Some might say Saturday night was a story of coincidences at the Abundant Life Festival in Chiang Mai.
Looking out from the stage, it was as if Franklin Graham already knew he’d have row after row of Thai people barely in their 20s staring back at him as he told the story of the Rich Young Ruler.
“This young man was probably very good looking, had the latest fashions, confident in who he was,” Franklin said, preaching from Mark 10:17-22. “It’s been 2,000 years since this story was told, but young people haven’t changed that much.”
Franklin Graham — who’s been called a “prodigal son” of sorts — explained to the crowd that no material thing or even having Billy and Ruth Graham as parents could guarantee him a ticket to heaven.
“My parents could not receive Christ for me,” he said. “There were many years I didn’t want God in my life. The more I tried to fill my life with things I thought would make me happy, the more empty I felt inside.”
By the end of the night, more than 1,300 people responded to the invitation to accept Christ — about 65 percent of them under the age of 25.
Then there were the 21 students from Washington state who came to Thailand two weeks ago as part of their discipleship program at Antioch Christian Training School (ACTS), but ended up serving as Festival counselors instead.
“We were actually supposed to be up on the [Myanmar and Thailand] border this week, but we found out about the Festival and decided to switch our schedule around,” the group’s leader, Jeff Sutton, said. “The irony of the whole thing, we just couldn’t deny it.”
Indeed, there are no coincidences with Christ.
Sutton and his group of twenty-somethings were in town to work with David Eubank, founder of the Free Burma Rangers, and with Pastor Simon Htoo, who leads a Karen choir at the Mae La Refugee Camp near the border.
The same Karen choir performing Saturday night at the Abundant Life Festival.
“It’s a miracle that they’re here, because they’ve never been off that refugee camp,” Sutton said. “In fact, some of them said it was a dream of theirs to come to Chiang Mai; that they never could’ve imagined doing anything like this.”
Eubank approached Pastor Simon about participating in the Franklin Graham Festival, but getting the OK for the refugee choir to sing proved to be an ordeal, including help from a high-ranking official, according to one of the students.
“Given terms outside of God, it was an impossibility [for them to get approval],” Sutton said.
ACTS student Mathias Anderson, 28, has visited the refugee camp.
“They’re literally fenced in,” he said, drawing a square with his hands. “[Authorities] let them out, but it was still like anyone could stop them and tell them to go back.”
In the end, it all worked out. A few days ago, 100 or so members of the choir arrived at the camp where the Washington crew is staying.
The young singers, ranging in age from 19-25, attend a Christian school at the refugee camp.
“They all speak pretty good English, and a lot of them that I’ve talked to say they want to be missionaries, but they can’t leave the camp,” Anderson said.
In addition to the refugee choir, the Prince Royal School Orchestra was among the performances for Saturday’s Festival. Well-known Thai singer Bee performed Saturday night along with contemporary Christian groups from the night before like Asia’s 3rd Wave.
From the fitting message to the hard-fought music, it was clear God’s hand was at work.
Even within Sutton’s group was a new believer who came to Christ just four months ago. Now, she finds herself traveling and learning about discipleship with a school she’d heard about from a friend, but never thought she’d attend.
Again, no coincidence.
“I was kind of doing my own thing,” Chante Cumpston, 20, said. “Now, I feel like I don’t have the burden or that baggage that I was carrying with me everywhere. I feel light. Like everything is lifted,”
“I love that feeling. I wouldn’t go back to where I was before.”
And the prayer is that those who walked forward in Chiang Mai this weekend won’t either.