The lakefront city of Erie, Pa., has seen its share of tough times. Just ask some of its young residents.
“In this area there’s a lot of drug use,” said 25-year-old Andrew Cerula. “There’s a lot of local shootings.”
“We’re fighting a battle with heroin right now that they say our police force can’t overcome,” added 22-year-old Jenna Luszcak. “There’s definitely been a spirit of darkness.”
Add a loss of jobs caused by the sharp decline of a once-booming manufacturing industry, and it becomes easier to see why the more pessimistic visitors—and some locals—have at times disparaged Erie as “The Mistake on the Lake.”
But Erie’s Christian residents know God doesn’t make mistakes.
“We’ve begun to see pieces of hope,” said Jack Risner, lead pastor of Erie First Assembly of God.
That hope began to surface a few years ago, as residents put aside their differences and started working together to reach the lost.
“There were people working on the poverty issue and how to give hope to the youth,” Risner said. “And then as the walls came down between ethnicities and churches and we began to gather in prayer, we began to feel like, absolutely there is hope.”
Three years ago, as Erie’s churches were praying for ways to reach their city, Franklin Graham and the Crusade department at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association were praying, too. As the groups came together, the idea for Rock the Lakes Erie was born.
The Sept. 27-28 event will feature Franklin Graham and a number of well-known Christian music artists who will join the local churches in sharing the hope of Christ with the Erie region.
At a Rock the Lakes Erie kickoff event Jan. 21 at the Bayfront Convention Center, more than 400 people braved single-digit temperatures to gather together for a time of worship, prayer and planning.
Colby Atkins, pastor of Elevate Church, called the kickoff “a celebration of the desegregation of all the churches.”
The lively group of believers filled the large hall, as workers scrambled to set up additional tables to accommodate the larger-than-expected crowd.
Local worship leaders led the group in a passionate and energetic time of music and praise. Later, music artist Lacey Sturm—formerly of Flyleaf—and her husband, Josh, led a short, acoustic worship set before Will Graham took the stage.
Will, who is vice president of the BGEA and grandson of Billy Graham, encouraged the crowd as he explained how his father, BGEA president and CEO Franklin Graham, will preach the Gospel in September.
“We’re going to see lives changed, because God’s Word does not come back void,” Will said.
All of this took place on the frozen bay by Lake Erie. But despite the cold air and cloudy skies, warmth and energy filled the convention center Tuesday, as local leaders were fired up for the important task ahead.
“(We’ll be) getting the word out and inviting people of our generation,” 25-year-old Amy Groh said. “Our job is to make them excited about it and want to come.”
Groh, Luszcak and Cerula are all active with Erie Young Adults, a nondenominational Christian group that has spent the past year bringing Erie’s 18-35-year-olds together on a weekly basis. They’re excited about Rock the Lakes because it offers a unique chance to reach out to friends and co-workers who aren’t walking with God.
“This is a huge outreach that’s much larger than us,” Cerula said.
“We’re all moving towards one goal and one passion and one mindset,” Luszcak added. “To be able to all stand together and watch people come to Christ.”
To carry out the mission, Luszcak says it will take unity, as believers in the Erie region team up to love their neighbors like Christ loves them.
Perhaps, together, they can shake the epithets that have defined their city for too long.
“We’re not ‘Dreary Erie,’” Luszcak said. “We’re not ‘Mistake on the Lake.’ We were lost and broken. We live in Erie. We see the brokenness. Jesus has changed our hearts, but we have to meet people where they’re at.”
Click here to get involved with Rock the Lakes Erie.