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Groundbreaking for Graham library precedes ‘living crusade’

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (BP)–As he helped break ground on the library that will bear his name and tell his life’s story, Billy Graham’s legacy could not be mistaken.

On a sunny day filled with cheerful celebration and humorous asides, Graham was clearly at ease Aug. 26 in Charlotte, N.C., enjoying reminiscing in the casual company of 400 invited friends and family members.

But the aging evangelist -– and world’s most famous preacher — did not fail to give his ageless message: Christ died for our sins.

“In traveling to different places, the Scripture that has deepened in my heart is where the Apostle Paul says, ‘I am not ashamed of the Gospel,’” said Graham, whose ministry has spanned more than six decades.

An extended standing ovation greeted Graham, 86, as he stepped onto the stage with the aid of a walker. Graham, who has prostate cancer and Parkinson’s disease, spoke in a strong voice but quipped that his hearing has gotten so bad he needs an interpreter to speak to his wife, Ruth.

Self-directed jokes about his failing hearing and eyesight notwithstanding, Graham’s wit was as sharp as his piercing Gospel message.

“I never hear a word my wife says,” he chuckled during his unprepared remarks for The Billy Graham Library groundbreaking that included anecdotes about loyal friends and his longstanding pledge to stay out of politics.

“People say, are you a Republican? I say I’m like the man in the Civil War who had a gray coat and blue trousers –- and was shot at by both sides,” Graham cracked.

Earlier this year, Graham announced his June crusade in New York City would be his last, passing the mantle to son, Franklin Graham.

Franklin Graham, president and chief executive officer of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, told the gathering at the groundbreaking how reluctant his father was to have a “monument built to himself.”

Franklin Graham assured him The Billy Graham Library will be a “living crusade,” meant for evangelism and to illustrate how God can work through anyone.

The 40,000-square-foot library, to be free to the public, should be completed in 2007. Franklin Graham said it could attract 200,000 to 400,000 visitors each year -– with the aim “to tell about God’s Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.”

He said it is a fitting tribute to the humility of his father’s life, the story of a humble farm boy who rose to world prominence, eventually sharing the Gospel with 210 million people in 185 countries and hundreds of millions through his broadcasts.

A little more than half of the $25 million needed for the library has been raised so far through private donations; it is the first capital campaign in the 55-year history of the BGEA, said board member Graeme Keith.

Billy Graham thanked many friends individually, including Cliff Barrows, who sat on stage with him. He said Joe Greer, his longtime counselor, friend and lawyer, along with Keith, “kept me outta jail.”

“I told him, ‘Don’t ever let me become a millionaire,” because of problems others had when money took over their ministries, he said.

“He’s kept his word,” Graham grinned in a deadpan, turning his attention to his nephew, Charlotte businessman Mel Graham, son of his late brother Mel, who died two years ago.

His nephew, he said, preaches the Gospel faithfully wherever he goes.

“I’ve let him go ahead and become a millionaire,” Graham said, to more laughter.

Later, in an interview, Mel Graham talked about the family’s 1927 brick colonial farmhouse that will be moved to the new 63-acre BGEA grounds in Charlotte, next to the library, just a few miles from where Billy Graham grew up in it.

Mel Graham said it was a privilege to learn strong work ethics as he grew up in another house on the family farm; as he got older, he became the resident handyman.

“I dismantled the house … took it apart piece by piece in the late ’70s,” when the family farm was sold for development, Graham said.

He remembers his grandmother, “Mother Graham,” Billy’s mother, Morrow Coffey Graham, who died in 1981, baking bread in the kitchen of that house. He said the actual cards on which she carefully typed Bible memory verses for the grandchildren will be part of the multimedia exhibits recreating his uncle’s life.

Franklin Graham said the lobby of the library building will resemble a dairy barn, inset with a striking glass wall in the shape of a cross, with a door at the bottom through which all visitors will enter.

Quite unlike the 75 cows Billy Graham woke to milk each morning at 3 a.m. as a youth, a mechanical talking dairy cow will greet children as they enter the interactive library.

The media has latched onto the talking cow, Franklin Graham smiled, but, he said, “How do you get young kids engaged? The lobby is going to resemble a dairy barn, and the milk cow is going to … challenge the kids, asking them how many times Billy Graham says Jesus,” as they go through the exhibits.

“I hope to put a New Testament in the hands of every child who comes through,” he said, whether they keep track of the answers correctly or not. He said he hopes it will be a field trip destination for schools across the Carolinas.

“Pray for this project. It’s the greatest thing you can do for it,” Billy Graham said, smiling and adding an unaccustomed request: “If you have any money, give that too,” as laughter rose once again.

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  • Andrea Higgins