Born Again at the Beach

By   •   January 11, 2020

Franklin Graham kicked off the Decision America Sunshine State Tour on Saturday in Jacksonville Beach. "I want people to have hope that their sins can be forgiven," he told local media before preaching to 7,600 at the Seawalk Pavilion.

A divine appointment.

Sometimes it’s not so easy to discern. Sometimes you look back and connect the dots.

Then there’s what happened to Cheri Phalen during the first stop of the Decision America Sunshine State Tour at the palm tree-laced Seawalk Pavilion in Jacksonville Beach.

As Franklin Graham gave the invitation to the 7,600 in attendance to take a stand and follow Jesus Christ, Cheri sprung to her feet. Phone in one hand, her fiancé back in Wisconsin listening on the other end, Cheri’s heart was as tender to the Gospel as she can ever remember.

“I wanted to be free,” she said.

Twenty minutes later, she still couldn’t believe how God worked. Here’s the short version:

Cheri doesn’t live in Jacksonville. Or Florida for that matter. She lives in Minocqua, a small town in northern Wisconsin. But in early November, her brother, Bruce Carley, needed a double lung transplant at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville. There were complications, and he ended up spending nine days in a coma.

Cheri isn’t just his sister. She is his sole caretaker and has spent many days by his side at Mayo. On Saturday afternoon, a friend asked her to take a needed break and spend a few hours at the beach. That’s when they happened upon the Decision America Tour bus.

That’s it—her friend, Karen Spears, a long-time believer, knew this was exactly what an emotionally drained Cheri could use right about now. A good old-fashioned dose of eternal hope.

So they raced home, got some warmer clothes on, and made it back in time to catch Jeremy Camp’s second song. Cheri, with a mostly charged cell phone, called her new fiancé in Minocqua (“I knew he would love to hear it,”) and held the phone up for over an hour so he could hear Jeremy Camp and Franklin Graham proclaim the Gospel in song and message.

Hundreds stood to a Gospel invitation and put their faith and trust in Jesus on Saturday evening.

It was as if Franklin Graham’s “value of a soul” message zeroed in on Cheri’s heart. Insurance companies have put a value of human life at $50,000, he said. Time Magazine calculated it to be $129,000.

“What should a man profit if he gains the whole world, but loses his soul,” he quoted Mark 8:36. “It’s impossible to grasp the concept … your soul is worth more than the value of the earth to God.

“Once you lose your soul, you can’t buy it back.”

Cheri didn’t need to be prodded. She knew that her brother’s double lung transplant, chance encounter upon the Decision America bus and fiancé being a big Jeremy Camp fan led her to that very spot on the grassy lawn.

She wanted a meaningful relationship with Almighty God and that’s what Franklin Graham was offering Saturday evening—true peace with God. For her, the Sunshine State Tour was more like the Son-shine Tour.

“I feel a lot lighter,” she said.

Cheri was one of hundreds who stood and made life-changing spiritual decisions on Saturday. Hundreds of others indicated their decisions electronically through texting and watching the live stream.

“It made sense. It totally made sense,” Cheri said of the Gospel message. “I don’t go to church very often, so I wanted to stand so God would know that I believe.”

‘People Are Seeking the Truth’

Getting a crowd of 7,000-plus people together to do anything in a Florida beach town is a challenge. But on a Saturday afternoon? With the nicest weather in over a month?

“We need more of this,” said Judy Sutherland of the Mandarin area of Jacksonville. “The music, the message, everything. I like how Franklin doesn’t push political partisanship. And it’s not like he pushes people to religion.”

So, what exactly is it?

John Sutherland will tell you, without mincing words.

“He stands for Biblical truth,” John said. “He says this is what the Gospel says today, tomorrow and forever.”

John had a two-fold agenda on Saturday. Enjoy the music and message, which he did. And relay a scouting report to “a bunch of friends” in Boca Raton and Fort Myers, the final two stops on the tour. If this was Yelp, John would be posting five stars.

What impressed him most? Franklin’s refusal to water down what the Word of God says.

“People are searching for truth in this world,” he said. “I think people respect him because he doesn’t equivocate.”

Each stop of the Sunshine State Tour will include high-energy music from Jeremy Camp and a Gospel-centered message.