Six weeks after Hurricane Hugo struck South Carolina on Sept. 21, 1989, the Rev. Billy Graham came to Garden City Beach to view the damage and bring some words of encouragement.
Piles of debris were everywhere, and some people were still without housing, food and jobs. Despite the help of thousands of aid groups from across the country, an air of sadness had pervaded the region for weeks.
Graham arrived by helicopter at Garden City Baptist Church, escorted by the late Gov. Carroll Campbell, on Nov. 6. The evangelist could not help but try to bring the message that faith would ease people through the crisis, but he knew there was more misery to come.
“The hardest moments are going to be yet ahead of you,'' he said to the 300 people gathered in the church that day.
The event was for the community, not just for church members, and besides those inside, others waited outside for a chance to meet the famous preacher.
Dressed casually in beige corduroy slacks, blue blazer and red tie, Graham told the crowd he was surprised at the extent of the damage, especially to see how far inland it went.
“It's been a revelation to me, I was not quite prepared,'' he said.
Given the damage, he said it was remarkable there was so little loss of life. At that point, 18 deaths were attributed to the storm. The final count listed 27 deaths in South Carolina caused by Hugo.
“God was sparing you and he spared you to serve him and to serve others,'' Graham said.
“Maybe God is also saying something to us about changing our lives, changing our lifestyles,'' he said.
But he said he did not agree with those who think disasters such as Hugo and a damaging earthquake that had occurred a few weeks earlier in California were a judgment from God for people's sins.
“I don't believe that an earthquake or a storm like this can be attributed to God, or God's judgment. There's a mystery to it,'' he said.
Graham wanted to come because his ministry, led by his son Franklin, was in the state helping storm victims.
“They have been ministering to people all over South Carolina since Hugo hit,'' Campbell said.
Graham also shared his experiences on previous visits to the Myrtle Beach area.
“When I was a boy, once a year my father would bring us to Myrtle Beach,'' he recalled. His family had a dairy farm in Charlotte so they could stay only a few days.
Later, in the 1930s, he briefly tried to sell Fuller brushes in Myrtle Beach.
“You couldn't sell much of anything in the '30s,'' he said.
Somehow, as Graham was leaving, word got out that the next day was his 71st birthday, and the crowd sang “Happy Birthday'' to him.
He smiled and said “God bless you all,'' as he left the church.
Outside, more people gathered, pressing forward to speak to him and shake his hand. He spoke to as many as he could until his group urged him to head out.
Graham's first stop that day was in Hemingway, and he went from Garden City to hard-hit Awendaw, a village north of Charleston.
The visit was “a gracious act on the part of Dr. Graham and the governor,'' the Rev. Denley Caughman, pastor of Garden City Baptist, said at the time.
Caughman is now semi-retired from preaching and lives in Marion where he and his wife Ann operate a bed and breakfast inn.
In a Jan. 21, 2014 telephone interview, Caughman said he still remembers every detail of Graham's visit.
“It was probably the single most encouraging event that happened in the cleanup,'' though possibly equal in import to all the people who came to help in the cleanup, Caughman said.
Graham's mission was “to come and speak a word of encouragement,'' and he accomplished that.
Caughman said he thinks Campbell and Graham wanted to see Garden City Beach because it is low-lying and suffered a lot of damage from the storm surge. The group probably picked the Baptist church because it was the only one left in the community big enough to handle the expected crowd, he said.
Caughman said he had been to a Billy Graham crusade and been near the evangelist in other settings, but was surprised at Graham's demeanor when a handful of people gathered with him in a small back room of the church to prepare for the public appearance.
Graham didn't act like a celebrity or anyone of importance, but rather waited to be advised on where to go and what to do, Caughman said.
“It struck me how humble he was. It was his humility that struck me.''
Contact Zane Wilson at firstname.lastname@example.org.