Consider it Billy Graham's last crusade, one that will draw the faithful long after America's most famous religious figure is gone.
On a wooded site in his hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina just off Billy Graham Parkway, no less the Billy Graham Library will be dedicated May 31 at a private ceremony expected to feature former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Former President Jimmy Carter also is likely to attend.
The ex-presidents are likely to be upstaged, though, by the guest of honor. The 88-year-old evangelist is scheduled to come down from his mountain home in Montreat, N.C., for a rare public appearance to address the crowd of 1,500 invited guests and assorted national media.
If his fragile health allows him to make the trip he can barely hear or walk and his vision is poor Graham's message will echo the one his ministry hopes visitors take from the library: The glory should go to God rather than the lanky farm boy who preached the gospel to hundreds of millions of people around the world.
And yet, once visitors get a look at the old photos and crusade footage that fill the 40,000-square-foot library, it might be a tough sermon to sell. Even for Billy Graham.
"He doesn't want attention to go to him," said Graham's younger sister, Jean Ford, of Charlotte. "And yet it just does."
When the library opens free of charge to the public June 5, state tourism officials hope it and the planned NASCAR Hall of Fame nearby (scheduled to open in 2010) will draw visitors to the area.
The Graham organization estimates that 200,000 visitors a year will tour the library and restored Graham boyhood home, both beside headquarters of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. The ministry, now run by Billy Graham's son, Franklin, raised $27 million in private funds to present what Franklin Graham has called "the truth of the gospel."
Franklin Graham, 54, said the goal of the library mirrors the gospel on which the ministry is based.
"I want to preserve for another generation what God did through one man, a man who said yes to the Lord Jesus Christ," the younger Graham said in an interview. "And to emphasize what God can do through anyone who says yes to him."
Billy Graham, whose poor health has taken him out of the spotlight, was not available for an interview.
A 40-foot glass cross built into the front of the library is the first sign that the Grahams mean evangelical business. So does the theater that ends the tour, featuring a montage of Billy Graham sermons through the years, inviting people to commit their lives to Christ. The younger Graham said he hopes people will watch his father's old messages, then come forward to talk with trained counselors about their faith.
But in between the cross and the closing invitation, the library blends sober history and theme-park fun. If you want serious, visit the museum of evangelism at the Billy Graham Center at his alma mater, Wheaton College, near Chicago. But if you want to laugh, check out the mechanical talking cow that greets visitors at the entrance here part of the dairy farm theme that continues throughout the library.
Visitors who get hungry can eat at the Graham Brothers Dairy Bar and dine on chicken salad sandwiches inspired by the recipe followed by Billy's wife, Ruth. Though she's virtually bedridden, Franklin Graham said his 86-year-old mother wants to attend the dedication. The ministry has indicated she might not be well enough to travel.
The library hasn't been without controversy.
A family disagreement over where Billy and Ruth Graham should be laid to rest near the Billy Graham Training Center outside Asheville, N.C., or at the library in Charlotte went public in The Washington Post and other publications last year. Franklin Graham said his parents will decide their final resting place.
"I think between the two of them," he said, "they've got it worked out. I think they have a plan, but they're going to keep it to themselves."
And then there's the talking cow. Despite some who question its seriousness, Franklin Graham calls it "fantastic." He said the cow offers a spiel about cows and Billy Graham, then challenges children to answer questions about the museum on a card they'll be given at the start. There are prizes waiting at the finish.
Adults, meanwhile, can admire photographs of Billy Graham with such celebrities as Johnny Cash, Bob Hope and Muhammad Ali. There's a replica of the tent under which Graham wowed the world at his 1949 crusade in Los Angeles a re-creation so accurate that "Glorius Music" is misspelled as it was on the real tent in Los Angeles. "Ruth's Room" is a replica of their living room in the mountains. There are even two handguns turned in by gang members touched by Graham's message during his 1957 New York City crusade.
Ford, 74, said her big brother took a private tour of the library on a recent Sunday. As he was wheeled around the library in a wheelchair, he took in the sights and sounds of a lifetime lived long ago.
His reaction? "Overwhelmed," she said.
She said her brother keeps insisting this is not about him, it should be all about God.
Jean Ford's response?
"It is about you," she tells him, though she adds this for museum visitors: "Without God's hand on Billy, none of this would ever have happened."
Copyright © 2007 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Also available are two interviews with Billy Graham originally published in the 25th anniversary issue of Christianity Today:
Candid Conversation with the Evangelist | Graham's freewheeling comments reflect the character and charisma that have spurred his career as a Christian crusader.
In the Beginning | Billy Graham recounts the origins of Christianity Today.