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Tough, tender servant to Arab world: mission pioneer Finlay Graham dies

DALLAS (BP)–As a battle-weary Royal Air Force navigator flying over the Middle East during World War II, young Finlay Graham looked down and asked God to show him where he might serve in peace after the war.

God answered that prayer. Graham, a tough Scotsman with a deep and abiding love for the Arab people, went on to serve nearly four decades in the region. He became Southern Baptists’ first missionary to Lebanon, a gifted Arabic scholar and translator, and founder of the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut — now a center for training Baptist leaders from throughout the Arab world.

Graham, 80, died Sept. 3 in Dallas after a period of declining health. He is survived by his wife of 53 years, the former Julia Saccar Hagood of Hallettsville, Texas; a brother; five children; 15 grandchildren; and one great-grandchild. A memorial service was scheduled for Sept. 9 at Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas. Financial gifts in memory of Graham — for the ministry of the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut — may be sent to Wilshire Baptist at 4316 Abrams Rd., Dallas, TX 75214.

Graham had many close encounters with danger and death during his action-packed life. A sampling:

One of the RAF bombers he flew during the war crashed into the Persian Gulf during combat; a scar on his face bore permanent witness to the incident. During his early mission service in postwar Palestine, he and his wife were mistaken for Zionist spies and targeted for death. Instead of fleeing, which would have implied guilt, they welcomed into their home the men sent to kill them — and proved their innocence. The men left, thanking them for serving the Palestinian people.

When serious fighting broke out in Lebanon in the late 1950s, Graham was temporarily running the Beirut Baptist School. “The bus drivers would not drive in certain areas where there had been fighting,” recalls longtime missionary colleague Jim Ragland. “So Finlay got behind the wheel of this school bus and charged off into those areas to pick up students.” Years later, he kept the seminary running when rockets were landing in the courtyard. The school didn’t close for a single class day during a solid year of civil war in the 1970s. Once he was taken prisoner by PLO fighters in the city and taken to their camp. They released him, declaring him “harmless” after he showed them a tract about gaining peace with God.

He often drove too fast; many traumatized passengers called the ride a “faith-building experience.” Once he was nearly killed while driving alone when he lost control of his car on a rain-slick highway and smashed into an electric pole. “When Finlay got in the driver’s seat of a car, there was a shift of reality, and he was back in the cockpit of a British [bomber] somewhere over North Africa,” speculates a close friend.

But Graham wasn’t a rash man. “He was a man of courage,” Ragland says. He had to be to work in a volatile region during a volatile era. Others, even opponents, sensed it — and respected it.

Once, when hostile Lebanese villagers burst into a Christian meeting and began throwing chairs and books, Graham stood his ground, grabbed the hand of one of them and said firmly, “That’s enough.” The villagers turned around and left. The same approach worked in mission administration in later years. An impatient, headstrong young missionary once got up to storm out of a mission meeting after being overruled. Graham glared at him and growled, “Sit down. And listen.” The young man meekly obeyed. “It was the turning point of [the young man’s] ministry,” Ragland remembers.

Graham got some of his grit from his native Scotland. Born in 1920, he grew up in hard times, eating mostly potatoes in a struggling but faithful Presbyterian family. Graham embraced Christ as his personal Savior at age 19 and later became a Baptist. He was in university and already considering missionary service when World War II and RAF service came. When the war ended, he visited the empty “Garden Tomb” in Jerusalem, believed by many to be Christ’s burial site.

“I can’t explain exactly what happened,” he reflected decades after. “But three hours later, when I came out [of the tomb], I was convinced that the Arabic-speaking world was my calling.”

He never wavered from that call. He returned to Palestine in 1946 as an independent missionary, with support from “a few praying friends” and savings from military service. While studying Arabic in a Jerusalem language school the next year, he met and married Southern Baptist missionary Julia Hagood, whose first husband, missionary Henry Hagood, had died in 1946. Graham was appointed a Southern Baptist missionary. Later he became a U.S. citizen and earned divinity and doctor of theology degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

The couple served briefly in Nazareth and in Jordan, then went to Lebanon to aid a Lebanese Baptist couple pleading for help. It became their home for nearly three decades. Beginnings were humble indeed: one tiny church. Graham rode to mountain villages surrounding Beirut on a donkey. The couple met with believers in their Beirut apartment.

“We had Sunday school in all the bedrooms,” Julia Graham recalled. “We even had a Sunday school class meeting in the bathroom!”

Home also was where Graham began training future Lebanese Baptist ministers, beginning with just three students in 1953. But he dreamed of a seminary that would prepare Baptists for ministry throughout the Arab and Muslim world. With typical grit, he worked to make the dream come true. The seminary opened in Beirut in 1960.

“When I first saw the [future] seminary property, I thought, ‘This is folly, Finlay’s folly, out here on this thorn-covered, rock-strewn hillside,'” Ragland recalls. “But he went out there and built the seminary, planted fruit trees and created a theological Eden on that hillside.”

High-rises now cover the same hill, but the seminary is still there — a beacon for Christian leaders in the Middle East.

Today there are more Baptist churches in Lebanon than there were individual believers when the Grahams got started. “They all have their roots back in that first church,” says Nancie Wingo, another retired missionary colleague. “All of us who followed are keenly aware that without what Julia and Finlay had done as pioneers, there wouldn’t have been work in Lebanon.”

Graham’s iron discipline often gave way to slaps on the back, jokes and corny Scottish sayings to encourage weary missionaries. He also applied his prodigious energy and stamina not only to ministry and scholarship but to golf and tennis — losing regularly at both but with never-say-die intensity.

Once, on a course high in the mountains overlooking the Mediterranean, he played 36 holes of golf with missionary friends. “Personally, I gave out on the 34th hole,” recalls colleague Mack Sacco. “Finlay played right to the end. Then, after drinking our customary ginger ale at the clubhouse, Finlay jogged down the mountain about five kilometers. An amazing man!”

The Grahams left Lebanon in 1976 to serve as field representatives helping coordinate work throughout the Middle East for the Foreign (now International) Mission Board. After retiring from missionary service in 1986, he taught missions and Arabic to future missionaries at Southwestern Seminary and at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in Mill Valley, Calif.

In his latter years, Graham expressed frustration that only “a trickle” of new Southern Baptist workers were heading for the tough, resistant places of the Arab world. “God is looking for people who will persist and insist and be faithful and diligent,” he said. “People who are willing to go wherever God calls them despite the difficulties.”

People like Finlay Graham.
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at www.sbcbaptistpress.org. Photo title: GARDEN OF DECISION.

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  • Erich Bridges