September 12 marks 13 years since country music legend Johnny Cash passed away.
“Johnny Cash was not only a legend but was a close personal friend,” Billy Graham once said. “Johnny was a good man who also struggled with many challenges in his life. Johnny was a deeply religious man. He and June came to a number of our Crusades over a period of many years.
“Ruth and I took a number of personal vacations with them at their home in Jamaica and in other places. They both were like a brother and sister to Ruth and me. We loved them. … I look forward to seeing Johnny and June in heaven one day.”
As we commemorate Cash’s home-going and celebrate his life and his faith, learn about the role his family played in his surrender to Christ, and read about a friendship that gave him another platform to share the hope he found.
Meet Me in Heaven.
That’s what grave site visitors read on Johnny Cash’s tombstone, just outside of Nashville.
And it’s what he urged audiences at numerous Billy Graham Crusades to do—in a manner of speaking.
“Meet Me in Heaven” is also the title of a song inspired by Cash’s brother, Jack, who died an untimely death—and could very well have planted the seed of the Gospel in his younger brother’s heart.
“Uncle Johnny was closest to Jack out of all the siblings,” said Mike Garrett, Cash’s nephew. “And Jack was a profound witness to the family, especially during the last week of his life.”
Jack suffered fatal injuries from a table saw accident in Dyess, Arkansas, where the seven Cash siblings grew up. Carrie, their mother, prayed fervently over all her children, but it was Jack—the third child and one ahead of Johnny in the birth order—who was the evangelist in the family.
He lived for a week following his accident. The family was gathered in his hospital room to hear his last words: “Can you see them? Can you see all the angels around? Meet me in heaven.”
Decades later, it is understood by Garrett to be one of the most pivotal events in the lives of the Cash family members: “My mother (Louise, Johnny’s older sister) said the room lit up—one of those kind of eerie but glowy’ moments right before he passed away.”
But it would be more than 20 years from that moment before the Man in Black would see the light.
Those years would see the peaks of his fame and career success, but it would also see the dark valleys of his drug and alcohol addiction.
Through it all, his family never wavered. And they never stopped praying for him.
A Decision for Christ, and a New Friendship
“We lived in Memphis, and Uncle Johnny would occasionally come through town since he lived in Nashville. Mother always witnessed to him, prayed for him and tried to talk to him about Jesus,” Garrett remembered.
“One day, in the mid 1960s, I came home from school and mom told me that Uncle Johnny had visited and told her he had become a Christian. He took her for a drive around town to tell her the story. She thought they were going to have a wreck, because he was so excited about his new faith in Christ. At that point, he understood what it really meant to follow Jesus. Grandma Cash’s prayers were answered.”
Cash’s faith remained intact, despite his struggle with old habits and encounters with demons from the past. In the early 1970s, Billy Graham got word of Cash’s relatively new faith and invited him to be a part of Crusade events.
Billy Graham also invited Cash into what became a friendship that only strengthened as the two men grew older. Together with their wives, they visited one another’s homes and spent vacations together at Cash’s property in Jamaica.
“I remember Uncle Johnny saying to me that he had started going to Billy Graham Crusades—that he would sing and share his testimony. He made that a top priority—a higher priority than concert tours,” Garrett said.
Cash once addressed his worldly struggles from the stage at a 1989 Crusade in his home state of Arkansas: “My personal life—my personal problems—has been widely publicized. There have been things said about me that made people ask, ‘Is Johnny Cash really a Christian?’ I take great comfort in the words of the Apostle Paul, who said: ‘What I will to do I do not practice, but what I hate I do. It is no longer I that do it, but the sin that dwells within me. But who will deliver me from this body of death? It is Jesus Christ, our Lord.’”
His Spiritual Legacy Lives On
While many may say Johnny Cash was instrumental in their music careers, numerous people have credited his witness to their faith in Christ.
There was a graveside memorial service in 2014 to dedicate a new grave marker at Johnny Cash’s burial site. As Garrett—a minister—conducted the ceremony, he opened up the floor for the 200 in attendance to share any thoughts or memories that would honor his uncle.
“I can’t tell you how many spoke up and said that he was instrumental in them coming to faith in Christ,” Garrett said. “And some of them said he helped them clean their lives up—pointed them toward getting off drugs and alcohol. And pointed them toward good, and away from evil.”
Cash, who spent much of his time ministering to those enslaved in substance abuse, said this of his ultimate purpose in life:
“Only someone who has had such a problem (as substance abuse) can have complete love and compassion and understanding for such people. I love drug addicts. And I love alcoholics. When Jesus said He was sent to heal the brokenhearted and preach deliverance to the captives, I believe these were some of the people he was talking about.
“If some lost, lonely person somewhere out there in a dirty bed, in a dark room, can see the light of Jesus Christ in me, then that is my reward.”