The Billy Graham Library is just a barn, really. A big barn, mind you. An elaborate, 40,000 square-foot, state-of-the-art barn, plopped in Charlotte, North Carolina, complete with a bookstore, gift shop, food court, and a mechanical animatronic talking cow á la Disneyland.
But a barn nonetheless.
Billy Graham is buried on these grounds. His wife Ruth lies beside him. The remains of gospel singer George Beverly Shea rest here also.
William Franklin Graham Jr. was born and raised only a few miles from here. His memorial library hosts upwards of 200,000 annual visitors, ranging from U.S. presidents and dignitaries, to third-grade field trips and Midwestern retirees in Reeboks.
Today, the place was packed.
You can say what you will about the man, you can even attempt to muddy his good name. But even years after his death, Billy still pulls them in.
I remember when Billy Graham would come on TV. In our house, life completely stopped. My father would quit piddling in the garage. My mother would unchain herself from her stovetop.
Granny would sit on the sofa, poised before our Philco console television, legs crossed. I sat on the floor six inches from the glowing screen since I was the family remote control.
And we would watch America’s pulpiteer preach to packed arenas in New York City, L.A., Paris, Germany, and Budapest.
“God loves you!” Billy would shout, pointing that spindly finger at the camera. “He loves you, and you, and you…”
And since I was nose-to-nose with the TV, his message always felt particularly personal.
At the close of his sermons when George Beverly Shea would sing “Just As I Am,” Granny would say, “Turn it up!”
I’d crank the volume and Granny would sing every word without ever dropping the cigarette from the corner of her mouth.
Truthfully, as a boy I didn’t know the difference between Billy Graham and God himself. Not until Jimmy Williams brought an illustrated Bible to Sunday school.
The entire class gathered around Jimmy’s Bible to peek at the illustrations. For ten cents, Jimmy would let you look at the Adam and Eve pictures. For a buck and a quarter you could rent the book for the half day.
Inside this Bible were depictions of the Almighty, shown standing among the clouds, with a long beard, and a white tunic.
“Who’s that supposed to be?” a kid asked Jimmy.
“That’s God, you dummy.”
“But, if that’s God, then where’s George Beverly Shea?”
That’s how intermingled Billy Graham and God were inside our childhood brains. In many of our kid-minds, God wore a plain brown suit and spoke with a North Carolinian accent.
As it happens, there were plenty of those accents at Billy Graham’s library when I visited. Many of the library volunteers grew up here in Mecklenburg County, and most of them remind you of your favorite aunt Judy or uncle Loyd.
The first stop on the self-guided tour was Billy’s restored childhood farmhouse. He was born in 1918, deep in the sticks, back when the world was a vastly different place. Woodrow Wilson was president. Prohibition was in its conceptual stages. Ty Cobb and the Bambino were still playing ball.
They say young Billy would wander through these very woods and practice his sermons for tree stumps and cattle. And on the snowy Carolina mornings, when Billy would milk the cows, they say he practiced shouting between tugs on the udders.
When you enter the library’s main building, your tour takes you through a series of dramatically themed exhibits depicting different phases of Billy’s life and work.
Our tour group began in the recreated canvas revival tents where the preacher first cut his teeth. My wife and I sat in a pew and watched old footage of a baby-faced Billy preaching the paint off the walls.
The tour finished by showing the international sporting arenas where Billy sermonized before crowds so large that spectators sometimes climbed the stadium rooftops, or sat directly beside his pulpit.
The whole tour took a little over an hour, and by the end I could honestly say, without any exaggeration, that I seriously needed to visit the Little Fundamentalist’s room.
It was on my critical journey across the lobby that I noticed someone. A young man. He was crying privately in the corner. He had been with our tour group and he was visibly upset.
I was not the only one who saw him because a few volunteers sidled up to the man and spoke in tender voices.
Without missing a beat, one of the older volunteers bowed her head and closed her eyes. The weeping man covered his face and did the same. They stayed like that until the last amen was uttered.
I asked a nearby volunteer if this sort of thing happened often at the museum.
“Oh, gosh. All the time,” she said. “Every day, actually. We get tons of people who come here at the end of their ropes. People who just didn’t know where else to turn.”
I asked her what volunteers usually do in with people like this.
She smiled. “We just tell’em exactly what Billy woulda told’em. God loves you.”
And you, and you, and you…