By Kristy Etheridge
“It’s like you’re in a different world.”
That’s how Andrea Walton described her first visit to The Cove.
“You can feel the Spirit of Christ here and the love of Christ,” said her husband, Eric. “The whole atmosphere just has the peace of Jesus that passes all understanding.”
That peace is exactly what Billy and Ruth Graham hoped their 1,200-acre mountain retreat would exude when the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association purchased the property in 1972. Now home of the Billy Graham Training Center, two inns, Camp Cedar Cliff, and the William F. Chatlos Memorial Chapel, The Cove welcomes weary travelers from all over the world, offering a time of spiritual renewal for God’s people.
Eric and Andrea Walton are from Gastonia, N.C., about 100 miles east of The Cove, which is located in Asheville’s Blue Ridge Mountains. They had heard about the retreat center for years but never made the drive until Saturday.
“We always wanted to come,” said Andrea Walton. “We heard about the open house on 106.9 and we said, ‘Let’s go!’ ”
As the Walton family headed west Saturday morning for the annual open house, Jim and Judy Hastings were driving south. The couple lives in Johnson City, Tenn., about 70 miles north of The Cove.
“Our Sunday school class has been talking about visiting The Cove for years and finally decided to do it,” said Judy Hastings. “We decided to just get a van and ride over.”
As the couple sat in the shade on a pair of wooden rocking chairs, they took in the breathtaking mountain views from the back deck of the Billy Graham Training Center.
“It’s beautiful up here,” said Judy Hastings. “The view. The peace and quiet.”
“I’m just very touched to be here,” said Jim Hastings. “I don’t have enough time and enough words to talk about the meaning.”
Jim and Judy Hastings are longtime admirers of Billy Graham. Even though they, like most of the visitors who stop by The Cove, have never met Mr. Graham, they felt especially close to the 94-year-old evangelist, knowing they were spending time in a place very dear to his and his late wife’s hearts.
The annual open house is a chance for people like the Hastings family to check out The Cove for free, without taking part in a seminar, a concert, or an overnight stay. But many of the visitors who walk through the doors for the open house end up back at The Cove for one of its many year-round events.
“A lot of people think this place is just for pastors,” said Jill Gottenstrater, promotions manager for the Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove. “It’s not. It’s for anyone who wants to come and grow and study the Word of God.”
Those who spend a day or a weekend at The Cove walk away refreshed. Something about the quiet woods, the mountain air, and the welcome lack of televisions on the property helps visitors grow closer to their Creator.
“People say you can feel the presence of God when you drive through the gates,” said Gottenstrater.
Saturday, 1,667 people had the chance to experience that presence, as they toured the grounds, including the chapel and the training center. Camp Cedar Cliff was also open, and hundreds of families spent the day horseback riding, rock climbing, practicing archery, watching performances, and eating a hot dog lunch together—all free to the public.
“I loved it,” said 8-year-old Owen Ragusa from Travelers Rest, S.C., who visited Camp Cedar Cliff with his twin brother, Ethan.
Owen and Ethan especially enjoyed the rock climbing wall and the chance to ride a horse—an experience that was larger than life.
“The horse was big, and its name was Red,” said Ethan. “I felt like I was on a third story building.”
The boys’ mom, Cindy Ragusa, enjoyed the day of free activities with her sons—a perfect way to spend Mother’s Day weekend.
“It’s nice to be in an environment like this,” said Ragusa. “You don’t find this very often. It’s very family friendly. Most of all, it’s a Christ-filled place. It’s a place to come and your kids will be safe.”
During the open house, guests had a chance to tour the studios of 106.9 The Light, see a tribute to the late George Beverly Shea inside the chapel, and walk through a Samaritan’s Purse disaster relief truck.
Many visitors also stopped by the My Hope table to learn about a special Billy Graham Crusade taking place in living rooms around the country this November. My Hope America with Billy Graham is a nationwide Christian outreach that will help believers present the Gospel to their friends and families through a video message that intertwines Mr. Graham’s preaching with current stories of men and women who have made the decision to follow Christ.
Throw in some free frozen yogurt cones, and there was quite a lot to cram into the five-hour open house. Gottenstrater hopes getting a taste of The Cove will make visitors want to come back for more.
“We don’t want The Cove to be the best kept little secret, so it’s a nice opportunity for people to just experience The Cove,” said Gottenstrater.
That’s exactly what Eric and Andrea Walton did, and they hope to come back again soon.
“We thought we knew about it before, but now we really know.”
Want to find out more about what’s happening at The Cove? Visit their website at www.TheCove.org.