From the northern Panhandle to the southernmost tip of the continental United States, the state of Florida conjures up images of sun-splashed beaches, tropical landscapes, exotic wildlife and magical theme parks. But beyond the shiny tourist destinations, a spiritual darkness exists where millions live daily without a personal knowledge of God or the eternal hope that He offers through the cross of His Son, Jesus Christ.
To that end, Franklin Graham preached the Gospel to some 39,000 people along his six-city Decision America Sunshine State Tour Jan. 11-19. From Jacksonville Beach all the way to Key West, hundreds prayed to receive Christ as Savior while many others made life-changing decisions to follow God more faithfully.
The Gospel Heard in Unlikely Places
by Giovanna Albanese
As the crowd of 7,600 at the Seawalk Pavilion at Jacksonville Beach listened, Franklin Graham posed a question to kick off the Decision America Sunshine State Tour on Jan. 11: “Have you ever thought about how much your life is worth?”
Time magazine says the average life is worth about $129,000, and insurance companies set a standard value for a human life at $50,000. Looking at Mark 8:36-37 for the evening’s text, Franklin said, “One soul is worth more than the value of the earth to God. … Your soul is more valuable to Him than anything this world could produce or have or collect. Your soul is worth more than everything. Why? Because your soul is eternal.”
In a parking lot just beyond the pavilion, Portia and her 17-year-old daughter Mae stood outside their car. They had arrived late and Portia couldn’t find a parking spot. Undeterred, she parked in the middle of a nearby lot, and the two got out, leaned against the car, and watched Franklin on a screen from a distance. Mae was the one who really wanted to attend, so Portia had been tempted to merely drop her off and pick her up later. But once there, Portia decided to stay.
When Franklin gave the invitation to follow Jesus as Lord and Savior, Portia began to cry—and right there in the parking lot, she prayed to rededicate her life to Christ.
“I felt so happy after I said that prayer,” she said with a smile on her face. “That lifted me up. And everything I was feeling—I didn’t feel it anymore.”
She wasn’t alone. Directly across the street from the Seawalk Pavilion, on the upstairs balcony of a local bar, two patrons responded to Franklin’s invitation and uttered a prayer of repentance out loud.
Erin Solis, a counselor at the event, said she and her husband, Matt, had noticed people on the balcony watching the event, and they prayed that God would win the heart of someone there. At Franklin’s invitation, they saw a young woman at the bar stand up, beer in hand. “She just shot up,” Erin said. “And Matt saw her boyfriend look at her with this bewilderment on his face like, What are you doing? Are you standing up?”
Erin and Matt rushed to speak with the young woman, whose name was Breanna, and found that she was rededicating her life to Christ. “I accepted Christ as a kid,” she told Erin. “I just really felt like He was just calling me back tonight. … It’s so crazy because I’m here for a birthday party. Everybody’s inside enjoying the birthday party, and I’m out here on the balcony.”
About 15 feet from Breanna, with two tables separating them at the bar, a man named Robert had taken off his hat and was praying with Franklin as well. “He said 50 years ago he had accepted Christ in California at one of Billy Graham’s Crusades,” Matt Solis said. “And so, it was a really awesome kind of full-circle thing.
It’s Never Too Late
by Giovanna Albanese
As the crowd of more than 9,600 packed the Strawberry Festival Soundstage on an unseasonably warm Jan. 12 to hear a message of hope from Franklin Graham, an 84-year-old man named Paul fixed his eyes on the stage, hanging on Franklin’s every word.
Speaking from Mark 10, Franklin shared the story of Bartimaeus, a blind, poor and hopeless man until he put his faith and trust in Jesus Christ.
“What hope do you have?” Franklin asked the crowd. “I’m here tonight to tell you it’s Jesus. That’s the hope that you have. I’m not here tonight to talk to you about religion. There are all kinds of religions in the world … but there’s only one Jesus. There’s only one Gospel. Only one. And Jesus Christ came to this world not to condemn this world, but to save. That’s why Jesus came. He came to save. He came to save sinners. He came to save Franklin Graham. He came to save you.”
As Franklin finished speaking and gave the invitation, Paul stood up immediately.
“I could not sit still in my chair,” he told Brian, a counselor at the event, as tears streamed down his face. “I wanted to stand up. I wanted to get out of my chair.”
Paul had no intention of being at the Plant City event but decided to come with his wife, a believer, who had been praying for his salvation for many years. After praying to receive Christ, Paul said: “It is the best feeling that I’ve felt in a long time.”
“I watched him from the first song with Jeremy Camp to Franklin, and I just kept watching him,” Brian said. “His eyes were glued to the stage. He wasn’t looking around. He wasn’t doing anything, so he was locked in. And during counseling, he kept saying to me over and over and over, ‘Brian, I could not sit in my chair.’ He’s like, ‘I couldn’t. He was pulling me out of my chair.’
“It touched my heart to be able to see an 84-year-old gentleman be given life—at 84 years of age to turn to the Lord.”
A similar situation caught the eye of a 19-year-old counselor named Carly.
“I walked around looking for people and an older woman stood up,” Carly said. “Her husband was with her and she had so much support. And she prayed the prayer with Franklin. She told me that she was ready to surrender her life to the Lord.”
The woman, who appeared to be retirement age, came with her husband, a believer. She couldn’t stop smiling after she prayed, she told Carly, because she was ready to live her life for God.
“This was an opportunity of a lifetime,” said Mark Yarbrough, a counselor and fourth-generation citizen of Plant City. “Franklin could’ve gone anywhere, but he chose Plant City, which is very dear to me. … It’s quite an honor for him to come here. You would expect him to go to Tampa or to Orlando or something like that, but Plant City he chose, and we’re very grateful he did.”
Panama City Beach
Forgiveness Through the Blood
by Jerry Pierce
As Franklin Graham gave a Gospel invitation, dozens in the crowd of some 6,300 at Panama City’s Pier Park Amphitheater rose to their feet. Over the next few minutes, hundreds more joined them.
Toward the back of the lawn, a young woman sat by herself in a portable folding chair, separated from groups of people on her right and left by a few feet.
She had just heard Franklin preaching on the Parable of the Prodigal Son from Luke 15, and how the father in the story ran to embrace his lost son upon his return, lavishing him with forgiveness and calling for a big celebration.
“And there will be a celebration in Heaven for everyone who stands and says, ‘God, I’ve sinned. Forgive me,’” Franklin said in explaining God’s free offer of salvation and the forgiveness of sins through the atoning blood of Jesus Christ.
As Franklin led those who stood in prayer, Jennifer rose from her chair, head bowed.
When Franklin finished, he told those standing that a counselor would be coming to where they were. Jennifer kept standing. And waiting. After several minutes, Pam Anderson, a volunteer counselor, noticed her and walked over and embraced her. They talked and prayed.
Jennifer couldn’t have known in advance what Franklin would be preaching about, but the sovereign God did. The sermon resonated in her soul.
“She said that she had gotten away from the Lord, that she’d been hanging out with the wrong people,” Pam said. “And she had decided to get away from them. And that’s why she came tonight.”
Ray Jones was able to counsel two 12-year-old boys, Hugh and Josh, who came to the event with a friend and his parents. “They both said they wanted to be sure they would go to Heaven when they died, that they didn’t want to go to hell,” Ray explained. “They just wanted to be saved.
“I didn’t anticipate speaking to 12-year-old kids, but the gentleman that brought them was standing right behind me and grabbed me. And it was awesome because I could tell they were sincere.”
As with all of the Decision America Sunshine State Tour events, Franklin led the crowd in prayer for the nation’s leaders.
“If you don’t vote, we can lose this country—quick. And I encourage Christians to vote,” Franklin said, noting that elections have consequences, from the courthouse to the schoolhouse.
“Who’s going to be our judges? That’s important. Who’s going to be on the school board? That’s very important.”
If Christians are faithful to pray for our leaders, “I believe God will honor that,” Franklin said.
God’s Love Overcome Opposition
by Lee Weeks
When Julie Jeffers arrived at the Truman Waterfront Park for the Decision America Sunshine State Tour, she was greeted by a protester outside the amphitheater who asked why she was there.
“I live in Key West and I love everybody,” Julie responded before hugging three of the protesters she knew from the community.
Having raised four children as a single mom and as a frequent volunteer at the women’s shelter and supporter of local performing arts endeavors over the years, Julie was prayerful that many in her community might experience the same saving faith in Christ that rescued her from suicidal despair years ago.
“I love them all,” Julie said of the nearly 200 protesters who waved rainbow flags and held signs touting “unity, equality and diversity.”
“Our slogan here in Key West is ‘One Human Family,’” Julie said, “and I always considered myself part of one human family here, but maybe their mission statement is not what I thought it was.”
Julie said the LGBTQ community threatened to shame Key West residents attending the Jan. 16 evangelistic event—with Franklin Graham and musical guests Jeremy Camp and Dennis Agajanian—by posting photos and videos of them on social media.
“I knew a lot of the protestors that I had to walk by tonight,” she said. “It’s been all over Facebook with our locals about the protestors being here, and it’s very intimidating what the protestors were saying.”
But unlike some of her friends, Julie, a member of Glad Tidings Assembly of God, would not be deterred from serving as a counselor at the outdoor venue.
“It’s one of the hardest things I ever went through, coming here tonight knowing that I was being judged by my peers,” she said. “I just found it so hurtful.”
Franklin’s Gospel message to some 1,300 people in attendance contrasted gracefully with the judgmental stares from the protestors. And about 130 people stood in response to his invitation to profess Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.
“There may be some of you here tonight, you’re guilty of sexual sins,” Franklin preached. “Some of you are guilty of murder, but I’m here tonight to tell you that God will forgive you. Jesus Christ came not to condemn the world but to save. He came to save you from your sins.”
Located 100 miles from Florida’s mainland, Key West, numbering about 27,000 residents, is a tropical tourist destination on the southernmost point of the continental United States.
“People feel like it’s Sodom and Gomorrah down here, and sometimes it can feel that way,” said Key West native Robyn Romanoff, a member of Fifth Street Baptist Church. “We’re the ends of the earth for the United States.”
So when Robyn met a man in his 50s from neighboring Marathon Island who committed his life to Christ at the Tour, she wept.
“I just have been so overwhelmed by all of this with our little island in the middle of the ocean,” Robyn said. “We can feel forgotten about sometimes.”
Julie, who counseled a woman in her 60s who professed Christ as her Savior, said she looks forward to following up with some of the protestors.
“Hopefully, when you walk with the Lord, people see that, and maybe I’ll have some really good talks with friends out of this,” Julie said. “Maybe this will bring some bigger and better things than we even thought.”
A God of Second Chances
by Becca Coon
The Sunset Cove Amphitheater in Boca Raton lived up to its name the evening of Jan. 18. With the last of the day’s sunrays reflecting off the water behind the crowd of nearly 6,100, Franklin invited people to enter into a personal relationship with the Creator of the universe.
Preaching from 2 Chronicles, Franklin told the story of King Manasseh, who did evil in the Lord’s eyes and led Israel into idolatry.
“He worshiped the moon, the stars, the sun,” Franklin explained, “instead of serving the God who made the moon, the stars and the sun.”
The Lord brought judgment against Manasseh and allowed the Assyrians to capture and imprison him. But when Manasseh humbled himself and cried out to God, the Lord freed him from captivity and forgave him of his sins.
“The Bible says the Lord God is compassionate and gracious,” Franklin said. “… He has the capacity to forgive and forget.”
More than 400 people made decisions for Christ that night, breaking the bondage of sin in their lives.
“Your name is now recorded in the Lamb’s Book of Life,” Franklin told those who received the gift of salvation.
Fritz and Nellie Moore can testify to God’s compassionate and forgiving nature. In 2010, the couple divorced. Fritz began dating another woman who took him to a small Baptist church near Pompano Beach.
His relationship with the woman was short-lived, but the pastor of the church took an interest in him. Fritz began being discipled by the pastor, and believe it or not, the friends of his former girlfriend began pouring into him as well.
Fritz had a habit of reading the Bible cover to cover every year—even before the divorce. But the Word never truly penetrated his heart. One evening, he was watching TV when a Billy Graham special came on. Mr. Graham spoke about the importance of not just reading the Bible, but absorbing the truth of God’s Word into your heart.
Although divorced, Nellie continued to pray for her ex-husband—that God would lead him to church, that godly men would invest in him, and that he would surrender his life to Christ.
“One night, I was crying and praying for God to ‘bring him to his knees’—those were my exact words,” Nellie said. “Eventually I fell asleep, but I was woken up by God’s voice saying ‘It’s done.’”
Unknown to Nellie, at that same moment Fritz was wrestling with God.
“I said, ‘God, I don’t really know what You want from me, but whatever You want, I’m good with it,’” Fritz shared. “‘I’m tired, and I need Your help.’”
Fritz then fell into a restless sleep. Around 2 a.m., he felt compelled to call Nellie.
In 2012, the couple remarried. It wasn’t until after their relationship was restored that they learned they both had encounters with the Lord on that same night.
“It was all in His timing,” Nellie said.
Fritz and Nellie now use their testimony to minister to new believers at Calvary Chapel, where Fritz also serves as an elder.
While Fritz, a freelance photographer, captured photos of the Tour event, Nellie and their daughter, Amanda, praised the Lord for His faithfulness.
“We used to be a house divided,” Nellie said. “But God showed us the power of prayer.”
True Paradise Found in Jesus Christ
by Becca Coon
Ranked as the nation’s best retirement city by U.S. News & World Report, it’s not surprising that the nation’s “snowbirds” flock to Fort Myers. In fact, more than a quarter of the city’s population is over 65—though there’s a sizable younger population too.
But the picturesque destination also ranks high (14th) on Barna’s 2019 most “post-Christian” cities list, with 52% of Fort Myers-Naples residents reportedly rejecting the Christian faith.
On the final stop of the Decision America Sunshine State Tour, Franklin Graham told the crowd of more than 8,000 the story of Nicodemus, a Pharisee and a very religious man who did the right things but didn’t have a personal relationship with God.
“Religion is not enough. Religion cannot save you,” Franklin warned as he told the story from John 3.
When Jesus told Nicodemus that he must be born again to enter God’s Kingdom, Nicodemus was perplexed.
“The new birth is a new direction,” Franklin told the audience. “It’s the union of your soul with Jesus Christ. The Scripture says, ‘I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you’ (Ezekiel 36:26, NKJV). You want a new heart? Come to Christ tonight.”
More than 800 people—nearly 10% of the crowd—decided to do just that.
Lexie, a first-time counselor, had been praying for the Lord to show her exactly whom to approach after the invitation. Looking left, she saw a young girl, with the word Fearless across her shirt, stand and pray along with Franklin.
“The Holy Spirit told me that she was my one,” Lexie said.
As Lexie approached 9-year-old Cassie, she saw the girl’s parents crying joyful tears.
“It’s because of your prayers that your daughter is standing here tonight,” Lexie told them.
In talking with Cassie, Lexie learned this was the first time the girl had truly understood she was a sinner and needed salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.
Lexie and Cassie prayed. And when Jeremy Camp came back onstage, they celebrated Cassie’s new life in Christ by praising God together in the aisle.
Brothers Andrew and Alex had no interest in attending the event. At 12 and 14, all they wanted to do was stay home and play video games with their friends. But their parents told them in no uncertain terms that they would be going to the event as a family.
Andrew and Alex were surprised to find the music “pretty cool.” But as Franklin shared about Jesus Christ being the only road to God, they both felt something deeper happening in their hearts.
When Franklin gave the invitation to receive Christ as Savior, they stood up together and prayed aloud with others who had stood.
With tears in his eyes, the boys’ father, John, embraced them.
“We’ve taken them to church all their lives, but this is a special night,” John said. “There’s no better feeling than knowing your children will be with you in eternity.”
Photo: Paul Sherar/©2020 BGEA