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The prodigal son comes home

Franklin Graham delivered the invocation at George W. Bush's inauguration in January.  
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Samaritan's Purse
Franklin Graham's biography at
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TIME magazine: In the name of the father

(CNN) -- Standing in front of thousands on a cold rainy day in January, Franklin Graham delivered a prayer to the nation that blessed the new president. Like George W. Bush, Graham was following in the footsteps of a famous father.

Evangelist Billy Graham had performed the invocation at nine previous inaugurations, but he was now ailing. His son stepped in to deliver the prayer at Bush's swearing-in ceremony in Washington.

The 48-year-old prodigal son was not always so eager to take his father's path and preach the gospel. Franklin Graham was a self-described bad boy who rebelled against his father's saintly ways.

"I just felt that if I put myself into the pulpit, that it would be like a lightning rod for all these comparisons," Franklin said of becoming a preacher.

Son of a preacher man

The young Graham shares a tender moment with his father in 1955.  

William Franklin Graham III was born the fourth of five children to William (Billy) Franklin Graham Jr. and Ruth Bell Graham on July 14, 1952. The family lived in a log cabin in the Appalachian Mountains outside Asheville, North Carolina.

Growing up with a famous father, who was gone on the road for months at a time, wasn't easy. During Franklin Graham's youth, his father was already an internationally known evangelist who organized large-scale preaching crusades and served as spiritual adviser to U.S. presidents.

"Being raised by a single parent," said Graham's sister Anne Graham Lotz, "and giving your father up when he spends more time with a secretary or a news reporter than he does with me -- that hurts. ... We knew he preached and he went and served Jesus, so I was glad to let him go because of that."

The adventurous boy, who liked to hunt and fish, is said to have acquired some of his mischievous nature from his mother.

"My mother was going to insist that I got up in time to get to school at a proper time," Graham said. "So I started locking my door so she couldn't come in, and she started sliding firecrackers under the door. She thought that was fun."

The wild one

Graham's boyhood mischief grew into young adult rebellion. He rode motorcycles, learned how to pilot planes and lived life in the fast lane.

"I just wanted to have fun," Graham said, describing wild times of "drinking the beer, and going out to the parties, and running around with different girlfriends."

Even though he's shed his rebellious image, Graham still loves the rush of riding his motorcycle.  

He smoked, drank, got in fights and admitted trying marijuana. "He loves to live on that adrenaline rush," Lotz said. "You know whether it's an airplane or a fast motorcycle or doing something on the edge."

His family sent him to Stony Brook, an elite Christian boarding school on Long Island, New York. He dropped out and was later expelled from another school, LeTourneau College in Longview, Texas, for keeping a female classmate out all night past curfew.

"He was behaving in ways that were not appropriate, to not only Billy Graham's son but to a young Christian," said William Martin, Billy Graham's biographer.

Things would soon change. During a trip to Switzerland in 1974, Billy Graham talked to his 22-year-old son about the direction in his life.

Franklin Graham remembers his father looking him straight in the eye and saying, "I want you to know that your mother and I sense there is a struggle for the soul of your life, and you're going to have to make a choice."

A new commitment to God

Graham visits a patient at a Samaritan's Purse hospital in Lui, Sudan in 1998.  

These words troubled Graham as he continued on his tour of Europe. Driving across the countryside with a bottle of scotch in his hand, he began to think about the conversation with his father.

One night in a hotel room in Jerusalem, Franklin's life changed. He describes his epiphany in a passage from his 1995 autobiography, "Rebel With a Cause: Finally Comfortable Being Graham."

"That night instead of going to the bar for a couple of beers, I found myself alone in my room reading through the gospel of John.

"When I came to the third chapter, I read not just that Jesus told Nicodemus he had to be born again, but I also grasped that Franklin Graham had to be born again as well."

Shortly after this experience, he returned to North Carolina and married a hometown girl, Jane Austin Cunningham, on his parents' front lawn. During the ceremony, he publicly told everyone how his life had changed.

With the new commitment to God, Graham began looking for ways to show his faith. Family friend Bob Pierce, founder of the Christian relief organization Samaritan's Purse and World Vision, invited Graham with him on a six-week mission to Asia.

Graham witnessed the hardships of many of the world's poorest people, and during his work with the mission, he has visited hot spots around the globe.

Pierce died of leukemia in 1978, and the following year Graham took over as president and chairman of what is now a $131 million, 300-employee organization that distributes supplies to those suffering from war, famine and natural disasters.

He worked hard to make his mission something he could call his own. The internationally known group works independently from his father's Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, a $110 million ministry based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

While Billy Graham was preaching in his crusades, his son was ministering through Samaritan's Purse. Franklin Graham often was urged to follow his father to the pulpit, a path he did not want to take.

"I'm going to travel the gutters and the ditches of the world, and I'm going to help people in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. My father can go to the big stadiums, but I'll just go to the highways and the byways," Franklin said, recalling his reluctance to preach by his father's side.

Stepping up to the pulpit

Graham speaks during a youth night event in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1995.  

But an evangelist who worked with Graham's father had a different idea. In 1989, John Wesley White talked Graham into preaching at a crusade in Juneau, Alaska. Things went differently from what Graham expected.

"That night, after I preached, I felt in my heart God was calling me, and I had been resisting it really out of pride because I didn't want to be compared to my father, and that was the wrong reason," Graham said.

Afterward, Graham decided to devote 10 percent of his time preaching with his father's ministry. He began holding his own crusades, or "festivals" as he calls them, and since 1989, he has preached to 1.6 million people in different corners of the world, according to the Billy Graham ministry.

In 1995, the day before a big crusade in Toronto, Billy Graham became ill. The elder Graham requested his son be brought in to preach in his place.

Just before Franklin Graham was to step in for his father, the crusade team told him that it had chosen someone else to preach that night.

The incident prompted Billy Graham to consider the possibilities of naming a successor to his ministry. The evangelist, now 82, has Parkinson's disease.

Many of the Graham ministry's board members resisted the suggestion of his son as a successor.

Eventually, they changed their minds. In 2000, Franklin Graham was named chief executive officer of his father's ministry. The younger Graham now divides his time between Samaritan's Purse and his father's organization.

Franklin and his wife live on a farm in Boone, North Carolina. They have four children. Like his father, he travels with his work, although he makes a point of not staying away too long.

With a name like Graham, it's difficult to avoid the national spotlight. He preached at the memorial service for victims of the Columbine school shooting and gave prayers at the Republican National Conventions in 1996 and 2000.

Once reluctant to follow in his father's footsteps, Graham is now proud of his role.

"I just want to be faithful to the same message that he's been faithful to, and that's the preaching of the gospel," he said.

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