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Ridgecrest prayer garden honors Billy Graham associate

RIDGECREST, N.C. (BP)–The sparkling stream meandering through the tangle of massive wild rhododendrons under a dazzling Blue Ridge Mountain sky would no doubt have been an irresistible place for T.W. Wilson to stop and pray.

Of course, there probably wasn’t a place the late evangelist didn’t do that. He was known as a prayer warrior.

Friends and family members who gathered to dedicate the new T.W. Wilson Memorial Prayer Garden at LifeWay Ridgecrest Conference Center June 5 said the tranquil natural setting dedicated to prayer was a fitting tribute.

“He loved being outside,” said his widow, Mary Helen, as the headwaters of North Carolina’s Swannanoa and French Broad rivers gently tumbled down a nearby waterfall and skipped under an inviting covered bridge. “He loved to hunt and fish, and being able to appreciate God’s glory. This certainly is a glorious spot.”

The couple was married nearly 59 years when he died in 2001.

T.W. Wilson was Billy Graham’s executive assistant, best friend and confidante for 45 years, traveling the world and overseeing much within the Bill Graham Evangelistic Association.

An unassuming helper, he refused any fancy title Graham tried to bestow upon him.

“‘Uncle T’ [as most knew him] didn’t want credit,” said Mike Arrington, vice president of LifeWay corporate affairs. “He just wanted to be a servant.”

After his prayer ministry and humility, the next thing friends and family members mention about him is the ubiquitous T.W. Wilson bear hug.

“We could have named a building after him,” said James T. Draper Jr., president of LifeWay Christian Resources. “But everyone who knows him commented about him praying for them. We wanted a lasting tribute to who he was.”

His son, evangelist Jim Wilson, said, “I’m thrilled this is the emphasis being given to my daddy. We talk more about prayer than we pray. We have conferences on prayer, when what we really need to do is pray. He was a great example of that.”

Byron Hill, national director of LifeWay conference centers, said the serene prayer garden makes a meaningful statement about LifeWay’s ministry.

Ridgecrest is undergoing significant changes through a 10-year capital improvement plan, including construction of the 120-room Mountain Laurel Inn, which opened in October 2002. Unfortunately, it displaced a beloved place of prayer at the heart of the campus.

“Back in the ’20s, a man named Johnson was walking with his young son, who found a natural spring in the woods there and asked, ‘Daddy, wouldn’t this be a wonderful place for people to come and pray?'” Ridgecrest general manager Bill Bowman said.

Shortly afterward, Bowman said, the son died in an accident. The family maintained the area for several years and it eventually was named “Johnson’s spring” to honor the boy.

“Many people had gotten saved there,” Bowman said. “People had gotten engaged there. People expressed great concern over the loss of that place.”

It was clear that a new prayer garden needed to be found, Arrington said.

In April 2002, construction was finishing on the Rutland Chapel, which sits atop a mountainside ridge nearby. Once it was finished, staff members had their answer, and a committee soon formed to raise the $100,000 needed for their plans.

The three secluded acres sit just below the chapel ridge. The forested retreat is now dotted with wooden benches and stairways and even includes an outdoor amphitheatre with a rock lectern for group Bible studies and devotionals. Inscribed memorial brick pavers will be sold and placed along the quiet pathways.

Wilson’s daughter, Sally Ann Pereira, wife of the late Jerry Pereira, former president of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, suggested the covered bridge in case people wanted to pray there in bad weather.

“Daddy was a soul-winner,” and never missed an opportunity to share the Gospel, she said, “so the garden should be welcoming at all times.”

Much care was taken to preserve the pristine environs in their natural state, said Gary McCauley, director of capital resource development for LifeWay. “You can hardly imagine a prettier place, but you can well imagine that people by the tens of thousands are going to look back on this spot as a place that changed their lives, where perhaps they were called to the ministry,” McCauley said. “It’s a pristine place of reflection and a respite from the hustle and bustle of their lives.”

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  • Andrea Higgins