Graham son brings word to Baltimore

July 05, 2006|By MATTHEW HAY BROWN | MATTHEW HAY BROWN,SUN REPORTER

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It is, perhaps, the curse of the man that, at 53 years of age, he still must endure comparisons to his father.

Not that the comparisons are easy to avoid. First, there is the striking physical resemblance: the tall, broad-shouldered build, the solid jaw, the penetrating eyes. Then there's the familiar manner, gentlemanly but assertive, smoothed by that easy Appalachian accent.

But mostly, it's the calling, to spread the Gospel to all corners of the globe. It's the family business. As Franklin Graham learned early on, being the firstborn son of Billy Graham - probably the most famous, best-loved and most successful evangelist on the planet - carries with it certain expectations.

"Welcome to this sin-sick world and the challenge you have to walk in your daddy's footsteps," said one of the telegrams that greeted the birth of William Franklin Graham III in 1952.

"We heard," another note began, "that your Daddy has new help for preaching God's truth. Praise the Lord! So grow up fast."

"If I had understood the messages people were sending me," Franklin Graham wrote in his 1995 autobiography, "I might just have crawled right back in where I'd come from."

In time, he made peace with his lot in life. A year after Billy Graham led his final crusade, Franklin Graham, president and chief executive of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, is emerging as the headliner of the largest evangelistic ministry in the world.

Franklin Graham is to make his first preaching visit to Baltimore this week. Invited by a committee that has grown to about 700 churches, he will lead a three-day revival scheduled to begin Friday at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

The Metro Maryland Festival, three years in the planning, will include performances by Randy Travis, Newsboys and Andrae Crouch. Health permitting, Billy Graham will preach a brief message Sunday. But the unmistakable leader of the event will be Franklin Graham, a minister blazing a trail distinct from that of the man known as America's Pastor.

Where Billy Graham drew worldwide fame with the stadium-filling revival meetings that had him preaching to 210 million souls in 185 countries and territories, his son has spent most of his adult life focused on Samaritan's Purse, an evangelical humanitarian organization that has been lauded for its work in war zones and disaster areas.

Where Billy Graham focused on preaching, often leaving the managerial details to others, Franklin Graham has applied his business degree to evangelizing more efficiently, including an international television ministry that he says has won more conversions in the past four years than in all previous years of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association combined.

Billy Graham was the pastor to presidents, forging personal relationships with every chief executive since Dwight D. Eisenhower. Franklin Graham says he tries to avoid politics. But when he does get involved, the difference is clear: Billy Graham, whose inclusive message appealed not only to fundamentalists and evangelicals but also to Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants, warned associates to steer clear of entanglement with the religious right.

By contrast, his son has echoed the Rev. Pat Robertson, the Rev. Jerry Falwell and other conservative Christians in proclaiming homosexuality a sin. And where Billy Graham once said that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, Franklin Graham said after the Sept. 11 attacks that Islam was "a very wicked and evil religion."

Franklin Graham "does take a somewhat harder line," says Rice University scholar William Martin, who wrote a biography of Billy Graham.

"His father, particularly in recent years, but really progressively throughout his career, became more and more inclusive, to the point that some evangelicals were rather worried about some of his statements," Martin says. "They thought he was too inclusive, too accepting. And I think that's not Franklin's tendency."

Tom Schetelich echoes the point. "His father really emphasizes the love and the acceptance of God," says Schetelich, the Baltimore lawyer who chairs the executive committee that is bringing the Franklin Graham festival to the city.

"Franklin's messages, as I've heard them, are somewhat different," he says. "He'll make a statement for the need for righteousness in somebody's life."

Franklin Graham has heard the comparisons. "There's never been an evangelist like Billy Graham," he says. "And I have no illusions thinking I'm Billy Graham. I'm just an evangelist. I'm just a preacher of the Gospel.

"We preach the same message. Our styles are a little bit different. ... But my father believes exactly the way I believe, as far as Jesus said, `I am the way, the truth and the life, and no man comes to the father but by me.'"

Asked about his comments on Islam, he says that all humans are "evil and wicked."

"The Bible says we've all sinned," he says. "We are filled with sin. And that's why Jesus Christ came to this earth, was to take our sins."

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