Prodigal Son

updated 05/03/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/03/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

MY FATHER HAS BEEN CALLED TO THE stadiums and big arenas of this world," says Franklin Graham, sitting in his Boone, N.C., office. "I believe God has called me to the ditches and gutters. We go with the same message."

If the line sounds rehearsed, that's because Franklin, 40, has been grappling his whole life with the complex fate of being Billy Graham's elder son. And now, with his 74-year-old father suffering from Parkinson's disease, Franklin is being seen not only as the Great Crusader's son but possibly as his successor. Billy has been evasive on the matter. But his associate, Dr. John Wesley White, says, "I can assure you it's not out of Billy's mind, or Franklin's."

The choice of Franklin—who started preaching in public only four years ago—to head the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, which took in $100 million in 1991, would not be without irony. In his youth Franklin was a rebel and an adventurer, a college dropout and dedicated carouser. It was not until the mid-'70s that he found religion and subsequently spearheaded two Christian relief organizations that take food and doctors to such places as Bosnia and Somalia.

Remarkably, though he never appeared in a pulpit until 1989, it is his passion there that makes some people believe him capable of replacing his father. He preached his first summer crusade in Juneau, Alaska, under pressure from Dr. White. "Franklin was extremely reluctant, feeling there were huge footprints to fill," says White.

At a later crusade, Franklin preached the parable of the prodigal son, using himself as an example. "This is a picture," he told the crowd, "of a young man's restlessness." Franklin's voice was hauntingly similar to his father's and his expansive gestures pure Graham.

Ruth Graham—who reared two boys and three girls in Montreat, N.C., mostly by herself while her husband was off at the crusades—delights in telling "Franklin stories." She tells how she once got sick of the teenage Franklin's smoking and dumped an ashtray on his head. Another time, exasperated by him, she locked him in the trunk of a car. When he was 19 and hungry for adventure, Franklin told his parents about a missionary hospital in Jordan that had lost its only car to the PLO—and volunteered to deliver a replacement. To his surprise, his parents went for it. That fall he drove a Land Rover from London to Mafraq, slugging Johnnie Walker all the way. There were things like that that'll turn a mother's hair gray," says Ruth.

"I had no idea what direction my life was going in," says Franklin, who says he was not rebelling against his parents but against the good Christian life, which he thought too dull to be worth living. "I was having to wrestle with my own identity."

In 1974, on Franklin's 22nd birthday, Billy took the prodigal out for dinner and told him he was going to have to choose whether to accept Christ or reject him. "I knew he was right," says Franklin, "because I was miserable inside."

Two weeks later Franklin got down on his knees and surrendered. Shortly thereafter he returned to Montreat and married a childhood friend, Jane Austin. In 1978 he helped set up World Medical Mission, which sends medical volunteers on short-term stints to hospitals worldwide. A year later he took over Samaritan's Purse, which sends emergency supplies to areas in crisis around the world as a way to spread the gospel.

Funded with $13 million in donations, Franklin's ministry is headquartered on 17 acres outside Boone. It is just an Appalachian hoot and holler from the comfortable two-story house he shares with Jane, 42, and their four kids—Will, 18, Roy, 16, Edward, 13, and Cissie, 6.

Franklin is determined not to be an absentee parent. "Daddy was gone up to three months, one time six months," he says. "But I want to know my children." Fie also wishes he had more time to spend with his father. Amid the photographs in Franklin's office is a 1989 shot of Billy, inscribed: "To my son, Franklin, of whom I am very proud, and whom I love with all my heart."

But Franklin deflects all questions about assuming his father's mantle. "Look," he says, "I have a very large work here that keeps me very busy. I'm in a very neat place in my life. When I was younger, I needed my father, and then I kind of got off on my own and made my own way. Probably in the years to come, my father is going to need me. And it will be a joy to be able to help him."


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