Soul Crusade

August 3, 2017

 

The first time I remember being lost was right after I had gotten saved at Billy Graham's last crusade.

 

He was set to speak at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. It was early July, 2006. A group from my church was all going to ride together in a school bus.

 

At 6:30pm, the adults were ready to leave and started gathering us kids and getting us to load into the bus. The high schoolers were past the age where the back of the bus was their kingdom and instead collected themselves in the middle. I was happy to run as far back in the bus as I could with the other middle schoolers that joined me. I ended up in the third to last aisle.

 

I was seated sideways on the aisle with my body facing the wrong direction so that I could participate in the conversation, even though I didn't contribute anything. They were talking about gross things anyway: snakes in Peter's pool that he was trying to kill and Matt's paper route and how he wanted to sneak into the open garages and steal pop out of the fridges.

 

"Geez," I said, surprised that someone my age, from my church, would really steal anything.

"You know," Matt began, obviously bothered by my judgement, "Geez is just short for Jesus and that's as bad as taking the Lord's name in vain. So I really wouldn't say that if I were you. It's against one of the ten commandments."

 

I hadn't thought about it that way before. I shrugged and turned my body to face the front, embarrassed and confused. When I was facing forward, I looked down at my feet and the realization started to hit me—they were just talking about stealing, they weren't actually stealing. I had actually taken the lord's name in vain.

 

The seat next to me was empty so I slid to the right, against the window and watched as Baltimore got closer.

 

We parked the bus across from Camden Yards, at M&T Bank stadium. It was still bright out but the sun had started to set. It was a little before 7:00pm—the official start time. As we started to hurry through the parking lot, I made sure to find my Dad and hold his hand so that we would stay together in the crowded parking lot.

 

As we made our way to our seats, the first performer was taking the stage—it was Joy Williams, the woman who would eventually make up one half of The Civil Wars. She was touring a Christian folk EP at the time. The Newsboys played after her, and after the Newsboys, a series of other performers and people giving their testimony that I honestly don't remember very well.

 

Then Billy came to the stage. There was a wooden lectern setup for him, like in a church, and he preached. It was a straightforward gospel message: simple and profound and compelling. At the end, he called for new believers to meet him at the foot of the stage, to lead them in a prayer of acceptance. When he said that, I looked around and it seemed like everyone I had come with was just waiting till the crusade was over so we could head back home. No one was getting up to be saved.

 

I wanted to go down to the field. I had already said I was a Christian before that—I had even had my first communion already. I had already pretended to be exercised when the pastor had asked if my sins had been electrocuted and I said yes, convulsing. But something about tonight had made me want to go down there. I wanted my soul to be crusaded.

 

I scanned the crowd for my dad and even said his name, but only loud enough for me to hear, I thought, until Hannah shouted, "Uncle Mark, Mike's calling for you."

 

He came to my side and bent down, placing his hand against my back.

"What is it, Mike?"

"I want to go down there." I said.

 

Everyone from our church was looking at me as we walked down. We made it to the end of our section, then down through the stadium, then out to the field. I pushed through till I got to the area of grass between first and second base behind the pitcher's mound.

 

From stage, Franklin Graham took the microphone from his father and said, "Now, I know people are still coming down, but we're losing space up here on the field. So keep coming if you want, but if you can, stop right wherever you are and say this prayer with me: Lord God, I am a sinner. I am lost without you, and helpless. Take my life, and change me. I accept the free gift of your son's perfect life in exchange for my imperfect one."

 

I prayed what Franklin told me to pray. When he was finished, I turned to face Dad. He didn't ask me anything about the prayer I had just prayed, he just asked if I was ready to go. We left the field and headed to the bus. The other church people had already gone ahead.

 

There was a sea, a swarm of people in the parking lot, and it was dark out. Even though I was holding Dad's hand, in the commotion, my hand slipped out of his hand and we lost touch and lost track of each other. I kept walking straight forward, but by the time the crowd had thinned out, I couldn't see Dad anywhere.

 

I began to panic. I didn't want to get kidnaped. That was my biggest fear. I was a small kid in a big city in the dark. I didn't want to call his name, thinking that someone would realize I was lost and take me. Even though it would have helped him locate me, I didn't want to stand directly in the light thinking that someone would see that I was alone and take me; but I also didn't want to stand directly in the dark because I was afraid. So I wandered around between darkness and light and began to worry.

 

Just then, I felt an arm on my shoulder. I spun around and it was Dad. He fell to his knees and hugged me. I was so happy to see him that when he stood up, I grabbed his hand tightly and didn't let go. When we got on the bus, we were the last ones on the bus. I didn't worry about sitting in the back with the other middle schoolers, I just wanted to sit with Dad.

 

When we sat down, Hannah and some of the other kids came up to ask what it was like to go up to the front, but I didn't want to talk about it, so they left. I just calmly put my head in my father's lap and said nothing the whole drive home.

 

I remember that the drive back was very dark, and that there were streaks of blue coming through the window, and that Dad kept stroking my hair to help calm my nerves. And I remember thinking how glad I was that my father had found me in the dark.

 

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