Will Graham had just preached to a crowd of more than 2,000 on the starting night of the Tri-Cities Region Will Graham Celebration in Johnson City, Tenn. His topic: the brevity of life.
“What’s the most precious resource in this world?” Will asked. “It’s time … Many of us don’t understand how precious time is. We take it for granted.”
Paul and Helen Okpokowuruk were hoping the young man sitting beside them would take this time to reconsider the direction his life was headed.
They had arranged several days earlier to pick up Arthur James at his house for the event, but when they reached his home, he had gone to see a movie with his uncle instead. A few minutes into the service, he slipped in and sat beside them. His uncle had dropped him off at the Freedom Hall Civic Center.
“Your life is a vapor that appears for a little time and then it vanishes away,” Will continued.
As soon as the invitation was given, Arthur bolted from his seat and made his way down the aisle.
Jesus. Jesus. Jesus,” Paul pleaded. He and Helen knew Arthur wanted to live by the decision he had made to follow Christ at age 10, but as his pastors they could see he was struggling—like so many other youth and adults in the Tri-Cities region of Tennessee, where opioid addiction rates are among the country’s highest.
“With all his peers at school, it’s been hard,” Paul said.
Arthur did commit his life back to Christ that night, along with more than 500 others, who also made decisions over the course of the Celebration. More than 10,000 attended the event in Johnson City, surrounded by rolling mountains that had not yet burst forth with spring.
More than 230 churches from Kingsport, Bristol and Johnson City participated in the Celebration—the result of nearly 10 years of prayer. Prayer warrior Judy Godat of Johnson City sent the first letter of invitation to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in the summer of 2014, and a letter from Kingsport businessman Jerry Morrell arrived in January 2015.
God had ignited a passion for the youth in Jerry’s heart after he had struggled with a bout of clinical depression. For months, he could think of nothing else. “Our youth are losing their way,” he said. He even began to dream.
“Two or three times a week, I would have this same dream, about a big event that we would have for the youth” he said. “I negotiated a place to have the event. I talked to the police department. I’d talk to the people who could drive buses and get the people there.”
God had also called Alan and Doll Evans to pray. From 2004-2009, they would return to the Tri-Cities region for vacations and would walk around the perimeter of the civic center area, calling out to God.
“We were praying that God would open doors to use this building—for revival, for awakening, for worship,” Alan said. “We wanted people’s hearts to be opened, for them to be able to come to a location where they could hear about Jesus,” Alan said.
“And now here we are,” he added. “And it is glorious!”
Pete Tackett was among the hundreds of Christians who saw prayers answered. The week before the Celebration a woman had called and asked for his assistance in delivering furniture to her grandchildren in Johnson City. When he told her that he would not be able to help due to his commitment with the Celebration, she responded: “Well, the Lord has been telling me to come to Johnson City this weekend, but maybe it is more about getting my grandchildren to the Will Graham event than it is about me getting furniture for them.”
Jewish by birth, the woman had accepted Christ at a Billy Graham Crusade at New York’s Shea Stadium in 1970.
She was able to bring her grandchildren to Kidzfest and three of them accepted Christ.
Will’s final sermon on Sunday was about brokenness.
“What’s the thing that’s weighing you down?” he asked. “God can heal your marriage. God can heal your home. God can heal all the brokenness, but you have to be willing to surrender. You must surrender your fear, surrender your anger.”
April Brown’s heart began thumping about the time Will mentioned anger, but she sat still when the invitation began. Then Will issued a final plea, and as singer Aaron Shust started singing Just As I Am, she made her way forward.
“God has been speaking to me all day,” she said. “I knew I needed to come and surrender my anger, my bitterness and my fear of being able to really surrender to God with every part of my being.”
April had grown up under a spirit of legalism and fear.
“I was afraid that Jesus was like that,” she said. “But now I see that He doesn’t just issue orders, that He wants us to surrender willingly. And that I can trust my Heavenly Father to treat me with love.”