Franklin Graham, as always, is on a mission to help children in need this Christmas.
But he also is delivering a message to critics who accused him of using his charity’s plane for political purposes, saying, “We felt that was an appropriate use of the aircraft.”
Graham's charity, Samaritan's Purse, is delivering more than 8 million shoeboxes filled with presents to needy children in 105 countries — children who are victims of war or who are impoverished and living in refugee camps and orphanages.
Operation Christmas Child mobilizes churches throughout the country to help fill, collect and send the boxes to Samaritan's Purse, the North Carolina-based charity that Graham, son of the Rev. Billy Graham, has led for more than two decades.
"The thing that makes Operation Christmas Child different from any another program — it's enormous, it's the largest Christmas program in the world today — but what makes it different is we ask people to pray," Graham says. "Every person that packs a box prays — not for the box, but for the child that’s going to get the box."
Samaritan's Purse operates several planes that deliver food and gifts to remote parts of the world. But one of the charity's smaller planes was used recently to bring former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who was on her book tour, to North Carolina to dine with Billy Graham.
The 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate and the 91-year-old "pastor to the presidents" talked for 45 minutes, leading at least one liberal blogger to blast the Grahams for using charitable donations to support a political figure.
"This means that donations to SP (Samaritan's Purse) are being used to haul Palin's carcass around," the Daily Kos wrote on Thanksgiving. "Wonder what the donors think of that?"
Franklin Graham defends using the charity’s plane for Palin, saying, "She's not a candidate. And she is not running for anything as far as I know. She was in Roanoke, Va., which is a 35-minute flight from Asheville (North Carolina), and we thought it was appropriate to pick her up and expedite and facilitate her meeting my father.”
But his father, Billy Graham, is not just any retired minister. Often referred to as "America’s Pastor," the famed televangelist counseled every president from Harry Truman to George W. Bush — 11 in all — as well as countless other politicians.
Although Graham is ailing and has no plans to get back into the political scene, politicians know they can score points with evangelicals by paying homage to him.
Republican presidential candidate John McCain visited Graham in the early part of the 2008 campaign. President Obama reportedly once met Graham in Chicago, and he called Graham from Air Force One last month to wish him a happy 91st birthday.
Franklin Graham, 57, who now heads the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, says the planes are used to support BGEA efforts as well, which include recruiting non-believers to his father's faith. Samaritan's Purse provides Christian books and pamphlets along with the food and supplies it delivers to the needy.
"Yes, we use the aircraft to support my father, to support the work that I do,” Graham said.
What usually goes under the critics’ radar is how the planes allow for access to countries with tense relations with the United States. Graham says Samaritan's Purse's private aircraft have been able to bring food and supplies into political hotbed areas like Sudan, that country's Darfur region and North Korea.
"I told the North Korean government that there are tens of thousands of North Koreans that are praying for Kim Jong Il, their leader ... because the Bible commands it," Graham said. "I don’t think they knew that."