The huge cross that forms the entrance to the replica of the dairy barn is the first thing you notice. I’m sure it’s on purpose. I suspect this is the main image people remember from Billy Graham’s televised memorial service on March 2, 2018.
The barn, reminiscent of Graham’s childhood when he milked dozens of cows daily, is the main building of the Billy Graham Library outside of Charlotte, North Carolina. “Library” is misleading, because like American presidential libraries, it is more of a museum with exhibits of memorabilia from the life and career of the famous evangelist, photos of him with notables from Johnny Cash to President Reagan to Martin Luther King Jr. and videos of his sermons and ministry trips around the world.
Despite the emphasis on Graham and his six-decade ministry, don’t imagine that he or the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association wanted the Charlotte tourist attraction to sing the praises of a man. When my wife Kathy and I visited it a few weeks ago, we noticed that on the walls of each exhibit were large panels with scripture verses such as 2 Corinthians 5:20: “So we are the ambassadors of Christ; as if God were launching his call through us.
As Graham did throughout his life, his successors, led by his son Franklin Graham, placed more emphasis on the message than on the messenger. A quote from Billy’s wife, Ruth – who had her own less publicized ministry – is prominent in one room. Following the eight-week tented crusade in Los Angeles that brought Graham to national notoriety in 1949, she said, “We felt we were just spectators. It had been God’s work, (Billy) had only been the instrument.
But leaders of the BGEA organization understand that Billy Graham’s name, listed for decades as one of America’s most admired people, still attracts people. If visitors come to see Billy Graham’s traveling pulpit or a proclamation in his honor of Queen Elizabeth II or his childhood home, which has been moved a few feet from the library, they leave after hearing the gospel of Jesus Christ over and over again.
One of the many videos from the library tour shows a large Russian army choir singing during a Graham Crusade in 1992 in Moscow. Among other spiritual songs, former Communist soldiers sing – in their uniforms – “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”. Watching him was just one of the many emotional moments we had in the library.
On the grounds are also the graves of Billy and Ruth Graham; Cliff Barrows, longtime music director and emcee of the ministry, and his wife, Billie; and George Beverly Shea, the beloved bass-baritone soloist of Graham’s Crusades. All headstones are simple and flat in thick green grass, surrounded by the beauty of North Carolina trees and flowers.
Ruth’s epitaph reflects her theology and spirit: “End of Construction – Thank you for your patience. Billy’s reads: “Preacher of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ – John 14: 6.”
One day after our visit to the library, Kathy and I continued with a 45 minute tour of the Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove. The retreat center is outside of Asheville, NC, two hours west of Charlotte. It was also worth our time.
A retired pastor greeted us in front of an elegant stone chapel with a steeple rising above a forest in the Blue Ridge Mountains. He showed off the centre’s high-tech auditorium and handed us a program of past and future speakers and musicians, which included Christian heavyweights such as Tony Evans, Michael Card, Lee Strobel, Chip Ingram, Phil Keaggy, Tony Dungy and Graham family members Anne Graham Lotz and Will Graham.
When we mentioned being from Amarillo, TX, our enthusiastic guide said he knew Franklin Graham and his team were getting ready for their visit to Amarillo on September 26 and other stops on their Route 66 God Loves tour. You.
The Cove Center has its own exhibit highlighting the history of the Graham ministry, but Kathy and I haven’t seen any photos of our in-person exhibit at Billy Graham. We both attended his 1975 crusade at Jones Stadium in Lubbock – 15 years before we met in Amarillo.
Separately, we were inspired in 1975, and more than four decades later our visit to the library and training center in North Carolina again prompted us to be more proactive about the message of Jesus Christ.
Billy Graham has always preached this message. Maybe he was on to something.
Mike Haynes taught journalism at Amarillo College from 1991 to 2016. He can be contacted at [email protected] Go to www.haynescolumn.blogspot.com for other recent columns.