Hundreds of people responded to the call of Christ during the Gulf Coast 2006 Franklin Graham Festival. Some had arrived at the Civic Center in Mobile, Ala., knowing that they needed a Savior. Others had assumed they were Christians because they had attended church all their lives. Some just came for the music. But regardless of why they came, more than 900 responded to the invitation to make a commitment to Jesus Christ.
Turning Things Around
Christians in the Gulf Coast region had been praying for such a response to the Gospel, and for two years some had been praying specifically about holding a Festival in Mobile.
Don Bond, pastor of Spring Hill Avenue Baptist Church, was part of the group that began to explore the possibility of inviting Franklin Graham to Mobile. “All of my ministry has been right here in Mobile, about 35 years,” Bond said. “I’ve seen the Gulf Coast change, and I’ve seen the Church generally marginalized, set aside by the secular media. We knew we had to have a major manifestation of the presence of God in order to turn things around.”
The needs were greater than what any single church or denomination could handle. A broad base of churches would have to come together. But as in many cities, that isn’t an easy thing to accomplish. Brent Allen, who works with the student ministry First Priority, said, “There is a history of non-cooperation here. For some reason, churches don’t want to work together. … Until the churches work together and have a common vision for uniting the Kingdom, it’s going to be everybody in competition with one another. It’s going to be this same old game that Satan has been playing with us for years, and we’re not going to be effective for the Kingdom.”
The Festival has helped bring churches together, Allen and other leaders said. Leevones Dubose, who describes herself as an activist and an instrument of change, said the Festival “has sort of changed the way pastors feel about each other. We’re in the deep South, where the underlying theme for a lot of Satan’s work is racism. One thing Franklin’s program has done is to get the blacks, the whites–people of all cultures and races–to come to the table and sit down and have a conversation. And also to start thinking about the future and how we can keep the conversation going.”
Joe Johnson, pastor of Mt. Hebron Missionary Baptist Church, added: “The Bible says if two or three are gathered in His Name, He shows up. He doesn’t care what color you are; He just wants to know that you are His son or daughter. That has happened for the Gulf Coast.”
As Christians throughout the region saw what could happen through a unified effort by the churches, they went to work. They prayed for their region, for the Festival and for friends they listed on “Operation Andrew” cards. They worked to develop relationships with these people and to bring them to the Festival.
A waitress at a Denny’s restaurant mentioned that another waitress, Martha Reed, had been inviting all her co-workers to the Festival. Reed also had given Festival fliers to cashiers and gas station attendants. “Sometimes it is like people are sleepwalking through their lives,” Reed said. “I hope this [Festival] will wake people up so they will open their hearts to the Lord.”
One of Reed’s co-workers and his young son made commitments to Christ during the Festival.
Tommy Hancock, a retiree who now works as an auto parts delivery driver, invited some 200 people to the Festival. “I ask the Lord every morning to give me someone to speak to, and it seems like it works,” he said.
Charla Gresham, who served as a Festival counselor, said, “People on my Operation Andrew list started coming forward [at my church] even prior to the Festival. I have been praying for some of them for years and years, and all of a sudden they were coming forward for salvation and wanting to get baptized.” During the Festival, three more of her friends made commitments to Christ.
Witnesses for Jesus
Christians participating in the Festival demonstrated not only boldness but joy in witnessing. “What more exciting thing can you do than to lead somebody to Christ?” said Festival counselor Denise Fillingim. “It’s an honor and a privilege to be able to do it.”
One evening at the Festival, counseling supervisor Bobby Atwood observed, “Among all the souls being saved, there is also something else happening: Christians for the first time leading people to Christ, being empowered to do what they were called to do.”
On the floor of the Mobile Civic Center, fresh from helping someone make a commitment to Christ, counselor Mike Herlikofer said that he had come to Christ just eight months earlier, on Aug. 14. Around the first of the year, his mother gave him the January issue of Decision, and he read an article titled “Wow–I’m Witnessing!” Then on the radio he began to hear about the Festival’s Christian Life and Witness classes. “One thing led to another,” he said, “and eight months after receiving Christ, I’m down here doing this. I used to be a motorcycle nut, and I still love to ride. But that’s what I [used to] think about every day. Now, all I think about is witnessing.”
From Mobile to the World
Christians in Mobile hope the Festival will continue to make an impact on the region for years to come. Roy Lewis, who chaired the Festival’s executive committee, said: “I’m sorry it has to end. … But we’re hoping that this is not an end but a beginning of a growth in the Gulf Coast area, to take this foundation and build on that for sharing Christ with people and building relationships with our various congregations so they open up. [We need] to break down those barriers, the walls of racism and denominations that have been built up over the years, so we can all work together for the common cause of the love of Jesus Christ.”
Don Bond said that the effects of the Festival could reach far beyond Mobile and the Gulf Coast, because of Mobile’s position as a seaport and also because of the large number of international students attending the University of South Alabama. “What happens here in Mobile has the potential of reverberating all around the world because these international groups have strong ties back to their home countries. Conversions to Christ in those communities here have the potential of going all the way around the world.”
The Good News
Mobile Mayor Sam Jones greeted Festival-goers on the first evening of the Festival: “We pray that the Lord would shower upon us His Spirit, that we will be moved, touched, not just for this three-day period but from now henceforth and evermore, with the Spirit of the Lord.”
The Festival was full of music from artists such as CeCe Winans, Alicia Williamson Garcia, Joy Williams, FFH, Lynda Randle and the Gaither Vocal Band. The first meeting had two especially powerful musical moments. First, 97-year-old George Beverly Shea sang “I Will Sing the Wondrous Story,” the first song he ever sang at a Billy Graham Crusade. He followed with his beloved classic “I’d Rather Have Jesus.” The crowd seemed to hang on every word and note before erupting in a standing ovation.
Then, Christian music great Andrae Crouch, backed by his twin sister, Sandra, and the Tommy Coomes Band, performed a medley of some of Crouch’s best-known songs, including “Take Me Back,” “Soon and Very Soon,” “Bless His Holy Name” and “My Tribute.”
The music, as it did each evening, set the stage for the Good News of Jesus Christ. Franklin explained that we cannot save ourselves; only Jesus Christ can save us. “There is no way you can come before God,” Franklin said. “You see, your sins separate you from God. You cannot come into His presence–it’s impossible. He’s a holy God; He doesn’t allow sin in front of Him. This is why Jesus Christ came. Jesus Christ is God’s Son. Jesus Christ came out of heaven down to this earth on a rescue mission. Jesus Christ came out of glory down to this earth to take your sins, to go to the cross, to die in your place, to shed His blood for each and every one of us in this room. Do you know Him tonight?”
Lives Given to God
Again and again, Franklin urged the people to put their faith in Christ. Many responded to the invitation and met the Savior for the first time.
Before Friday’s meeting began, a man explained why he had come: “I’m here to see CeCe Winans,” he said. “She’s been a big inspiration to me and my family, so I’m really looking forward to that tonight.”
After the meeting he was asked if he had enjoyed it. “Man, I loved this meeting,” he said. “Actually, I gave my life to God tonight. I’m going to try to live in His footsteps. I’ve got a little girl now, and I think she needs a father [so she can] grow up in a Christian way.”
A 71-year-old woman said that in the previous six months she had lost all three of her brothers, her ex-husband, her cousin and her aunt. She thought she knew the Lord, she said, but when she heard Franklin’s message, she realized she didn’t. She committed her life to Christ, praying, “I will always serve You, from this day forward.” Her counselor said that she called the woman the next morning and the woman said, “I feel like a million bucks.”
A 49-year-old woman and her husband came forward together to accept Christ. They stood on the arena floor, arms around each other’s waist. The woman pulled out a tissue and blotted away tears; the two glanced briefly at one another. For a moment, she rested her head on his shoulder. Then they prayed along with Franklin and spoke with Festival counselors. The woman said she felt as if something had been missing in her life. For several months a co-worker had been trying to encourage her, and that co-worker invited her to the Festival. “From the minute the message started,” she said, “I knew this was a divine appointment tonight.”