Rev. Franklin Graham, president and CEO of Samaritan’s Purse and son of the late evangelical leader Billy Graham, joins Howard Husock to discuss his organization’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, the volunteers behind these efforts, and how secular Americans can better understand faith-inspired philanthropic work.

In New York City’s Central Park, Graham’s disaster-relief organization set up a field hospital to treat patients overflowing from nearby Mount Sinai Hospital. Since the facility opened, its medical teams have treated more than 100 patients. Graham notes that he’s following in his grandfather’s footsteps, providing medical help not only in New York but also in China, where Samaritan’s Purse has donated supplies and personal protective equipment. “American civil society,” writes Husock, “diverse and self-organized, still responds to need.”

Audio Transcript

Howard Husock: Welcome back to 10 Blocks, the podcast of City Journal. I'm Howard Husock, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the director of the Institute's Tocqueville Civil Society project. I'm joined today by the Reverend Franklin Graham who heads the international relief organization, Samaritan's Purse. It's built and operates the 68-bed field hospital in New York’s Central Park to help the city's Mount Sinai Hospital cope with the coronavirus pandemic. Samaritan's Purse is the volunteer-based Christian relief organization, which has responded to health crises all over the world, including the 2014 Ebola crisis in West Africa but never before in the United States. Reverend Graham, thank you so much for joining us.

Rev. Franklin Graham: Oh, thank you for inviting me.

Howard Husock: You know, many New Yorkers I think were surprised that a Christian relief organization could mount a field hospital so quickly in Central Park. How did this come to happen?

Rev. Franklin Graham: Well, it was, well first of all, let me just say that we have these field hospitals, we keep them in stock and our staff train on them so that when there is a crisis, we can deploy it. And normally have it set up within 48 hours and be running. Central Park had a few challenges, so it took us a couple extra days to do that. But it's just what we do. And so we work on this, we plan it, we rehearse it, we train on it. This started back during Hurricane Katrina when it hit the Gulf coast. I remember going through one of the cities, I don't know where it was. I think it was Mississippi and there was a field hospital because the local hospital had been destroyed. And I've thought to myself, that is that that could be needed not only in many countries around the world at certain times, but it might be needed here again, one day. And that's really kind of where we started, after that hurricane, seeing another organizations's field hospital there in Mississippi.

Howard Husock: Are many of your staff members or all of them volunteers?

Rev. Franklin Graham: No, the ones that, I'm assuming... We have in the course of a year, we will have about 300,000 volunteers that will work at some level or another within the organization. As it relates to our field hospital, the doctors and nurses that are there are paid volunteers. And what I mean by paid volunteers, they are not full time with Samaritan's Purse or the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, these are people who have other jobs. They work in emergency rooms and operating theaters in different parts of the country. And we call them for a deployment like this. They get an opportunity to take a leave of absence and the hospital agrees to let them go and they come in and work for us for, I think these doctors and nurses are on a one-month rotation. There'll be with us for a month and then we'll bring another team of doctors and nurses in and they'll spend a month. And of course, we don't know how long we'll be in New York. Hopefully it won't be too long, but we're prepared to stay as long as we need to stay.

Howard Husock: Do you think that government should have been able to handle this on its own? Should we have to turn to civil society, Samaritan's Purse, religious groups?

Rev. Franklin Graham: Well, religious groups have provided in healthcare and around the world for centuries. Even today, some of the best health care in third world countries is provided by organizations that are affiliated with churches. And some of our best hospitals here in this country are affiliated with various denominations. Numerous Catholic hospitals, Presbyterian and Baptist hospitals, Methodist hospitals. And so the church has been leading the way in health care for years. And I think the church can always do maybe a better job than government. What happens with government is just bureaucracy and takes time to get things moving. But I've been very impressed how quickly the president was able to get the Javits Center up and running, to get the hospital ships deployed on both coasts. He did all this with this in a matter of days. So I think the government has responded quickly and we've got, there's a lot more capacity now in the state of New York. And I just going to speak about New York, but that's a lot more capacity today than we did just 10 days ago.

Howard Husock: Can you imagine operating a Samaritan's Purse hospital in China?

Rev. Franklin Graham: No I don't. I think being in a communist country would be so restrictive and so difficult, but who knows? If we, if there was a crisis and whether it was North Korea or China or Russia, if there was a crisis that we were asked and we had the ability to respond, we had certainly to do that.

Howard Husock: China of course, is not exactly keen on civil society and religion.

Rev. Franklin Graham: No, but Samaritan's Purse, we have responded to China. We were asked, this would have been maybe a month ago for masks. And I think we sent, I don't want to quote a number, but it was a large quantity of masks that we shipped to China for a hospital north of Shanghai. And this is a hospital that my grandfather helped to start back over a hundred years ago. That is still in operation today. The building's not, there's a newer building that's been built in his place but we still have a connection and that goes back over a hundred years. So, we're still helping where we can in China.

Howard Husock: That that's a pretty stunning story. In the case of Mount Sinai, of course, yours is a Christian relief organization working with what began as a Jewish communal organization. Did that pose any special challenges?

Rev. Franklin Graham: No, these have been great people to work with. They know our position, we know their position. We're not there to have dialogue on theology. We're there to save life. And we work very closely together. We work under their license. They bring the patients to us. We're not responsible for accepting patients. So it's just whoever they give to us, that's who we take. They do the screening. And a lot of these patients have come out of, I think it's Brooklyn, where they've been so overcrowded and we've been kind of a relief valve for them. But I just can't say enough about Mount Sinai. They're just a great, great organization. And we would work with them any time.

Howard Husock: Is there, is there something special about America that a Christian organization and a Jewish organization would work together that way?

Rev. Franklin Graham: Well, I think we're all Americans and we're putting our nation and then the people that we serve. We were putting that first. Of course as a Christian, I want everybody that we help to know that God loves them and cares to them. Many times when you go through storms like this, people have questions and they're wanting to know, is God mad at us? Why is God doing this to us? And I want to reassure people that God loves them and cares for them. And that's as a Christian that we put our faith and trust in Jesus Christ who took our sins to the cross and died in our place and who rose from the dead, who's alive and could come into hearts if a person is willing to invite Christ to come into their heart to their life. So we want everybody to know that God cares for them and loves then. So I mean, that's, that's who we are and we share our faith with everybody who will listen.

Howard Husock: Do you have any special qualifications or to put another way, restrictions on who you accept as a volunteer?

Rev. Franklin Graham: Oh, yes. We have a standard for people that work with Samaritan's Purse. We're very careful at who we let in. Of course we want to have people that are likeminded. That believe the way we believe. I'm sure Mount Sinai wants people that are likeminded to join their organization. I don't know. But we are evangelical Christians and so we want other evangelical Christians working with us. So who have the same philosophy, the same mindset that we do. And so that's, that's what we, that's who we are.

Howard Husock: You know, the federal government has had for all of the past 10, 15 years what it calls, grants to faith-based organizations. Do you accept those kinds of funds? Would you consider accepting them?

Rev. Franklin Graham: I'm not sure. We do accept some government money for some projects like a US AID. There's projects that we manage for them in certain countries. But we are very careful about what grants we take. We want to make sure these are grants that we can do a good job with. And anytime you work with the federal government, there's a lot of oversight and a lot of hoops that you have to jump through, which is fine, but that's just a very small, small percent of our income. The vast majority of our income comes from individuals who will give you $100 or $50, and many of them will give that $50 or $100 and they'll give it with their prayer. And that means more to me than anything that I have people praying for us who care for us and who support us and when a person gives you 100 bucks, they've invested quite a bit of money and that's a big thing. And for someone to give that kind of money. And so we accept that we're appreciative, but that's where our, our income comes from. It comes from the private sector.

Howard Husock: Have you gotten a much higher profile because of being in Central Park than you had previously? Has that surprised you? Has it changed how people think about you, do you think?

Rev. Franklin Graham: I don't know. We have a hospital in Italy and just think about this: to have an evangelical organization working in a Catholic country. We have had a great relationship with the community there in Cremona in Northern Italy. And that's 58-beds, which is a sister hospital to the one we have there in Central Park. And I think being in Central Park, for some reason, has this captured the attention of New Yorkers and the country. In just a different way. I don't know why I can't, I can't explain it. We don't take up that much space in Central Park. We're just, you know, on the side right across the street from the hospital. But it is just really kind of captured people's hearts. And I would say 99% of it has been extremely positive. There's always a few naysayers who have their own opinions, but we've been treated so well by the New York community. Food that is catered and brought to us every day. Pizza trucks roll up and, and cook 30-40 pizzas and then drives away, doesn't charge anything. People drop by cakes and pastries. It's just incredible. Just the outflow of love from the community there in New York City. And we're so, so appreciative of just the support that we're getting from the city.

Howard Husock: Well, it's interesting because we hear so much about how polarized America is. And here you tell stories like that. It makes you maybe think we're less polarized than it seems.

Rev. Franklin Graham: No, I think, the media likes to pick out stories that have a little controversy to them. I think they think that it helps us for the viewers or the to sell their whatever. But America, when there's a crisis, America comes together and especially in New York. We saw this after 9/11. And I think today this is the biggest health crisis to face our country in over a hundred years since the Spanish flu pandemic in in 1917-1918. And America has pulled together and I think they have, demonstrated that by the way, they have, first of all, have supported the recommendations from the government as when it comes to social distancing, wearing mask or gloves and doing what we can to protect not only ourselves, but to protect one another. Who would have thought that America would do that? And I mean, I'm just so surprised at how much of the country is following the guidelines that have been given to us by our administration. So I'm surprised, but pleasantly surprised. But at the same time, we can't stay like this forever. We have to get back to work and get the economy going.

Howard Husock: You know, there has been some pushback in New York. I'd be remiss if I didn't raise it, about some of your own views, Billy Graham Evangelical Association views on same-sex marriage and social issues. And some have said, well, we, we, we shouldn't have to have such a group in New York. What do you say to that?

Rev. Franklin Graham: Well, that's certainly their views. And I mean, there would be people who would say their views shouldn't be maybe in New York, I don't know. But we're Americans and we have the right to the freedom of speech. We have the right to freedom of conscience. And of course, freedom of religion, is so much of who we are as a nation. This is my religious beliefs. And there are a few people who would like to take away my right to worship, right, to believe, the way I've been taught. But marriage is between a man and a woman. The Bible, God's word is very clear on this. It's between a man and a woman.

Howard Husock: Right. And I'm guessing that, but I'd love to know, have there been unpleasant interactions in Central Park, or is it basically been you've been accepted and, and welcomed?

Rev. Franklin Graham: Oh, we've been accepted and welcomed. The people that we deal with have been incredible. The city officials that we deal with, the state officials that we've dealt with so far, the hospital officials that we've dealt with, the police department, the people that are that are running the ambulances that come into us all day and night. We've had nothing but good positive interactions with new Yorkers. Now know there's some that disagree with us being there, but they certainly haven't come down and been a problem where we are.

Howard Husock: Has there been to my last question, has there been any surprise expressed by the volunteers? I'm guessing many of them, not from New York. What is their reaction been to the city and to the whole situation?

Rev. Franklin Graham: Well, I think for our, the people that are working with us, have been just blown away by the spirit of the New Yorkers, people coming up and thanking us. And I'm talking about just people right off the street, when they find out we're with Samaritan's Purse. Just thanking us. So we have had nothing but a positive experience in New York.

Howard Husock: Well, I know that New Yorkers thank you for being here for doing what you're doing in Central Park and for helping to save lives. 10 intensive care units. That's, that's seems to me hard to mount in a park, but I'm not a doctor. Maybe it's easier than I think. I don't think so though.

Rev. Franklin Graham: Well, these tents that we have. This is basically patterned after what the U.S. military MASH hospitals that they put on battlefields. And there are very high-tech, these tents, they're climate controlled. They have oxygen, negative pressure built into the tent. All of these things that you need to have an intensive care unit and to have safe conditions for people that you're trying to heal. And so they have their tents, but they're, they're quite high-tech.

Howard Husock: Well, I'm going to have to consider one of those the next time I go camping.

Rev. Franklin Graham: Well, if you get the coronavirus, come see us.

Howard Husock: Oh, God. I think I would, but I hope I don't.

Rev. Franklin Graham: Well, I hope so too, but if you do, we'll take good care of you.

Howard Husock: I bet you will. I'm Howard Husock Manhattan Institute. I've been joined by the Reverend Franklin Graham of Samaritan's Purse, the organization running that field hospital in Central Park. Reverend Graham, thank you so much for being my guest.

Rev. Franklin Graham: Thank you.

Photo courtesy of Samaritan’s Purse

More from 10 Blocks