This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Greater Los Angeles Billy Graham Crusade of 1949. The event, only initially planned to run for three weeks, ran for an amazing eight weeks. For the past four weeks, we have explored many aspects of this watershed event. For previous topics, click here. Today, we’ll take a look at the unlikely friendship of Billy Graham and Jim Vaus, former mobster.
An Unlikely Hero: The Jim Vaus Story
The Billy Graham Crusade in Los Angeles 1949 has many stories of transformation, but one story in particular stands out as a complete 180-degree shift and creates the most unlikely of heroes.
Jim Vaus served in the military during World War II, where he was as a sound engineer and electronics specialist. Following the war, he assisted the Los Angeles police with electronic surveillance equipment in order to build cases against suspected prostitutes and other criminals. When Jim was asked to “bug” the home of known mobster Mickey Cohen, he was found out by the crime boss. Fully believing his meeting with Cohen would be his last conversation, he was surprised to find out the mobster wanted to have Jim on his team. Cohen asked for Jim’s help to collect evidence of police corruption.
By 1949, Jim was well-entrenched as a double-agent, working for both the LAPD and Cohen, witnessing many reprehensible deeds, and even almost being killed in a sting operation. He was having a rough year. During a trial for a police officer, it became evident that he was working for both sides, which didn’t exactly give him the promise of a long life.
On a whim, Jim attended one of Billy Graham’s meetings during his first Crusade in Los Angeles that year. At the invitation, when Billy asked the attendees to recognize their “moment of decision,” Jim found himself walking towards the platform at the front of the tent and committing his life to Christ.
Jim approached Billy a few days later and invited him to meet Mickey Cohen. Billy impulsively told Jim, he would “go anywhere to talk to anybody about Christ” and found himself one night riding in Jim’s car to Cohen’s home. While the mobster didn’t accept Christ, he did give his blessing on Jim’s decision.
After the Crusade, Jim set about making things right with those he had cheated over the years. In 1958, he began a ministry, Youth Development Inc., working with troubled youth in New York City which later spanned the nation. In the 1980’s, he used his electronics expertise to create the first National Youth Crisis Hotline which connected runaways and other youth in distress to Christian volunteers at churches around the country. Jim also spoke at other Billy Graham Crusades, sharing how his decision to follow Christ had changed his life.
Hear Jim Vaus’ story in the Wheaton audio archives by clicking here.
In later years, Jim discovered that had he not gone to the Billy Graham Crusade and instead gone to St. Louis as he had planned in order to continue his illegal activities, he would have been killed within 30 minutes of his arrival by a gang who was waiting on him to arrive.
The 1949 Crusade in Los Angeles certainly created an unlikely hero. Who but God could have brought about such an amazing transformation?