Melissa watched as hundreds of people got up from their seats at Oriole Park in Baltimore to come forward to inquire about a relationship with Jesus Christ. As the Tommy Coomes Band sang, “Come Just As You Are,” Melissa made her way down to the outfield to stand beside an inquirer, nervous because she had never counseled before. She turned to see if her grandmother, also a Festival counselor, was still behind her. Her heart leapt for joy. There, coming from up in the stands, was her mother, for whom she and her grandmother had been praying fervently for two years. “I couldn’t believe it,” she exclaimed. “The Lord is amazing!”
Melissa led her mom through the counseling materials, making sure she understood every word.
“Do you accept Jesus into your heart?” Melissa asked, finally.
“Yes!” her mom replied.
Melissa couldn’t hold back the tears. The next morning at Kidzfest, her 7-year-old daughter, Madelyn, came forward. Now she, her daughter, mother and grandmother could pray for Melissa’s sister and dad.
Members of Melissa’s church, NewDay, and more than 650 other churches in Baltimore and the surrounding area had been praying for three years for the Metro Maryland 2006 Festival With Franklin Graham. Since the 1981 Billy Graham Crusade at Memorial Stadium, the Church in Baltimore had continued to grow, but so had crime and all its byproducts. In a city that has inspired such television crime series as Homicide and The Wire, and where the murder rate is seven times the national rate, Christians could no longer sit still.
So while city officials launched a “Believe” campaign, posting the word in huge letters on sidewalks, on top of buildings, on banners running through the air, Christians had their own campaign.
“The city is encouraging residents to believe in Baltimore, to believe in our state,” says Clifford Johnson, pastor of Mount Pleasant Church and Ministries, and chair of the Festival pastors’ committee. “But we say, ‘Let’s believe the Lord Jesus Christ.’ Then the climate of our city, the spiritual heart of our city and state, will change.”
As the Festival dates drew near, Christians created Operation Andrew lists, writing down the names of family and friends they would pray for and invite. Pastors preached sermons from the Christian Life and Witness Course, which is used to train counselors for the Festival. And on July 7-9, while the Baltimore Orioles were away, God brought 81,000 people to Oriole Park at Camden Yards to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ. More than 3,300 people came forward on the outfield to speak with counselors.
The audience cheers could be heard blocks away as the infield came alive with the music of George Huff, Whitley Phipps, Israel Houghton & New Breed, FFH, Joy Williams, the Newsboys and Andraé Crouch. Franklin Graham brought stirring messages on Friday and Saturday nights. On Sunday, Cliff Barrows led the audience in “On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand.” George Beverly Shea’s voice rang out with “I’d Rather Have Jesus.” And then, completing this longstanding trio, Billy Graham came to the podium.
“This may be the last time I’ll have an opportunity to preach the Gospel to an audience like this,” Mr. Graham said. “We’re all going to die. Are you ready? Whether you’re a young person today or an old person like me, you’d better decide for Christ here and now because you never know when your time is coming to leave this world.”
Local attorney Tom Schetelich, who chaired the Festival, said: “It was an enormous joy for me to sit on the platform and look out and see so many Christians doing their job to bring the Gospel message to the lost.”
Don Mark, director of concerts for the Baltimore Orioles, did his part from the beginning. Because he knew lives would be changed, and because of Billy Graham’s role in his own salvation story, Mark convinced the ballpark owner to allow the Festival at Camden Yards.
“We thought this was such a unique opportunity to bring a message of hope and encouragement, and it would be such an upbeat and positive event for Baltimore. We felt we had to get behind it and support it.”
Baltimore is rich with history, its citizens quick to take a stand. The city was born out of farmers’ contention that they shouldn’t have to take their cereal crops to previously established ports away from their settlement, so they petitioned the governor of Maryland, and in 1729 the Baltimore port was born. In the War of 1812, when British troops tried to invade Baltimore, bombs burst in the air at Fort McHenry, keeping the troops back and inspiring Francis Scott Key to write the poem that became America’s national anthem. The first casualties of the Civil War occurred in Baltimore. In 1904, the city not only bounced back, but prospered, after a fire destroyed its business district.
In the 1970s, the city pushed aside dilapidated warehouses near the Baltimore seaport and created yet another star in the city’s crown: a cultural hub at the Inner Harbor, on whose waters rest the USS Constellation, the last Civil War ship still afloat. Shops and restaurants sprang up around the harbor, making it a major tourist attraction.
Still, blocks away, along the row-housed streets of the inner city are the continued signs of discontent, loneliness and misery. In the middle of the afternoon on Baltimore’s west side, a man slumps over a sidewalk bench–his body hanging, like a still photo, somewhere between the bench and the cement.
“A heroin high,” explains John Shearin, of Mount Pleasant Church and Ministries. “Cocaine would make him jumpy and bubbly.”
In the heart of downtown, a man stumbles across a busy street at night, his fingers gripping the brown paper bag in his left hand. On the east side, a woman paces back and forth, making silent offers to passing drivers, in front of three teenage girls braiding their hair on the steps of a row house.
Until recently, this Mid-Atlantic port city along the Chesapeake Bay, just miles from Washington, D.C., was known as the most addicted city in the nation.
“For many years, we had the open-air drug market,” says Shearin, who grew up in Baltimore. “People picked up drugs on one street corner and paid for them on another. That made it hard for police to actually see a transaction.”
Shearin, who watched several of his friends get caught up in drugs, looks with compassion on those involved. “They’re out there because they don’t have any skills and maybe they have a sick mother or a sick child at home and they need to buy medicine,” he says. “And they don’t know Jesus. That’s why we’ve been so excited about the Festival.”
In the outlying suburbs and nearby cities, some try to fill empty hearts with material possessions.
“In our church community, homes can range from $500,000 to $750,000,” says Mike Kenley, pastor of Fellowship Chapel, 25 miles north of Baltimore near the Pennsylvania state line. “It seems that people are very independent and successful, so sensing a need for a relationship with God is kind of blocked by their material gain.”
The legacy of the Festival, Christians hope, will be a continued spiritual renewal and a refocus of the Church on community and relationships.
“We have e-mail and the Internet now, so we don’t touch each other,” Johnson says. “I’m hoping that the Festival will cause us to understand that the Lord intends for us to be a body, to be relational. When that begins to happen, we’ll become a Body of Christ that can produce politicians who love Jesus, judges who love Jesus and jurors who love Jesus.”
The Festival has been an incredible tool for ministry in Baltimore, says Brian Zimmerman, pastor of Streetlite Christian Fellowship. “I see myself co-pastoring with people all over the city, strategizing with like-minded churches, to bring people home to Christ.”
Of those who came home to Christ during the Festival was 17-year-old Mike, who realized on Friday night that he was not a Christian.
“I thought I was saved before,” Mike told his counselor. “Now I know I’m lost. I want to start anew tonight.”
Ten-year-old Dami wanted Jesus to live in his heart.
“I wanted Him to forgive me for everything I did and help me stop sinning,” Dami said. “Sometimes I can’t stop myself from lying to my mom.”
Festival counselor Mary Alexander and her husband were walking back to their sailboat home on the harbor on Sunday afternoon after the Festival, when they met a woman who stopped to talk.
“The woman had accepted the Lord on Saturday and she was confused,” Mary said. “She was a recovering alcoholic. I now have her e-mail and a telephone number to call to follow up with her.”
That was an answer to prayer for Mary, who had counseled on Friday and Saturday nights, but had not had an opportunity to counsel a new Christian.
“My husband said, ‘Now, isn’t God’s timing perfect? You had prayed for a new Christian and God gave you one–not at the Festival, but on the way home.”