Billy Graham's boy Franklin was sorely tested in his youth. The taste of liquor was agreeable to him; the fast life beckoned. But he's found his way home. The helm, of the Billy Graham ministry may be his reward.
By Pat Jordan
In a parking lot in Homestead, Florida, under a hot November sun, the young, smiling members of a religious organization are passing out turkeys to a long line of families whose homes were destroyed by Hurricane Andrew. On a small stage nearby, a big man named Dennis Agajanian, wearing Porsche sunglasses, a black ten-gallon hat and ostrich-skin boots, is strumming his guitar and singing Christian rock songs.
There are a number of local TV camera crews milling around, looking disinterested until they spot the Reverend Billy Graham and his son Franklin walking toward them. Billy Graham moves slowly, unsteadily, as Franklin holds his elbow. The cameras converge on the senior Graham, who is wearing sunglasses, a white polyester shirt with embossed designs and too-short bellbottom jeans that look as though they were bought at K Mart twenty years ago. He stops to say a few words of praise about his son's ministry Samaritan's Purse, the group behind this event. Franklin, beside him, is "grinning like a possum," as his mother would say. He has waited a long time for this: his father's imprimatur. Billy Graham's blessing here today on his son and his work will not go unnoticed by the evangelists who have long cast suspicious glances Franklin's way.
After the brief interview, Franklin leads his father to the food line. Billy Graham takes his place behind the box of eleven-pound turkeys and begins handing them out. Weakened by the onset of Parkinson's disease, he needs help lifting them. Franklin steps back and watches. From behind Franklin, the voice of Billy's male assistant can be heard saying "Oh, he has his good days and his bad days. But he won't slow down. He's gonna die in the saddle,"
When Billy Graham grows weary in the heat, Franklin leads him to a nearby tent. He introduces his father to a few of his workers, pink-faced young men and women, and an acquaintance who just days before was arrested for mistakenly carrying a gun through security at an airport. Billy Oraham smiles at him, the weary smile of a man who still does not understand his son and his son's friends. A man at the back of the tent says, "That's just what we're waitin' to happen to Franklin. Arrested at an airport with a gun. Oh, what a mess!"
Finally, Franklin says a few words to the volunteers, his father seated in a chair beside him. Franklin's voice takes on timbre, becomes a preacher's voice, as he talks about "Jesus Christ" and "salvation" and "giving witness." It's a voice his followers seldom hear when his father is not around. Then everyone lines up to shake hands with Billy Graham.
When he is rested, the elder Graham returns to parcel out rolls to the endless line outside. The people approach him with their head lowered, eyes averted, the way people often do when accepting charity. Few seem aware that it is Billy Graham who is handing them their rolls. Then one black woman, wearing a T-shirt that reads "51% SWEETHEART, 49% BITCH," says "God bless you, Dr. Graham." He smiles. A couple takes her place in front of Graham. The woman, looking down at her rolls, mutters a thank-you. The husband, who recognizes Billy Graham, elbows his wife and whispers in her ear. She looks up. Her face explodes in a huge, big-eyed smile. "Oh, Dr. Graham!" she says. "It's you! Oh, God bless you! I never thought I'd see you in person." She reaches out and grabs his arm, as if merely by touch she will be able to share in his saintliness. Watching, Franklin says, "When John Wayne died, people asked his sons what he was really like. They said, 'He was the same John Wayne you saw on the screen.' "Franklin smiles.
The famous Graham profile, as exemplified by William Franklin Graham III and IV.
To his family, William Franklin Graham III is known as Franklin. His son William Franklin IV is known as Will. His father, William Franklin Graham II, is Billy Frank. His grandfather William Franklin Graham was simply Frank.
Franklin was briefly called "Little Billy" as a child. He has spent many of the years since laboring to distinguish himself from his saintly heritage.
Billy Graham is genuinely loved by millions, even by those one would least expect to admire an evangelical preacher. There is about him -about his looks, his demeanor, the way he bores in on everyone with those riveting blue eyes- the aura of a holy man. In cities all over the world, his prophet's voice has pulled multitudes out of their seats, up the long aisles that lead to the pulpit where he greets them as they accept Jesus Christ into their life. Billy Graham is the confidant of presidents and kings, and he preaches in high places.
Franklin Graham is a tall, handsome man in the manner of those white Fifties singers who made careers covering the songs of black rock and rollers like Little Richard. He is almost perfectly handsome, only less soft and pretty than those teen idols, more angular and rawboned. He has thick, dark hair parted to one side, hazel eyes and the thin upper lip that, according to his mother, "is characteristic of the Grahams. " He is neat, clean, gracious and charming. Even at 40, he addresses men as "sir," women as "ma'am" and his father as "Daddy," in the way of a southerner, which he is. Raised in a log cabin in the Appalachian Mountains near Asheville, North Carolina, today he lives in the same mountains but farther north, in Boone. An evangelical preacher like his father, Franklin Graham has styled a very different image, and a very different mission, for himself,
Billy Graham saves souls; Franklin Graham saves bodies. Franklin likes to say it's hard to ask a starving man to accept Jesus Christ until after he's been fed. The work of his organizations -Samaritan's Purse and World Medical Mission, both of which provide humanitarian aid- takes him regularly to global hot spots, such as Angola, Nicaragua and Lebanon. Most recently he has spent a lot of time in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
"In Bosnia, the police held us up outside of Sarajevo while the Yugoslav air force bombed the town," he says. "Later, I was in a bunker when an artillery barrage hit the building. KABOOM! I heard snipers' bullets- ka-ping! kicking up bits of pavement.
"There's no excitement and thrill like the complexities of war. It heightens perceptions. The smell of gunpowder. The sound of shrapnel hitting a building. Everything in you slows down, except your reflexes. They become quicker, because all of life's emotions are played out on a razor's edge. Your instincts take over." He pauses again, then says matter-of-factly, "War satisfies my need for danger." He brightens, smiles. "I love to go places where bombs blow up.
"We help people overlooked by others," he says. That's why he called his organization , Samaritan's Purse, after the biblical traveler who stopped to help the robbed and beaten man whose cries had been ignored by a callous priest. Some see the organization's name as a deliberate slap at other Evangelicals, and in one of Franklin's common refrains-"God has called me to the ditches and gutters of the world, while my father has been called to the big stadiums"-a veiled slight of his own father's ministry. Franklin does nothing to dispel that impression and, in fact, seems to delight in its perpetuation. Which is one reason other evangelical ministers are distrustful of him.
There is talk these days that in a few years Franklin's father, now 74, will step down from the Billy Graham Evangelical Association, the organization he founded in the Fifties that's grown so mammoth it now pulls in more than $80 million a year in gifts. At such time, Billy Graham will be replaced by ... by whom?
"We never discussed it," says Franklin. "Daddy doesn't like to discuss when he's no longer here... If my father dies and they [the board of directors] go to someone else, it won't bother me. But there is no one else who can run it. I've been on my father's board for twelve years. I've worked out programs that bring millions of dollars in food and medicine to the suffering in Angola, Sarajevo and Lebanon. I've just started doing crusades myself... " After a moment, he adds, "But there are problems."
Most of the problems have grown out of Franklin's life-style, which has tended toward flamboyance. He dresses like a desperado-trucker's cap, Rodeo Association jacket, snap buttoned shirts, black jeans, cowboy boots- yet looks like a nice man dressing to look bad. And he indulges enthusiasms that, to some, seem extreme.
The Graham photo face: eye contact, reassuring set to the mouth, no teeth.
When Franklin is home, with his wife, Jane, and their four children, he spends his free time racing motorcycles and riding dirt bikes. He pilots his organizations' Mitsubishi MU-2 turboprop airplane, which, he proudly claims, is so difficult to handle that many people have been killed flying it. ("It's squirrelly," he says, grinning. "I love it!")
But mostly, he likes to shoot machine guns. When a friend asked him to help chop down some trees recently, Franklin arrived with a machine gun mounted on a tripod at the back of his jeep and proceeded to cut down the trees with bursts of gunfire so loud that neighbors called the sheriff.
When Franklin travels, he carries a .38 pistol strapped to his ankle. If laws forbid the gun, he carries a plastic-handled folding knife. When he can't carry the knife, he brings along a metal pen, which "I can stick in the eye of any terrorist trying to hijack my plane," he says. Everything in Franklin's life seems to revolve around danger, real or imagined. In his mind's eye, there is always "a cop waiting behind a building to stop me for speeding." He will say he consorts with Nicaraguan Contras. Even his family flirts with danger. His 72-year-old mother likes to catch rattlesnakes with a two-pronged fork. His wife recently shot a snake with a .357 Magnum. When Franklin was a little boy, he remembers, his father punched out an intruder in their front yard and then got down on his knees and prayed with the man.
Of Franklin's fascination with danger, his sister Gigi says, "Oh, Franklin exaggerates a lot. He always made himself out to be worse than he was."
His enthusiasms, in combination with a youth Franklin acknowledges was wild, have won him his share of enemies. Last year, he and his organizations were investigated by the officers of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, an ecclesiastical watchdog group. The ECFA was founded in 1979, as it happens, by the Reverend Billy Graham.
Samaritan's Purse and World Medical Mission are headquartered in two unmarked, unassuming gray wood-and-stone buildings on a deserted road in the mountains of North Carolina. Outside are rolling farmland, cows and a small landing strip. The men who work with Franklin dress as casually as he does, and the women dress as if they were coming from church: brightly colored dresses, white panty hose, heavy makeup, teased and lacquered hair. They are all unfailingly polite and cheerful, but genuinely so, as if they truly believe the world is a wonderful place in which to live. When they talk about unpleasantness -hurricanes, famines, wars- it is not with despair but with hope. They believe the suffering occasioned by the world's great calamities can be alleviated by the goodness of man. They see individuals in the same way. In the evangelical Christian movement, everyone is described as being "beautiful" -meaning the spirit, not the body. To outsiders, to cynics, this may ring false, but to Evangelicals the potential goodness of everyone is a simple truth.
Franklin Graham may be the only evangelical minister in the world whose office wall is ornamented with military rifles and on whose end tables are scattered a Bible, Christian magazines and Jane's Defence Weekly, the British military magazine. Franklin thinks nothing of posing for photographs for Christian magazines with those rifles as his backdrop, and he discusses a new weapon in Jane's (the IRSCAN infrared search- and -tracking system, "your partner in anti-air warfare") as easily as he discusses the nature of his salvation or the work of Samaritan's Purse.
His office decor also features photographs of friends, family and the men he admires most. The largest photograph is of his maternal grandfather, Dr. L. Nelson Bell, a medical missionary who spent much of his life in China. The next -most -prominent photograph is of Bob Pierce, founder of World Vision, which became Samaritan's Purse when Franklin took it over after Pierce's death, in 1977.
Franklin drove two and a half hours to drop in on the photo session with his mother. The motorcycle blouse was his idea.
Sitting on a shelf is a small photograph of his father. Billy Graham scrawled across it "To my son of whom I am very proud. I love you with all my heart. Daddy."
"I decided very early in my life I would not ride my father's coattails," Franklin says. "I wanted my own identity. I see Oral Roberts's son trying to comb his hair like his father, and it's sad. I'm not Billy Graham and never will be. I won't live his life. I resented paying for my father's fame. All my life I suffered for it. My lifestyle has been scrutinized. Expectations others had for me ticked me off. So I rebelled."
This rebellion began in childhood. What was unusual was not the fact of it-Franklin was, after all, a preacher's kid-but his parents' reaction to it. They never lectured Franklin about sin, never saddled him with guilt over embarrassing his famous father. They let him stretch the limits or his behavior as far as he wanted. Their only fear was for his health and safety.
Billy Graham has said, in his later years, that his one regret in life was that he didn't spend more time with his family. His wife, Ruth, filled in the blank spaces of her children's lives. Once, she put live tadpoles in soup cashes and served them to her children as a prank. When Christmas morning arrived at the Graham house, Santa's boot would be stuck in the chimney because, Ruth said, he had to leave so quickly. If one of the children lost a tooth on a rainy night, he or she would wake in the morning to find little muddy footprints on the bed pillows.
"The tooth fairy," says Gigi, remembering with a smile. "You never knew what Mother would do. One time, Daddy felt for sure he was gonna die. He kept complaining. So Mother put up a cardboard tombstone in the front yard with his name on it. That stopped his complaining."
For all his earnest evangelism, Franklin has inherited a subversive sense of humor from his mother. Witness Cissie's twin hounds.
But it was Franklin who was Ruth's biggest challenge.
"Once, he was so bad," Gigi recalls, "Mother locked him in the trunk of our car. When we stopped for hamburgers, people were shocked when she opened the trunk, asked Franklin what he wanted, then closed it again."
When Franklin started smoking cigarettes, Ruth bought him a whole pack one day and made him smoke them all. He did, ran to the bathroom, threw up and came back for more. One morning, when he was a teenager, Franklin was asleep in his room, which was off-limits to his parents. A coffee cup filled with cigarette butts was on the table beside his bed. Ruth crept out onto the roof, climbed in through the window and dumped the ashes on Franklin's head. On an other occasion, when he was smoking in bed, she climbed out onto the roof and threw a cup of water in his face. Still he refused to quit smoking.
"Oh, he was stubborn," says Ruth, smiling. "Even then. But never villainous. He was just trying to have his own identity. You know, when the girls marry they change their name. But Franklin will be a Graham for the rest of his life."
He did, however, for a time seem to be trying to shed all evidence of his heritage. One night, Franklin led the police on a high-speed chase that ended at his parents' home. The police sat around the kitchen debating with Billy Graham whether they should take his son to jail. "I remember my father did not back me," says Franklin.
Franklin, by his account, spent his late teens and early twenties getting bounced out of a Texas college, building homes for Eskimos in Alaska and spending his nights drinking shots and beers with "tough construction guys," until he staggered back to his room late at night. "I liked the taste," he says of liquor.
Finally, he persuaded his parents to lend him enough money to buy a Land Rover so he could do missionary work in Turkey. Instead, he went joyriding through Europe with one hand on the steering wheel and the other on a fifth of scotch. "He said he could drive better if he was relaxed," Ruth has said.
Finally, his father had had enough. Billy Graham told Franklin he had to decide whether he was "going to live [his] life for Christ or [himself]."
"It really ticked me off when he said that," says Franklin, "because he was right." Three weeks later, in a hotel room in Jerusalem, Franklin underwent his conversion. He read a passage from the Bible (I Cor. 10:13): "No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful: he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.”
"I finally realized I was sick and tired of making a mess of my life," Franklin says. He was 22. Shortly afterward, Bob Pierce invited him on a six-week mission to Korea, Indonesia, India, Singapore and Nepal, and Franklin found his calling, which blended perfectly with his nature.
"I turned my desire for excitement to good works," he says. "I'd go to wars to help people. I got it both ways. People praised me, and I had fun doing it. I do everything I want to do. People think if you give your life to Christ it's a dull life. But I have fun. I have fun sex with my wife. I fly planes, shoot guns, go to wars, When I die I'll go immediately to the presence of God, and yet in life I had a blast."
Over the next decade, Franklin forged a ministry for himself, one that often seemed to be in direct contrast to his father's. And then, a few years ago, Franklin underwent another, more subtle and conscious conversion, which has brought him and his ministry closer to his father and his ministry. Franklin became, for the first time in his life, aware of his image. He stopped what little drinking he was still doing, forgoing even a glass of wine at dinner, because he realized "in my work I have to be above reproach." When he grew a beard and his board members complained, he shaved it off. "Instead of rebelling at 40," he says, "you learn to accept things. You become aware of the tremendous spiritual needs of the world."
It was at this point, in 1989, that Franklin began to conduct crusades similar to his father's. And the leaders of the evangelical movement sat up and took notice. They read into this transformation an untoward ambition, the desire to someday take over his father's ministry.
"I started doing crusades four years ago," Franklin says in his office. His hands tremble slightly as he speaks. He goes to his desk, gets a wrist grip and begins squeezing it. "I swore I'd never do crusades. I didn't want people to say Franklin was trying to be like his daddy. I was afraid I couldn't measure up. I knew I'd never be Billy Graham. At 20 I was concerned about that perception, but at 40 I don't care. I have the same message as my father: God loves sinners. His audience is bigger, though -60,000 in Moscow, while I preach to 5,000 in New Brunswick...I do ten crusades a year, plus my work in Sarajevo. That's not my father's calling. But if God called me to the big stadiums, I'd do it. I just don't envision myself preaching before 100,000 people."
As a preacher, Franklin is no Billy Graham. He does not have his father's booming, mellifluous voice or his effortless delivery. Franklin stumbles when he preaches. He uses the same phrases over and over. "When I was a young man, I
blew it" is one. His approach is different from his father's, too. More autobiographical. Often, in his sermons, he is quick to draw parallels between himself and the prodigal son. Listening to him, one almost thinks he has been patterning his life -subconsciously at first, more consciously later-after that other strayer. It seems almost as though he has been preparing for the moment he would stand before fellow Christians in imitation of his father. The prodigal son, renouncing the ways of his misguided youth and going on to lead his father's ministry.
Last summer, the National Enquirer offices in Lantana, Florida, received an anonymous letter detailing the financial affairs and personal idiosyncrasies of one Franklin Graham. The letter led to a June 23, 1992, article headlined "BILLY GRAHAM TORN APART AS SON'S CHARITIES ARE NAMED IN SCANDAL." Like most Enquirer articles, it was accurate up to a point, if exaggerated in tone. The article claimed that Samaritan's Purse and World Medical Mission had been suspended by the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability in March 1992 while it looked into whether the two organizations had been lax in monitoring Graham's compensation and personal travel on the agencies' airplane. This much was accurate.
But the article went on to cite accusations made by "charity workers" involving financial improprieties, and it asserted that Billy Graham was "heartsick" because Franklin was "going to destroy what I've worked for years to build." This was more hyperbolic.
Franklin's public response to the suspension was typical. He referred to the ECFA's board members as "crummy little evangelical busybodies" who were "jealous of me." (Clarence Reimer, the president of the ECFA, who declined to be interviewed for this article, said only "I still hope Franklin will..." and then trailed off. "I have nothing to say," he added.)
Months later, in private, Franklin says, smiling, "My father's the one with the measured responses. I'm a loose cannon."
Franklin believes that it was someone in the ECFA who sent the letter to the National Enquirer:
"They became the guys in the white hats taking on the son of America's beloved Billy Graham, the desperado in black who shoots machine guns. They got a million dollars' worth of publicity, and they found nothing. I'm not stupid. I wouldn't jeopardize my work by using the plane for private trips. " (In January, both Samaritan's Purse and World Medical Mission were reinstated by the ECFA.)
But the hostility directed toward Franklin is not limited to the ECFA. "It [also] comes from within my father's own organization. Members of my father's board want to discredit me so the thought of my leading the Billy Graham ministry will be removed. They want to be in control. There's some money there. People will kill you for that in life. So you'd better believe they'll try to discredit you." Franklin looks down at his hands for a moment, then says softly, "My father doesn't share that view. He doesn't want to see it. But my mother sees it. "
When the ECFA "scandal" broke, Billy Graham defended his son- "I have great confidence in Franklin" -but stopped short of the ultimate vote of confidence: "We have a board that makes those decisions [concerning Franklin's taking over the Billy Graham ministry]. I don't think I have the authority from the Lord to put my mantle on anybody."
"Franklin was hurt Daddy didn't take a stronger stand for him against the ECFA," says Gigi. "He expected Daddy to. It was all so petty. It's a power struggle to undermine Franklin,"
In her early seventies, Ruth Graham truly is a beautiful woman. She sits in the living room of her restored log cabin high up on a mountain in Montreat, North Carolina, dressed in a white silk blouse, a long skirt and the kind of gold-rimmed spectacles a movie star might wear. But the grace with which she has aged implies an inner beauty most movie stars never attain.
"Go ahead," she says to her guest. "Smoke your cigar. As long as you blow the smoke up the chimney." She laughs, flutters her fingers toward the stone fireplace with the burning logs. Ruth built the house by disassembling fifteen old log homes and reconstructing them as a retreat that everyone around the Grahams refers to as "a simple cabin." But there is nothing simple about this six-bedroom mansion. The cabin has been restored so painstakingly that its thick, polished beams and new stone fireplace have obliterated any sense of its age.
Ruth smiles at the mention of Franklin's youthful foibles. She says Franklin always respected his father -all the children were allowed to disagree with their parents, as long as they did it respectfully. "Children have their own minds to make up," she , says. "But I admit I had no idea what Franklin would become." She laughs. "He bore no resemblance to Bill. Now there's a striking resemblance. I never thought I'd see the day that Franklin would be preaching." She laughs again. "Franklin's put shoes on theology."
Ruth can understand the practical nature of Franklin's ministry because it is very much in keeping with the work her father did in China. Ruth Graham was born there, during the Bandit Wars. She heard gunfire every night outside her mission home in North Kiangsu province. Dead babies floated down a nearby canal. "She's a tough gal," says Franklin. "She's used to blood and guts. Nothing shocks her."
In fact, the young Ruth intended to remain unmarried and go to Tibet as a missionary, until she met tall, gangling, shy Bill Graham at Wheaton College in Illinois.
"If I had gone to Tibet," she says, "I would never have married the finest man I know. The children say I've spoiled Bill, but if I didn't he would never have got his work done." She describes her husband as "a bendable man" who is not "a confronter." Ruth, however, is definitely a confronter, and one of the things she has been confronting her husband with recently is the plot to destroy her son, which may have originated within Billy Graham's own ministry.
"We're not done yet," she says. "I have more to say to Bill. Sometimes I don't think he sees things. It's difficult to know why, because of the Parkinson's. Like this thing with the ECFA. I think they don't like Franklin's personality and his life-style. But Bill used to love nice cars. I remember once he picked me up in a white convertible, and I was embarrassed. Well! For a preacher that was a bit much! But if it's not immoral or illegal, they don't have anything to say about it." Ruth gets up to pour her guest more coffee.
"As far as Franklin taking over the Billy Graham ministry," she says, "I wouldn't wish that on anybody. Nobody replaces Billy Graham. One's enough." She laughs. "But Franklin's the only one who's built his own organization from scratch. I have great confidence in Franklin. I'll be very comfortable if he takes over because it's too big. Most board members have become independently wealthy. They fear Franklin. Why?" Ruth stops, measures her words, and then says distinctly, "Because I know Franklin will dismantle it. It can't go on."
The male assistant leads Billy Graham into the sunlight. Billy Graham sits down next to his wife at a table beside the swimming pool of the Holiday Inn in Coral Springs, Florida. It's the day before Christmas, and the Grahams are here to celebrate the holidays with their daughter Gigi and her family. As usual, Billy Graham is dressed like a Florida retiree on Social Security: baseball cap, polyester shirt, too-short bell-bottoms, sneakers.
"I never thought Franklin was more affected by my long absences than the girls," Billy Graham says in his rich drawl.
"Well, he was,” says Ruth.
"I hated it," her husband says. "Leaving my children. But it was my call from God. It took precedence over everything. It still does. I trusted the Lord that Ruth would raise them right."
He trusts a lot in the Lord. Years ago, when the FBI warned him certain people had threatened to kill him and advised him to carry a gun, Billy Graham refused. He also trusted in the Lord that his children, especially Franklin, would turn out all right despite their father's long absences.
Billy Graham has reached a pleasant, willless place few people ever achieve. His faith allows him to do what he wants because "it's God's will," while around him so many others are unsure of just what God's will is.
"I never thought Franklin would have his own ministry," he says. "I just kept praying for him. This ECFA thing, I knew the Lord allowed it to teach Franklin a lesson: Be careful when you're handling the Lord's work in the financial area. But I thought the ECFA went too far. They judged Franklin on perceptions. His airplane, his guns." Billy Graham laughs, mirthlessly. "I mean, if I was Franklin, I wouldn't have guns behind my desk. But the main thing was, Franklin was being judged as my son, and he shouldn't be. He thought I didn't defend him strongly enough, but he didn't know what all I was doing behind the scenes. I didn't tell him."
Billy Graham says he has no plans to retire because nowhere in the Bible does it say preachers have to retire. "If that time comes," he says, "the Lord will have someone in mind. Sometimes I feel it [the Billy Graham ministry] should close down completely. I wish we'd never named it the BGM. As far as members of my board trying to sabotage Franklin, I don't agree [that happened] at all."
When asked if Franklin will ever take over his ministry, Billy Graham does not hesitate with his answer. "No."
Ruth can't contain herself. "I don't think that's settled yet, Bill," she says. "Who's gonna take your place?"
"No one," Billy Graham says, "takes my place."
Contributing writer Pat Jordan wrote about Drew Barrymore in last month's GQ. END