The outlook wasn’t bright for Douglas Chiasson on Oct. 15. He was drunk. He was homeless. And he had been on and off the streets for 20 years. Now he was living in a wooded area near Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Chiasson had dinner at a Salvation Army church, where a bus would take guests to the East Coast Festival With Franklin Graham, held Oct. 15-17 at the Halifax Metro Centre. But Chiasson was having a rough day. He pushed his shopping cart, filled with bottles for recycling and all his possessions, out of the church driveway as the dinner guests gathered to board the bus.
“I sleep on concrete. … I’m the scum of the earth!” he yelled over his shoulder to the Christians who implored him to come. Chiasson and his cart disappeared into the evening.
But God’s grace reached into the darkening streets of Halifax to Douglas Chiasson.
About six blocks from the Metro Centre, Chiasson asked Kevin Mack, who happened to be an usher and counselor at the Festival, for a dollar. Mack gave him the dollar and said, “I’m on my way to the Festival. Would you like to come?” Chiasson explained about the cart. Everything he owned was in it, and he had nowhere to put it. Besides that, Chiasson said, he was tired of dead ends. Mack suggested that they load Chiasson’s possessions into the trunk of his car, where they would be safe. Together, the men walked to the Festival.
That night at the Metro Centre, Chiasson’s outlook changed. “I was going around in the same circle and never finding any answers,” he said, after turning his life over to Jesus. “I was sent to Kevin and he was sent to me. God put it all together–it was by His grace only.”
That night Kevin and Lexine Mack brought Chiasson into their home and gave him a bed to sleep on. Lexine gave him a haircut. When he went to church with them two days later, he saw one of the Christians whom he had walked away from after the Salvation Army dinner. “This is my new beginning,” he told the man.
Lexine says that Chiasson is like part of the family now. He cut their grass, and when he overheard them talking about building a deck, he offered to construct it for them.
Kevin said that he has seen the amazing potential of people on the streets who are trapped in destructive cycles they cannot break. “Has not God chosen the poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith?” he quoted from James 2:5. “As Christians we have a great Treasure within us–the Christ who can break these cycles,” Kevin said. “Jesus is ready to step through us and touch someone who needs Him.” Someone like Douglas Chiasson.
Chiasson’s life was not the only one being touched on the streets of Halifax.
For the two weeks leading up to the Festival, the young evangelists from the United Kingdom and Russia engaged the city at a variety of venues, including a coffeehouse, a pub, a mall, a skate park, a waterfront stage, a university forum and at the Salvation Army dinners held each evening before the Festival.
“Oh my,” sighed Rebekah Higgs when her father, Graeme Higgs, the leader of a college and career Bible study group, informed her that some British evangelists would be joining the family for their Canadian Thanksgiving dinner.
Rebekah said that she expected a bunch of 65-year-old men with soapboxes to arrive at the door. To her surprise, the evangelists were, she said, “young and hip and my age.” When she asked Gary Wylie, one of the evangelists from Scotland, how old he was, he replied, “I’m 22; how old are you?” A somewhat shocked Rebekah replied that she was 22 as well. Wylie encouraged her, “You could be doing what we’re doing!”
And many from Graeme Higgs’ college and career group, as well as some high school students, had that opportunity. The weekend before the Festival, about 50 from the group, along with the evangelists, went out into the streets of downtown Halifax with fliers for the Festival and a survey question: “If you could ask God any question, what would it be?” The evangelists went along to help, to encourage and to shadow the young people in their discussions.
Inquiring Minds Want to Know …
As Christians–many for the first time–interacted on a spiritual level with complete strangers, they received responses such as these:
Why was I made? Why am I here? Why is there suffering? What happens when you die? Did You create, or was there evolution? If marijuana is bad for us, why did You make it? Why can’t I see You? When will there be peace? Why is love an illusion?
Young Christians in Halifax were amazed by how easy it was to engage with people and by the spiritual hunger in their city. Anna and her husband, Jordan, both in their 20s, were two of the survey-takers. “The evangelists are on fire,” Anna said. “To start talking to somebody on a normal level instead of going out on a street corner and telling people they’re going to hell–it’s awesome.” Many of the people surveyed with the “God question” were open to talk, said another woman. “Christians can be so apprehensive,” she said. “We think people will throw stones at us.” And as for Rebekah Higgs: “It was cool to see that there are [full-time] evangelists whom you want to hang around with, people who are that on fire for God,” she said. “It’s contagious.”
Preparing the Way
Graeme Higgs, eager to move his young people beyond their weekly meetings, was stirred by the evangelists’ visit and the training and inspiration they gave his group to mobilize. “How do we connect with the culture? Do we just come together to have a good time?” Higgs asked the group at their meeting following the survey experience. “Let’s get radical!” one voice piped up.
“The Festival gave us the opportunity to hook up with these evangelists and do something in the city,” Higgs said. “If we can prepare the city before the Festival so that people are challenged to think about the big questions in life, hearts will be more prepared to receive God’s Word.”
Martin Durham, one of the evangelists from London, sat at a pub with a man who was in Halifax for two days on business. The man said he was a Christian. But as they talked, the man confessed that although he was involved with a church, he didn’t read the Bible or pray–nor did he have assurance of his salvation. After about 20 minutes, the man looked at Durham, and said, “I am so envious of you. I would love to have what you have.” Durham told him there was no need to be envious–and he prayed right there at the bar with the man, that he would enter into a new relationship with Jesus.
Preparing the way of the Lord. That’s what the Christians’ work has been about in Halifax, said Bruce Havill, executive chair of the Festival committee. “We pray the way clear so that there is a wide highway when the Lord comes,” he said.
In his opening comments at the Festival, Franklin Graham told the audience that since his arrival he had learned details about the Titanic tragedy–a significant event in Halifax history–that he hadn’t known before. Franklin recounted that after the ocean liner hit an iceberg and sank in the North Atlantic on April 15, 1912, some 1,500 people perished. Of the ships involved in the rescue and recovery operations, the Carpathia, bound for New York, picked up the survivors of the wreck; the Mackay-Bennett, out of Halifax, was sent to recover the bodies of the lost. Shouts of joy and celebration welcomed the Carpathia in New York, while the mourning toll of church bells greeted the Mackay-Bennett as it pulled into in Halifax Harbour with 190 bodies.
“Two ships. Two purposes,” Franklin said. “One was to rescue; one was to recover. One brought joy; one brought grief. One was a ship of life; one was a ship of death. What ship are you on? You will either accept Jesus Christ, which is the way of life, or you will reject Jesus Christ, which is the way of death. God sent His Son, Jesus Christ, out of heaven down to this earth on a rescue mission for you. That’s how much He loves you.”
Fishers of Men
As a result of the Festival, people from all over the coastal city of greater Halifax were learning the art of fishing for people. Don Ingram, 57, said that the step-by-step training he took to be a counselor at the Festival helped him to lead someone to Christ for the first time in his 18 years as a Christian. “I’ve come to a place where it isn’t some big, scary deal to lead someone to the Lord,” Ingram said. “God goes before, and I follow along.” And Ingram’s sentiments weren’t age-sensitive. Zack Keating, at 13 barely old enough to be a counselor, also said that he had never led someone to the Lord prior to the Festival. Zack said that he felt ashamed about his lack of witnessing at school–but, he said, “This Festival has sent a spark in me!”
Terrence Prendergast, archbishop of Halifax, called the Festival an important moment in the life of the Church, as far as uniting with the common vision of sharing the Gospel. “We need to wake the sleeping giant,” he said, “which is lay evangelism.”
On the final night of the Festival, as the floor was covered with clusters of people being ushered from darkness into light, a woman stood several rows up in the stands taking pictures. “Why are you doing this?” she was asked.
“When I see the droves of people come forward, it gives me inspiration,” she said. “Even though I’ve been a Christian for many years, at times I have felt unsure of myself, and I think, ‘Oh, they will reject me–I don’t have the answers they are looking for.’ I took the pictures so that anytime I feel discouraged about witnessing, I can pull down my photo album and look at these pictures as a reminder of what God can do.”