Washington (AFP) – President Donald Trump, lawmakers and everyday Americans paid their final respects Wednesday to the beloved late Reverend Billy Graham, who was bestowed a rare national tribute as his remains lay in honor in the US Capitol.
The one-time backwoods minister, who rose to become a spiritual advisor to several US presidents and millions of American faithful via their television sets, died last week at age 99.
The bulk of official Washington, including Trump, half a dozen cabinet members and many of the 535 lawmakers in Congress were in attendance alongside Graham’s relatives.
Mourners trooped quietly into the ornate Rotunda under the Capitol’s massive dome, as a military honor guard carried Graham’s casket from a hearse up the steps for the somber ceremony.
Trump walked with his wife Melania to the coffin, lay his hand on its wooden surface, and tapped it a few times, before walking away.
Sometimes referred to as “America’s pastor,” Graham was the world’s foremost Christian evangelist, who earned fame and a massive following by spreading a message of spiritual redemption at tent and stadium revival meetings, in a career that spanned decades.
Graham had a spiritual awakening at age 15 in 1934.
“That choice didn’t just change Billy’s life,” Trump said during the ceremony.
“It changed our lives. It changed our country, and it changed, in fact, the entire world.”
Despite Graham’s humble beginnings, he became a plainspoken preacher of essential truths, whose message reached far and wide, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said.
“Billy Graham lifted up our nation,” the Republican senator said. “A grateful nation pays respects.”
– ‘Such a gift’ –
The event brought official Washington to a standstill — a break from overheated national debates about gun laws following a deadly school shooting, and as Trump’s administration is roiled by fresh controversy after his son-in-law Jared Kushner lost his top security clearance.
Thousands of everyday citizens were also expected to file in to pay tribute and sign a condolence book, beginning at 1 pm (1800 GMT) after the president’s departure.
Graham will lie in honor for two days in the Rotunda.
It is an imposing environment. Statues of nine presidents and Martin Luther King stand guard, and a sweeping fresco, “The Apotheosis of Washington,” covers the Rotunda’s ceiling, 180 feet (55 meters) above the floor where Graham’s casket was placed.
The last person to lie in honor in the Capitol was Daniel Inouye, a longtime senator from Hawaii, in December 2012.
The term lie in state is reserved for US presidents. The last to do so was Gerald Ford in 2007.
Graham is only the fourth private citizen to lie in honor in the Capitol. The most recent non-politician was civil rights champion Rosa Parks in 2005.
“The man had such a gift for connecting with people,” House Speaker Paul Ryan told the ceremony.
Trump ordered American flags to fly at half-staff at the White House and other US public buildings and facilities on the day of Graham’s interment.
The Southern Baptist preacher was close to the family of president George W. Bush, who once said that a private meeting with Graham in 1985 helped him quit drinking.
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