On this crisp autumn morning, Mount Rainier can be seen for 100 miles, the stark green of the firs leading up to its slopes beckoning drivers along Interstate 5 between Seattle and the state capitol of Olympia.
Jennifer Hoover of Gig Harbor can’t remember if she even noticed the mountain on the morning of Nov. 4. Her recollections of that day center on something far more beautiful and life-changing. That is the day that Jesus Christ came to live inside of her.
“I was not planning to make that decision that day,” Jennifer says. “A friend invited me to the [Pacific Northwest Franklin Graham] Festival. I didn’t even know who Franklin Graham was. I just thought it was a free concert.”
Like most Pacific Northwesterners, Jennifer did not grow up in church. She went to a Catholic school until eighth grade, so she knew some religious concepts, but she knew nothing about a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
As a child, Jennifer had survived sexual abuse. At 15 she became pregnant, and she worked her way through high school to provide for her baby. Later, she married her little girl’s father and had a second daughter. None of her friends were Christians. In fact, they scoffed at Christians. Through the years, when her older sister, Julie, would invite her to church, she would say, “I don’t need Jesus. Only weak people need Jesus.”
About two weeks before the Festival, Jennifer had met an old girlfriend from high school, who had invited her to a Bible study. She had gone, twice, just as a “girl’s night out.” But she had to admit that she liked what she heard at those meetings. She liked the women at the study. They seemed happy. And sitting at the Tacoma Dome, Jennifer noticed how happy and excited the people were around her. They had something she didn’t.
As she listened to the music and to Franklin talking about the big black empty hole that non-Christians have in their hearts, something began to happen.
“I had put a wall around my heart,” Jennifer said. “I had been promiscuous. All the partying, all the defiance–that was the way I had managed my life. And, obviously, it wasn’t working.”
When Franklin gave the invitation, Jennifer sprang up from her seat and was the first one to arrive at the platform. With Julie by her side, she tearfully prayed to accept Christ.
Julie could barely speak. The years of pain, of watching her little sister struggle with the challenges of life, the years of seemingly unanswered prayer, were over.
“I’ve been praying for my sister for 15 years,” she said, wiping back a tear. “I would get so frustrated. I would say, ‘God, You’re the only One who can break her shell. Why won’t You answer my prayer?’ My husband and I have been praying that this would be the time for Jennifer and her girls. The girls came forward yesterday at KidzFest.”
Like Julie, Christians throughout Tacoma and the Pacific Northwest have been crying out to God for their lost loved ones and for their region. Statistics say that Washington and Oregon have the highest number of unchurched people in the nation. Only 4 percent of the population claim to be evangelical Christians, and only 10 percent say they go to church even two times a year.
“These people who don’t go to church are more than statistics,” said Dean Curry, pastor of Life Center Church. “They are our friends and neighbors. They are people we care about.”
When the rest of the country was experiencing great religious movements in the 1700s and 1800s, people fled to the upper west corner of the nation, finding land to cultivate and a place to raise their families away from the Puritan ideas of their forefathers.
“People came out here to escape religion,” said John Eckle, who in 2000 worked with the North American Mission Board to organize a strategic three-year effort to reach the area with the Gospel. When pioneers reached the Pacific Northwest, they were entranced by its beauty. The Cascade Mountain chain, which begins in British Columbia and ends in California, provides a constant source of outdoor adventure. Residents can make their way to the top of Mount Rainier and ski in winter or summer. For Tacoma residents, it’s just a 70-mile trip. And the ocean is only two hours away.
Because of its mountainous beauty, residents refer to the Pacific Northwest as “America’s Switzerland,” but it could just as well be called “America’s Mission Field.”
“If you ask the average person what he or she knows about missions, they tend to think of missionaries overseas,” Eckle said. “But this is a mission field right here.”
That is the understanding that led Christian leaders to invite Franklin Graham to Tacoma. The Festival’s executive committee was made up of people who had been transformed by Christ and whose hearts burned for others to have the same experience.
Eric Boles, Festival chairman, remembers his own conversion during his second year in the NFL. Boles was not the typical Northwesterner. He had heard the Gospel message all of his life. His dad was pastor of the largest African American church in Tacoma, in the city’s drug-infested Hillside community. Boles tells his story:
“Gil Byrd, a teammate with the [San Diego] Chargers, came up to me one day and asked me, ‘Who are you?’ I told him my name. He said, ‘I didn’t ask your name. I asked, Who are you?’
“I asked him who he was and I expected him to reel off a list of accolades about football, but he said, ‘I am a bondservant of Christ.'” That same day, Boles gave his heart to Christ and later led another teammate to Jesus.
“In my generation, we need a Word that is sharp,” Boles said. “We need a Word that cuts through the nonsense.”
Because so few people in the Pacific Northwest know the Lord, some consider it a place of spiritual darkness. Many adhere to New Age philosophy, traditional Native American religions and Wicca. Tacoma has a Buddhist temple and a mosque, and one has only to pick up the local paper to read of the rampant gang violence in the city.
“We are in a dark city,” said Kathlyn Gorton, a Festival volunteer who also donates her time to the Tacoma Rescue Mission. “People who live here have little hope. They don’t know who Jesus is. People are caught up in drugs and sex. Our downtown area has prostitution. The homeless will sell their bodies for food.” Gorton added that anyone–even sex offenders–can watch explicit films at the public library. “Where do they go after an hour in the library? Whom will they prey on?”
Jesus wept over the city of Jerusalem, said Festival volunteer Wendy Hasty, and Christians are weeping over Tacoma. Pastor David Young of Trinity Baptist Church in Tacoma has claimed Jeremiah 33:3-9 for Tacoma:
“… I will hide my face from this city because of its wickedness. Nevertheless, I will bring health and healing to it. I will heal my people and will let them enjoy abundant peace and security. … Then this city will bring me renown, joy, praise and honor before all nations on earth that hear of all the good things I do for it; and they will be in awe and will tremble at the abundant prosperity and peace I provide for it” (NIV).
Eleven-year-old Ben Gusenkov, the oldest of five children, came to KidzFest with his family and left with the peace of knowing that God loves little children, that He cares about what they care about.
“Lately, I have been feeling like life stinks,” he said, tearfully. “I didn’t want to do all the stuff at home that I was supposed to do. I thought it wasn’t fair. I wanted something to change.”
When Ben’s younger sister Maryanna wanted to go forward, his mom asked him to walk to the platform with her.
“When we got down there, I wound up praying the prayer to invite Jesus into my heart, too,” he said. “I just feel better now.”
Pastor Dean Johnson left the Festival knowing that God was beginning a great work in Tacoma. On Saturday night, Johnson had spent the entire service praying in the intercessory prayer room. On the way to his car, he caught the eye of a young man who was directing traffic.
“Normally, I would just go straight to my car, but something in his eyes said, ‘Talk to me,'” Johnson said. “And I’m sure something in my eyes told him, ‘I’ll talk to you.’ He mentioned that he had been to church before, but his father had died two weeks ago in church so he didn’t want to go back. I was able to lead him to Christ right there in the parking lot. This Festival has been a great blessing to the city of Tacoma, and I’m convinced that God wants to do something even greater here.”
By time the three-day event was over, more than 860 had been added to the number of Christians in Tacoma and surrounding areas. Churches had been revived. Pastors had built relationships and Christians had been encouraged.
“This has been an incredible time,” Boles said. “It’s been incredible in that I am not the same man I was before. I’ve always believed what the Scriptures say about trusting God, but I’ve learned that trusting God has levels. This Festival has taken my trust to a whole new level.”
Getting churches on board for the Festival was challenging for committee members.
“We’ve learned how to laugh when we probably should have been crying,” Boles said. “We’ve hugged each other. We’ve held hands with each other. But our eyes never fell off of the prize, and that was winning souls to Christ.”
And God never took His eyes off of them.
“The Festival was three days of light,” said 91-year-old Alma Gray-Martin, her voice a whisper with excitement. “For the 25,000 people who came, for the 120 churches that participated, for the people who sang in the choir.”
But especially for the people who accepted Christ.
“God has targeted these people,” said Alma, who is the daughter-in-law of the late Frank Gray, founder of one of the largest churches in Tacoma. “He has targeted them for a reason. Their conversions will touch thousands, starting with their families. The Holy Spirit has called these people, and we don’t know how God will use them in this community.”
For a listing of announced 2008 Festivals, go to the BGEA homepage.