On this day, we remember George Beverly Shea, who was born Feb. 1, 1909 in Winchester, Ontario, to a minister and his wife. Shea passed away April 16, 2013, but will always be remembered as one of the greatest gospel singers of all time, and a close friend and ministry partner of Billy Graham. He was always in tune with Jesus.
In fact, his son, Ron Shea remarked about his passionate devotion to prayer. “Growing up, we had a house in the Chicago area and we would have to go through their bedroom to get to the bathroom. I always remember my dad – he was a big guy 6’2 – kneeling down by his bed at night praying,” Ron shared. That example taught Ron the importance of prayer and honoring The Lord.
Ron Shea has worked for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) for 40 years, beginning with Billy Graham’s 1979 Milwaukee Crusade. He moved 31 times in 31 years, helping hire local staff and mobilizing committees for each Crusade event. Often times, when they traveled to a city for a Crusade, a team would go into the prisons, ministering to the folks there.
One time, Ron shared with the prisoners how his dad was big in stature, yet humbled himself, every night kneeling down beside his bed to pray. Later on, someone approached Ron to share how much his story meant to these men. “Many of these men didn’t have fathers and that’s why they are in there.”
Ron now serves in donor ministries out of BGEA’s headquarters in Charlotte. Sometimes he talks to donors who recognize his last name and loves to share stories of his dad.
Another quality that made a lasting impressing on Ron – his dad’s incredible kindness. “I never heard my dad say something bad about anyone,” Ron said.
Ron recalled a certain story that etched incredible kindness and forgiveness in his memory. He was a young boy. It was right after a Crusade and it was raining very hard. The family had gotten into the car and the lady in the car next to them was backing out, when suddenly they heard a screech. The woman had scraped George Beverly Shea’s car. It turned out that it was a choir member from the Crusade. The woman felt awful about what happened, but it was Mr. Shea’s response that Ron will always remember. He said, “It’s ok. It was the bad weather.” Mr. Shea paid for the repair out of his own pocket – several hundred dollars – which was a lot at the time. “That was my dad. He always exhibited kindness. It was evident in his heart and his kindness was evident in his songs,” Ron said.
George Beverly Shea first met Mr. Graham who was pastoring the Village Church of Western Springs in Illinois — his only full-time pastorate — in 1940. Mr. Graham was 21, and Mr. Shea was 31.
Mr. Shea first sang for him on the Chicago program “Songs in the Night” in 1943, and by the late 1940s, the pair – along with music and program director Cliff Barrows – formed the heart of Mr. Graham’s ministry. It was in Mr. Graham’s hometown of Charlotte, N.C., that Mr. Shea sang in the first of many citywide Crusades.
Mr. Shea was also an inspiration to countless households during World War II. He worked in radio as an announcer and Gospel singer and helped boost the morale. He had a special song for the troops, which brought hope and comfort as they prepared for battle.
Mr. Shea has taken that simple faith to every continent, and his bass-baritone voice is recognized all over the world. He has been nominated for 10 Grammys, won two, and recorded more than 70 albums, including nine CDs. He has received several acknowledgments for his work, including his induction into the Religious Broadcasting Hall of Fame in 1996. He was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award in 2011. He even held the Guinness Book of World Records mark for singing in front of the most people ever, a combined audience of 220 million, most of it with Billy Graham.
And yet, Mr. Shea never lost sight of the One he sang about. He knew the importance of always being “in tune” with Jesus – surrendering to Him on his knees in prayer. One of his best-known songs, “I’d Rather Have Jesus,” says it all.
On the day we remember Mr. Shea’s birthday, let’s remember the lessons learned from a humble, kind man who loved The Lord – and follow his example of kindness, forgiveness and a steadfast devotion to prayer.