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The Rev. Franklin Graham will be the first to admit he can never fill his famous father's shoes.



For decades, Americans admired the Rev. Billy Graham as the most influential religious voice in the country, flocking to his "crusades" like geese to a golf course, including a Buffalo stop in 1988 that drew an estimated 127,000 people over the course of a week.

Billy Graham, now 93 and frail, has since faded from the forefront of American evangelism.

But the faith-based organization he established in 1950, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, is still very much intact.

And Franklin Graham, the son who once dreaded the prospect of following his father into preaching, returns to Buffalo this weekend with a retooled evangelistic approach.

"As a young man, I was concerned about being compared to my father, realizing I could never be a Billy Graham, so why put yourself in a position where you could be compared to him and disappoint people?" Graham said in a telephone interview with The Buffalo News.

If not filling his dad's shoes, Franklin Graham is nonetheless walking in paternal footprints. And along the way, his comments about the value of faiths outside of Christianity - particularly Islam - have stoked occasional religious controversy.

Graham, 60, will be here as part of "Rock the Lakes," an evangelical event highlighted by Christian rock, pop and hip-hop acts interspersed with occasional sermonizing and faith testimonials. His visit to Coca-Cola Field will bear little resemblance to his father's crusade 24 years ago in the same venue, known then as Pilot Field.

The event is being billed as a festival, not a crusade. And instead of the huge choir featured in Billy Graham's crusades, some of the most popular acts in Christian music will take the stage Saturday and Sunday.

Different times demand different approaches to ministry, said Franklin Graham, who acknowledged that many of the concertgoers who file into the stadium, particularly Saturday for the rock bands and rap acts, may not even know who Billy Graham is.

"My father will always be part of American history. He preached to more people, in more countries, than any other person in history," said the younger Graham, who serves as the president of the association his father started. "But you've got another generation, and every generation has to be reached."

Billy Graham fully supports the new approach to bringing young people to Christ through today's music, because during the height of his ministry, he relied on elements of popular culture to connect with young people as well, said the younger Graham.

Franklin Graham acknowledged that he's not especially in tune with the music younger people are listening to, either.

"So much of the music, I can't even understand it, but you look in the audience, and all the kids are mouthing the words," he said.

Franklin Graham will preach both days, albeit briefly, aiming to instill a message of hope.

"We live in a world where you've got a generation of young people who know very little about God," Graham said. "Young people today feel empty. They're searching, and sometimes they don't know what they're searching for."

They might experiment with alcohol, sex and drugs to fill that void. Some even feel as if "they've experienced everything" by the time they're teenagers, "and it's left them cold," leading too many of them to despair, Graham said.

"I want young people to know that God loves them, and He's got a plan and purpose for their lives," he said.

Graham, who in the past has been outspoken in his criticisms of Islam, refrained from discussing his thoughts on the recent killing of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens in Libya and other protests in predominantly Muslim countries, following the release of film ridiculing Muhammad, the revered prophet in Islam.

In 2001, a month after the terrorist attacks, Graham called Islam "a very evil and wicked religion" - remarks that prompted a rebuke from some fellow evangelical Christians.

More recently, Graham suggested in a February television interview that President Obama was not a Christian and that Muslims would consider the president "a son of Islam" because Obama's father was Muslim. Graham later apologized for the remarks. In his interview with The News, he said he wanted to focus on "Rock the Lakes," not world events.

"There's plenty of commentators that are right now discussing Islam and the lack of tolerance in Islam and these types of things," he said.

Interfaith relations were sometimes an issue with the elder Graham, too.

In his Buffalo visit, Billy Graham was criticized by some faith leaders in the area for urging Catholics, Jews and Muslims to make a personal commitment to Jesus Christ and become "born again" - an overt proselytizing of non-evangelicals that other religious groups say they had been assured would not happen.

Orchard Park resident Annie McCune, who attended the Billy Graham crusade at Pilot Field in 1988, said she remembered the event transforming the lives of many people.

This year, McCune and her husband, Lee, agreed to lead a committee organizing the festival, which has involved 290 area churches and 3,000 volunteers.

McCune said she has no idea how many people will show up for the event, which is free and open to the public.

"We hope a lot," she said. "Each city is unique. Each date you pick is unique." And, of course, weather can play a role.

Nonetheless, she added, "If we can instill hope in any one person, it will be worth it."

"Rock the Lakes" attracted 24,000 people over two days in Green Bay, Wis., while Rochester's version drew 17,975, according to figures from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

Franklin Graham recalled a storm blew through Buffalo in 1988 as his father was about to take the podium on one day of the crusade.

Lightning sent crowds scurrying for cover, and a bolt even appeared to have struck part of the stadium, Graham said.

"It was pretty scary for a while," Graham said. "I remember that lightning very well."



The worst of the storm passed quickly, and the crusade continued with Billy Graham preaching in a raincoat during a drizzle, he said.

"I was surprised by how few people left," Graham said.

Billy Graham had a bout with bronchitis in August, and last December he spent six days in an Asheville, N.C., hospital battling pneumonia. But Franklin Graham said his father still works daily and recently submitted a manuscript for a new book to editors.

"I would hope he would live to be 100, and he might," the son said. "He's got an incredible stamina, and his mind is crystal clear."

Unable to read due to failing eyes, Billy Graham verbalizes to an assistant what he wants to write, then has it read back to him so he can edit and rewrite, according to his son.

In addition to overseeing the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Franklin Graham is president and CEO of Samaritan's Purse, an international relief and evangelism organization with an annual budget of $464 million.

But these days, he also has the special task of assisting his father "in whatever project or ambition he has in his heart."

"My first and foremost responsibility," he said, "is to help my father finish well."

Father and son are currently collaborating on a project called "My Hope with Billy Graham."

They hope to launch the telecast, which will include a new Gospel presentation from Billy Graham, along with classic footage of the evangelist, on Nov. 7, 2013 - the elder Graham's 95th birthday.





email: jtokasz@buffnews.com