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Faith Meets Fun in the South

The South not only is rich in food and culture but also has deep roots in faith.

The region offers many faith-based attractions that feed the soul and make great group destinations. Here are a few you won’t want to miss.

Ark Encounter

Williamstown, Kentucky

To say the Ark Encounter is impressive would be an understatement. The centerpiece of the theme park is a replica of Noah’s Ark that was handcrafted from 3.3 million board-feet of wood and stretches 510 feet long. It features three exhibit-filled decks that rise to 10 stories at the bow. The ship can be seen for miles around and attracts visitors from around the world.

Built by Answers in Genesis, the organization behind the Creation Museum, the park features a zoo, gardens, a 2,500-seat auditorium that offers musical performances and lectures, zip lines and one of the largest restaurants in the country, which can seat 1,700 people at a time.

The Ark Encounter came about because of the popularity of the Creation Museum 43 miles down the road. More than half a million people visit the Creation Museum annually, and the founders wanted to find additional ways to invite those visitors in. The idea for the Ark was dreamed up in the 1970s, but it didn’t come to fruition until 2016, when it opened to the public on 800 acres.

The Ark Encounter is all about location. It sits right off Interstate 75 and is within driving distance of two-thirds of America’s population.

Great Passion Play

Eureka Springs, Arkansas

The Great Passion Play tells the epic story of Jesus Christ’s last days on Earth using amazing sets, live animals and more than 120 performers. The Passion Play has been performed in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, since 1968 and takes place from Easter weekend to the last weekend in October.

The play is the main event, but there’s lots to see and do on the property, including a visit to Christ of the Ozarks, a seven-story representation of Christ that was completed in 1966.

The Holy Land Tour takes place by appointment or on days when the Passion Play is presented. The two-hour interactive tour takes visitors on a trip through time, visiting full-scale replicas of sites such as Moses’ tabernacle, the Bethlehem stable where Jesus was born and the garden tomb where he was buried.

The Bible Museum, the History Museum and the Sacred Arts Museum are all free and open to the public. The property also has 20 miles of hiking and biking trails.

Smaller faith groups are invited to take part in the Great Passion Play’s mission trip program, in which they can come and stay on the property and volunteer their time behind the scenes at the Great Passion Play.

Billy Graham Library

Charlotte, North Carolina

The Billy Graham Library, which opened to the public in 2007, is set up like a presidential library with exhibits and multimedia presentations that take visitors on a journey through the life and ministry of Christian evangelist Billy Graham. Guests can watch video of Billy Graham delivering sermons or see memorabilia from 80 years of ministry, as well as a telegram from Ruth Bell Graham to her parents asking permission to marry Billy and letters from U.S. presidents.

The library building looks like a barn from the outside, a nod to Graham’s upbringing on a dairy farm. A beautiful window shaped like a cross welcomes visitors to the building. Groups can reserve a guided tour of the property, along with a lunch at the Graham Brothers Dairy Bar.

Groups that visit the library can also tour Graham’s childhood home, which was brought to the property when the library opened from his family’s dairy farm about four miles away. The home is full of Graham family memorabilia. Billy and Ruth are buried on the property, and visitors are welcome at the site.

Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine

St. Augustine, Florida

As the oldest city in America, St. Augustine, Florida, has a rich religious history dating back to the city’s founding by the Spanish in 1565. The Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine was America’s first parish.

Groups interested in learning more about the church and its history can opt for a self-guided tour or the behind-the-scenes tour, which takes visitors into areas of the building that are not traditionally open to the public. Tour stops include the choir loft, the sacristy, the confessional, the baptistery and the chapel. Visitors learn about the church’s 400-year history, see the paintings and stained-glass windows in the chapel and peek at the cathedral’s own relic, a bone fragment of St. Augustine that is encased in a golden bust of the saint.

The cathedral was built in a combination of Neoclassical and Spanish Mission styles and features bell gables, wooden beams and clay roof tiles. The church got a much-needed facelift in 1966, and in 1976, Pope Paul VI raised the cathedral to minor basilica status.

Ave Maria Grotto

Cullman, Alabama

The Ave Maria Grotto is on the grounds of St. Bernard Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Cullman, Alabama, that was founded by Germans who settled in the area in the late 1890s. Brother Joseph Zoettl, a monk who came to the monastery when he was just 14 years old, became one of its most influential members. He built beautiful grottos on the property that feature miniature cement structures he built from everyday items.

Many of the 160-plus structures were based on buildings Zoettl saw when living in Bavaria, and others were modeled after photographs of famous landmarks around the world, including Little Jerusalem, the Leaning Tower of Pisa and St. Peter’s Basilica. Because of their popularity, the grottos were moved in 1934 to the former abbey quarry, which is now a four-acre park. Zoettl continued to add structures to the grotto until his death in 1961. During Christmas, the grotto is beautifully illuminated.

“What we are trying to do at the grotto is provide an oasis of peace in these awful times we face,” said Roger Steele, director of the Ave Maria Grotto.

Biblical History Center

LaGrange, Georgia

The mission of the Biblical History Center in LaGrange, Georgia, is to help people encounter the ancient biblical world, history and culture. The way it does that is through interactive programming. The site offers guided tours through its archaeological replica garden that consists of more than 25 exhibits, from an ancient grain silo and grape press to a tent made of goat hair.

“It is the full experiential place when it comes to wanting to deepen your faith,” said Carlos Cantu, executive director for the center. “We don’t lean toward any denomination. Our goal here isn’t to proposition spiritual relocation but to present archaeological insight and historical context of where we’re coming from.”

Docents at the site dress in ancient attire, taking guests on a trip through biblical times. The Biblical Life Artifacts Gallery presents more than 250 artifacts on long-term loan from the Israel Antiquities Authority. Guests also can learn how to make shepherd’s bread or take part in a recreation of an archaeological dig.

For the more technologically advanced visitor, the center offers an augmented reality history where you can point your phone at QR codes and interact with different exhibits. Its most unusual offering is the Biblical Meal, a four-course meal that includes foods from ancient meal practices, including Passover and the Last Supper.