Cool, sweet, clear air; rich pink rhododendron blossoms amongst dark leaves; in the distance, layers of Blue Ridge mountains; great food and hospitality; AND an outstanding conference to feed the soul–all these were part of our first visit to The Cove. The Cove is the Billy Graham Conference Center near Asheville, NC. Established by Billy and Ruth Graham, the conference center more than lives up to its purpose of rest, relaxation, and renewal. Definitions of cove in Merriam Webster’s dictionary include “a small sheltered inlet or bay” and “a deep recess or small valley in the side of a mountain.” In other words, here is a place where folks can come to find peace and shelter from the storms of life. More than that, guests are renewed for going out to help others in the storms.
We arrived early on a Tuesday afternoon so were able to enjoy a tour of the magnificent chapel before checking in. Observing that I was not extremely agile with my walker, our guide readily offered us a wheelchair (poor Charles! the ramps were steep!). We were to learn that the staff throughout our stay was always just that thoughtful and kind. From the dining room staff, including Gigi Graham, Billy and Ruth’s daughter, to a warm welcome from Director Will Graham, Franklin’s son, to the front desk clerks and the employees in Ruth’s Attic, the book store, everyone seemed so happy we were there. As a joke, I took a picture of a reserved parking sign designated for “Graham” and sent it to a few friends with the caption “We are so welcome here!” Contrary to what one excited conferee believed when she saw our name tags, we couldn’t lay claim to being part of “the family.” We had to convince this disappointed lady we were no closer related than she was.
I could have sat happily for hours in that chapel. According to the chimes which ring every fifteen minutes, we were only there forty-five minutes. During that time we heard hymns played on request (we asked for “Amazing Grace”) by an accomplished pianist, basked in the beauty of the simple inspiring architecture, and prayed while sitting on 200 year old benches.
Our guide gave us a brief history of the chapel. The property was purchased in 1972, a vision of Billy Graham. It is named the Chatlos Chapel because of a very generous gift from the William Chatlos Foundation. Ruth asked for the height of the steeple to be increased several feet higher than originally planned. The 87 foot steeple was transported to the site by pickup truck. The chapel was open to the public in 1988, that steeple rising well above surrounding trees leading viewers’ eyes to focus on its cross against the sky.
The conference center and two inns are equally as beautiful. Billy Graham’s brother Melvin discovered the property when flying over in early 1970’s. Then Billy and Ruth walked over it as they envisioned this place for folks to come and learn in a relaxing atmosphere. I squinted my eyes and tried to imagine the mountain as it would have been when they first hiked it but I was unable to erase from my mind the simply lovely buildings fitting perfectly amongst the trees. The Grahams purchased the 1,200 acres in 1972 and would both live to enjoy the way the Lord pulled all their visions together and blessed its completion.
There are about 340 guest rooms, beautiful lobbies, auditorium seating some 400 as well as a small auditorium in the chapel, a light and airy large cafeteria, exhibit halls, classrooms and meeting rooms, a generous comfortable deck overlooking the valley and mountains beyond–all of this in simple and classic taste. Everywhere you go, in elevators, down the hallway to Ruth’s Attic, to comfortable roomy bathrooms, the details are eye pleasing and appropriate. One thing I particularly appreciated was the many splendid windows framing views of mountains and gardens. Also, we marveled at the wood work throughout the center. Everywhere there was a feeling of openness and plenty of light. And, as another conferee noted happily, there were scripture passages all along the way presented so attractively. What else could you expect from Billy Graham whose famous line in every sermon was “The Bible says…” ?
We have learned that the cost of a conference is only for one’s room and meals. There is no charge for the wonderful conference speakers and musicians, those being paid for by generous donors. Our conference speaker was Ken Ham, creator of The Ark and The Creation Museum in northern Kentucky. Speaking on the theme, “Thinking Foundationally,” Ken in his Australian accent kept us alert and stimulated. We came away with a new resolve to make a difference, even if tiny, in our changing culture. Some of the other featured speakers this year include Anne Graham Lotz, Richard Blackaby, Tony Evans, and Jerry Vines. Some seminars are especially for pastors and there are military marriage enrichment seminars as well as one-night concerts. I would love to go to one of the Christmas at the Cove evenings!
Michael O’Brien, song writer, vocalist, and pianist, led us in powerful congregational singing as well as giving us presentations of some of his own creations. Though he seemed so young, he was eager to get home to see a newborn grandchild.
In the words of one brochure writer concerning The Cove, “More than majestic views and natural beauty, the true wonder on this mountain is God’s work in the hearts of guests as they study His Word and open their hearts to Him through worship.”
As we drove back down the long curving road between tall evergreens and an under story of rhododendron and laurel, we were so thankful for our time at this beautiful place, for the legacy of Billy and Ruth, and for the astonishing ways God’s power has been manifested in and through them.
One of my favorite Billy Graham quotes is this: “You will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now…”