San Diego - As troops return home from "Operation Iraqi Freedom" - more than 20 percent of whom were deployed from San Diego - record crowds received spiritual freedom at Mission San Diego with Billy Graham, held May 8-11 at Qualcomm Stadium - site of the 2003 Super Bowl. "When we saw the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln come in here and saw the people get off that had been at sea for 10 months, the rejoicing - the thrill of it - sent chills up and down your spine," Mr. Graham said. "In the same way, there will be great rejoicing when God receives you into heaven. He is willing to forgive you and to change your life."
Crowds averaging 54,000 attended the meetings over four days, of which an average of 3,200 came forward at Mr. Graham's invitation to make a commitment to Christ.
Mission San Diego - the 84-year-old evangelist's fourth mission in "America' s Finest City" in 45 years - saw many records and "firsts," a surprising phenomenon in a ministry spanning more than half a century and in an era when mass evangelism is less common than in previous decades.
Records include the 40,000 kids and parents gathered for the "Kids Mix" on Saturday morning - a Billy Graham mission children's event record - and 74,000 youth attending Saturday evening's "Velocity, a Concert for Our Generation," which broke the standing record for the 67,000-seat stadium previously held by the 1988 Super Bowl.
Firsts include the premiere broadcast of a Billy Graham mission meeting over the Armed Forces Radio and Television Network to more than 800,000 military personnel and their families on every ship and base around the world. The mission had a military flavor, coming on the heels of the war in Iraq, as San Diego is the largest military community in the free world. Mission organizers made a special effort to recognize and include these military members.
Another is the fact that the local mission committee met its budget after the Friday evening meeting, and was therefore able to go without collecting an offering at the Saturday events, and to dedicate the Sunday offering to television broadcasts of the mission in the coming months, as well as a "seed" gift to the upcoming mission in Oklahoma City.
What remained unchanged was Mr. Graham's presentation of the Gospel message to the community. "We've aimed for personal happiness and missed the mark of God's plan for our lives," Mr. Graham said. "But God has intervened. He does not condemn us - He loves us and He gives us hope."
Mission organizers have experienced unprecedented involvement throughout the shortened preparation process (five months compared to the usual nine-12), with more than 20,000 individuals flocking to the Christian Life and Witness training classes for only the second time in mission history. Altogether nearly 25,000 volunteers were mobilized for the mission, including 8,000 counselors, 6,000 adult choir members and 5,000 children's choir members. More than 650 churches representing 66 denominations have participated in the mission and preparation process.
Rolf Benirschke, mission chair and former San Diego Chargers kicker, led the local team in organizing the mission, and shared his own faith experience at Thursday's meeting. "It is my hope that on this field - where I not only made my living but where my life was changed by faith in Christ - that thousands of hearts will be changed and our city will be transformed," he said.
Other special guests who spoke at the mission include Major General Robert Van Antwerp, who oversees basic training for Army recruits. He said it was his wife's faith that inspired him to make a commitment to Christ - a faith she had first discovered when as a young Army career officer, he "went to work and she went to lonely."
Evelyn Husband, wife of Columbia Space Shuttle Commander Rick Husband, who was killed in the Feb. 1 tragedy, also spoke of the faith in Christ that has sustained her since that day. "I do not understand why this happened, and I probably never will in my lifetime. And I don't have to, because I trust Him. Because of Jesus, there can be joy - even in the midst of sorrow," she said.
As San Diego is a multi-cultural community, in addition to the large Hispanic population and proximity to Tijuana, Mexico, translation of the mission was provided for local language groups. The meetings were interpreted for Spanish-speaking individuals every evening, and in 15 other languages through the course of the mission, with all 16 language groups being served Saturday evening.
The mission Love-in-Action committee, which selects and tries to meet a physical need in the community, chose two projects for the San Diego area. First was filled backpacks for homeless teens, of which there are more than 2,000 throughout the community. In addition, the committee chose to recognize military personnel and assist their families through donations of $20 gift certificates to Wal-Mart. More than 10,000 military families received these tokens of appreciation and support.
The Operation Starting Line prison outreach, conducted in conjunction with the stadium meetings, saw the Gospel presented to more than 3,500 area prison inmates in San Diego - including a Navy Brig - and across the border in Mexico. More than 1,250 indicated their interest in learning more about making a commitment to Jesus Christ.
Mr. Graham's next mission will be held at the Ford Center in Oklahoma City, June 12-15. He said that he has had the people of Oklahoma City on his mind in the wake of the recent weather-related tragedies there. "The tornadoes have torn us to pieces in our hearts," he said. "We've been praying, and I' ve been so burdened for Oklahoma City these past few days I could hardly sleep. I don't have the answers, except to say that everything is in God's hands. Because He loves us, there must be a reason, but we may not know until we get to heaven."
By Albert H. Lee