May 10, 2023 : By Office of Communications & Public Engagement
Liberty University will welcome one of today’s most influential Christian evangelists and leaders in disaster response on Friday when Samaritan’s Purse President Franklin Graham delivers the keynote address during the Commencement main ceremony at Williams Stadium. Graham is a longtime friend of the university, and his visit is especially meaningful to Liberty. The school’s relationship to his family and the humanitarian aid organization he heads can be traced back many decades.
The two organizations actually had their start about the same time, with Samaritan’s Purse launching in 1970 and Liberty in 1971. Through the years, Samaritan’s Purse has been a major partner in providing volunteer service opportunities for Liberty students. The nondenominational evangelical Christian organization provides spiritual and physical aid to the hurting, specializing in meeting critical needs of victims of war, poverty, natural disasters, disease, famine, and epidemics throughout the world with the purpose of sharing God’s love through His Son, Jesus Christ.
Since 2015, Liberty has coordinated with Samaritan’s Purse to sponsor over 40 student trips, most recently through the university’s LU Serve Now disaster relief initiative. Students have been deployed to flood-, tornado-, and hurricane-ravaged areas of the U.S. and even in the Caribbean islands of Antigua and Barbuda after the destruction of Hurricane Irma.
By working alongside Samaritan’s Purse staff on domestic and international trips, students have the opportunity to be the body of Christ outside of the Lynchburg community. This school year alone, Liberty has partnered with Samaritan’s Purse in Englewood, Fla., in the wake of Hurricane Ian; in Griffin, Ga., for tornado cleanup; and in Mayfield and Jackson, Ky., for flood and tornado cleanup.
“While serving in pastoral ministry in Alaska for nearly 50 years, as president at Liberty University, and as a longtime board member of Samaritan’s Purse, the Graham family has come to mean so much to me personally,” said Liberty Interim President Jerry Prevo. “I have long admired the extraordinary work of this organization to make a global impact for disaster relief and, most importantly, the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Liberty University has been a proud partner in these efforts for decades, mobilizing students to reach the nations for Christ. That is also why, when it came time to choose this year’s Commencement speaker, I could think of no better person than Franklin Graham, a Champion for Christ.”
Most importantly, Liberty and Samaritan’s Purse share the same core mission of spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ and being the hands and feet of Christ throughout the world.
Liberty Campus Pastor Jonathan Falwell recalls being in Saint Martin for his 25th wedding anniversary in 2017 when Hurricane Irma barreled down on the Caribbean island. While sheltering in place on the island, he worked with local officials and Samaritan’s Purse to mobilize disaster relief and evacuation efforts. Samaritan’s Purse ultimately came to the aid of Saint Martin residents and returned him back to Lynchburg safely.
“As Shari and I were stranded on the island for days with no power and little food and water, I saw the hopelessness which many were feeling,” Falwell said. “However, when the Samaritan’s Purse DC-8 was on final approach into the island, we knew hope had finally arrived.”
He continued, “In fact, an elderly lady seated near Shari and me, as we were all on the beachfront waiting for assistance, saw the plane about to land, she said, ‘Samaritan’s Purse, I knew they’d come.’ Her comment says it all about the reputation this great ministry has built all around the world.”
Franklin Graham took the mantle from his father, who died in 2018, to serve as CEO and president of both Samaritan’s Purse and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA). Liberty has had close ties to the Graham family over the years. Billy Graham gave the keynote address at Commencement in 1997. Franklin Graham delivered keynote addresses at Commencement in 2001 and Baccalaureate in 1996, and he spoke at the funeral of Liberty’s founder, Dr. Jerry Falwell, in 2007. Franklin Graham has also spoken to students at Convocation. In 2020, over 2,200 Liberty students joined him and Interim President Jerry Prevo in a prayer march, hosted by BGEA, in Washington, D.C. Several members of the Graham family have attended Liberty, including Franklin’s four children, Edward, Cissie, Roy, and Will, who serves as a member of Liberty’s Board of Trustees and whose daughter, Rachel, is currently a student.
For some members of the Class of 2023, the chance to hear from the CEO of Samaritan’s Purse at their Commencement holds special significance.
Graduate Nicholas Thomas was a member of the LU Serve Now team in Mayfield, Ky., last semester. The team helped rebuild homes damaged when a tornado swept through the area in 2021, killing over 85 people, making it the deadliest December tornado event in U.S. history.
“I really got to see the sheer size of the operation that Samaritan’s Purse has,” Thomas said, noting how impressed he was at the number of trained volunteers the organization manages at each job site to ensure that homes can be rebuilt at a rapid pace.
“What a big encouragement for Franklin Graham to come and speak to us,” he said. “Our motto at Liberty is Training Champions for Christ and in all we do we want to glorify God. Having two big (Christian entities) like Samaritan’s Purse and Liberty partner, it just goes to show that putting our resources together and putting our manpower together, we can go out into the world and do big things.”
Samaritan’s Purse has also been a longtime participant in Liberty’s annual Global Focus Week. In Fall 2018, the organization set up its Emergency Field Hospital on the Academic Lawn, the first time the hospital was featured on a college campus. Franklin Graham visited, and students took tours, learning how the mobile hospital is designed to respond at a moment’s notice to disasters and humanitarian crises. During Global Focus Week this fall, Samaritan’s Purse will host two workshops on upcoming disaster relief opportunities for students. Through connections made at Global Focus Week and the university’s continued partnership, many Liberty students have completed internships with Samaritan’s Purse and BGEA, and multiple alumni are now employed with the organizations.
Every year, the Liberty community supports Operation Christmas Child, a ministry of Samaritan’s Purse that sends shoeboxes filled with gifts to children around the world. Liberty has an active, student-run Operation Christmas Child Club that coordinates shoebox donations on campus. In 2018, Liberty set its own record for packing nearly 5,000 shoeboxes. The university also held a contest in which students submitted videos promoting Operation Christmas Child; the winning group earned a trip to Trinidad and Tobago to help Samaritan’s Purse personally deliver the boxes to children.
Samaritan’s Purse has also been a steady supporter of Liberty’s academic programs. In 2020, Samaritan’s Purse staff helped the School of Business develop curriculum for a new humanitarian aid specialization under the Bachelor of Science in Business Administration that equips students to assist vulnerable populations plagued by natural and manmade disasters.
In 2018, Liberty University College of Osteopathic Medicine (LUCOM) entered a partnership to place fourth-year students in international rotations with the organization. LUCOM was the first medical school to be selected by Samaritan’s Purse for the opportunity. Fourteen students spent a month in hospitals in Rwanda, Togo, Kenya, Zambia, Guatemala, Bolivia, and the Dominican Republic.
Lew Weider, executive director of LU Serve, said Liberty appreciates the many ways Samaritan’s Purse supports students, and the university is already planning more partnership opportunities in the future.
“We are so grateful for the partnership Liberty University and specifically LU Serve and LU Serve Now have with Samaritan’s Purse. Their excellence in ministry and professionalism is a great training ground for our students to learn what it truly means to live and serve like Jesus Christ.”