While his famous dad preached to the world, Franklin Graham forged his own rebellious style. Now that he’s grown up, can Billy Graham’s son inherit the crusade?
August 15, 1993
By PAT JORDAN
Photos by Mary Ellen Mark
In a parking lot in homestead, under a hot Florida 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 TV camera crews milling around, looking uninterested, until they spot the Rev. 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 bell-bottom jeans that look as though they were bought at Kmart 20 years ago.
Graham 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. 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 11-pound turkeys and begins handing them out. Weakened by the onset of Parkinson's disease, he needs help lifting the turkeys. Behind him, the voice of his 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 Graham 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 heads 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 take 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, and her face explodes in a huge 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. And the sons said, 'He was the same John Wayne you saw on the screen.'" Franklin smiles.
William Franklin Graham III is a tall, handsome man in the manner of those white '50s 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, Franklin Graham 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, N.C., he lives today in the same mountains but farther north, in Boone. An evangelical preacher like his father, Franklin 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 to global hot spots such as Angola, Nicaragua and Lebanon. Most recently he has spent 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 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 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 '50s, which has grown so mammoth it now pulls in more than $80 million a year in gifts. At such time, Billy Graham will be replaced 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 12 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 lifestyle, 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.
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 organization's Mitsubishi MU-2 turboprop airplane, which, he proudly claims, is a model so difficult to handle that many people have been killed flying similar ones. ("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-caliber 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 that "I can stick in the eye of any terrorist trying to hijack my plane."
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, who lives in Coral Springs, says, "Franklin exaggerates a lot. He always made himself out to be worse than he was."
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 Defense 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.
"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' 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 of 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 dishes 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.
"You never knew what Mother would do," says Gigi, remembering with a smile. "One time, Daddy felt 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."
While the famous Graham profile has been inherited by William Franklin III and IV, the minister’s son is quick to say: “I’m not Billy Graham and will never be. I won’t live his life.”
But it was Franklin who was Ruth's biggest challenge.
"Once, he was so bad, Mother locked him the trunk of our car," Gigi recalls. "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 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 another 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.
"He was stubborn," says Ruth, smiling, "but never villainous. He was just trying to have his own identity."
Franklin, by his account, spent his late teens and early 20s 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.
At last, 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 (1 Corinthians 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, he was invited to join 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. 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 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 the Billy Graham 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, you learn to accept things," he says. "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 someday to take over his father's ministry.
"I started doing crusades four years ago," Franklin says. "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.... 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 senses he has been patterning his life - subconsciously at first, more consciously later - after that other strayer. It seems 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.
When Franklin isn’t taking his ministry of relief to war-torn regions of the world like Bosnia and Herzegovina, he relaxes with his family, including daughter, Cissie, at their home in Boone, NC.
Last summer, the national Enquirer offices in Lantana 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 (ECFA) in March of 1992 while it looked into whether the two organizations had been lax in monitoring Franklin 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 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."
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; I was 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.
"Members of my father's board want to discredit me so the thought of my leading the Billy Graham ministry will be removed," Franklin says. "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."
The male assistant leads Billy Graham into the sunlight. Graham sits down next to his wife at a table beside the swimming pool of the Holiday Inn in Coral Springs. 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, Graham refused. He also trusted in the Lord that his children, especially Franklin, would turn out all right despite their father's long absences.
"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." He 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."
When asked if Franklin will ever take over his ministry, 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?"