ANGOLA — The familiar voice of George Beverly Shea, still rich at 100 years of age, filled the prison chapel with the old redemption story that radically changes lives. Every eye in the 800-seat room at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola was on him.
Shea, the musical face of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association for six decades, was at the maximum security prison to pass along a Rodgers 3 manual draw knob organ he had received in honor of his 100th birthday Feb. 1.
The organ was from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Franklin Graham presented it to Shea at his 100th birthday party and told him the organ one day would be given to the prison.
“Franklin said the organ would be mine as long as I’m alive,” Shea told the crowd. “But every night, on my pillow, I would think about it.”
Shea told the crowd he decided to go ahead and give the organ to the prison chapel because he didn’t want to miss out on the joy of giving it away.
The Graham organization’s relationship with Angola began when Franklin Graham preached a one-day evangelistic event there three years ago. Graham subsequently raised money to build chapels at Camp F, not far from the death row cellblock, and at B-Line, the community for prison staff members and their families.
Inmates who are trained musicians will play the instrument during worship services at Tudy Chapel, the largest of five chapels in the different units making up the penitentiary.
“It is an honor to sit behind the Rodgers organ,” inmate Gary Landry said. “It is like sitting in the seat of a Mercedes car. It is the top of the line.”
“The fact that the organ was given by the legendary George Beverly Shea whom I loved and followed as a youth is very surreal,” inmate Wayne Guidry said. “It is an honor to play an instrument that is one of the most well-made and most expensive instruments that I will ever lay my hands on.”
Shea sang such favorites as “I Walked Today Where Jesus Walked” and “In Times Like These,” but when he sang his signature song, “I’d Rather Have Jesus,” hands went up in praise and amens echoed around the room.
Shea told the crowd of writing the tune to “I’d Rather Have Jesus” at age 23 at his mother’s request. The son of a Methodist minister, Shea was born in 1909 in Ontario, Canada.
John Innes, organist for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association for 40 years, accompanied Shea on the Rodgers organ and played an interlude of hymns.
Between songs, Shea told anecdotes from his long career, such as the time he placed second to a yodeler in a singing contest. Shea quipped about his feminine-sounding first name, saying he received an invitation once to join a beauty contest, with the instructions to “be sure and bring your bathing suit.”
Shea challenged the inmates with a favorite quote, “What I know about God is little, but what I do know has changed my life.”
At the end, as Shea was helped from the stage to a waiting wheelchair, the crowd stood to their feet in applause. His daughter and grandson were present for the event.
Warden Burl Cain introduced Shea to the crowd and said his life and ministry was a testimony to the saving grace of Jesus Christ. Cain thanked New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and other donors and friends for being faithful to prison ministry.
The Angola prison once was called the “bloodiest prison in the nation.” When Cain came as warden more than a dozen years ago, he began a campaign to introduce the Gospel to inmates.
A July 2009 state correction systems press release reported that some 2,500 inmates participate in “moral rehabilitation programs” at the prison and that violence is at an all-time low.
Shea began his career in radio during the Great Depression and joined the Billy Graham evangelistic team in 1947. He has 58 RCA recordings, 10 Grammy nominations and a 1965 Grammy for the album “Southland Favorites.” Shea has sung in front of more than 210 million people at Billy Graham crusades.
A tribute to Shea is on display at the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte through the end of October.
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Stewart is a correspondent for the Louisiana Baptist Convention’s communications team.)