WASHINGTON - Morning began with a daily devotion on the tour bus bound from Richmond, Virginia, to the nation's capital. Katherine Webster, 85, a retired schoolteacher from Jackson, Mississippi, and her three adoring nieces set their pitches and broke into song, blending their voices on "O Come, All Ye Faithful" and "Take the Name of Jesus with You" in splendid four-part harmony.
"They sound like angels," tour organizer Wayne Barber said - "like the Lennon Sisters," referring to the quartet from the venerable Lawrence Welk TV program.
A tree surgeon by trade - stumps, a specialty - Barber founded Purpose Driven Tours in 2007.
His purpose is "a firm belief in the biblical account of creation and the worldwide flood" and, according to the company brochure, exploring "the Christian heritage of the U.S."
"It's sort of like a big Sunday school on a bus," said Barber, 70, who still climbs trees and grinds stumps when he's not traveling on the bus.
His nine-day December tour began in a Flowood, Mississippi, Holiday Inn Express parking lot and would cover seven states and 3,000 miles. It included seven Christmas spectaculars (casts of hundreds, flying angels, an honest-to-goodness camel), and visits to the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, North Carolina, and the late Jerry Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia.
But the 28 travelers - all white, many of them conservative Christian evangelicals who defined themselves by their faith - were mostly looking forward to their upcoming visit to the new $500 million Museum of the Bible in Washington.
Patricia Rickard, 67, from Cool, California, a retired teacher who assisted home-school teachers, a former one herself, and one of Webster's nieces, was thrilled about the journey, her first to the nation's capital. The night before, in a Richmond holiday garden, she had confided her worries about being a Christian in today's America.
"Living in California, you feel like a second-class citizen as a Christian," she said. Her eyes flooded with tears, and she began to sob softly.
"As a Christ follower, I feel the media ridicules and misrepresents people of faith," she said. "I hope the Bible museum shows what Christ taught to everyone."
Locating the museum in Washington, she thought, was vital. Placed so prominently, she said, "people from all over the world will see its importance to us. They will learn about that love letter from God" - her term for the Holy Book.
The Bible museum opened in November, financed largely by donations from the Green family, conservative evangelical Christians who own the arts-and-crafts giant Hobby Lobby. Their company successfully took the case against mandatory employer-provided birth control to the Supreme Court, located blocks from the museum.
Housed in a former 1920s refrigeration warehouse, eight stories high and covering 430,000 square feet, the institution claims to be the "world's largest museum dedicated to the Bible" and about the same size as the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture, the blockbuster cultural destination that opened in 2016.
Hobby Lobby chief executive Steve Green serves as chairman of the museum board. His family loaned 2,800 biblical artifacts to the institution.
"As many people as we can educate about this book, the better," Green said. "I think seeing the biblical foundations of our nation - for our legislators to see that, that a lot of that was biblically based, that we have religious freedoms today, which are a biblical concept, it can't hurt being there."
The Museum of the Bible devotes considerable space to the Old Testament and steers clear of affiliation with any denomination. Its leadership, like many members of the Purpose Driven group, is primarily evangelical Christian.
Officials hope that the museum will become as much of an attraction for faith-based group tours as the Capitol or the Library of Congress, and that hordes will pass through the 40-foot-high, two-ton Gutenberg Bible portals depicting text from Genesis.
Tour operators such as Purpose Driven, most traveling by bus and religious in nature, are critical to the museum's success.
To stay competitive with the city's panoply of free attractions, such as the Smithsonian, the Bible museum does not charge admission, although it suggests a $15 individual donation for adults and $10 for children. In a city with costly lodging and budget-conscious tourists, it might remain more of a suggestion than a reality. During the group's visit, other visitors were overheard scoffing at upcharges.
Bus tours, however, pay $12 a head for entry and receive preferred admission. During a fall hard-hat preview of the museum, Barber became so excited that he registered his $1,925-a-person Christmas tour for all the bells and whistles.
The Purpose Driven group visited the special valley of David and Goliath exhibition ($8 a ticket) and experienced Washington Revelations, a "flyboard flying theater" (also $8). They attended a performance of the musical "Amazing Grace" ($85), which, the night they saw it, played to a 472-seat house that was only one-third full.
In Manna, the sixth-floor cafeteria-style restaurant, the group dined on platters that included the $14.99 Scholar's Initiative (rice, rotisserie chicken, pickled vegetables) and the $16.99 Amazing Grace (tahini grits, lamb meatballs, chickpeas, beets).
With discounts, Barber paid around $117 per person for the entire visit, a boon to museum coffers and perhaps a bellwether of future groups' investment.
More than 900 groups have booked tours through next December, according to museum officials, almost half arranged by a large operator based in Florida. The average group size is 30, a spokeswoman said, originating in all 50 states and from as far away as Israel.
Purpose Driven mornings begin with a daily devotion, prayer or, if Webster and her nieces are willing, song. Meals are preceded by prayer. The movies and music on the bus are religious. Alcohol is forbidden, as it is at the Museum of the Bible (which held its $50,000-a-table opening gala at the Trump International Hotel, where it is not).
The Christmas tour members ranged in age from 50 to 85, many of them couples or family members. Most were retired, many of them former teachers. Six hailed from California, one from Canada, two from Georgia, two from Alabama and the rest from Mississippi. Almost all had Southern roots.
They were huggers, and prone to gentle humor. They readily shared their stories, many of horrible loss. Barber lost his adult son last year to a drug-related suicide. They were curious, and asked plenty of questions about family members and backgrounds. "What church do you belong to?" they queried a demurring reporter. They did not discuss politics, at least not with strangers.
Religion was another matter. "This is a Christian tour group," said Nell Green, 76, a retired teacher from Water Valley, Mississippi, who was on her seventh trip with Purpose Driven. "We don't say whether we're Baptist or Methodist." Several of the tourists defined themselves as Christian first, followed by American, then Southern.
"They're conservative," Barber explained. "We believe in small government, and no interference in our private life from the government." Many, including Barber, were creationists.
"But we're open to everyone," Barber said. "We've had liberals on tours, even atheists."
Webster and her nieces roamed the museum in wonder, their necks craned to watch the changing digital grand entrance ceiling, with its images of stained glass and nature.
"I have been to the Ark and the Creation Museum (in northern Kentucky), and this is like them," Webster said on the second floor, which is dedicated to the Holy Book's impact. "It's so authentic and true to God's word."
Washington Revelations, the museum's potential Space Mountain hit, is a thrill ride that revisits much of the scripture and biblical references that had been pointed out to the group on a tour of Capitol Hill and the city's top sites: "Laus Deo" ("Praise be to God," Psalm 146:1-2) etched atop the Washington Monument, or Moses holding the tablets carved into a U.S. Supreme Court frieze.
"Everything in Washington speaks of the faith of our Founding Fathers," Barber said.
But Bill Stewart, 65, a former probation parole officer who assists Barber with many tours, said that much of the Christian influence "seems to have been covered up."
"Nobody wants to admit the influence," he said, "but now everyone will see it."
The group loved the re-creation of first-century Nazareth, where patrons wander through immersive rooms aided by three male costumed interpreters in long belted robes, including one preaching inside a temple.
"When you visit the synagogue and hear the priest, it makes it come alive," Nell Green said.
"It makes you feel like you're there. I've never been to the Holy Land, and I don't have any desire to" go, said Barber, who is partial to patriotic golf shirts and owns about 30. That days's featured an eagle and a passage from the Bill of Rights. "It's not on my bucket list. I love our country. I like exploring every nook and cranny of the country."
Barber conducts a dozen annual tours that tend to fill quickly. His brochure promotes the signature Grand Staircase biblical Creation Tour to the Grand Canyon and other national parks as "life-changing" and offering "proof of a young Earth and global flood."
Although the Christmas trip was Purpose Driven's second Washington tour this year, Barber hasn't scheduled another one until 2019. The Museum of the Bible, he said, will surely become a staple of his D.C. visits.
His wife, Corinne, hopes that the museum's influence will extend beyond tourists to "our government people. If they can come through, they can't ignore something that they might disagree with. People who know the Lord, and read the Bible, it opens them up to the reality," she said. "Congressmen come to Washington to serve the people, and within a certain amount of time, they become millionaires."
There were three more days on the holiday tour, and 1,000 miles more to travel. The museum, however, had made an impression. On the group's response cards, it ranked consistently among the trip's top attractions, along with the Christmas spectaculars, the tour of Washington and the warm fellowship of the group.
"I think it's great we have this influence in our nation's capital, not just for our government, but for a lot of people who come to visit," Webster said of the museum. "We don't have much truth today, especially in public, and to find something like this is an absolute miracle."