Sculpting faith

Saturday, April 29, 2006

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- At age 87, the Rev. Billy Graham speaks softly and no longer strides to the pulpit.

But to many American Christians, he's still a larger-than-life figure, and that will be reflected in a bronze statue to be unveiled by the Southern Baptist Convention at its meeting later this spring. Created by a pastor and sculptor in Wyoming, the figure of Graham will stand with a Bible in one hand and arms outstretched before a giant cross.

The statue will be presented in June at the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting in Greensboro, N.C. -- Graham's home state -- and then moved to Nashville for permanent installation later this year.

Terrell O'Brien, the sculptor and a Baptist pastor in Pavillion, Wyo., said his research for the artwork turned up a number of portraits and busts of Graham, but nothing like his statue.

O'Brien, 58, wanted to recognize Graham's evangelism all over the world -- he has preached to more than 210 million people -- so the artist created the outstretched gesture, which he calls an invitation for people to accept Christ.

"I have to try to tell a story and pay tribute as well," O'Brien said. "This was not easy, in particular because I'm dealing with a world-known figure. It caused me to tremble. But it's been a tremendous blessing."

Graham didn't sit for the statue, so O'Brien used photographs to sculpt and mold the piece.

David Bruce, executive assistant to Graham, said the evangelist appreciates the tribute. The preacher also recently accepted the George Bush Award for Excellence in Public Service earlier this year.

"Mr. Graham is humbled by those kinds of things, and it's nothing he seeks out," Bruce said. "He's tried to deflect those kinds of earthly honors. He's not searching for any."

An ordained Southern Baptist minister, Graham has been in poor health for several years with a variety of ailments; he held his last revival meeting in New York City last year, though he spoke to victims of Hurricane Katrina victims in New Orleans last month.

O'Brien said he was approached in 2004 to create the piece by Southern Baptist Convention President Bobby Welch, who had seen some of the artist's work.

A professional sculptor for 24 years, O'Brien has done work for Cabela's, a hunting and fishing outfitter, as well as universities, hospitals and cemeteries.

O'Brien first created a plastic foam form of the figure and then applied clay to model and finish it. He has sent a mold of the statue to a foundry in Lubbock, Texas, which is casting it in bronze and assembling it.

When finished, the statue of Graham in a three-piece suit will be 9 feet, 4 inches tall while the cross will be 17 feet. At the foot of the cross is a stone inscribed with three nails and John 3:16 ("For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.")

The statue's permanent home will be outside the SBC's Nashville headquarters and its publishing house, Lifeway Christian Resources, after it's presented at the June convention.

Michael Epps Utley, marketing coordinator for LifeWay.com, said Lifeway started a Web site earlier this year that's dedicated to celebrating Graham's life and ministry.

It features pictures of the statue, which was commissioned and funded by private donors in coordination with the SBC, the nation's largest Protestant denomination.

"We're celebrating his ministry over the course of this entire year -- the centerpiece which is the unveiling of the statue," Utley said. "Billy Graham is still doing ministry. We're not celebrating someone who's at the end of his ministry, but someone who continues to surprise us with his endurance ... his deep commitment for his calling."

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