MONTREAT — How can a tiny alpine village of Switzerland or Austria transform itself into a host city for the winter Olympics? Only the local residents know for sure.
But the locals in Montreat, N.C., have an idea. Their tiny town — 697 counted citizens in 2005 — is hosting the funeral of Ruth Bell Graham today. Their preparations have taken on Olympic proportions.
When Mrs. Graham’s health turned more precarious six months ago, the needed preliminary decision-making began. Through these months, Montreat leaders met repeatedly with leaders from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, based in Charlotte; with staff from the Billy Graham Training Center, i.e., “The Cove”, based in nearby Asheville; with state and local law enforcement agencies, and with representatives of the U.S. Secret Service.
The array of organizations within Montreat itself worked to coordinate their efforts, a level of planning and coordination most small towns will never face. The local mayor, Letta Jean Taylor, and the town administrator, Ron Nalley, were involved. The Montreat Conference Center has had to prepare and coordinate the logistics and use of the facilities, including its 2,000-seat auditorium. Alongside, Montreat College — with its dorms and students — and the Montreat Presbyterian Church play partner roles. Mrs. Graham was a member of the congregation there, so her pastor, Richard White, has been called upon to lead the funeral service.
Several hundred young adults reside on the campus during the school year — which recently wrapped up their spring term — and they were replaced by 1,200 participants in the youth conference, which concluded on Saturday morning, just hours before the actual funeral.
Merri Bass, vice president for program development and marketing at the Conference Center, summarizes that it has taken “a raft of volunteers” to serve the needs of both the regular events and the solemn tasks for the funeral.
George Barber, president of the Conference Center said, “Our summer staff has stepped up to the plate. Our regular staff has stepped up to the plate. The conferees have stepped up to the plate.” And the plans have come together.
Timing has been critical. The youth conference, which meets six weeks out of the summer, wrapped up its activities on Saturday morning, and the annual music and worship conference is scheduled to begin on Sunday afternoon. Sunday worship services in Gaither Hall for the Montreat Presbyterian Church (EPC) and in the Auditorium for Montreat Presbyterian Church [PC(USA)] and the broader summer community are the only intervening events usually sandwiched between such conferences.
When Mrs. Graham’s death came on Thursday June 14 at at 5:05 p.m., the decision was made to hold the funeral in less than 48 hours.
Thursday evening all available staff and volunteers went to work. Montreat community members prepared box lunches for those arriving early for the funeral service. Others volunteered their time to support every staff member: to rearrange the Auditorium for the service after attendees at the final youth plenary vacated it at 11 p.m. Friday night, and to provide ready help to the many visitors who would come to their town for the service.
They have caught a glimpse of what those alpine villages experience when preparing for an Olympic event.
Some things continued to operate as normal, knowing Mrs. Graham would have wanted it that way. In particular, the youth conference, while acknowledging and praying for the Graham family and for the many others sharing in their grieving, continued to follow their program as originally scheduled. Their closing worship was distinctively youthful in energy and casual in dress and lively in preaching — accompanied with lots of laughter.
The sermon in that closing worship brought a striking convergence to all that would follow on the next day. The preacher, Lindsay Lee Slocum, associate pastor of youth ministries at the Roswell Church in Roswell, Ga., addressed the grieving process for the conferees — speaking to the inevitable need to say “farewell” to one another as they head to their own homes and communities. “We’ve not been created for endings,” she said. “God did not create us for endings. … The story is not over. We’re not saying goodbye. … This is just turning a page. … God will be with you.”
Those words for the youth could be shared with all those who grieve, especially for those saying “farewell” to Ruth Graham.
The Montreat Community, by word and deed, is saying goodbye to one of its own. The community counts it a privilege to put forth their best efforts for the Graham family at their time of grief and loss. Says George Barber, “It has been our absolute honor to do this for these tremendous people. The Grahams are so loved in this community for all they have done for the church in the world.”