Hundreds came forward each night, moved by the message of God’s love and forgiveness. “Do you have a problem?” Franklin asked. “Is there sin in your life? Talk to God about it. He’ll forgive you. He loves you. He gave His Son for you; that’s how much He loves you.”
By all accounts, many problems have come ashore in this sleepy city on the Coastal Bend of South Texas, whose name in Latin means “Body of Christ.” Gang activity and the numbers of teenage pregnancies and strip clubs have soared while church attendance continues to dwindle.
In the past decade, the population has shifted from predominantly white to Hispanic, adding a language barrier to the city’s list of challenges. More than 500 churches are scattered about Corpus Christi, but most of its 280,000 people can be found elsewhere on Sunday mornings.
“Every denomination is seeing a decline in attendance,” says Cliff Atnip, who chaired the Executive Committee that organized the Festival. “That says to me that we’re not meeting people’s needs. Many people declare themselves Catholic or Baptist or Methodist, but they’re not truly dedicated to worshiping God.”
In their quest for a spiritual awakening, 170 churches came together across denominational lines to make the Festival happen. Church members signed up for the Christian Life and Witness Classes in preparation for counseling. A prayer committee gathered weekly to pray for the city and declared the stadium holy ground.
“We’ve been a dry and thirsty land down here for so long,” said Debbie Lundquist, who chaired the Festival prayer committee. “But we’ve got the water to remind us that our ship’s coming in,” she said, looking out at the rippling blue waters of the bay.
Youth groups spent their summer going door to door in the Texas sun to distribute banners and invitations.
“This is really important,” said Kyle Lindsey, 16, of Travis Baptist Church. “There are a lot of people out there who need to come to Christ. I saw one of Billy Graham’s Crusades on television once, and I saw all those people coming to Christ. I wanted to be part of that, so I prayed about it, and God led me to participate.”
Helen Wilbanks, a pastor’s wife for many years, wrote skits, made bulletin boards and created a countdown poster for Brighton Park Baptist Church.
“I’d been praying for a spiritual awakening here in our area,” Wilbanks said. “So when I learned that Franklin Graham was coming, it was unbelievable. We were at the end of our rope. I have heard and read stories where, in times like these, people would pray and the righteousness of God would prevail, and evil was subdued. I am praying for that to happen here.”
As the community prepared for the Festival, a spirit of unity emerged. Christians became bolder in sharing their faith. Pastors of different denominations began to talk more about how to reach the lost and how to keep the spiritual momentum beyond the Festival.
“Hearts are beginning to change,” said prayer committee member Ruth Reyes, noting that people are more willing to walk by faith and that Christians are more interested in bringing people together to worship Christ, rather than inviting people exclusively to their church. “When you think of God, that He has all the power, you’re not as greedy, because you realize He has everything.”
The Festival represents an outpouring of God’s love to the Hispanic community, said Nelda Martinez, a member of the Executive Committee.
“We are an emerging ethnic group, and we take a lot of pride in our culture,” she said. “I appreciate the Graham Festival for coming down to south Texas to embrace our rich culture. It is time we … understand that bringing people to Christ is a lot bigger than our respective theologies.”
By the first night of the Festival, the community of Corpus Christi had risen to the call of its name. “This coming together of churches has presented a beautiful picture of the way the Body of Christ is supposed to function,” said Steve Coronado, pastor of Solid Rock Baptist Church, which had more than 200 members volunteer for the Festival. “Everybody has worked together, with no one church being less than the other.”
At each service, the thousands of people in the stadium and two overflow areas stood to their feet, clapped their hands and swayed to the music as the Tommy Coomes Band, Salvador, The Katinas, Dennis Agajanian, Michael W. Smith and a thousand-member local choir sung about the amazing gift of God’s love. By the end of the Festival, 2,556 people had made their way to the front of the stadium to inquire about a relationship with God. Of those, 1,855 made first-time commitments to Christ.
The Festival was the largest evangelistic event in the history of Corpus Christi, according to local church leaders, and it set a one-day attendance record for the stadium, which opened in November 2004.
Atnip could hardly take it in. From the platform that first night, he could see that every chair in the stadium was filled. When hundreds of people got up out of their seats and came forward, his heart beat with joy and his eyes started to mist.
“I had to take my glasses off,” he said after the service. “These people’s lives are changed forever. I hope that those who came forward will go on and become leaders in their churches and communities. I have always had a fear of standing in front of God and having some of my friends say, ‘Why didn’t you tell me, Cliff?’ Tonight we told them.”