THE FIRST TIME I met Billy Graham, I did not expect to like him. He had the aura for me not of religion, but of religiosity. And he was Richard Nixon's preacher.

My awareness of him crystallized during moments of public righteousness, during all of the agony over Vietnam, when he would pound at the pulpit of his television crusades, inveighing against the storms of youthful rebellion. "There is too much negativism," Billy Graham would say, "too many people knocking our institutions." And he would call to the podium assorted young marines, clean-cut and earnest, to explain how God had helped them kill communists.

On domestic moral issues, he often sounded much the same. In October of 1971, the business and civic leaders in his hometown of Charlotte, N.C., proclaimed a day in his honor. President Nixon was on hand to speak, and there was a private party with Danish lobster tails and cross-shaped sandwiches and a 30-pound cake in the shape of a Bible.

Graham seemed overwhelmed by the gales of attention, and he smiled and joked and said gracious things. But his public remarks took a turn for the serious.

"In my family," he said, "we also wrestled with poverty if you go by today's standards. Except we did not know we were poor. We did not have sociologists, educators and newscasters reminding us of how poor we were. We also had the problem of rats. The only difference between then and now was that we did not call on the federal government to kill them."

For those whose images of Graham remain frozen in that time, his Washington crusade next month (April 27-May 4 at the Washington Convention Center) may bring a few surprises. For more than a decade now, he has been on what he calls "a pilgrimage" -- an inexorable and public evolution of his views -- and no longer does he sound like a forerunner of the Rev. Jerry Falwell.

Beneath the durability and apparent simplicity of his image -- the sun-tanned presence calling people forward, proclaiming the saving grace of Jesus Christ in cavernous stadiums and auditoriums scattered around the planet -- lies a complex personality. Billy Graham has become -- even more than he was -- an honest, unpretentious man, who has had the courage to admit his capacity for error.

He was plunged into deep and painful introspection in 1974, when Richard Nixon -- whose persistent flatteries he had gratefully received -- suddenly fell from grace in the Watergate scandal. By that time, Graham had become a familiar figure in the halls of power. Every president since Eisenhower had courted his favor, and it was heady stuff for a Carolina farmboy -- a man of touching humility, easily transformed into a need for acclaim -- when presidents of both parties seemed to seek his counsel.

So Graham was devastated by the fall of Richard Nixon, felt used and tainted by the public character of the friendship. Until he listened to the Oval Office tapes, with all their vulgarities and sinister plottings, he had regarded Nixon as a man of great integrity, mistaking his pieties for an expression of real faith. Now, perhaps for the first time in his life, confusions and doubts outweighed his easy certainties. The enamel had cracked, and Graham began to brood over the complexities of human nature, the evil that can lurk beneath benign exteriors.

He had always been a man of answers. Suddenly there were questions, and they only became more troubling over the next several years when he took a series of trips to the Iron Curtain countries -- where he began to re-examine the Cold War rhetoric that shaped his career. During his visits to Poland and Hungary, he began to see the humanity of America's adversaries. And in any final showdown between East and West, he now understood, the first casualties might include these human beings to whom he was speaking.

During the same period of time, he also visited Bangladesh, Calcutta and other Third World areas, where the scope and gravity of world hunger finally began to hit him. Starving people, like communists, were no longer an abstraction.

Because of such experiences, Graham's current ethical agenda reflects a deep concern for people who hurt. He denounces racism, nuclear weapons and hunger -- all the sins of oppression and preparation for war, even as he crusades for personal morality.

Thus, in the spring of 1982, he stood before 700 people at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, speaking softly, informally, utterly without pretension.

"As a Christian," he said, "I believe that God has a special concern for the poor of the world . . . I believe God has a special concern for things like peace, racism, the responsible use of Earth's resources, economic and social justice, the use of power and the sacredness of human life. I confess that I have not always seen many of the complexities . . . I am still learning . . . But I have come to see in deeper ways some of the implications of my faith and the message that I have been proclaiming."

Graham Allison, the dean of the Kennedy school and a former resident of Graham's hometown, was astonished by the humility of the speech, and he said many students had a similar reaction. Nor were they alone. "I've developed a great admiration for Billy Graham," said Rabbi Marc Tannenbaum of the American Jewish Committee. "Just look at him today and the way that he's grown."

And Will Campbell, a renegade Southern Baptist theologian and author, a civil rights advocate who once criticized Graham for his coziness with power, declared with some emotion: "I used to accuse him of being the court prophet to Richard Nixon. I have to say, he's God's prophet now." But there is still an odd reluctance about him -- a cautious yearning for acceptance, for the accustomed safety of the middle, that frustrates his critics on the left and the right.

And there are the lingering questions: Who is Billy Graham really, this man who has become a symbol of mass market Christianity? What will be his legacy? And what is there about him that we can't quite dismiss?

The search for answers leads to his 16th year when, as a thoroughly ordinary American teenager given to guilt-riddled fascinations with girls and fast cars, he found himself and a friend at a revival. The presiding evangelist, a ferocious intinerant named Mordecai Ham, demanded that the sinners confess and come forward. Graham says he almost didn't go. But then, with an ill-defined repentance surging violently inside him, he moved hesitantly up the aisle and asked Jesus to forgive him. Before long you could find him on Charlotte street corners, stiffly self-righteous in his newfound propriety, preaching to pedestrians about the wrath of God Almighty.

Then he went away to college, first to the ultra-fundamentalist Bob Jones University, where he was miserable, and later to the Florida Bible Institute in the suburbs of Tampa, where his theology and his style took on the first hints of polish. His fire-and-brimstone understanding of sin became at least a little tempered by his sunny disposition, his gathering optimism about the efficacy of the faith, and when he graduated and began his work as an evangelist, the crowds were caught up in his natural, vibrant decency.

He still lunged about the pulpit, lashing the air with a pointed forefinger and warning his listeners of the ravages of hell. But then as now, there was an undeniable compassion when he stood before them and told them softly:

"I have no power to save anybody, to forgive anybody, to heal anybody. I'm praying right now while I'm talking to you. I'm praying, 'Lord, help me say the right thing to that person before me.' "

There was in addition another major factor in Graham's appeal. In the 1940s and '50s, on up through the early years of the 1970s, he was a righteous anti-communist, a committed Cold Warrior, proclaiming that the world was divided in half. "On the one side," he declared, "we see Western culture, with its fruit and its foundation in the Bible, the word of God . . . Communism, on the other hand, has declared war against God, against Christ, against the Bible."

Such words fell pleasantly on the ears of William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper magnate, who, after a crusade in Los Angeles in 1949, ordered his reporters to "puff Graham." What Hearst ordered, his staff quickly did, and suddenly Graham's picture was splattered across the newspapers all over the country, prompting Time-Life's Henry Luce to get into the act. Graham was stunned, perhaps even frightened, by the sudden and unrelenting shower of attention, and he remembers that he telephoned a colleague and told him: "You better get out here. Something's happening, and I don't know what it is. It's way beyond me."

Such feelings of inadequacy are not at all surprising. Graham has a genuine, unflinching understanding of his own ordinariness that is still intact after all the accolades. It is, perhaps, his most touching trait. But it has a peculiar flip side -- a lingering need to justify himself, that has left him susceptible to flattery.

The flattery has come, and still does, from the highest of places. But Graham's response to it has quite clearly changed, chastened irrevocably by the demise of Nixon. In the wake of it he has emerged as a more reflective person and his relationship to American politics and culture -- his understanding of his country's mission in the world -- is no longer the same. He now speaks with a different perspective.

"There was a time," he told Sojourners magazine, a Washington-based Christian journal, in 1979, "when evangelicals were in the vanguard of some of the great social movements. I think of the fight against the slave trade, for example. Then in some respects we lost sight of our responsibilities to fight social evils. We said that the world would never be reformed completely anyway until Christ came again, so why bother?

"But of course that was evading the issue. After all, I know that not everyone will believe the Gospel, but that does not mean I should give up preaching it. I know the human race is not going to suddenly lay down their arms, but that does not keep us from doing all we can before it is too late.

"Now I think evangelicals are regaining their social concern, seeing that God is concerned about the whole person. There is a danger that we will go to the opposite extreme and reduce the Gospel to social activism, of course. But what we all need to do is return to the Bible afresh -- not going to it to prove a point, but seeing what it says as the Holy Spirit opens our eyes. We need to see what it says about our priorities, our lifestyles, and our mission in the world.

"Then we need to obey."

He was never, of course, a one-dimensional right-winger. In 1952, he addressed himself forcefully and unmistakably to the predominant moral issue of his time. Stalking angrily from the pulpit during a crusade in Chattanooga, he pulled down the ropes that separated blacks and whites in the audience, and from that moment on, he made clear his opposition to the practice of segregation.

He developed a cordial relationship with Martin Luther King (knew him well enough to call him by his nickname, Mike), and in 1957 he spoke out again in his own hometown. He had seen the newspaper photographs of Dorothy Counts, a young black girl in a prim checkered dress, taunted by a mob as she broke the color barrier at a Charlotte high school. Deeply moved and offended by the image, Graham sat down and wrote her a letter, stiff and awkward in its sympathy, a curious mixture of Christian compassion and Cold War patriotism:

"Dear Miss Counts," he said. "Democracy demands that you hold fast and carry on. The world of tomorrow is looking for leaders, and you have been chosen. Those cowardly whites against you will never prosper because they are un-American and unfit to lead. Be of good faith. God is not dead. He will see you through. This is your one great chance to prove to Russia that democracy still prevails. Billy Graham, D.D."

For the better part of 20 years, he refused to hold a crusade in South Africa, and when he finally did go in 1973 -- speaking to 105,000 people in Johannesburg and Durban -- he denounced the practice of apartheid, calling it a sin, and he insisted that his audience be fully integrated.

In the years since then, he has continued his urgent pace of overseas travel, and in the early summer of 1982 -- a time of great approval from unexpected quarters -- he set out of Moscow. His mission was twofold: to preach the Gospel in several Russian churches, and to testify at an international religious conference on nuclear disarmament.

At the heart of his peace conference message was a quote from Albert Einstein: "The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything except our way of thinking. Thus we are drifting toward a catastrophe beyond comparison. We shall require a substantially different manner of thinking if mankind is to survive."

Graham echoed the sentiment:

"Our purpose is to rise above narrow national interests . . . Let us call the nations and leaders of our world to repentance. We need to repent as nations and over our past failures -- the failure to accept each other, the failure to accept each other, the failure to be concerned about the needs of the poor and the starving of the world, the failure to place top priority on peace instead of war . . . . "

"I would urge the leaders of nations, especially the major powers, to declare a moratorium on hostile rhetoric. Peace does not grow in a climate of mistrust . . . . "

Though he still speaks passionately on the subject of peace, weaving the issue into nearly every public message, he generally avoids the debate on the best way to pursue it. He has dodged reporters' questions on the Reagan arms buildup, and skirted the issue on specific new weapons.

Though criticism pains him if he respects the source, Graham does his best to shrug it off.

"My main focus is the Gospel," he says, with the faintest trace of apology. "I'm concerned about what it can do for you, for a person's life. There may be issues distantly related to the Gospel, or perhaps they are deeply related. But the gift of an evangelist is a very narrow gift."

He shrugs when you ask how history will judge him.

"I think I won't have any control of that," he says. "There are a couple of books being written right now -- religious history in the 20th Century -- and I don't know that I'll even be mentioned because there are so many people that have come along who have made a much greater impact, right or wrong, than I have.

"But Daniel Schorr said something last night that made me feel rather good. He said, 'You give credibility to the Christian cause.' And whether that's true or not, I would like to think so, because we've certainly tried."

So in the years left to him at the age of 67, he remains committed to the energetic application of his talents -- proclaiming the gospel and its link to peace and justice, but more than anything else, simply urging people to recommit their lives.

He will stand at the podium in Washington, Paris, Amsterdam and Tallahassee, and the arena will suddenly fill with the sound of his voice -- rich and honey-toned and gently pleading, the words familiar after so many years:

"You come forward now, men and women, black or white; you come, hundreds of you. It'll only take a moment to come. Mothers, fathers, young people too. The ushers will show you. You may be an elder or a deacon in a church, but you come."

And they will come, too, moving forward slowly in numbers that are startling, the choir as always singing "Just As I Am," and above it all, the same hypnotic voice: "You come now. It's important that you come. There's something about coming forward that helps settle it in your mind."

It is a calling deeply rooted in the simple decency of his faith, and whatever it means or doesn't mean -- whatever its limitations in the eyes of his critics -- he is doing, without question, what he thinks God has in mind.