Thousands jam Christian festival in Hershey

( [email protected] ) Jun 28, 2003 04:39 PM EDT

HERSHEY, Pa. — Tens of thousands of Christians gathered at the grassy hillsides of Hersheypark Stadium for four days of concerts camping and worship,

Tens of thousands of Christian music lovers packed local stadiums and pitched tents on nearby grassy hillsides for the opening of the Creation 2003 East festival — four days of concerts, camping and celebrating with others who share their religious beliefs.

of worshipping with so many believers is unmatched in any one church," said Mark Waddell, a 48-year-old Methodist minister from Catonsville, Md.

As many as 100,000 people from across the country and Canada were expected to attend the festival, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary and is billed as the nation's largest Christian music, teaching and camping festival. This year's event was moved to Hershey because the grounds at the usual location in rural Huntingdon County were still too wet from the recent heavy rainfall.

"Last night, we had about 20,000 to 25,000" people in Hersheypark Stadium, where musical performers and devotional leaders took turns on the main stage, Julie Urbansky, communications and promotions coordinator for Hersheypark Sports and Entertainment, said Thursday.

Sponsors of the festival also stage an annual Creation West festival in Washington state.

Tickets for the entire festival, which runs through Saturday, ranged from $83 apiece in advance to $95 at the gate, but the people there said it was a bargain.

"None of the kids in our youth group have ever been involved in an event of this size," said Dan Ledwith, associate pastor of the First Parish Congregational Church in Wakefield, Mass. "There is a spiritual dynamic that can happen in groups of tens of thousands of people, and I wanted them to see that."

Sandi Boyd, 46, of Littlestown in Adams County, made it to the event despite a broken ankle, which she propped up on a pillow while she sat in the shade of a tarpaulin.

Her doctor, she said, "has no idea I am here."

Bruce Zechman, a recovering alcoholic and drug addict from Bernville in Berks County, said he was drawn by the chance for a unique worship experience.

"I've been clean 13 years," he said. "It was a long process until I found God."

The festival-goers found creative ways to cope with the sweltering heat and high humidity. For example, one West Virginia man wielded a squirt gun as long as his arm and looked for targets in the crowd.

"People are asking to get squirted," said Daniel Greider, 18, of Huntington, W.Va. "I have no problem with it. I meet some interesting people."