Charlotte, N.C. Evangelist Billy Graham held his final crusade two years ago and has made few public appearances since. But the group charged with carrying on the work of the frail, 88-year-old preacher believes he can still have an impact, through a new $27 million museum that tells his story.
Today, former Presidents Carter, Clinton and George H.W. Bush are expected to be among 1,500 well-wishers at the private dedication of the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte.
The 40,000-square-foot complex, built near the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, traces the preacher's rise from farm boy to the most widely heard minister of all time, having preached the Gospel in person to more than 210 million people over his long career.
"I see the library as a ministry," said the Rev. Franklin Graham, Billy Graham's son and successor, who serves as chief executive of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
"It's an opportunity to share the message that my father has preached to a different audience and a different group of people. Even after my father is in heaven, whenever that day will be, it will be an opportunity to extend his ministry for several generations."
Billy Graham suffers from fluid on the brain, prostate cancer and Parkinson's disease, and is largely confined to his home in Montreat, N.C. His wife, Ruth, 86, has degenerative osteoarthritis of the back and neck and is bedridden at their home.
Franklin Graham said his father is strong enough to appear at the dedication, but "he's preoccupied right now with my mother. She is very weak."
Billy Graham, who has met every president since Harry S. Truman, initially opposed plans for the presidential-style library, his son said. But he agreed when Franklin Graham explained that it was not meant as a monument to his father.
"We presented it to him that this is a ministry," Franklin said. "It's about the message you preached and what you dedicated your life to."
The museum, which is set to open Tuesday, will be free to the public.
The dairy farm where Billy Graham grew up is just a few miles from the site of the library and the building design reflects his roots. The entrance looks like a barn and has a 40-foot glass cross for a front door. Hay bales and a 1936 farm truck decorate the lobby, along with an animatronic cow named Bessie, that talks about Billy Graham as a young boy.
Critics dubbed the animal the "Golden Calf," saying it wasn't appropriate for honoring the evangelist. But Franklin Graham said it was critical to include displays appealing to kids.
The exhibits highlight Billy Graham's close ties to U.S. presidents, his pioneering use of radio, TV and film for evangelism and his role as America's pastor - comforting the nation during crises, most recently after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Designers have recreated the scene of Graham's 1949 Los Angeles tent revival that lasted for weeks, drawing national attention to his ministry for the first time. A section honoring Ruth Graham reproduces the family's living room and includes a video with a tribute from Barbara Bush. And a replica of the Berlin Wall is meant to underscore how remarkable it was that Graham won permission from communist governments to evangelize behind the Iron Curtain.
His personal papers will be stored at the museum, while documents related to his crusades will remain in an archive at Wheaton College, the prominent evangelical school in Illinois where Graham and his wife met and earned bachelor's degrees.