NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - At age 87, the Rev. Billy Graham can no longer stride to the pulpit and uses a walker to get around.
But a bronze statue to be unveiled by the Southern Baptist Convention will recall the evangelist in his prime. Created by a pastor and sculptor in Wyoming, the figure of Graham will stand larger than life with a Bible in one hand and arms outstretched before a giant cross.
It's a tribute to the man who ministered privately to American presidents and preached the Gospel to millions in packed stadiums.
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 will be moved to Nashville for a 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, so he 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, an ordained Southern Baptist minister, appreciates the tribute.
"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."
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 Cabelas, a chain of hunting outfitters stores, as well as universities, hospitals and cemeteries.
Graham, who recently accepted the 2006 George Bush Award for Excellence in Public Service, has preached to 210 million people worldwide over more than six decades.
Four years ago, he had a series of brain surgeries - the remnants of which still cause him pain - and he's refrained from making many public appearances. He has Parkinson's disease and has been treated for prostate cancer.
Last month, Graham preached to an arena crowd of Hurricane Katrina victims in New Orleans for his first evangelistic sermon since June, when he led his final revival meeting in New York City.
O'Brien, who first created a plastic foam form of the figure and then applied clay to model and finish it, has sent a mold of the statue to a foundry in Lubbock, Texas, which is in the process of 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 John 3:16 and three nails.
The statue's permanent home will be outside the Southern Baptist Convention'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 Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination.
The Web site also offers a timeline of Graham's life, numerous photos and a map showing the location of his more than 400 crusades and tours.
"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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