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1999: Franklin Graham

The Honduran village of La Fortuna is almost impossible to reach by road, so Franklin Graham flew in by helicopter instead.

On the ground, Graham met the mayor and, tracking muddy bootprints and children behind them, set off to learn what his relief agency, Samaritan's Purse, had done to help the village recover from Hurricane Mitch.

The schoolhouse was the biggest problem. When whole, it had only two classrooms, and Mitch had washed one of them down the mountain. More than a year later, the hole still gaped.

"What would it cost to rebuild that room?" Graham asked.

The answer: $2,000.

"Let's do it," he said.

His Honduran associate made a note of it. Done.

The mayor turned to a translator and set his eyes heavenward. "I want to thank him on behalf of God who provides," he said.

This is Franklin Graham's special brand of evangelism, a swashbuckling, action-oriented relief ministry based on the idea that when you help people in crisis, you earn the chance to talk to them about Jesus.

"Wherever there are war areas in the world, regardless of politics, I'm going to be in the middle of it, holding up the flag of Jesus Christ," Graham says.

This year, from the tiny village of La Fortuna to the tent city that Samaritan's Purse built for Kosovar refugees in Albania, Franklin Graham has emerged as a humanitarian leader on a worldwide scale.

His globe-trotting has made Samaritan's Purse one of the fastest-growing charities in the world. From its base in Boone in the hills of Western North Carolina, it has reached out to 99 countries, helping people cope with disasters natural and man-made.

One key to its success has been "Operation Christmas Child," which this year inspired families to stuff 3 million shoe boxes with toys, crayons, socks and toothpaste for needy children in 60 countries. Graham has energized the project by personally delivering some of the gifts and posing for pictures with children from the poorest regions in the world.

Although its reach is now universal, Samaritan's Purse has kept its North Carolina roots. About 20 percent of the organization's cash donations for 1999 came from the home state. With a budget of $111 million for 1999, it is now the third largest charity in North Carolina and 126th in the nation in terms of private donations, putting it in the same league as the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association or BGEA.

The man who spent much of his life being "Billy Graham's son" has found his own path.

A different way

From birth, Franklin Graham has reaped the benefits but struggled with the expectations that go with being the son of a legend.

Father and son share the same flourishing, silvery hair, same chiseled features, same piercing eyes. They sound alike, too - gentle baritones, rich with Southern courtesies. But there the images diverge. While the father is a man of words, the son is a man of action.

Billy Graham brought evangelism into the mainstream at midcentury, drawing thousands to electrifying crusades, ministering to world leaders, penetrating the Iron Curtain, basking in his role as the nation's religious authority. He is a genteel man in impeccable suits, a master of the media, a conciliator, a diplomat for God.

Franklin Graham was a handful as a boy and as a young man went through a rebellion that was mild for his generation but built him a persona as a prodigal son. He was back in the Christian fold by the age of 22 but kept his thirst for adventure. He rides motorcycles and flies his own plane, dresses in Harley-Davidson shirts and cowboy boots, and decorates his office with antique guns. He prides himself on applying business principles to ministry. He is more outspokenly conservative than his father but won't apologize for ruffling feathers.

"Jesus," he says, "is always controversial."

Different routes, but they are traveling to the same place. Franklin is not only Billy's son but his heir, anointed after years of uncertainty. He will take over the family business, merging Samaritan's Purse and the BGEA. With Billy Graham slowed by Parkinson's disease and the weight of his 81 years, that moment could come at any time.

Man on a mission

Ever since Colonial times, America has had prophets crying out in the wilderness for repentance. Jonathan Edwards, Charles Finney and Billy Sunday are part of a long succession of preachers who sought conversions, largely through the medium of the religious revival.

For 50 years those fires have been stoked by Billy Graham, but his heir draws his calling from another Christian tradition: the foreign missionary. Merging the two roles is Franklin Graham's greatest opportunity - and his stiffest challenge.

It's no coincidence he has chosen the parable of the Good Samaritan as his guide. According to the New Testament, it was not the priest or the Levite who rescued a man robbed, beaten and left for dead on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho. It was a Samaritan, an outsider, who dressed his wounds and paid for his stay at an inn.

Franklin Graham wants to be seen as a layman, a person who would rather bend down to fix a leaky faucet than sit down to compose a sermon. He'll never soften the message - that faith in Jesus is the only way to heaven. But he doesn't want to be linked with what he calls "professional religionists." He'd sooner move people with deeds.

"His passion lies in going into emergency situations and helping people who have suffered a calamity," the late William Poe, a Charlotte lawyer and a former board member of Samaritan's Purse, said of Graham last month. "I think he's stronger and more innovative in responding to those emergency situations than he is as a preacher."

But at least in one respect, Graham fits in that succession of national preachers. He is quite willing to speak boldly about what he sees as the nation's ills.

At a secular memorial service for the students and teacher slain at Columbine High School in Colorado in the spring, he angered liberal Protestant, Jewish and African-American religious leaders because he used the opportunity to seek conversions. Standing in front of 70,000 people, Graham's best advice for coping with the tragedy was a question: "Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ?"

Graham does not apologize for drawing the ire of Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, who feared Graham had endangered relations with a key ally during Operation Desert Storm in 1991 by sending GIs Christian tracts to pass out to the people of Saudi Arabia.

Graham's views on social ills - sex, addiction, violence, profanity - sound like those of any revivalist bemoaning the nation's moral frailty.

"It's important for someone to take a stand," he said recently in his Boone office, decorated with half a dozen guns, two stuffed deer heads and the fur of a wild bear hanging from a ceiling beam.

"All around us is a sea of danger, and we say, 'The stock market is at an all-time high. Let's live the good life.' We need to put our faith in Christ. If we repent, God will bless our nation again."

On the front lines

Graham gets most animated when talking about one close call or another at some trouble spot around the globe. But there's more to it than just a love of excitement. The secret to his leadership, Graham says, is simply being there.

"You've got to be willing to go and do it yourself and not ask anyone to do anything you wouldn't do yourself," he said. "If you go to Kosovo or Sudan, you've got to understand there's danger there."

Samaritan's Purse projects this year in Kosovo and Honduras reveal his pattern: Move in right away. Focus on one need. Work with local groups. Cut through red tape. Make things happen. Don't get distracted.

Graham was at the Macedonian border in the first days after Muslim refugees, chased by Serb ethnic cleansing, started pouring out of Kosovo. The refugees were crammed into a valley, cold and wet, with little food and no sanitation. Only a handful of Muslim and Macedonian aid workers were allowed in.

Graham told the Samaritan's Purse projects director, Ken Isaacs: "I think if Jesus were standing here today he would not ask the name of the organization that was distributing the bread. He wouldn't ask what they believed or what their name was. He would see a sea of suffering, and he would want to help.

"Go ask them what we can do."

Soon, Samaritan's Purse won a mandate from the United Nations to build a tent city outside Tirana, Albania, to house 20,000 refugees. That would have been difficult anywhere, but in Albania it was doubly hard. The nation is Europe's poorest and totters on the brink of anarchy.

Isaacs and his crew managed workers who arrived by donkey cart, fought their way through the U.N. and Albanian bureaucratic morass, picked up help from local evangelicals and became one of the first agencies to get a camp running.

Graham made a return visit because he likes to be on the front lines making the decisions.

At the construction site he went into high gear: Are you going to pump out the water lines? Can you put up a little stove in front of each tent so they can cook? Look at this tent - it's quilted on the inside, so it's meant for a desert. It won't do.

Now that the Kosovars are back home, Samaritan's Purse is there, too, helping winterize 2,000 homes. "If we hadn't been with them during the war, they would never listen to us today," Graham said.

Likewise, Graham was in Honduras the second day after Mitch struck, asking what Samaritan's Purse could do. Since then, the organization has built 3,500 cinder block homes - more than any other relief group or government agency.

The speed and quality of the work, carried out by the organization's volunteers and Honduran families, caught the attention of the State Department, which invited Samaritan's Purse to apply for a grant to continue the effort. Samaritan's Purse got the money from the department's Agency for International Development - $4.6 million to build 1,500 more homes

"Samaritan's Purse clearly knows how to handle house-building, how to handle community development, how to handle money," said Elena Brineman, AID's Honduras director.

On a two-day trip to Honduras earlier this month, Graham's group ruptured a tire in a new four-wheel-drive, burned up several tankfuls of gas inspecting housing projects by helicopter, and ruined half a dozen pairs of shoes trekking through sticky brown mud. As often happens, he didn't have time for lunch. Two mozzarella cheese sticks washed down by a diet soda was all Graham allowed himself on one of those days.

At La Fortuna, the village where he pledged $2,000 to rebuild the schoolhouse, the mayor told him that Hurricane Mitch knocked his entire crop of coffee beans to the ground, that he had to get a bank loan to feed his family and that the government offered them nothing. Graham was impressed with his perseverance.

"These guys have good, strong faces," Graham said. "I like their faces."

His ability to quickly identify needs is one reason for the success of Samaritan's Purse, his staff says.

"All these other groups come in and form committees," said Larry Buckman, director of the Honduras project for Samaritan's Purse. "I'm working for an organization that means business. ... We're following a man who has a vision. That makes all the difference in the world."

Pressure points

Anyone who reads his autobiography and the host of magazine articles about him might think the young Franklin Graham was a rebel who drank, smoked and lived in sin.

While it's true that he took his first drag about age 6 and grew fond of alcohol as a young man, he was never quite the reprobate his professional media image suggests.

Born on July 14, 1952, the fourth of Ruth and Billy Graham's five children, Franklin grew up a country boy in the hills of Montreat, near Asheville. He loved dogs, guns, tools and anything that moved fast. He was also fond of teasing his older sisters, Virginia, known as Gigi, Anne and Ruth, known as Bunny. Once, on the way to a drive-in hamburger joint in Asheville, he pestered them so badly his mother locked him in the trunk of her car.

But unlike other boys, he grew up with the pressure of being not only a "preacher's kid" but the son of a legend. His every step was scrutinized. Teachers wanted to make an example of him. So did his parents' associates.

"You're in a fishbowl," he said recently as he described his upbringing. "People are watching you. Detractors are looking for you to stumble and say, 'Aha! See there.' "

Franklin regarded the expectations as stifling - and boring to boot. He wanted to do things his way and was given a measure of freedom by his parents, who respected his individuality and understood the pressures.

Although the official story is that he fell to his knees and accepted Jesus in a hotel room in Jerusalem at age 22, his sister Anne Graham Lotz said she had seen it coming for a long time. When he was 8, a friend took him on a hike up a mountain with Franklin's mother and sister Bunny. There, on the mountain, he asked Jesus to be his savior, she recalls.

"You couldn't be raised in our family and rebel against God," said Lotz, who lives in Raleigh and is an evangelist in her own right. "You were so loved. My mother loved Jesus with all her heart. It was so real. I can't imagine anyone rebelling against that."

Nevertheless, the young Franklin went through a long stretch when he fought with classmates, did poorly in school and loved to speed on mountain roads, even eluding the police on one car chase that ended when he sped through the gate to the family estate and closed it behind him.

It all began to change, he says, when his father took him aside in Lausanne, Switzerland, when he was 22 and told him he sensed a struggle in his life. Two weeks later in Jerusalem, he gave up smoking and pledged his life to Jesus. That year he married Jane Austin Cunningham, whom he had known since he was 8. She first won his admiration because she was a "fantastic minibike rider."

Graham was casting about for what to do with his new commitment when he got a call from Bob Pierce, whom he had met through his father. Pierce ran a small California missionary relief organization and admired people with what he called "guts for Jesus." He invited the young man on a global tour of his projects: Korea, Hong Kong, Borneo, Bangkok, Nepal, Iran. Graham was hooked.

In 1979, when Pierce was dying, he asked Graham to take over that organization: Samaritan's Purse. Graham agreed, moved it to Boone and soon merged it with World Medical Mission, a Christian medical relief agency that grew out of a college project while he earned a business degree at Appalachian State University.

Franklin and Jane Austin meanwhile settled into a 168-year-old farmhouse outside Boone. Eventually they had four children: William Franklin Graham IV, known as Will; Roy Austin, Edward Nelson and Jane Austin, known as Cissie. Graham says his wife plays the same role his mother did, tending the home front while he is gone on his ministry.

All the while, Graham has tended Samaritan's Purse with the growing savvy of a CEO. "My basic philosophy was to take business principles and apply them to the ministry," he said.

He paid bills as soon as they came in, cut spending when income fell and hired the best people for each job. He doesn't believe in professional fund-raisers, choosing to reach donors through direct mail instead. From his father he learned how to take advantage of media exposure and craft a smooth, personable image. Photographers say he's a natural in front of the camera.

Nevertheless, the growth of Samaritan's Purse was slow at first. The most serious glitch in Graham's career came in 1992, when the Evangelical Council for Financial Responsibility, a watchdog group founded by his father, suspended Samaritan's Purse while it investigated whether the organization had adequately accounted for his salary and personal use of the company's airplanes. The dispute was resolved, but the bad publicity was painful.

Even more bruising was the fight for succession within the Minneapolis-based BGEA.

By 1995, Billy Graham still had not dealt with the future of his organization. But that year he collapsed with a bleeding colon in a Toronto hotel room the day before a crusade, and the question flared. He called his son to preach in his stead, but when the younger Graham arrived in Toronto he found that his father's handlers had picked someone else to deliver the sermon.

Franklin Graham was furious. His father, realizing a palace coup was afoot, resolved it by naming Franklin first vice chairman of the BGEA - ensuring that he would eventually be chairman and chief executive.

And that's also when Samaritan's Purse took off.

"Samaritan's Purse rocketing up the chart in terms of influence and numbers is tied to the fact that he has been playing a more active part in Billy's outfit," said Larry Eskridge, associate director of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College in Illinois, Billy Graham's alma mater. "The mantle has been passed on to him, and that increased his visibility."

Another boost has been Operation Christmas Child, the shoe box distribution program that Graham took over in 1993 from British layman Dave Cooke. The shoe boxes' appeal is irresistible: They provide a way for people, who feel powerless in the face of suffering on a massive scale, to do something personal to help.

The project not only gave exposure to Samaritan's Purse, it accounts for more than 50 percent of the organization's donors.

And Graham's business talents are formidable, Eskridge says. "He could have botched the whole thing tremendously. Yet he has shown these executive, take-charge skills equivalent to a Fortune 500 executive with a couple of MBAs in his briefcase."

Now Graham's accomplishments have smoothed over whatever reservations BGEA elders had about him. Next year, his father, who has vowed to preach until he is no longer able, plans to step down as chairman of the BGEA, turning the management over to his son.

"I know Franklin has the ability, the energy and the background to do almost anything in Christian work," Billy Graham said. "He'll have my all-out support whichever direction he chooses to go as long as he's true and faithful to God."

The crusader

For years Franklin Graham avoided crusade preaching. His father, after all, is hailed as the greatest evangelist since the apostle Paul.

But the crusades were unavoidable for anyone in line to lead the BGEA.

His first attempt - in Saskatoon, British Columbia, in 1983 - was a disaster. When he invited listeners to accept Jesus, not a single person came forward.

"The gift a founder has for entrepreneurial vision and charisma rarely gets passed on to children," said Joel Carpenter, evangelical historian and provost of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. "It's casting no aspersions on the son to say he doesn't have the gift."

But Franklin Graham tried again, and he has been holding crusades as a volunteer with the BGEA for 10 years now, starting small and building up to major events like the one he led in Bolivia in November. It drew more than 30,000 to a soccer stadium in downtown Santa Cruz on each of its four nights.

Even on a preaching tour in Bolivia there was an element of risk that energized him. Graham was accompanied everywhere by BGEA bodyguards, some of them former Secret Service agents, because "my father's organization," he said, was afraid that drug lords might try a kidnapping.

Preaching still isn't easy for him. In the afternoon before the crusade began, Graham was clearly tense. He spent an hour by the pool at his resort hotel and then slipped to his room to work some more on his sermon.

The first half of the evening performance was all music, and then it was Graham's turn. On stage he was a quiet presence, rooted to one spot beside an urn of yellow chrysanthemums (yellow shows up best on TV). He kept his gestures minimal and his voice soft, his words simple and his tone conversational. The sermons each night, delivered through a translator, were variations on the theme of sin, redemption and forgiveness.

"You may say, 'Franklin, I'm not a sinner like this.' But even if you live a good life, if you break just one law, it's the same as if you broke them all. ... I'm a sinner. My father is an evangelist, and I was raised in a Christian home. I went to church as I was raised, but I was lost; I was searching. I didn't want God in my life. I wanted to be free. I wanted to enjoy everything life has to offer. ... God is going to judge you some day. This may be your last chance. Will you come? It's yourchoice. I want you to get up out of your seats and come."

And they came - young men dashing forward as if they were in the Olympics, teenage girls giggling together, mothers nursing their babies - until the seats were half empty and the field half full.

Graham says he finally learned how to preach by just doing it. "You don't learn it in a classroom or from books. I never practice in front of the mirror, and I don't look at myself on TV. ... I just deliver the message that is on my heart."

Preaching, he says, is "the most tiring thing I do. It'll take me 10 days to get over a crusade and rest."

Family ties

Every Sunday that he's in North Carolina, Franklin Graham picks up a bucket of fried chicken and heads down the road to visit his parents. After lunch, he often escorts his father on a short walk through the woods.

For Franklin Graham, "honor thy father and mother" is more than a biblical commandment. It's the key to who he is and what he does.

Even at the height of his rebellion, he showed respect for his parents. To this day, when he addresses them as "ma'am" and "sir," it's not just a Southern mannerism. It's an expression of a shared set of values that forms a sacred trust between them.

It explains why Graham is taking on his father's business and why he can't do anything but.

He acknowledges, though, that a transfer of leadership is not always smooth.

"It's hard with Daddy," he says. "Some days he wants me to take over, and some days he wants to keep it."

But "honor thy father and mother" means Graham can't be too specific about the future. "I don't want to give my father the impression we're planning his demise," he said.

Graham does say that plans are afoot to consolidate Samaritan's Purse and BGEA. And he is clear on two points: BGEA will spread the Gospel through crusades while Samaritan's Purse will spread the Gospel through humanitarian relief; BGEA will stay in Minneapolis, and Samaritan's Purse in Boone.

Daily telephone calls between the two organizations have become the norm. There is talk of eliminating duplication in departments such as media and mail. And many of Billy Graham's personal consultants, even his official photographer, are now working for his son, too.

"These are my father's friends," he said. "I'm going to be loyal to them and provide them a place to work."

BGEA board members say the cultural chasm might be difficult to bridge. Samaritan's Purse likes to hire young, peppy people with can-do attitudes. The BGEA is filled with gray-haired men known for avoiding conflict and deliberating endlessly.

His father knows changes are afoot but says he trusts his son.

"I don't expect him to follow exactly in my footsteps," Billy Graham said. "He'll develop his own vision. He'll be his own man. I don't intend to interfere."

As Franklin Graham eases into his leadership role, one thing is clear: The farther he travels from home, the closer he comes to sharing his father's values.

There's no better sign of the importance of family heritage than Graham's willingness to consider his son Will - a student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest - as his own successor. But first, he says, Will will have to prove himself by working somewhere else for 20 years or so - just as he did.

For now, though, Franklin Graham is more concerned with his father's legacy.

"I want the last few years of my father's life to be focused on him," he said. "As his son, that's what I'm going to do. We'll worry about the future when it comes."