Thursday, June 27, 2002

Stage, sound system, lights convert stadium

By Howard Wilkinson,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Transforming lives, organizers say, is what the four-day Billy Graham Mission is all about.But, first, they had to transform a football stadium.

[photo] The soprano section is full Wednesday in Paul Brown Stadium for the rehearsal of the 4,000-member choir that will sing during the Billy Graham Mission.
(Tony Jones photo)
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        Paul Brown Stadium is expected to attract at least 200,000 people to five services over four days beginning tonight.

        It had to undergo a substantial face-lift to accommodate what amounts to a massive outdoor theater production. It comes with a stage, special lighting, enhanced sound system and the infrastructure needed to handle the needs of nearly 20,000 volunteers, performers and staff.

        “It really is a colossal undertaking,” said Jeff Anderson, director of the Cincinnati mission.

        Mr. Anderson and about 30 employees of the Billy Graham Evangelical Association have been working out of a 22,000-square-foot office at Swifton Commons shopping center in Bond Hill since early this year..

        The mission director, an 18-year veteran of Mr. Graham's events, has been living in Cincinnati for nearly a year — except for weekend visits to his home in Minnesota.

[photo] Volunteer choir members rehearse Wednesday for the Billy Graham Mission
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        There are another 10 association staff members, Mr. Anderson said, who lived in Louisville last year while producing a mission event there and moved their families up Interstate 71 to Cincinnati for this mission.

        But a Billy Graham Mission, Mr. Anderson said, runs not so much on paid staff as volunteers — more than 20,000 in the case of the Cincinnati mission.

        They come mostly from 970 churches of 67 denominations in the Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky areas.

        Their numbers are staggering — more than 4,000 volunteer choir members, 1,100 ushers and 4,700 volunteer counselors to meet on the Paul Brown Stadium turf with those who respond to Mr. Graham's altar calls.

        “It's not just a matter of our organization coming in and staging an event,” Mr. Anderson said. “It's a matter of getting an entire community involved. This is the community's mission.”

        For weeks leading up the mission, volunteer counselors attended “Christian Life and Witness” courses at the Bond Hill headquarters to prepare themselves for handling the people who respond to Mr. Graham's altar calls.

        “The vital link of what we do is to make sure that, when people come down out of the stands, they get plugged into a local church,” Mr. Anderson said. “That's what the volunteers do.”

        For the past three nights, Paul Brown Stadium has been full of thousands of volunteer ushers, counselors, choir members and others rehearsing for tonight's 7 p.m. service.

Mission builds road
        But the biggest job the Graham mission faced took five days and couldn't be done by volunteers from area churches: Construction of a stage and preparation of Paul Brown Stadium for the first non-sports event in its brief history.

        The Graham organization used Special Events Services, a North Carolina firm, for much of the construction inside the stadium, including the stage and the laying down of a 100-yard-long plywood road running straight down the middle of the field.

        The first thing that had to be done to prepare the stadium, Mr. Anderson said, was covering the entire grass field with Enca-Mat Plus — an inch-thick woven fiber that allows the grass to continue to grow.

        Eric Brown, Bengals' stadium manager, said Enca-Mat Plus “gives us confidence that there should be minimal damage to the playing field.”

        But the area covered by the plywood road — which runs from the back of the north end zone to the south end's 20-yard line — will have irreparable turf damage.

        “Our agreement is that we replace whatever grass we damage,” Mr. Anderson said. “So it will cost us about $90,000 to replace that area.”

        The road, Mr. Anderson said, was needed to haul components of the stage — 60 feet deep, with two 40-foot “sound wings” — to the south end zone.

        The Graham Mission is bringing in extra sound equipment to augment the stadium's. Two large speakers, with a slight sound delay, will be strung across the stadium at the north 40-yard line.

        And for those who are deaf or have hearing impairments, there will be special seating in Section 124 of the stadium's north end. There, listening devices, sign language stations and real-time captioning will be available.

        People who don't speak English will be seated in Sections 211 through 216. There, they will be able to listen through headsets to simultaneous translations in six languages: Spanish, Russian, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin Chinese and Vietnamese.

        The choir will be seated behind the stage in what normally are south end zone seats.

        Most of the singers will be unable to see what is happening on the stage, so two nine-by-15 foot TV screens will be placed where they can see them, Mr. Anderson said.

        Security, Mr. Anderson said, has always been a concern at Billy Graham events, “but even more so after 9-11.”

        Police canine units will sweep the entire stadium before each day's events and will be on hand at the gates to help search all incoming packages.

        Hundreds of Cincinnati police officers and Hamilton County sheriff's deputies will be on duty for all the Graham events.

        Mr. Anderson said that people coming to the services can expect to have backpacks or purses searched, but said there are no plans to individually screen people with a metal-detecting wand.

        The evangelical association's goal in planning missions like the one that will kick off tonight in Cincinnati is simple, Mr. Anderson said — “create an atmosphere where people can have a positive experience, where they can worship and come to Christ.”

        “If we do that,” he said, “the hard work was worth it.”

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