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Once-'Rebel’ Son Becomes Heir to Graham Ministry

Times Staff Writer

He was on the stage, but went unnoticed by most of the tens of thousands who turned out one night last week at the Rose Bowl to hear Billy Graham preach.

He escorted the aging evangelical patriarch to the pulpit and placed Graham’s Bible on the lectern for him.

Then, Franklin Graham -- Billy Graham’s oldest son and heir to the evangelical legend’s worldwide ministry -- quietly returned to his seat in a row of chairs behind the pulpit as a first-night crowd, estimated at 45,000, rose to its feet to applaud his father.

“My commitment to him -- and his entire team’s -- is we’re going to help you finish well,” Franklin Graham said in an interview hours before the Rose Bowl revival began. “All of us are committed to my father making sure that whatever is on his heart -- for as long as it is on his heart -- we’re going to be there for him.” It was almost imperceptible, but for an instant, the younger Graham had to hold his emotions in check.

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This is a transition time for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Assn., when memories of 55 years of Graham’s ministry linger like embers amid flashes of oratorical fire from a man who has become an icon of faith.

For now, the pulpit is still Billy’s. More than 300,000 turned out Nov. 18 to 21 for the Greater Los Angeles Billy Graham Crusade at the Rose Bowl, ministry officials said. They estimated that 12,600 people either accepted Graham’s call to believe in Jesus Christ for the first time or renewed their Christian commitments. Many said they came because they thought it would be their last chance to see Graham, 86, in person.

But Franklin Graham, 53, is the undoubted heir to the ministry his father started in 1950. Franklin Graham was named chief executive officer of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Assn. in 2001; a year later he also became president.

He moved its long-time headquarters from Minneapolis to Charlotte, N.C. In the process, the association lost two-thirds of its workers, and now Franklin Graham says he is building a new, younger team in North Carolina. At the end of 2003, the association reported combined net assets of $296 million.

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The fourth of five children, he was reared in the Grahams’ log home in the Appalachian Mountains outside Asheville, N.C. When he was 22, he had what he called a conversion experience as he prayed alone in a hotel room in Jerusalem. It wasn’t long before he joined a six-week mission to Asia and decided he wanted to help the poor and others in distress.

He married in 1974, and he and his wife have four children, including a son who has become a preacher. Franklin Graham was ordained in 1982 near Phoenix, at Grace Community Church, a nondenominational congregation then led by Guy Davidson. But he doesn’t like to be called pastor, reverend or by any other title. “Just call me Franklin,” he said.

A decade ago, Franklin Graham was known as something of a prodigal son. He reveled in the description. His 1995 autobiography is titled “Rebel With A Cause.” He rode a motorcycle. The sins of his youth were shouted by his publicists. “He was kicked out of school, hooked on cigarettes and alcohol, and [was] a self-proclaimed thrill seeker,” one news release said.

A private pilot, he has flown into war zones to bring medical and other aid to the needy. Some say he is sometimes reckless with his words.

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Whether it’s gay marriage, which he opposes, or the nature of Islam, Franklin Graham leaves little doubt about what he thinks. Though his father declined last week to say whom he voted for in this month’s presidential election, Franklin Graham was unhesitant in saying he voted for President Bush. “I think this thing in Iraq is going to pass,” he said. “We’ve got George Bush for another four years. He’s not going to back up and he’s not going to run.”

After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Franklin Graham called Islam “an evil and wicked religion.” The remark, made during an interview on “NBC Nightly News,” created a furor. Some said it endangered Christians working in Muslim countries. American Muslim leaders denounced Graham’s statement as bigoted.

In an interview with The Times, he was asked if he still thought of Islam in the same way. “I haven’t changed my mind,” he said. “When people’s heads get chopped off and throats are cut and innocent people are murdered and slaughtered, my mind hasn’t changed.”

Asked specifically if he still thought Islam was “an evil and wicked religion,” he said he didn’t want to reopen that controversy. “But there’s no question we are in a war in this country, and our war is with people who are following Islam in a radical sense and this is what this war is all about.

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“I don’t believe we should be declaring a war on Muslims. Not at all. We have millions in this country who follow Islam and are good citizens and make their home here and wanting to live in freedom just like anyone else,” he said.

“But unfortunately, you don’t have that in Saudi Arabia,” he added. “You don’t have that in any country where Muslims have a majority. Christians, Jews are persecuted and in Saudi Arabia, Christians and Jews predated Muslims.”

Asked about gay marriage, he said it was contrary to God’s law. He said be believed many gay or lesbian couples believed that their relationships were genuine love. “But there were people who for centuries swore up and down the Earth was flat too,” he said. “God says that’s a sin. Yet, God loves sinners.” And God, he stressed, is willing to forgive.

The Rev. Eddie Gibbs, an evangelical priest of the Church of England who is a professor of church growth at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, said Franklin Graham is slowly learning to weigh his words, just as his father did.

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Gibbs, who has worked for the Graham association in the past, recalled a gaffe by Billy Graham in 1950. The elder Graham had just visited President Truman in the White House and was surrounded by reporters on the White House lawn.

Not only did Graham report what he and Truman had said during their private meeting, he also demonstrated for reporters how they and three Graham associates had prayed. They knelt in prayer on the White House lawn, to the glee of reporters and photographers. Truman later gave orders never to invite Graham back.

“You don’t learn to become a Christian statesman overnight. It takes awhile. You make a lot of mistakes along the way,” Gibbs said of Franklin Graham. “I think he’s in the learning mode.”

Franklin still calls his father “Daddy,” a term of endearment common in the South. But he is also becoming his own man. In the last 15 years, he has preached either with his father or by himself at 100 revivals. A week before the Rose Bowl crusade, he filled a sports stadium for several nights running in Temuco, Chile, preaching to nearly 106,000 people, his staff said.

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He is also president of Samaritan’s Purse, a nondenominational evangelical Christian program founded in 1970 that serves the poor, refugees and others at home and abroad. It has more than 500 staff members, Graham said.

It turns out that Graham has more in common with his father than their square jaws and rugged good looks. To listen to Graham preach is to hear the same simple gospel that his father has preached for 55 years.

“The generation in which we’re living is much different than the generation back in the late ‘40s. But the needs of the human heart haven’t changed,” he said.


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