Conversing with Author and Speaker Virginia “Gigi” Graham Tchividjian is like being transported to a cozy cottage in the mountains of North Carolina, where “mother” and “daddy” raised her and her four younger siblings on Southern manners and blackberry cobbler. “They call me Mama G,” she said, fondly referring to her 22 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. The matriarch of “the first family of faith,” Gigi is the daughter of the late Rev. Billy Graham, the world’s best-known evangelist who prayed with U.S. presidents and foreign dignitaries and preached at large evangelical crusades worldwide. However, Gigi said she has lived in Florida longer than anywhere else, having attended boarding school in Zellwood, Fla., at 12 years old. She and her former husband, the late Stephan Tchividjian, a respected psychologist, raised seven children of their own in South Florida, where the Tchividjian family continues to build a lasting legacy in the community.
Gigi married Stephan, a Swiss-Armenian, at the age of 17, in what she calls an arranged marriage, and moved to Switzerland where they found her father-in-law’s controlling influence intolerable. After about eight years the couple moved to the states so Tchividjian could pursue a college education. He earned a doctorate in clinical psychology at Marquette University, in Milwaukee, where he interned under the late Larry Crabb, a popular Christian counselor and author who encouraged Tchividjian to move to South Florida. Tchividjian built a thriving practice, and in the 1980’s founded Life Management Ministries, focused on training for small groups, at First Baptist Church of Fort Lauderdale. He also hosted a radio talk show on what was formerly WMCU.
Raising a family in South Florida
While Stephan pursued his career, Gigi was busy at home managing their large family and household. Writing on scraps of paper between chores, she has since published more than 10 books and developed an inspirational speaking ministry. When the family first moved to Florida, they briefly attended Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church under the leadership of the late Rev. D. James Kennedy, where in 1974 the Rev. Graham spoke at the dedication of their new church sanctuary to an overflow crowd. A few years later, the family became members at First Baptist Church of Fort Lauderdale, pastored by Dr. O.S. Hawkins, where Tchividjian developed the counseling ministry, and the Hawkins became close family friends. Their large family filled the front row pews, and Gigi chuckled as she recalled Hawkins as an instigator with the children.
In a phone interview, Hawkins, now president of Guidestone Financial Resources, agreed, “I totally was. When Antony was about six years old, I’d pay him money to run up and touch the prayer altar and run back and sit down, and they’d go crazy!”
Remembering the time fondly, Hawkins said “God was doing a fresh work in Fort Lauderdale.” In 1985 the Rev. Graham conducted an eight-day crusade at Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale that attracted crowds estimated in excess of 25,000 per day, to hear a gospel message encouraging a personal relationship with Christ. The Rev. Graham was welcomed by then Florida Governor Bob Graham, who called the preacher “a son of Florida returning to Florida,” according to a Sun-Sentinel article. Graham attended Florida Bible Institute in Tampa and preached his first sermon in Palatka, Fla. During the crusade, the entire family was involved in some form.
“There is no doubt that Stephan and Gigi were a powerful ministry couple in the 80’s,” said Hawkins, adding “Stephan helped so many broken lives become whole… and apart from her own relationship with Christ, Gigi’s strength was in her family.”
Growing up Graham
Asked if it was difficult being the daughter of “America’s pastor,” Gigi said, “We were never sacrificed for public opinion.” However, with her father travelling about 70 percent of her childhood, her mother chose to move the family to North Carolina to be near her parents, who were former missionaries in China. “I could go on talking for hours about my mother, and I do at The Cove.” (The Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove is a Christian Conference and Retreat Center in Asheville, N.C., where Gigi currently serves as a family ambassador, speaking and welcoming guests.) “She was a character,” Gigi said of her mother. “She was a wonderful writer, a poet, theologian and intellectual, but she had a streak in her that could think of things, and they were fun!”
Gigi recalled that when she was a child, busloads of tourists came on their lawn and called the family out by name, just so they could take pictures. “And in the 1960’s there were so many threats against my dad, the FBI made him put up an electric fence and get guard dogs. My mother was furious and said, ‘This is an afront to my guardian angels!’ She was spunky! Spunky with her grandchildren too.”
Of her seven children, Gigi said Tullian was the one always running out the door with a surfboard. “He came in one day with his ears pierced and I was horrified! And he always fixed his hair in some strange way, so I felt like I was sitting in the front row at First Baptist Fort Lauderdale with six children and a chicken! But after he had pierced his ears, my mother sent him a box of earrings. Then for thanksgiving, she sent him a knife and a fork for his ears. She was teaching me, ‘Gigi, don’t make a mountain out of a molehill.’ She had a wonderful way of teaching. She didn’t get on to him. She didn’t criticize him, and he got over it pretty quicky, but that taught me a great lesson.”
Gigi described both her mother and daddy as nonjudgmental. As an illustration, she recounted attending the celebration of the 75th Anniversary of TIME Magazine with her father. It was a black-tie affair in Rockefeller Center to which everyone who had ever appeared on the cover was invited and it was a motley crew. This was during the Clinton administration in the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, so there was a little tension, and they were seated at President Clinton’s table. “In the taxi on the way back to the hotel, I asked Daddy, how do we as Christians deal with these sorts of things? And his answer to me was, ‘Honey, the New Testament teaches, our job is to love, the Holy Spirit’s job is to convict, and it’s God’s job to judge.’”
A ministry family
Raised in South Florida, the Tchividjian children attended various schools at different times, including Westminster Academy, Coral Springs Christian Academy (a ministry of First Presbyterian Church of Coral Springs that was sold because of damages caused by Hurricane Irma.) and a brief stint at Coral Springs High School and Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School.
There were always a lot of people coming in and out of the family home, recalls Antony Tchividjian, and “I could not go to bed unless my mother came into my bed, read to me, and we said our prayers, consistently every night, which instilled in me a sense of security and love.” There was family dinner around a huge, long table with a home cooked meal and “my dad would read devotions at the end of dinner. If we interrupted, he would start over. It was ridiculous because sometimes he was almost done, we were anxious to get back to our friends and he would start over! And we all had chores right after dinner. It was that structured.”
Following in the Rev. Graham’s footsteps, many of the Graham/Tchividjians have gone into some form of Christian ministry.
In Fort Lauderdale their eldest son, Stephan Nelson Tchividjian, is co-founder and president of the National Christian Foundation South Florida and serves on the board at Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale. Antony Tchividjian, the youngest, is assistant director at Calvary House, a faith-based addiction recovery program. And granddaughter Charlee Tchividjian founded Every Mother’s Advocate, (ĒMA) a nonprofit focused on eradicating the preventable causes of family separation, where her mother Lisa Tchividjian also serves.
In Deland, Fla., Gigi’s son Basyle “Boz” Tchividjian is an attorney defending sexual abuse cases and founder of Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE). Her youngest daughter Jerusha Duford is a licensed counselor and author in Greenville, S.C., where her brother Aram Tchvidjian works beside her husband Kyle Duford at The Brand Leader. And her eldest daughter Berdjette Barker lives in the Montreat, N.C., area where she and her husband are active in ministry and she manages several rental properties.
However, Tullian Tchividjian, Gigi’s middle son, has not always made positive headlines. The founding pastor of New City Church in Fort Lauderdale, in 2009 he merged it with the historic Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, where he served as lead pastor until 2015 when it all came crashing down due to infidelity, and his first marriage ended in divorce.
When Tullian fell, Gigi said, “That was so hard for me. I remember I wrote my feelings about the whole thing immediately so I wouldn’t forget them because it was tough.” She received the shocking news as she was driving back to North Carolina from Florida, and immediately turned around and headed back to help out the family.
When asked if he recalls anything his mother said at the time, Tullian replied, “I just remember that she was there. My life was so topsy turvy at the time, and I was in such a funk, even if she had said something profoundly wise, I’m not sure I would recall it. She was just present at a time when I desperately needed someone who I knew loved me to be present.”
In the aftermath of what he calls his “season of self-destruction,” Tullian, in 2019, founded a nondenominational church in Jupiter, Fla., called The Sanctuary. In February, Gigi attended Tullian’s first “Fallen and Free” conference at The Sanctuary.
Because of Tullian’s moral failing, however, there are some in the body of Christ who argue he is disqualified for church leadership. When I asked Gigi what she thought of that, she replied, “You know, Tullian messed up. But when you mess up, it doesn’t mean God’s finished with you. God uses messed up people. And now he’s reaching a different group of people who are not comfortable in traditional church. God is using him in a different way.”
Tullian said, “My own story plays a predominant role in what I say now, so I jokingly tell people that The Sanctuary is a recovery place masquerading as a church.”
Recovery is something Antony Tchividjian has also experienced firsthand. For forty months, Antony struggled with drug addiction while in and out of school at Liberty University. Remembering the amazing feeling he had when prescribed Percocet for a root canal when he was a teen, Antony began taking pills recreationally in college to fit in with the crowd at parties. “Before you know it, you’ve become dependent on them and everything in your life revolves around supplying your habit.”
Antony had been through three other recovery programs before he finally achieved sobriety at Calvary House. “I just remember being in the hospital detoxing and for the first time I just surrendered. I said, ‘OK Lord, I’m going to do whatever it is you want me to do,’ and I meant it… I came straight from the hospital to Calvary House.”
Now Antony leads the Calvary House ministry and Gigi said, “It’s wonderful. I thank the Lord, but I still pray because you never know with these drugs. It’s awful!”
Asked how she dealt with the time when she had “prodigal sons,” a reference to a parable Jesus told in Luke 15:11–32, Gigi said, “We’re all prodigals until we come to the Lord Jesus. But I never had peace about my prodigals until I realized that God loved them more than I did. It’s so hard to turn it loose, but I finally would have to say, I can’t do any more.”
To mothers having trouble with their children, Gigi recalled her mother would say, “God is the perfect parent, and He has trouble with His children too.”
Gigi has experienced her own personal battles as well. She has shared publicly about her struggle with depression, and admits, “I still do.” While mornings are sometimes difficult, Gigi said she is energized by people and was able to get the help she needed once she understood that “depression is clinical and not a spiritual thing.” She said she learned a lot from her husband, Stephan, who she said was very good at his job.
Unfortunately, after raising their children, Gigi and Stephan divorced in 2005. She remarried and divorced a private investigator, then in 2012 married her childhood friend, Jim Wilson, who passed away last year.
“Gigi is a survivor,” said Hawkins. “She might go through some valleys, but she loves large, and she’s always going to end up where she needs to be in the end.” What he most respects about her is, “With Gigi there is no ‘put on.’ She knows who she is and has never tried to be someone else.”
Leaving a legacy
Reflecting on something his mother Gigi instilled in his life, Stephan N. Tchividjian said, “Authenticity, especially as it relates to one’s relationship with Jesus. She taught me early on that a relationship with Jesus had to be my own. I couldn’t ride on someone else’s faith journey.” As the eldest grandson of Billy Graham, Stephan N., said, “I recognized that it was an honor and a privilege but never felt pressure to be someone I am not… However, I believe that all Christians are in ministry, whether you run a business, teach an English class, care for the sick or preach sermons; that’s what we were taught.”
Asked how he thinks God looks at the family’s failures, Stephan replied, “I believe those failures are unfortunate and carry consequences; however, God is also a redemptive God. Each story of failure has a story of redemption, and as long as the hero of the story is God, then He can use it.”
In considering what contribution his mother Gigi has made to South Florida, Stephan said, “I hope it has been her honesty and faithfulness to serving Christ… warts and all. I respect her resilience, strength, honesty and teachability. She is a great example that being a Christian doesn’t mean you have to pretend everything is ok, and at the same time we don’t dwell in our past and failures. I believe her to be a fantastic mother who has influenced my life in more ways than she will ever know.”
Tullian also responded, “Our family has had some public successes and some public failures but through it all I believe my mom (and our family) has persistently pointed this community to the God of grace who never gives up on us… That is, I believe, her greatest contribution to south Florida. And as far as what I respect about her, I think she’s handled the challenges and enormous pressure she was born into with grace and down-to-earthiness. I never once saw her act better than anyone else because of who she was. She knew the checkout girls at Publix by name; she knew the garbage men by name. She treated people, all people, with the same care and concern.”
Although she says it is not finished yet, Gigi said she hopes the Graham Tchividjian legacy in South Florida will be, “God’s faithfulness. Our legacy should be always that we glorify the Lord, whatever we’ve been through as a family. I tell people at The Cove there’s not a single one of you that can tell me anything that will shock me because somewhere in our family, we’ve been there. And God has been faithful through it all.”
Read more articles by Shelly Pond at: https://www.goodnewsfl.org/author/shelly/