Ready for Blessing in Roanoke
July 1, 2003 - At 5:30 p.m. on May 3, lightning split the sky and rain poured down on the Roanoke Valley and on Salem Stadium in Salem, Va. The second night of the Southwest Virginia Festival 2003 with Franklin Graham was to begin at 7 p.m. Ushers worked in vain to dry the football stadium's dripping-wet benches and the folding chairs on the field. It looked as though the Festival's Youth Night, with Mary Mary and Michael W. Smith, was about to be rained out. And to make matters worse, security precautions prevented people from bringing umbrellas into the stadium.
by Kristen M. Burke
The Day That the Lord Made
However, buses full of eager Festival attendees began to fill the parking lot. Hundreds of poncho-clad people stood underneath the stadium's stands, which offered some protection from the rain. Counselors packed shoulder to shoulder into the counselors' tent and sang "How Great Thou Art" and other hymns and choruses. As they sang the lyrics "This is the day that the Lord has made; we will rejoice and be glad in it," a local news cameraman came by the tent and recorded footage of the wet—but happy—Christians.
At 6 p.m., Festival organizers delayed the start time to 8 p.m., but rain continued to drench the stadium. However, when the introductory music played, the stadium was almost as full as it had been the previous evening when the weather was warm and sunny. On the field, a man and his family were waiting for the Festival to begin. When asked why they came and sat in the rain, he said, "Last night I felt something from [Franklin Graham's] message, and I felt like tonight would be the same thing."
Up in the stands, a little girl sat with her family. "Why are you here?" she was asked as rain dripped off the hood of her raincoat and onto her nose. "Because we love God!" she answered without hesitation.
As Mary Mary began to sing, hundreds of youth ran onto the field, jumping, shouting and worshipping God. About 40 minutes later, hundreds of people again rushed onto the field—this time to commit their lives to Jesus Christ.
"None of us can keep all of God's laws," Franklin Graham said as he presented the Gospel. "And it only takes one sin to keep you out of heaven." But Franklin also said that God is willing to forgive all sins—even murder—if a sinner will confess and ask for forgiveness. But everyone has to make a decision—to accept Christ or to reject Him.
"Have you made that decision?" Franklin asked. "You may never have another opportunity like this again." The rain stopped as he invited people to make a commitment to Jesus Christ. "God loves you and will forgive every sin you've ever committed," Franklin said. "Just like this rain, He will wash your sin away." More than 400 people responded.
One teenage girl came forward with a friend. At first, she stood to the side while her friend spoke with a counselor. Then she began searching the crowd. Someone asked her if she needed help finding something. "I need God!" she answered. Soon afterward, she was praying with a counselor to receive Christ.
Others left the stadium without coming forward, but God was still moving in their hearts. A young, engaged couple had traveled several hours to attend the Festival but left the stadium without responding to the invitation. As they drove home, the young man realized that if he were in a car accident, he wouldn't be ready to meet God.
They returned to a hotel near the stadium where his fiancee's family was staying and prayed with her mother to rededicate their lives to Christ. "Franklin's message ignited a spark in my heart that I had never experienced before," the young man said.
Secret of Success
Why was there such a great response when the weather was so miserable? Festival Committee members attribute the response to the five years of prayer that led up to the Festival. In January 1999, several pastors and key laypeople in Salem and neighboring Roanoke began to talk about having a Festival in the Roanoke Valley. Through the following years, they met every six weeks to pray together about the event. Their prayer, explained Earl Robertson, pastor of First Church of the Nazarene in Roanoke, was that God would demonstrate Himself in their community.
Several years ago, Mike Grooms, prayer committee chair and senior pastor of Rainbow Forest Baptist Church in nearby Troutville, Va., sensed that God was calling him to pray for 10,000 Christians who would strive to be the light of Christ in the Roanoke Valley. In preparation for the Festival, 7,000 people attended Christian Life and Witnesses classes, making it one of the highest-attended classes for a Franklin Graham Festival. Grooms believes that this could be the answer to his prayers. "If these trained counselors become a light to their friends, co-workers, neighbors and families," he said, "it will free this entire community."
Committee Vice Chair Edward Burton has been pastor of Sweet Union Baptist Church in Roanoke for 44 years, serving longer than any other current Roanoke pastor. The Christian community's greatest problem, Burton said, is that Christians do not practice Christian principles. But the Festival, he added, has already changed the way Christians act. "This is probably the biggest coming together this community has ever seen," Burton said.
The "coming together" was demonstrated when 30 white pastors came to Burton's church, located in a predominantly black neighborhood, to pray for his church and for the Festival. "That had never happened in Roanoke," he said. Now, his church choir is rehearsing with other church choirs and will be going on a trip with a choir it had never worked with before.
The changes in the Christian community were evident when, in spite of less-than-perfect conditions, more than 61,000 people attended Festival meetings and some 1,300 people made decisions for Christ May 2-4.
"It's not about music, an event or a personality," Grooms concluded. "It's about Jesus."