For three straight days, dark clouds hovered over the Estadio General Santander in Cúcuta, Colombia. But even with meteorologists predicting a 95 percent chance of rain, tens of thousands of people attended the Festival of Hope (Festival de Esperanza) with Franklin Graham and FestiKids, an evangelistic event designed specifically for children.
Cúcuta is located near the border of Colombia and Venezuela. Over the last few years, the city has ballooned from about 725,000 people to more than a million as Venezuelan migrants flee economic unrest in their home country. Along the streets of Cúcuta, Venezuelans can be seen dragging suitcases behind them or carrying boxes on their heads, searching for even momentary respite from the challenges of life across the border.
Franklin had visited the Simón Bolívar International Bridge, which crosses the Táchira River on the Venezuelan/Colombian border, last October. He was moved by the plight of the many men, women and children who flowed past him in a hurried stream.
“These are Venezuelans that are leaving their country. They come by the tens of thousands every day,” he said. “Their money has no value. They’re coming here with whatever they can carry. It’s really sad. It breaks your heart.”
After talking with local pastors, Franklin and BGEA accepted an invitation to come back and share the hope of the Gospel in Cúcuta.
Just six months later, on Good Friday, Franklin looked out at the sea of people during the first night of the Festival and encouraged the crowd of 52,000 to pray out loud for the president of Colombia, as well as the president of Venezuela.
“God commands in His Word that we pray for those in leadership,” he told them.
The stadium erupted in corporate prayer, with many asking God to grant wisdom and discernment to the leaders of the two countries.
Franklin spoke about Matthew 16:26: “For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?” (NKJV).
“You have a soul, and it is precious to God,” he said. “And tonight, you can be sure that your soul is secure in the hands of Almighty God. Jesus Christ is the only One in history to take the sins of mankind. Jesus Christ paid for your soul with His blood.”
Nearly 127,000 people attended the two-day Festival and the events surrounding it. In all, it was estimated that more than 10,000 people indicated a desire to accept Christ or to rededicate their lives to Him.
This was exactly the kind of response that pastors in the region had been praying for.
“I am filled with peace to know that in the midst of so much pain, God has moved in hearts to offer a hand, a hug and assistance to those in need,” said César, a Venezuelan pastor. “…This is a special time and a special place where God has called us to do ministry.”
As a father of six children, five of whom have left the country, César is living the crisis in his own home. Yet he firmly believes that God has called him to stay in Venezuela.
“As a leader in my country, it would be terrible for me to leave,” he said. “It would set a very bad precedent in relation to what it means to stay in obedience to God. What is happening in our country is very diabolical, and the only way to break this is through actions of love in the Name of Christ. Every time we serve someone in love, we are demonstrating hope that only Christ can give. As I stay, I know that I am offering worship to God and giving Him my best.”
Maria*, a church leader in Venezuela, said that Venezuelan Christians are in a time when their faith is being tested.
“Before, we preached about faith, we talked about faith, we taught about faith, but now we’re actually learning to live faith,” she said. “Those of us who have stayed [in Venezuela] have grown and learned that God is faithful.”
Maria herself has learned to trust God in all things. A few months ago, she had to have surgery, but most doctors in Venezuela no longer have access to important medical supplies. They don’t even have surgical gloves. Yet she went ahead with the surgery, knowing God was in control.
Diego* leads a church within walking distance of the border. Although the church is in Colombia, his congregation is 100 percent Venezuelan. He was an advocate of the Festival of Hope from the beginning, working alongside BGEA and other churches in the area to get the word out.
“It’s a very opportune time because of the pressure and the weight of what’s going on in Venezuela,” he said. “[Many Venezuelans] would rather stay here in the streets than sleep over there in a house where they have no food or safety.”
After taking a group to FestiKids, several in the group told Diego they felt they could finally breathe again—that the emotional and spiritual weight they had been carrying around for so long had finally been lifted.
Musical artists Barak, Alex Campos, Juan Sebastian, as well as the worship team from Liberty University led the Festival crowds in passionate worship. Longtime BGEA friends Dennis Agajanian and John and Anne Barbour also lent their voices to the Festival.
The energy in the stadium was palpable. Festivalgoers danced and sang, worshiping the one true God with their whole hearts. At times, the crowd would chant “¡Cristo vive!” (“Christ lives!”) over and over again. A large banner reading “JESUS DIJO YO SOY EL CAMINO, LA VERDAD Y LA VIDA Juan 14:6” (Jesus said “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”—John 14:6) hung from the top section of the stadium.
When Franklin gave the invitation to come forward during the second night of the Festival, Alejandro* felt the Holy Spirit stir within him. He’s always known about God and likes learning about spiritual matters, but he had drifted away from a personal relationship with Christ. At just 20 years old, Alejandro has gone through a lot in life. Half Ecuadorian, half Colombian, he has never quite known where he fits in society. He doesn’t live in the best neighborhood and has been a victim of multiple muggings, but he has always felt God with him. When given the opportunity to recommit his life to Jesus Saturday night, Alejandro knew it was time to lay his burdens at the foot of the cross and put his life in God’s hands.
“God will come,” he said. “And I want to be close to [Him]. When He comes, I want to be prepared.”
Twenty-four years ago, Ana* and her family left Venezuela to begin a new life in Cúcuta. They usually read through the Psalms as a family, but they never moved beyond that one book in the Bible. When Franklin shared the Gospel message Saturday night, things began to make more sense to Ana. She learned of Christ’s death and resurrection—of His love and sacrifice for her—of the eternal life found in Him. With tears streaming down her face, she left her seat in the stadium and went down to the field to pray with a counselor and accept Christ into her heart.“I now believe that God can save me from anything,” she told Decision. “In the Name of Jesus, my sins have been forgiven. He has saved me from all sin.”
While some were experiencing a spiritual birth, one counselor was about to experience a whole different kind of birth. While she was busy talking to someone who had come forward in response to Franklin’s invitation to receive salvation, she went into labor. She was quickly rushed to the hospital and had a healthy baby in her arms later that night.
Anticipation for the Festival of Hope was felt all across the city. The unity and cooperation among the churches had been evident throughout the months leading up to the event. In fact, more than 450 churches came together to organize the Festival of Hope in Cúcuta.
“People are noticing,” said Diego. “They’re noticing that we are speaking one language about Jesus. We’re showing one love—the love of Christ. We expect the city to not be the same after this.”
The pastors had specifically requested the Festival be held during Easter week because they believed that people would be more “spiritually sensitive” during Holy Week. They felt that it would be a great time to sow the seeds of the Gospel into people’s lives.
It wasn’t until Saturday night, when the last of the counselors wrapped up their conversations and the crowd began to disperse, that the skies opened up, allowing the long-predicted rain to finally fall to the earth.
Although the Festival of Hope proved to be a great success, the work is not over. Local churches have committed to following up with those who indicated spiritual decisions during the Festival.
“Please pray for wisdom that comes only from God,” Diego requested. “For strength for our bodies. And for workers that have a heart for ministry and understand that God often changes people through people.”
*Name has been changed to protect the person’s identity
Photos: Ron Nickel/2019 BGEA