The Rev. Billy Graham returned to his home town this week to break ground on a new headquarters for his ministry and a museum he hopes will carry his evangelistic legacy far into the future.
"This move to Charlotte anchors us firmly to our roots," said the 83-year-old evangelist, whose ministry is relocating after half a century in Minneapolis.
Showing the same reserve of strength that helped him preach to 255,000 at a four-day mission in Dallas last month, Graham handed off the cane he uses for walking at Tuesday's ceremonies and turned three shovelfuls of dirt.
The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association's international headquarters is to be constructed on 63 acres off the Billy Graham Parkway near Charlotte/Douglas International Airport. The association plans 250,000 square feet of offices, production and distribution facilities and a museum and library dedicated to Graham and the history of evangelism.
About 500 guests rode shuttle buses to the museum site and were protected from the rain by a large white tent. Graham's wife, Ruth, who has been hospitalized three times in recent months, remained at the family's home in Montreat.
Gov. Michael F. Easley was there to declare the day Billy Graham Appreciation Day. And the setting reminded Mayor Pat McCrory of the kind of revival meeting where Graham committed to his life's work.
"How appropriate that we meet under a big tent," he told the audience.
About 20 demonstrators gathered just off the property, protesting comments that Graham's son, the Rev. Franklin Graham, has made about Islam. In a television interview last year after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Franklin Graham called Islam "a very evil and wicked religion" and has continued to be critical in public remarks and in a new book, "The Name."
"I came here to defend my faith," said Malek Jandali, a Muslim and native of Syria. "God came to us in words, and words are very powerful. . . . When Franklin Graham says that our prophet Muhammad is a terrorist, that does more harm than good."
Franklin Graham said he stands by his comments.
"We are to reconcile one another to God through faith in Jesus Christ," he said. "Of course, there are people who don't believe in Jesus Christ, who don't accept Jesus Christ as the son of God. . . . On a day like this, my interest is for the future of this property and not people standing on the fringes with other interests."
His father was more empathetic.
"I didn't know they were here. I welcome them all, and I love them all," Billy Graham said. "I have many friends in that part of religion."
The evangelistic association's move is expected to be complete by mid-2004. At that point, every major Graham family operation will be based in North Carolina: the evangelistic association in Charlotte, the Billy Graham Training Center outside Asheville and Franklin Graham's Samaritan's Purse international relief charity in Boone.
Graham was born in Charlotte in 1918 and raised on a dairy farm. He committed himself to Jesus at a revival meeting when he was 16.
Minnesota was an accidental home for the evangelistic association, which started there in 1950 as a one-room office for Graham while he served as part-time president of what is now Northwestern College in St. Paul.
Relocating to Charlotte was one of Franklin Graham's first major decisions after he took over the association from his father in 2000.
Last summer, Americans United for Separation of Church and State criticized the deal under which the city sold the land to the Billy Graham organization, saying Charlotte should not have agreed to pay $325,000 for road improvements and utilities.
The city, which expects the museum and library to attract 200,000 visitors annually, said the subsidy was no different from others that have been used to lure prominent businesses to the area.