Changed Lives in Montana

Six-year-old David Dalton eagerly pulled his mom’s arm to follow him from their seats toward the front of the platform on Sept. 7 at the Lewis & Clark County Fairgrounds Arena in Helena, Montana. Mom and son disappeared into the crowd of those making decisions for Christ at the three-city Will Graham Big Sky Celebration. 

Moments later, David returned to his seat, this time to grab his dad’s hand and lead him toward the stage.

“I was worried about him,” David said afterward. Having accepted God’s promise of eternal life, David wanted to make sure his dad, Sam, was going to spend eternity with Jesus as well.

Sam was already a believer and had driven his family 100 miles to hear Aaron Shust, one of his favorite Christian musicians, lead worship at the Celebration.

David had been asking a lot of questions about Jesus and where he might spend eternity since attending Vacation Bible School in August. “He’s, honestly, been going through a little season of anxiety,” said his mom, Janet. “So we’ve been talking about Jesus a lot.”

Sitting on Janet’s lap, David had listened intently to Will’s sermon from Mark 8:27-29, when Jesus asked His disciples, “Who do you say I am?” David knew exactly who Jesus was.

“He died on the cross for our sins,” he explained after praying along as Will led those who came forward in a prayer of faith and repentance. 

David was one of nearly 1,500 people whose lives were changed during the Big Sky Celebration Sept. 6-15. More than 12,000 heard the Gospel across Helena, Hamilton and  Great Falls. 

In all, more than 130 churches came together to shine the light of Christ into Montana, which already shines with its majestic mountain ranges, crystal clear rivers, canyons, caverns and breathtaking wildlife. But in this vast region, people too often worship the creation, not the Creator.

Some 60% of Montanans claim no religious affiliation. 

“Whether it’s hunting, or fishing, or hiking, or mountain biking, people are busy with their own recreation,” said Steve Bostrom, team leader for the Helena Celebration event. “They call it ‘being near God.’” 

But the high suicide rate in the Big Sky state tells a different story. 

“Montana for five years has been in the top five in suicides per capita. This year, we’re No. 1,” said Lee Barrows, co-chair of the Great Falls event, noting the drug scourge, increasing welfare rolls and other social ills, not the least of which is isolation. 

Montana, the fourth-largest state geographically, is ranked 43rd in population by U.S. Census estimates and is said to have more cattle than people. Mostly ranchers and farmers, they are fiercely determined and self-reliant, many having to drive two hours to the nearest grocery store.

“All of this keeps them self-content,” Barrows said. “They don’t see their need for the Lord.” 

But God is bringing light into the darkness. He has been placing Christians in key positions. In Great Falls, the city manager, whose twin daughters accepted Christ at the Celebration; the chief of police; superintendent of schools; and the county sheriff, are all born-again believers. 

“You can tell there’s a change coming,” said Shane Etzwiler, co-chair of the Great Falls Celebration.

The Hamilton meeting, at the Hamilton Assembly of God Church, was quite the event for 93-year-old Dorothy Bannon. She had wanted so badly to hear the grandson of Billy Graham preach, but she just didn’t see how it could happen. Her daughter, Carol, 70, is confined to a wheelchair or hospital bed. Dorothy no longer drives, and she had no one to look after Carol. 

“There were a lot of things that would have to come together for me to go, and lo and behold they did,” she said.  

While sweeping her garage on Sept. 11, she looked up to see two men walking toward her. They were from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and when they learned of her situation, they offered to drive her specially equipped van so she and her daughter could attend.

“I was so excited,” she said. “It means the world to me.”

In Great Falls, volunteer counselor Jim McCormick was standing near the front of the Four Seasons Arena at KidzFest on Saturday when he turned and saw seven beautiful kids, ages 4 to 15, coming toward him.

“They were my grandchildren,” he said in a voice not so steady. “I hugged them and asked, ‘Did you pray the prayer?’ and they said ‘Yes!’ My eyes just lit up, I know they were watering, but I tried to hold it together. My wife and I had been praying that our grandkids would make a decision for Christ at this event.” 

On the final night of the Celebration, in Great Falls, Matthew Bessette was just waiting for the invitation. Initially, he had planned to be a counselor at the Celebration, but after much prayer and agonizing before the Lord, he felt God speaking a different purpose to him.  

“God told me, ‘I want you at the altar,’” Matthew said. For years, he’d been a part of the homosexual community, a lifestyle that evolved after years of sexual abuse by male family members, and he had recently strayed back into that scene. 

“God told me He wanted to meet me again at the altar,” Matthew said, his face covered with tears. “And so here I am. I came with an expectant heart to be delivered. I know I’ve already been set free. I came to find peace again.”

Photo: Thomas J. Petrino/2019 BGEA