Francesco had no trouble finding the right word. When asked to sum up his experience, his eyes lit up.
“Bellissimo,” an Italian word which translates loosely to “wonderful” or “stunning.”
The Festival that Francesco was witnessing was not just the biggest evangelistic event to ever take place in Milan, Italy. The 13,200 people who packed into every nook and cranny of the Mediolanum Forum was the largest crowd ever in the 32-year history of the arena used primarily for concerts and EuroLeague basketball.
But Francesco’s “bellissimo” went beyond the numbers.
Just a year ago, with his marriage crumbling at age 39, he finally turned to God for help and asked Jesus Christ into his life. On Saturday night, he got an opportunity to share his faith.
During the Festival, Francesco served as a counselor to connect with those who decided to follow Jesus and point them to resources that can help them grow in their faith. One person he met was Marco,* a 44-year-old who arrived at the Festival after a two-hour bus ride, thanks to a little prodding from his wife.
In the past, Marco had gone to church off and on, but unlike his wife, he lacked a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
Saturday, Franklin Graham shared a Gospel message centered around John 3 in the Bible. “I’m here to tell you religion is not enough. Jesus told [religious leader] Nicodemus, ‘You must be born again.’”
And that’s exactly what happened to Marco, one of 600-plus in attendance who surrendered their lives to Christ.
“Today, he accepted Jesus as his Savior,” Francesco said, beaming. “He was so happy. He said he had never felt these emotions before. He felt the presence of the Lord for the first time tonight.”
But for Francesco, the lasting change for Milan and northern Italy goes beyond the number of new believers. It’s a newfound confidence the Noi Festival has given to more than 500 congregations that helped prepare for the event.
“I was pushed out of my comfort zone,” he said. “I used to be shy on the street to speak to people about Jesus. Now I have more boldness because of this event.”
18-Year-Old: ‘I Sampled the Full Presence of God Tonight’
Elizabeth, 18, is a self-proclaimed “shy” person and a relatively new believer. So when the opportunity came to volunteer as a counselor at the Noi Festival, it wasn’t a quick yes. But she felt the Holy Spirit nudging her to be bold.
Elizabeth accepted Jesus into her life two years ago because of a conversation she had with a friend over sushi.
“She told me who Jesus is and how much He had done in her life,” Elizabeth said. “I was in tears listening to her. And I made a decision right there to surrender my life to Christ.”
Two years later, Elizabeth was nervous before the Noi Festival started, but was excited for the chance to put her faith into action. And did she ever.
A group of six children, ages 6 to 11, all found their way to Elizabeth, who walked each one through what it means to be a Christian and confirmed their decisions to follow Christ. “One girl even started reading [a booklet with the gospel of] John as she was walking away,” Elizabeth said.
Then two teenage girls stopped her. Both had prayed with Franklin Graham to ask Jesus into their lives as Lord and Elizabeth saw “the look of complete joy” in their eyes.
Shortly after, she checked Instagram and one of her unsaved friends who attended the event had posted, “I choose Jesus tonight.”
“Tonight was so powerful,” said Elizabeth, unable to stand still. “I sampled the full presence of God tonight.”
Swiss Woman Experiences God’s Grace
Fifty-year-old Rosa* wasn’t very religious, only attending church at Christmas and Easter out of tradition.
But Rosa’s Uncle Leo* knew the Noi Festival was something that could change Rosa’s eternal destiny forever. A believer in Christ, Leo brought her down from the beautiful Switzerland border town of Lugano, a 90-minute drive to the Festival.
Franklin Graham was clear from his opening remarks that he wasn’t interested in talking to the crowd about a religion. “I’ve met a lot of people who are religious but don’t have a relationship with God,” he said. “Religion is not enough. … You cannot work for your salvation. You cannot buy your salvation.”
It’s only through believing in Jesus Christ, God’s Son, that you can secure your eternity with Him, Franklin Graham said, inviting anyone who wanted to do so to walk forward.
Tears filling her eyes, Rosa made her way to the front of the arena and met with Simona, a counselor who helped her understand the decision she had just made to follow Christ. “She came forward with her uncle and said she could feel the presence of God right behind her,” Simona said.
With delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Noi Festival was the two-year culmination of hundreds of churches working together for an evangelistic event that was unprecedented in Milan.
As the pandemic heated up in March of 2020, Samaritan’s Purse—a humanitarian aid organization and sister ministry of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association—opened an Emergency Field Hospital to help care for people suffering from COVID. The field hospital—where chaplains from the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team also served—opened the door to unite churches in the region and share the hope of the Gospel.
With their newfound unity, Christians in the region were determined not to let anything, including a global pandemic, derail this unique opportunity.
And Saturday was proof.
“We’ve never had something like this—more than 13,000 people at a Christian event,” said Gerry Testori, a Festival committee member.
Pastors who had never met before are now meeting regularly. There’s talk of future events where churches would work together.
“Pastors in the north part of Milan are praying with pastors in the south,” said Testori. “This is a blessing for our nation.”
So, if there was one word to encapsulate the Noi Festival? Testori answered, “Fantastico is the word.”
*Names changed for privacy