WASHINGTON — The Rev. Billy Graham laid in honor at the U.S. Capitol Wednesday, one of the nation's highest distinctions.
The honor came after thousands visited his casket Monday and Tuesday at the Billy Graham Library in west Charlotte. It is estimated that more than 13,000 people came to pay their final respects over the two days.
President Donald Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell attended a private ceremony Wednesday to remember "America's pastor," who died a week earlier at age 99.
Nearly 50 family members accompanied Graham's casket to Washington, where he befriended presidents of both parties and counseled others over seven decades.
Channel 9 was at the Billy Graham Library Wednesday morning as the hearse carrying Graham's body headed to the airport.
The ceremony began around 11 a.m. as the hearse carrying Rev. Graham's casket arrived at the Capitol. The casket was removed from the hearse by men in uniform before being marched slowly up the Capitol stairs and into the Rotunda.
Rev. Patrick J. Conroy opened the ceremony by saying, "Dear Lord, thank you for inspiring such greatness in Billy Graham and continue to bless the United States of America."
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Rev. Graham inspired countless life-changing conversions with his humility and plainspoken preaching of essential truths.
McConnell said Graham "lifted up our nation," but it wasn't because he occupied the spotlight so masterfully. It was because Graham knew he didn't belong in it. He describes the reverend as "just a happy instrument in the hands of his Creator."
McConnell went on to say Graham shared the Gospel with more people, face-to-face, than anyone else in history.
"The Senate, and the nation, are so very grateful for his service," he said.
House Speaker Paul Ryan said few people loved others as Graham did, and few were as beloved as "America's Pastor."
"Here lies America's Pastor -- a man made great not by who he was but by who he served with all of his heart and all of his soul and all of his mind. No matter how long the lines grew, no matter how much the times changed, his message never diminished. In those moments, when we felt weak in spirit, when our country was on its knees, he convinced us that is exactly when we find our grace and our strength."
Ryan said Graham ministered to all walks, from some of the greats whose statues line the Capitol -- former Presidents Eisenhower, Ford, and Reagan -- to the everyday citizens who lined up Wednesday to pay their respects.
Ryan said Graham had a gift for connecting with people, and when listening to him, it was as if he was right there next to them, praying with them. He said Graham did not profess to have all the right answers, but "he sure did point us to the right questions."
President Donald Trump said Rev. Graham "changed our country," paying tribute to the late evangelical preacher.
"I remember my father said to me, 'Come on, son. Let's go see Billy Graham at Yankee Stadium.' And it was something special," he said.
Trump then spoke of Graham's travels around the world and the message he carried around the globe.
"His heart, as Franklin will tell you, was always in America. 'God loves you.' That was his message, God loves you," the president said.
Trump called the rare tribute afforded Graham "very fitting," saying Graham was a "legendary" American figure who deserved to be recognized in the place "where the memory of the American people is enshrined."
Michael W. Smith performed "Just As I Am" following Trump's speech before the benediction, and lawmakers expressed their condolences to the Graham family before taking a moment to say their final goodbye to the reverend.
Graham laid in honor beneath the iconic dome Wednesday, before his body will be brought back to Charlotte for his funeral Friday at the Billy Graham Library.
Starting at 1 p.m. Wednesday, members of the public were able to come pay their respects in Washington. Hundreds of people filed into the Capitol Rotunda to take a moment and say their final farewell to the late evangelical leader who inspired millions.
Robby Valderrama came all the way from Tennessee to honor Graham.
"For me to get to be in some small way a part of his legacy, that would be such an honor," Valderrama said.
Though he met every president since Harry Truman and counseled most, Graham grew wary of politics after Watergate. He was closest to Richard Nixon but later said he felt used by him.
Nonetheless, Graham ministered to other presidents until his health began to fail about 10 years ago.
Former President Bill Clinton recalled seeing one of Graham's crusades as a child, a profound experience that became more amazing over his life. Graham counseled him as Arkansas governor, and later as president in the White House itself.
"In that little room, he was the same person I saw when I was 11 on that football field," Clinton said Tuesday after viewing the casket at Graham's home.
Former President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, also visited Graham's home on Monday.
In Washington, Ryan said there had been no doubt that Graham would receive the honor of a public viewing in the Rotunda. He told reporters that almost immediately upon hearing of Graham's death he, Trump, McConnell and Rep. Patrick McHenry, who represents the Graham family's district, agreed it would happen.
Graham shares the honor with 11 presidents and other distinguished Americans, starting with Sen. Henry Clay of Kentucky in 1852 and, most recently, Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii in 2012, according to the House and the Architect of the Capitol.
Graham is only the fourth private person to lie in honor since 1998. The others are two U.S. Capitol Police officers who died in the line of duty in 1998 and civil rights hero Rosa Parks in 2005.
His body will leave the Capitol Thursday morning and head back to Charlotte before his funeral on Friday.
Graham died last Wednesday at the age of 99 at his home in Montreat.
His body was taken to the Graham Family Homeplace via a 130-mile motorcade from Asheville.
The funeral will be in a tent in the main parking lot of Graham's library in tribute to the 1949 Los Angeles tent revivals that propelled him to international fame, family spokesman Mark DeMoss said. About 2,000 people are expected at the private, invitation-only funeral.
Former President Jimmy Carter announced that he would not be able to attend the funeral.
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