Doug Coe died peacefully at his Maryland home yesterday, surrounded by his wife and most of their three generations of progeny, a family totaling nearly 90 members. Jehovah’s favorite choir was surely blessed, as they gathered around his bed and through an open window from the yard on a beautiful afternoon, serenading him into eternity with songs and hymns. What a welcome reunion; and now he is in the place where the music never stops.
As in life, Doug wanted his passing to point others to Jesus. While the world lost a gentle, spiritual giant, like many others across the globe who knew Doug as a faithful colleague and friend, I lost one of the two longtime spiritual mentors in my life.
For the more than 33 years I have been privileged to serve as personal media spokesperson for Billy Graham, the evangelist modeled for me, in both word and deed, the principles of Jesus. A forceful presence in the pulpit, who boldly and uncompromisingly preached the Gospel message to stadium audiences around the world, in private he had a counter-intuitive and inclusive approach with anyone — regardless of their station or spiritual background.
But I never fully appreciated nor understood Mr. Graham’s consistent balance of grace and truth and leadership with love, which I had attributed to his personal gifts and calling, until I met Doug Coe, who unpacked for me their lifelong fraternity to, as he told me, “lift up the name of Jesus with authenticity and integrity to the great and the low, the high and the humble.”
Over countless conversations and interviews with Doug, I came to realize that both men strived to be “transparent and accessible to everyone” while serving as global “ambassadors of Jesus Christ’s love,“ with a priority to lift up His name everywhere they went. They shared exemplary humility, with a heart and vision to equip and empower laypersons to do the work. Each valued and affirmed all “the sinners that Jesus came for, and included themselves in that group.” Neither “possessed a judgmental spirit, but rather had a supernatural love for and openness with anyone they met,” and were always fully present and engaged – whether meeting with a senator or the President or hotel staff.
Doug shared with me that he initially thought the work of God was evangelism, but soon realized the only person he could evangelize was himself, making sure that he was living a life worthy of the Gospel and an example attractive enough for others to want to follow. He noted that there is only one way to God — through Jesus — but that there are many ways to Jesus; and that the purpose of the Bible is not more understanding of reason and precepts, but to drive us closer to Him.
It was Doug who first challenged me with the concept that the Gospel is not a set of doctrine nor dogma, but a person — Jesus. And since Jesus is God, and God is love, then the Gospel is also love. After more than 25 years’ involvement in global crusade evangelism, it was Doug who first really introduced me to Jesus, causing me to realize that for many years I had frequently been “doing Jesus”; but ever since, Jesus has been “doing me.”
Doug further explained by quoting his friend and noted theologian John Stott, “What distinguishes the true followers of Jesus is not their creed nor their code of ethics nor their ceremonies nor their culture, but Christ. What is often mistakenly called ‘Christianity’ is, in essence, neither a religion nor a system, but a person, Jesus of Nazareth.’”
Doug also taught me a great deal about prayer, once telling me that when his youngest daughter was a child he used to regularly ask God to touch her heart so that she would come to personal faith. But then he better understood the prayer from Luke 10:2 that would become his life focus, as everywhere he would go he would pray for the Lord of the harvest “to raise up laborers, for the harvest is ready, but the laborers are few.” Assured her heart was ready, Doug took God at his word and started praying instead for the individual that would lead his daughter to that commitment – whether his wife, a classmate or himself – that they would be faithful.
A lay minister best-known for providing leadership to The National Prayer Breakfast, hosted by the congressional House and Senate prayer groups, Doug sat in on those weekly sessions for more than 50 years, speaking only once in five decades. He believed in the power of small groups and leadership by consensus, and his work was intentionally and intensely personal, focusing on people-to-people relationships and serving individuals in need.
Presidents and prime ministers called him a friend, as he helped them find ways — through Jesus’ teachings, example and Spirit — to build relationships, strengthen the family of nations and further the cause of peace and justice across the globe. He visited each of the 240 countries of the world over his distinguished career, to “pray for laborers for the harvest” and turn the hearts of leaders toward the poor of their country. But his priority always remained to ensure they and others had a relationship with Jesus.
On the morning of Doug’s death, I gathered with a small group of associates for our regular teleconference to pray for world peace. Doug was a charter member when our circle was formed seven years ago, and he faithfully joined each week until his health precluded his involvement in recent months. Rather than praying for the day’s designated countries as we normally do, we elected to reflect on and pray for our dear friend, knowing he was soon to cross over to his reward.
My colleagues each shared their similar reflections of Doug, one of whom described him as “totally selfless, reflecting unconditional love, which he both taught and lived.” Another shared how Doug was there for him and came to his defense when he was falsely accused, reminding him from Isaiah that, “no weapon formed against you will prevail, and you will refute every tongue that accuses you,” which indeed came to pass.
Another member of our group, who calls in each week from London, shared Philippians 1:27, a Scripture of encouragement she received from Doug in his final text to her over the holidays: “…whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in the one Spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the Gospel.”
That is the legacy of Doug Coe: groups of men and women from all walks of life, discovering the secret of true brotherhood with their fellow men by meeting together regularly in a spirit of love, friendship and reconciliation to study the Person and principles of Jesus. As a result, they are finding understanding, confidence and hope for the future, encouraging each other to pursue loving God with all of their heart, soul, mind and strength, and loving one another as Jesus loves us.
Larry Ross is president of A. Larry Ross Communications, a Dallas-based agency providing crossover media liaison at the intersection of faith and culture; for more than 32 years, he served as director of media/public relations for evangelist Billy Graham.
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