in the service that everybody is doing the same thing. Bev (Shea) would sing. And by the time Bill gave the invitation, they were ready to make a commitment to Christ.”
When he wasn’t traveling the world, Barrows served his role as “the most joyful ambassador for the gospel,” said his pastor, the Rev. John Munro of Calvary Church.
With Barrows as a restaurant customer, the worse the service the bigger the tip, said Tal Prince, explaining that his stepfather believed the other person was just having “a really bad day.”
His daughter, Bonnie Barrows Thomas, said it was not always easy “having a dad who belonged to the whole world.”
Yet, she said her father saw the value of treating the world as if it were filled with his best friends. She said he talked to God in the same way.
Thomas called the funeral her father’s final crusade, telling the audience that Barrows had picked out the songs he would have wanted to hear.
“If dad were here, he would say to look away from this sorrow and this sadness,” Thomas said as she stood above Barrows’ rough-hewed wooden casket, a coffin fashioned by the inmates of Angola Prison in Louisiana, who had also built Shea’s and Ruth Graham’s.
“He would say, ‘Look away from me. I’m just a man like you, lying at the foot of the cross.’ And then he would start to sing, and he would expect you to join in.”
Thomas then began singing the gospel standard, “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus.” Within seconds, the choir and audience picked up the familiar melody and verses, and sang along.
“Turn you eyes upon Jesus, Look full in his wonderful face.
“And the things of earth will grow strangely dim, In the light of his glory and grace.”
Then the church applauded.