In early 2020, churches across the Australian island state of Tasmania were full of expectation for what God was going to do in May during the two-city, two-weekend Will Graham Celebration in Hobart and Launceston. But just a few months before the Celebration was scheduled to begin, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The evangelistic events were postponed indefinitely as Australia shut down and Tasmania, 150 miles south of the mainland, was cut off from the world for nearly two years.
As controversy and division arose over countrywide restrictions, Tasmanian church leaders united and their churches persevered through prayer. So this year, on Feb. 21, when Australia fully reopened its borders, Tasmanian churches celebrated. And three months later, when the Will Graham Tasmania Celebration commenced, the churches were ready—and so was Risdon Prison.
Inmates Find Hope
After receiving an invitation from the state’s prison chaplains to speak to the island’s inmates, Will was determined to bring hope to some of Tasmania’s most hopeless.
Between 1804 and 1853, more than 70,000 convicts were forcibly transported to Tasmania by the British. Van Diemen’s Land—which Tasmania was known as until 1856—was considered an ideal place to send criminals because of its secluded location where prisoners couldn’t escape.
Though prison life today looks different than it did centuries ago, inmates still have the same soul struggles. Seated in the front row of the chairs arranged in the prison courtyard for Will’s message was James*, a young man in his late 20s.
From Sydney, James had been in Tasmania on holiday, his first trip since the COVID-19 border closures. In what was meant to be a fun getaway, he got caught up in trouble and quickly found himself behind bars without bail, and with immense uncertainty about his future. Curious about who Will Graham was and why he was visiting prison, James and two friends, Aidan* and Logan*, decided to see what Will’s message was all about.
Will shared with the inmates the story of Barabbas, the prisoner who was chosen by the crowd, over Jesus Christ, to be released by Pontius Pilate in a customary pardon before the feast of Passover.
“He was the worst prisoner they had,” Will said. “… He was known as a murderer, a thief and a rebel. But I’m no different than Barabbas. I’m a sinner. In the eyes of God, I’m not a good person. In the eyes of God, we’re all sinners. … But Jesus willingly took our place.
“God loves you so much that He’s already paid the price. He just wants you to experience the gift of forgiveness,” he said. “And how do you do that? By believing.”
When Will gave an invitation for these inmates to be forgiven of their sins and experience new life in Christ, James, Aidan and Logan quickly responded and said “yes” to Jesus.
Watching his fellow inmates make the best decision of their lives was Max*, who stood in the back wearing a maroon sweatshirt and black beanie.
Having rededicated his life to Christ in prison, Max knows firsthand the transformative power of the Gospel.
“We’ve all got a past that’s led us to this place, but because of God’s grace our past doesn’t have to define our future [or define us],” he said. “I want men to know what happened in the past is in the past, [but] they can have a new future with God.”
In total, 27 inmates gave their lives to Jesus Christ.
Addicts Find Freedom
One in six. That’s the number of people aged 14 and over who have used an illicit drug in Tasmania, according to the latest survey done by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. And a recent article from ABC News, one of the leading news networks in Australia, says that “Hobart is Australia’s capital city with the highest consumption of the highly addictive and commonly abused prescription opioids, oxycodone and fentanyl.”
With drug use on the rise, the need for freedom is at an all-time high. Will touched on this during the Celebration meetings.
“There’s some of you here today and you’re dealing with pain, and it’s wrecking your life,” Will said. “… Many people try to avoid pain, but sometimes pain is a good thing. It tells our body that something’s wrong.”
The only way to fix the pain and problems in your life is to get to the root of the problem, Will told his audience. And the root of the problem is sin.
“Sin separates us from God … but that’s why He sent His Son Jesus into the world,” Will continued. “That’s why Jesus came in the first place, for one purpose—to die for you. To rescue you.”
Twenty-two-year-old Oliver* knew the pain Will was talking about and wanted to be rescued from it.
“I thought he was directly speaking to me before anyone got out of their seat [to go forward],” he said.
Oliver’s life has been full of struggle: “Lots of drugs and lots of bad decisions,” he said.
But Oliver decided he couldn’t do life alone anymore and didn’t want to continue living captive to drugs, so he surrendered his life—and his addictions—to God.
“I feel like this is a step forward, and it’s a bigger step than I’ve ever had,” he said.
Also turning away from addiction and living a free life was 61-year-old George*.
“He’s been addicted to drugs, but he heard about Jesus tonight,” said 31-year-old Thaynan Sartorio, a prayer volunteer who prayed with George. Upon hearing George’s story, Thaynan knew why God prompted him to speak with the man.
“Three years ago I made my commitment for Jesus,” Thaynan shared. “I was nearly walking away from my marriage and my two kids because I was still in drugs. But when I made a commitment, I got set free, and in these three years that I’ve been a Christian, I knew drugs weren’t for me anymore, and I know the same will happen for George.”
Overwhelmed that God would use him and his past addictions to pray with a man who has walked a similar path, Thaynan committed to keeping in touch with George and following up with him as he starts a new drug-free journey and a new relationship with Jesus Christ.
Young People Unashamed
Joining the inmates and addicts in surrendering their lives to Jesus was a crowd of young people who focused word-for-word on what Will shared during his messages. The one message that seemed to resonate the most with the youth was the message of the cross.
“Jesus died on the cross for everyone. … The Bible says, ‘For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son,’” he shared from John 3:16. “God loves you. … [And] the cross is the ultimate symbol of God’s love for you.”
After Will shared about the cross, he invited those wanting a relationship with Christ to come forward. Joel, 14, didn’t hesitate.
He had heard these words many times at church, but now it was like he was hearing them for the first time.
“I just felt like it was my time to come [to Christ] and I might not be able to have a chance like this again,” Joel said.
So he nudged his mom and said, “I want to go down, and I don’t really want to go down on my own. Can you please come with me?” Walking down with her son in support for the decision he was making, Jackie couldn’t stop smiling as tears filled her eyes at what she was witnessing.
She wasn’t alone. As many young people gave their lives to Christ, many adults were in awe seeing the future of Tasmania surrender their lives to Jesus.
“To see young people in such a worshipful frame of mind and to see them loving God and realizing how God can change their lives is amazing,” said Elizabeth Weller, an usher and door greeter for the Celebration in Launceston. “[The decision they make today] can carry forward as they grow older to their children and to their children’s children.”
Moving Forward in Faith
Starting in Hobart, the southern capital port city, and ending in Launceston, the northern riverside city, some 5,400 people from all ages and stages of life came out to the Tasmania Celebration, which included KidzFest events. More than 610 people responded to the Gospel message, with nearly 430 making first-time decisions for Jesus Christ. In addition, some 5,760 people around the world watched online, where more than 100 responded to the Gospel message.
Encouraged by the responses, many churches and church leaders are excited about what’s to come for their island.
“Events like this come and go, but I’ve been around long enough to know that it’s the legacy of events like this that go on for generations,” said Adrian Bosker, a longtime principal who recently retired from Launceston Christian School.
“I feel like it’s a stake in the ground, spiritually,” said Capt. Kim Haworth, Tasmanian divisional commander of The Salvation Army and a member of the Celebration’s executive leadership team in Hobart. “It’s us saying we are here. We are the church of Christ. We’re going to just keep loving people and sharing the Good News and offering hope and doing what the Lord has called us to do. …
“This place belongs to the Lord,” Haworth continued. “This island belongs to the Lord. This nation of Australia belongs to the Lord, and her people belong to Jesus. … And we want to see this island come to salvation in Christ. We want to see lives transformed to the glory of God.”
*Names changed to protect privacy.
Photos: Ron Nickel/©2022 BGEA