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In Memory of Billy Graham

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‘Little Girls Need Their Daddy’

Billy’s children are thankful for their father; they just wish he’d been around more.

Keri Wyatt Kent

When Franklin Graham was five, his famous father was in Australia for six months preaching at a Billy Graham Crusade. Like many youngsters, “I’d wake up in the morning, go down the hall and crawl into bed with Mama,” Franklin says. “Well, one day I went in and Daddy had come home. So here he was, this man in her bed. I asked Mama, ‘Who’s that?’ “

Billy’s children say that his frequent extended absences marked them, but so did his unconditional love. While he sometimes chose ministry over family, they also knew that he loved them deeply and unconditionally.

The Graham children have both struggled and triumphed. Three out of the five have been divorced; both boys openly rebelled. All of them wrestled with simply being the offspring of the 20th century’s most famous evangelist.

Today, the Graham children are all engaged in full-time ministry, but more importantly, they respect and honor their parents. As adults, they look back on their peculiar childhood through the lens of grace.

The eldest, Gigi Graham Foreman, has written seven books and is a sought-after speaker. Anne Graham Lotz runs AnGeL Ministries, which hosts Bible teaching revivals and conferences both here and abroad, and has authored numerous books. Ruth “Bunny” Graham leads Ruth Graham and Friends, a ministry to help hurting people within the church, and also writes and speaks extensively. Franklin Graham is CEO and president of both the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Samaritan’s Purse, a compassion and relief organization. Ned Graham, the youngest, has been a pastor and now runs East Gates, an organization that works to print and distribute Bibles in China (where their mother, Ruth Bell Graham, grew up as the daughter of missionaries).

‘He belonged to the world’

“My father was not a hands-on father,” Anne told Christianity Today. “Mother was both our mother and our father, in many ways. That’s what makes her absence now such a void.” (Ruth died in 2007.)

The Grahams raised their family in Montreat, North Carolina, where many retired missionaries, including Ruth’s parents, Virginia and L. Nelson Bell, had settled. “We were more known as Dr. Bell’s grandchildren than Billy Graham’s children” at first, Gigi notes. The Bells and the BGEA staff helped raise the children.

Each morning and evening, the entire family would gather for prayer, on their knees. When Billy was home, he’d lead these family devotions. Mandatory Scripture memory was also a part of growing up Graham. “I could not go out and play on a Sunday afternoon until after I had memorized at least one Scripture verse,” Franklin says.

'One day I went into Mama's room, and Daddy had come home.
 So here he was, this man in her bed. I asked Mama, 'Who's that?'
" ~ Franklin Graham


Billy was always willing to talk (and to patiently listen) to strangers who approached him, even when he was with his family in public. “It’s very difficult for me to separate who he was as a person and as a father. He belonged to the world,” Gigi told CT. “But I do remember crying in the bathtub, wishing I had a normal daddy.”

At age eight, Gigi accompanied her parents to England and Scotland, one of the few times she traveled with them. One day, she awoke to discover her parents had left the hotel without telling her, leaving a staff member to look after her.

All three girls went to boarding school, where Gigi says she cried “because I was homesick.” At school, she “was no longer sheltered, and was on display. People had unrealistic expectations.” A headmistress once asked her to pray aloud, then later scolded her because she “didn’t measure up to their expectations of how a daughter of Billy Graham ought to pray.”

Billy wrote letters and postcards regularly to each of the children, and to the family as a whole, asking them to pray for his work, telling them about the places he was visiting. Ruth, or “Bunny,” as she was called, told CT she has saved all of those letters. “He parented me from a distance,” she says. “Daddy had a lot of heavy responsibility. . . . He loved us, but he just wasn’t around.”

Gigi echoes that: “A lot of my insecurities came from the fact that he just wasn’t there. But he was always affectionate. And in my adult life, I’ve spent more time with Mother and Daddy. I feel like God has given me back the lost time.”

Ned, on the other hand, remembers a mellower, more accessible father. He remembers knocking on his father’s bedroom door as a young boy, interrupting an important phone call. “He’d say, ‘Just a moment, Lyndon,’ put the phone on his chest, and then motion for me to come in,” Ned recalled in a 2007 Charisma magazine article. “To me, that said I was more important than the President of the United States! I’d crawl up on his bed, content just to lie there with my head on his chest.”

Amazing grace

All three girls married at age 18. Even as she had tried to live a normal life raising her children, Ruth knew something was wrong. “I tried to cover it over, but I was fighting depression,” she told CT. Eventually, she found herself “looking for razor blades”—but those dark thoughts were “a wake-up call.”

“I was raised—although they never said it—to think that people who needed counseling were somehow spiritually deficient,” she says. After 21 years, Ruth’s husband admitted to infidelity and the couple divorced.

Ruth remarried quickly, against her parents’ wishes. “Daddy even called me from (a crusade in) Tokyo, saying I should slow down” in this new relationship, she says. “But I didn’t listen. I was just so eager for someone to take care of me.”

A month later, feeling regret and “fear for my physical safety,” she quickly packed her car and fled with her daughter to her parents’ home in Montreat. “My fears multiplied at every mile,” she says. “I was nervous, anxious, bruised, and broken.”

She knew her parents had every right to say, “I told you so,” when her second marriage fell apart. “But when I rounded that last bend of the long driveway, Daddy was standing in front of the house, waiting. I got out of the car, he wrapped his arms around me and said, ‘Welcome home.’ In that moment, I realized, that’s what God does for us. He shows us grace. And I wanted to do that for other people.”

It was a moment of healing, she says.

“I have a lot of insecurities and lack of self-confidence,” she admits, “perhaps because little girls need their daddy. Many other people stepped up to help, but it’s not the same. They say your view of God is shaped by your view of your father. I guess I saw God that way—that he loved me, but that he was busy with more important things. But that day when Daddy was waiting for me at the end of the driveway, that proved what I had known all along: that he loved me.”

Even so, this didn’t make everything perfect, she admits. She married a third time a few years later, and eventually that marriage ended in divorce as well. Ruth has chosen to use her painful circumstances to minister to “the wounded in the church.”

Gigi also married at 18, to “a man I didn’t really know,” Stephen Tchividjian, a native of Armenia, who took her to Europe to live. After raising seven children, they also divorced. She’s since remarried to Chad Foreman.

The cost of ministry

All of the Graham children talk about the cost of their father’s absence. Even after they were adults, Billy was still torn between family and ministry.

In 1973, their grandfather Nelson Bell died. Less than a year later, Ruth Bell Graham was at Gigi’s home in Milwaukee. The adventurous grandmother decided to create a rope slide for her grandchildren. They tied a rope between two trees and planned to slide down the rope by holding a length of metal pipe over the rope. Ruth, age 54, decided to test the slide before letting the grandchildren on it.

“Mother climbed a tree to get to the top of the line, took hold of the pipe, and promptly fell 15 feet when the line broke,” her daughter Ruth wrote. “She shattered her heel, compressed her spine, broke a rib, and blacked out, falling into a coma for a week.”

“She was in intensive care, and I was driving back and forth from the hospital,” Gigi recalls. While their mother was still recovering, their grandmother suffered a stroke. Meanwhile, Billy was doing a ten-day crusade in Norfolk, Virginia, and at first said he would not be able to come back. The family’s pastor, Calvin Thielman, called Billy and convinced him to come home. He stayed only for his mother-in-law’s funeral, and then returned to the crusade despite his adult children’s pleas for him to stay.

“Mother was hobbling around on crutches, still having memory loss problems. Her own mother was dying,” Gigi says. “She’d lost her father just before then. And Daddy came briefly but left again. The staff was saying that the crowds would not come if he wasn’t there.”

Ruth, 23 at the time, begged her father to stay, but he simply refused. “I must admit I still do not understand how my father could have left us in those circumstances,” she wrote later.

“He belonged to the world. But I do remember crying in the bathtub, wishing I had a normal daddy.” – Gigi Graham Foreman

Gigi said the incident made her very angry, at both her father and God. “I remember driving, pounding on the steering wheel, screaming at God: ‘Why?'” she says. But a quarter century later, she doesn’t demand answers from her daddy.

“He was aware” of the mistakes he made, she says. “He told the young men [in the BGEA], ‘Don’t follow my example.’ He told my nephew Will [Franklin’s son who is now a preacher], ‘Don’t be away from your family so much.'”

Prodigals

As teens, both boys rebelled. Ned openly admitted to drinking and marijuana use. He married at 22 but divorced 20 years later. He since remarried, to Christina Kuo, a staff member at East Gates.

Franklin also pushed back against the rules—growing his hair long, driving a motorcycle, smoking, and drinking. “I wasn’t rebelling against God; I just wanted to have fun,” he says. “Through it all, my parents kept praying for me.”

Eventually, their prayers were answered. “Finally, I got sick and tired of being sick and tired,” he told CT in a phone interview from his home office in Alaska, where he’d stopped between international trips with the BGEA. “Like the prodigal, I came to my senses. I also realized that I had asked Jesus into my heart much earlier, but I’d never given him the lordship of my life. I kept part of myself back.” On a hill in Jerusalem, the 22-year-old Franklin again surrendered his life to Christ.

“I thank God for the training my parents gave me, the verses they made me memorize,” he says. “They set the example. And most important, they prayed for me every day. God used the training I’d had as a young man to bring me back.”

Franklin notes that Bob Pierce, founder of World Vision and also of Samaritan’s Purse, “took me under his wing for a few years.” Pierce eventually asked Franklin to lead Samaritan’s Purse, but only after asking Billy. Franklin’s father gave his blessing but didn’t mention their conversation to Franklin.

“Daddy wanted the Holy Spirit to lead me,” he says. “He was always very careful about asking or presenting opportunities. He didn’t want to push, but I’m sure he prayed. My mother and father have always been my greatest prayer warriors.”

He says his father’s legacy includes “his prayer life, his consistency, his faithfulness in preaching the gospel. In any conversation, he will always head right toward the Cross. I love him; I respect him. My calling in the last ten years has been to help my father finish the course, to take some of the burden off of him. It’s a great joy and privilege to do that.”

A living legacy

Anne had three children by the time she was 21. When they were all still young, she realized that she had “neglected God and had become homesick for God.” She began leading a women’s Bible study.

The study grew quickly to 500 women, but that meant little to Anne, whom Billy has called “the best preacher in the family.”

“My life’s goal is to know God like Abraham did,” Anne says. “My ministry is all a part of my passionate pursuit to know God. I saw that in Daddy, also, a desire to know God that way. My father’s impact was not just in what he said to me, but in the power of his example.”

She often teaches on Abraham and his “magnificent obsession” for friendship with God, which he passed on to his son Isaac and his grandson Jacob. Likewise, her prayer is that the Graham children and grandchildren will want to pursue intimacy with God.

She said her father spent long hours studying the Bible, and she’s followed that example. She compares her family to that of legendary Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards, noting that many of his descendants have carried on his work.

“My life has been impacted by my personal relationship with Daddy, and that is precious to me, but even more, it’s been impacted by the power of his example, of his heart to bring people to Christ, and his commitment. My prayer is that his influence would be felt through many generations.”

Credit- Christianity Today

Keri Wyatt Kent is a freelance writer, speaker, and author.

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