87: Stephan Tchividjian

87: Stephan Tchividjian

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Billy Graham & Me

• 87 •
STEPHAN TCHIVIDJIAN

Grandson of Mr. Graham, president of the Caleb Group and a pastor at Calvary Chapel, Fort Lauderdale, Florida

I am the first grandchild of Billy Graham. My mother, Gigi (short for Virginia), is the oldest of Billy and Ruth’s five children. She married at age seventeen and I was born one year later. I’m the oldest of seven children in my family.

People sometimes ask me, given the family I was born into, if I was expected to become a preacher. My answer is no. We were taught early on that we all had a unique opportunity — everyone does — to have a personal relationship with God through Jesus. So even as I was growing up I had to wrestle with that on my own. My grandfather may have been a high-profile Christian leader, but that didn’t by itself make me a Christian. We were taught that these were all personal decisions. Everyone had to make his or her own assessment. You can’t just ride in on the coattails of somebody else. I learned that profound lesson very early on, and I attribute much of it to the tone set by my grandfather.

I was introduced to ideas about God and the Bible and Jesus in a very healthy environment in which there was no hypocrisy, no difference between public persona and private person. What I saw in my family was consistent across the board. That’s not to say that anyone was perfect, but it was a very healthy environment to grow up in, and it was a big influence on who I am today. I think that is true of my brothers, sisters and cousins as well.

There was a consistency and genuineness to everything my grandfather said and did, the way he lived his life. He did not regard his life as an evangelist as his claim to fame, ticket to stardom or wealth or anything like that. He was always genuine, as was my grandmother. This is why my early exposure to religion was a very positive experience for me, and it remains so today.

My grandfather never adopted the attitude that he had to keep up a public image. He never felt he had to make his family toe the line so that no one would embarrass him. He never tried to control the personal relationship we had with God.

He was really the opposite. He encouraged us to make our own decisions. His love for me was unconditional, just as I was taught that God’s love is unconditional. So I never had to be someone I was not in order to be loved or accepted by him, and that was true of my parents also. I didn’t grow up in a home where there were a lot of dos and don’ts. It was a home where we were taught that God loves us and sent His Son to die on the cross for our sins, but it was our decision whether to accept that or not.

In today’s culture, everybody is suspicious of the integrity of others, whether it’s politicians, Wall Street financiers, movie stars, or anyone of any prominence. We tend to be suspicious of their authenticity. But for me, as a kid growing up, I saw nothing but genuineness in my grandfather.

Not only that, he is probably the most humble person I know. When you sit down and talk to him he is much more interested in what you have to say than anything he has to say. That blows me away! I look at him and think, My goodness, you have more in your pinky than I have in my whole brain, and how dare I even speak? I think he’s honestly blind to his fame. I don’t think he is conscious of it. He doesn’t think of himself as different from anyone else.

I remember one story in particular from my childhood that shows both the genuineness and the humility of my grandfather.

When he was doing his big crusades he decided to start taking each of his grandchildren along to “shadow” him. Since I was the oldest, I got to do it first. The crusade was in San Diego in 1976, and I was twelve or thirteen years old at the time. In those days he would travel to the city a week before the crusade to get acclimated to the community, and meet with the press and city leaders. After the four- or five-day crusade, he would remain in the city for a day or two. So I spent two weeks with him in San Diego, and I remember shadowing him wherever he went. If he went to the morning news show for a live broadcast, I went too, and I got to sit and watch and meet all the people. If he went to the “top gun” school, I went there also and met the pilots and the Navy people. If he was having an important meeting, I was invited to attend.

I shadowed everything, and I remember to this day never once being treated like a little kid. Once, after a speaking engagement, my grandfather took me and a few members of his staff back to the hotel room, and I remember him saying, “Okay, guys, let’s talk. How did it go tonight — any input, any advice for me?” He even asked me what I had to say. I don’t remember my response, but I do remember him listening and saying, “That’s a good point, Stephan.” He instilled in me early on that there was worth in who I was.

I have an incredible memory of being with him and getting that insight. At that time, had there been any skeletons in the closet, any hypocrisy or lack of integrity — if he had lost his temper with one of his staff behind the scenes or had treated a waitress badly at a restaurant — I would have seen it. But that never happened.

The experience I had as a grandchild forever helped to shape my love and respect for my grandfather, not only as a man, a husband, father, and grandfather, but also as a man of God. So many people say, I don’t have a problem with God, but I do have a problem with God’s people. Growing up, I had a different experience.

Given all this, I feel blessed by my heritage. To this day, people often come up to me and say they have their own story about how my grandfather influenced their lives. Sometimes they apologize for intruding on me, but it is always a pleasure to hear their stories. My grandfather has been so generous with his life, helping so many people, and I like hearing how he impacted someone else’s life in a profound way. That’s an amazing experience to have, and Daddy Bill, as we call him in my family, is an amazing grandfather.

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