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Minister to millions, Billy Graham in Montreat was both good neighbor and religious outsider
MONTREAT - Evangelist Billy Graham was one of the most popular Christian messengers, helping millions feel an intimate connection to the faith.
But back in his Western North Carolina home, Graham, who died Wednesday at the age of 99, was both friendly neighbor and religious outsider.
In his hometown of Montreat, the Baptist preacher was a different sort of Christian than most who populate the town. In other parts of Buncombe County, especially Asheville, he represented a fundamentalism that had become less common as the area underwent dramatic cultural shifts, with Wiccans and atheists joining Christians as fixtures in public life.
"There are many people who don't identify with any particular religious denomination or any particular religion," said UNC Asheville religious studies chairman Rodger Payne.
"These are people who may call themselves spiritual rather than religious."
The tiny town of Montreat is different than the rest of the county. The center of southern Presbyterianism, Montreat is politically middle-of-the-road. It's richer, whiter and has "a little bit more retirees per capita," said Mayor Pro Tem Kent Otto.
Homes with rough stone foundations are tucked among Montreat's forested hillsides, rhododendron thickets and tumbling streams. The biggest landowner is a conference center connected to the Presbyterian Church, a denomination not known for animated displays associated with revival-style evangelism.
Voter registration is almost evenly split with slightly more Republicans than Democrats.
Otto, who is Presbyterian, agreed the town is more conservative than Asheville and the county as a whole, and said local politics amount to "a diverse and healthy mix of viewpoints."
Graham was raised a Presbyterian in Charlotte but did his famous work as a Baptist and was an adherent to that denomination the rest of life. His wife, Ruth, the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries, had a strong connection to Montreat. That was the reason the couple settled in the town, many said.
The church where they married has a plaque to the Grahams and another local landmark is Ruth Graham's childhood home on the main road. Residents know where the couple and their five children lived — at the end of one of the steepest roads — but don't freely give out directions.
Many remember Graham driving the steep roads in his jeep or hearing him preach at Anderson Auditorium. That became less common as celebrity and then age made public appearances difficult. Montreat's small population meant many had encounters or even relationships with the family.
Residents interviewed last week spoke with admiration, saying he was genuine in his beliefs and stayed for the most part away from divisive political issues and scandal — unlike many other prominent televangelists.
Those who encountered Graham described him as kind and inspiring.
Meredith Tooley, 52, is a flight attendant originally from California, who lives in a restored 1909 home with glowing dark wood porches.
Her children went to school with Graham's grandchildren and her daughter is engaged to the cousin of Graham's grandson. "Everybody in Montreat is related," Tooley said.
She laughed, remembering how Graham's grandson tried to name drop when he was younger, hoping to impress a girl he'd met by the lake.
"But she had no idea who Billy Graham was."
Graham and the rest of his family were approachable and without judgment, she said.
"They just love people the way God wanted them to."
Adlai Boyd, 82, like a large segment of residents, visited Montreat seasonally when he was younger before moving to the town after retirement. His home has a sign inviting hikers to use the path on his property as the shortest way down to the main road.
During his college summers Boyd worked at the Presbyterian bookstore in Montreat and was invited to the Graham home at times with other young people, where they entertained them and "fed us popcorn," he said.
After college, Boyd went to seminary and became a Presbyterian minister and later a special education professor at the University of South Florida.
"My own impression is he was a very simple man with a simple message that he stuck to. He's to be admired for that," Boyd said. "A lot of his copiers fell very far down, especially in the area of sex, and he did not."
He and other seminary students learned Hebrew and Greek and once looked down on Graham, he said, who was less educated and "got his stuff right out of the King James Bible."
"But we don't look down on him anymore because he's proven himself over and over to be a man of God," Boyd said.
One part of Christianity that Graham missed was the "social gospel," Boyd said.
"Justice being one of the more important aspects of the Gospel. It still is," he said. "He did some things to help Civil Rights, but not a lot. Mostly, he did say he didn't want to participate in Jim Crowe, so he integrated his audiences."
Martha Groves, 84, now uses a wheelchair, but for 13 years after her husband died she worked full time in registration at Graham's training center "The Cove," 13 miles of Swannanoa.
"He gave me a one-sentence sermon once," Groves said.
"I introduced a friend of mine to him and said, 'Mr. Graham, I want my friend to meet my boss.' And he leaned down and gave me a little kiss on the cheek or a hug, I don't remember exactly what, and he said, 'Martha, I don't want to be your boss. I am your servant.'"
Nancy Midgette, 69, a retired Elon University history professor was raised the daughter of a Presbyterian minister and visited Montreat regularly before moving there.
Midgette said she couldn't identify with the "come forward to the front of the church and profess" type of services that Graham conducted.
"But I still felt it was not a political message and that he wasn't saying, 'If you don't profess, you're going straight to hell,'" she said.
Ruth took her children to Presbyterian services at Anderson Auditorium and remembered how Graham's son Franklin and her brother would pass toy cars or other things under the pew to each other.
"One Sunday a marble got loose — and Anderson Auditorium slopes down and it has a stone floor. I have no idea what happened to Franklin when he got home that day, but I know what happened to my brother."
Midgette said Graham impressed her because he largely stayed out of politics, despite his contact with presidents, one exception being President Richard Nixon, she said.
Graham was known to have become close to Nixon and in White House audio recordings released in 2002, Graham was heard making disparaging remarks about Jews to the Republican president, something he said he didn't recall and regretted.
Despite that, Midgette said Graham made a point of trying to bridge denominations and faiths, often offering prayers "in the Lord's name, not in Jesus' name."
"You have to understand the difference and inclusivity," she said. "'Lord' in the broadest sense can encompass non-Christians, but of course 'Jesus' does not."
In that and other ways he represented a different type of evangelist than those who came before and after, she said.
Outside Montreat, Asheville area residents felt less of a connection to Graham as the area shifted politically and religiously.
Up until the 21st Century, Buncombe picked Democrats and Republicans for governor, Congress and president. Now it's one of the bluest counties in the state and the South, having last voted for a Republican presidential candidate 2004.
Asheville has elected a City Councilman who described himself as atheist or "post-theist" and Wiccans have played prominent roles in political and development issues, including holding successful protests to save a tree and green space next to City Hall.
UNCA religion professor Payne said Asheville "was probably ahead of a lot of other places in terms of developing a very vibrant and diverse religious community."
That means many students and people growing up in the area are exposed to religious traditions their parents and grandparents would have considered foreign.
Even young people identifying as Christian, have taken different outlooks on cultural issues than many older people in their faith, Payne said.
"There's been more emphasis on being open to same-sex marriage and LGBTQ concerns," he said.
In 2012, Graham made what some observers said was an uncharacteristic decision to wade into the culture war, coming out in support of a referendum to add a gay marriage ban to the state constitution.
The referendum for "Amendment 1" passed 61 percent to 39 percent but was unpopular among a majority of Buncombe voters, who opposed it 52 percent to 48 percent. That was true too in Montreat where 53 percent voted against the amendment. Like similar state bans the amendment was ruled unconstitutional by federal courts.
At Montreat College, a small religious institution based in the same valley as the town, 22-year-old senior Hannah Calloway said she is a Christian, but hasn't really decided if she's a member of any specific denomination.
Calloway said she came to the religiously-minded college, in part "to figure that out."
She grew up in Asheville with a grandmother who listened to cassette tapes of Graham's sermons and said his take on Christianity didn't differ largely from hers.
"I really like what he did traveling the world preaching and saving so many lives, but our generation of Christians might be a little more open than his era was," she said.
"Sort of a 'love everyone for who they are' idea."