Alive in Gastonia

By Jerri Menges   •   November 22, 2006

Every time her eyes fell on the gate, someone was entering the baseball field–mothers with babies; couples holding hands; families laughing together, the children skipping along ahead of the parents; senior citizens; teenagers.

The crisp fall air carried a wave of excitement as the stadium lights glared down on the field. After months of prayer and preparation, the crowd was filled with anticipation at what God would do during the three-day Greater Gaston Celebration With Will Graham, grandson of Billy Graham and son of Franklin Graham.

By the time the service began at 7 p.m., the bleachers and the grounds were full, and people were still coming.

A chill went up Jeannette’s spine as the music began.

“This must be what heaven’s going to be like,” she thought. “People will just keep coming and coming and coming.”

Within moments, almost everyone in the stadium had stood to their feet, faces toward heaven and eyes closed as they sang along with Nicole C. Mullen: “I Know My Redeemer Lives.” Behind the choir bleachers, Christians in the prayer tent asked God to anoint Will with messages that would pierce the hearts of calloused people.

Over the previous nine months, the churches in this former mill town, just west of Charlotte, had come alive–not as Baptists or Presbyterians or Pentecostals, but as the Church of Jesus Christ. And as Christians looked to their right and to their left, to their front and to their back, they saw on every side people who were hurting and did not know the Lord.

“Scripture tells us the field is white to harvest,” said Art Duckworth, Celebration co-chair. “We simply had to be obedient to God’s call on our lives and go out there and create an opportunity that’s not intimidating and not denominational. This is not about denominations. It’s about winning souls.”

The spark began in the spring of 2005, when three ministers started talking about the need for an evangelistic event in the eastern part of town.

“Gaston has gone through a lot of distress,” said Ron Caulder, pastor of First Baptist Church in Stanley. “A lot of textile mills have closed. A lot of people have lost their jobs. And we have many of the same problems as most small towns have across America with drug abuse and teenagers not knowing what to do on Friday nights.”

As their burden grew, the ministers began to pray about who could deliver a message of hope to their county. After hearing Will Graham at an event in Nashville, Tenn., they were convinced that he was the one.

“As the grandson of Billy Graham, he would be a name that people would recognize and notice,” Caulder said. “And he would be somebody who would be able to reach a lot of the younger generation, the 35-and-under group that we were targeting.”

Will, a pastor in Raleigh at the time, agreed to come and preach his first three-day event on U.S. soil in Gastonia, about 25 miles from where his grandfather grew up on a dairy farm.

As word of the Celebration spread, churches of all denominations became involved. A sense of urgency overtook Christians as they began to see that the hurting people were their own family members, their neighbors, their friends. They fell to their knees daily to pray for the event. Hundreds trained to be counselors and ushers. A praise band formed and dozens more signed up to sing in the choir.

“It was once said that if man could see into hell for five seconds, he would not sleep until all of his family knew Jesus Christ,” said Allen Foreman, who co-chaired the Celebration’s prayer committee. “The solution that many people are coming up with for the problems in our county is more police officers and more security. But my feeling is this: If we would just give our county Jesus Christ, if we could lead them to Jesus, we wouldn’t need more police officers. We’d need more churches.”

Will Graham presented Jesus so clearly at the Celebration that “even a second grader could understand,” one woman said.

Gaston’s greatest need is not to have more jobs, he said. “It’s not more industry. It is a spiritual issue.”

Will urged the audience to answer the question that Jesus put to His disciples in Mark 8:27-29: “Who do people say that I am?” Then, more pointedly, “Who do you say that I am?”

“The question is personal,” Will said. “It doesn’t matter what others say; it’s what you believe about Jesus Christ that’s important.”

Jesus is the Son of God who came to forgive sinners, Will said. “The Bible says that we’ve all sinned. We’ve all broken God’s law, each one of us, myself included. Billy Graham, Franklin Graham, your pastor, your parents, your siblings–we’ve all broken God’s law and we deserve death.”

Will stressed the importance of standing firm for Jesus.

“Do you lack the courage to take a stand for Jesus?” he asked Wednesday night. “Some of you right now feel a tug in your heart. You feel like there’s something you’re wrestling with inside and you feel like the Lord is calling you tonight … You may be a deacon. You may be a choir member. You’re thinking, ‘What will people think?’ It doesn’t matter. You need Jesus tonight.”

Sitting in the bleachers, Rita Baumann knew she had to move forward. She had made a commitment to Christ about five years ago, but she had told few people.

“Tonight, I am taking a public stand,” she said with resolve. “I go to church. I’m even taking a Bible study on Daniel, but I don’t want there to be any doubt. I want everyone to know that I am proud to take a stand for Jesus, that I am not ashamed.”

Seven-year-old Kierstin came forward, not stopping to think that she might lose sight of the people who brought her to the Celebration. Counselor Brenda White knelt down beside the little girl.

“I asked if she knew what it was to believe, and she answered that she did,” White said. “I asked, ‘Would you like to pray for Jesus to come into your heart?’ She folded her hands under her chin, and she looked up to heaven and repeated the prayer.”

The moment her prayer was complete, Kierstin started looking for her chaperones. When she didn’t see them, her face filled with fear.

“You don’t have to worry,” White told her gently. “You serve Jesus now and you’re in the palm of His hand. Jesus will help us find them.”

Within moments, White had located the people Kierstin was looking for, and she watched as the little girl smiled with relief and ran toward them.

“It was a testimony not only to her, but also to me,” White said, her eyes filled with tears. “Jesus is victorious always. Sometimes God lets us see His work from far away. But this time He let me see it from the first row, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

More than 300 men, women and children accepted Christ during the Celebration and, as drops of rain began to fall on the last night, counselors continued to pray with those coming forward.

Beverly Smith stood beside a 12-year-old from Cramerton Middle School. She led the girl in the prayer to receive Christ and asked her to look up into the sky.

“The blessings of the Lord are pouring down on you,” she said.

Slowly, almost reluctantly, the counselors and new believers left the field as Cliff Barrows led the choir in a song of benediction.

“This county will never be the same,” said Myra Hanks, prayer committee co-chair. “When people get saved, it’s eternal … I’m so full of Jesus this evening. God’s people were so ready for this. That’s why they came, to see what God would do.”

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