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Overcoming struggles, Billy Graham's children are rooted in ministry today
Some might expect the offspring of the most influential religious leader in the modern world to live lives approaching perfection — whether by choice or force.
But Gigi, Anne, Ruth, Franklin and Ned, the children of Billy and Ruth Graham, would be the first to laugh at such a notion, even though all are involved in Christian ministry today.
“We’re a family just like any other, with our own joys and heartbreaks,” the younger Ruth Graham said in a 1995 interview with the Citizen Times. “We’re not immune because we’re Billy Graham’s kids.”
It’s true that the five younger Grahams, who range in age from 59 to 72, have had their share of human difficulties.
There have been divorces, a runaway grandchild, drug abuse and some general misbehavior in the children’s younger years.
One daughter, Ruth Graham, wrote a 2004 book recounting some of her struggles with the title, "In Every Pew Sits a Broken Heart."
But these five Grahams reflect many of the values and Christian faith their parents have instilled in them.
Ned Graham, a pastor who prints and distributes Bibles in China, has told of the times, now long past, when he would return to the family home in Montreat in the small hours of the morning, “drunk or stoned or something.”
Each time, without fail, his mother would be sitting in her rocking chair in the kitchen, her eyes red and tired from crying or praying, or both.
She would walk to her son, kiss him on the forehead and say, “I’m glad you’re home, Ned. I’m going to bed now.”
Franklin Graham, head of a Christian relief organizations as well as president and chief executive of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, has related the quiet concern his father expressed three decades ago at his 22-year-old son’s seemingly reckless lifestyle and apparent struggle with his spirituality.
“I remember my father saying, ‘Franklin, your mother and I love you very much, and we want you to know that no matter what you do in life, no matter where you go, our home will always be your home.’”
Three weeks later, Franklin Graham committed his life to Christ.
It is that unconditional love the Graham children refer to when they speak of their parents, and of the solid foundation Ruth and Billy Graham laid for what they hoped would be their children’s intimate relationship with God.
“Daddy, although away from home much of the time during my formative years, commanded a deep respect,” Gigi Graham says in her book, “Passing It On,” which she wrote as a 50th anniversary gift to her parents in 1993.
“We knew that he loved us more than anything in the world, and he demonstrated this love in many open, outward expressions,” she says. “His very presence caused me to feel shame if I had been naughty. Next to my desire to please the Lord, I wanted to please him.”
Anne Graham Lotz has acknowledged that Billy Graham's work often took him away from home as she was growing up.
But in a statement she released the day her father died, he does not come across as a distant figure in her life.
"When I think of him, I don’t think of Billy Graham, the public figure. I think of my Daddy. The one who was always a farmer at heart. Who loved his dogs and his cat. Who followed the weather patterns almost as closely as he did world events," she wrote.
Today, the Graham children are scattered. But they have stayed in close contact, and there were regular family gatherings and short trips with their parents, both here and abroad, as long as the elder Grahams were physically able.
There are 19 grandchildren, many of whom are carrying on the Graham tradition of Christian ministry and mission work, and numerous great-grandchildren.
The younger Grahams continue to celebrate their family ties and the lives they have been led to leave.
“We’re just all strong-willed, independent and full of ourselves,” Lotz has said. “But we love each other.”
Virginia "Gigi" Graham
Gigi Graham is the eldest child and an inspirational speaker and author of several books. The mother of seven children and grandmother of 20, she and her husband live in Black Mountain.
She is now married to childhood friend Jim Wilson, the son of T.W. Wilson, a longtime companion of Billy Graham.
She told an interviewer in 2014 that Christian women nowadays must focus on balance in their lives.
"To live a Christian life in these changing, fast-paced times, we need the proper balance. It’s hard to find that balance and not comprise our convictions without being judgmental," she said.
The Christian History Institute says Gigi Graham overcame struggles earlier in her life: "Gigi became depressed and began to write on scraps of paper between household tasks. Eventually she completed 10 books and developed an inspirational speaking and writing ministry."
“What a beautiful responsibility and privilege we have as mothers and wives to provide (a loving and godly) atmosphere for our loved ones,” Gigi Graham wrote in “Passing It On.”
Anne Graham Lotz
Anne Graham Lotz, the second-eldest child, has made a name for herself as a Christian speaker after years of teaching Bible classes.
The mother of three has traveled the world as founder of Raleigh-based AnGeL Ministries, preaching the Scriptures before audiences who are said to be riveted by her delivery — which has been compared more than once to her famous father's.
Anne's brother Franklin says she is “a powerful speaker. She has great depth, a deep understanding of Scripture.”
Her ministry's website quotes her father as calling her “the best preacher in the family.”
Her ministry evolved into a full-time job, taking her on the road to American cities and to countries such as India, Spain, Japan, Brazil, China and Australia. She is also on the board of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
The name of Anne's ministry is twofold. The upper case A, G and L stand for her initials.
The name itself comes from the work she believes God has called her to do.
“Angels in the Bible were messengers of God,'' she has said. “They go wherever God tells them.''
Lotz' husband of 49 years died in 2015. She has three children.
Ruth Graham, who for years went by the nickname Bunny, is founder and president of Ruth Graham Ministries, which is based in Waynesboro, Virginia.
The organization's website says Ruth Graham is "no stranger to heartache herself" and that, "Her passion is to motivate people by God’s comfort and loving acceptance from a place of woundedness to a place of wholeness in Christ."
She is twice-divorced and told an interviewer in 2014 that a daughter developed an eating disorder, another had two children out of wedlock in her teens, and her son struggled with drug addiction.
"Everybody has a dysfunctional family, even God. Look at his children. We're all dysfunctional," she said.
Ruth Graham always considered herself “the listener” in the family.
She was the last of the five Graham children to enter the public arena, instead working as an editor of Christian books and as a relief worker before beginning to speak and write.
For 43 years she was called “Bunny,” reportedly because her mother thought she looked like a baby rabbit when she was born. The mother of three has reclaimed the name she was given at birth and has joined the Christian speakers circuit.
“I think it's sufficient to let people know that I've struggled with some really hard life issues, and that God has been faithful,” she said. “It isn't easy, and sometimes we scream and yell. But God sees us through.”
William Franklin Graham III has often said that while his father took the high road, he has taken the low road — eagerly crawling into the bombed out ruins and disaster-stricken provinces that are home to the world's poorest and most downtrodden.
Franklin Graham has also been the Graham child who has been most visible in the political arena. He opposes what he sees as efforts to decrease God's role in public life and criticizes Democratic Party policies and politicians, although he says he is not aligned with either political party.
He led an effort to encourage evangelical Christians to vote in the 2016 election and created controversy for statements critical of gays and gay marriage, Islam and former President Barack Obama, among others.
As president of Samaritan's Purse, a Christian relief organization based in Boone, Billy Graham's namesake has traveled to the most desolate corners of the world to offer food, clothing, shelter, medical supplies and spiritual comfort to the victims of wars and natural disasters. In 2000, he became chief executive officer of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and in 2002 he became president of the worldwide organization while continuing his work with his own ministry.
Samaritan's Purse has rebuilt a hospital and established an orphanage in Rwanda, started well-drilling programs in Ethiopia, sent hospitals and tons of other supplies to Bosnia, offered ongoing help to refugees in Kosovo and provided help to other countries too numerous to list.
Near the end of Obama's first term in office, Frankin Graham told an interviewer, "In the last four years, we have begun to turn our backs on God."
After the White House was lit in rainbow colors in 2015 in celebration of a Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage, Franklin said the action was "arrogantly flaunting sinful behavior in the face of Almighty God."
He has called Islam "an evil and very wicked religion." Some officials in the United Kingdom have called for the government not to admit Franklin to the country for an evangelical event in September, saying he engages in hate speech.
The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association said it would be a "positive and encouraging event."
Franklin Graham and his wife, Jane, have three children and live in the Boone area.
The youngest Graham child came to do what no one has done before him — print and distribute Bibles, safely and legally, in the vastness of China.
As president of East Gates International, based in Sumner, Washington, Ned Graham is at the helm of a small ministry with a huge focus — distributing Bibles to all Chinese Christians who need them and equipping lay people within the country to carry on the Gospel message in the years to come.
That focus runs in the family. His mother was born in China, the daughter of missionaries.
“My mother and dad, and my grandparents on both sides, were just such godly, committed people. They did everything they could to live their lives in such a fashion as to glorify God,'' Ned Graham said.
“Growing up, we were exposed to just wonderful, not just Christian family, but Christian friends, and examples of Christianity,'' he said. “In general, Christianity is caught, not taught. And we had plenty of opportunities to play catch.''
Even so, Ned said, “I stiff-armed that and rebelled for a while in my life. Not against my mother and dad, but against God's calling.''
Ned Graham went through a rough patch in the late 1990s as many board members and employees of East Gates resigned because of his personal conduct. Ned Graham told Christianity Today that he had abused alcohol and spent an "inappropriate amount of time" with two women on his staff.
But, the organization is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.
"We’ve obeyed God’s voice to build on the foundations established and continue to expand in other vital areas — discipleship training, the publishing of Chinese Christian literature, church building, and social welfare projects," Ned Graham wrote recently.
East Gates' workers "continue walking in God’s faithfulness and praise Him for His eternal love for our Chinese brothers and sisters and the great nation of China. We continue to 'See Beyond the Impossible!' " he wrote.
He and his wife, Tina, have two sons.
Former Citizen Times staff writer Barbara Blake contributed to this report.