16,000 make decisions in San Diego, one led by 13-year-old

by Tobin Perry & Kelli Cottrell, posted Monday, May 12, 2003 (16 years ago)

SAN DIEGO (BP)--The shy 13-year-old doesn't seem like your typical evangelist. His voice cracks when he speaks. He has yet to fill out his not-yet-adult body. And pimples dot his face.

But May 9, during the second evening of Mission San Diego with Billy Graham, Joseph Bekkedahl did something that the famed 84-year-old evangelist would commend. He personally led a 14-year-old boy through a prayer to accept Christ.

"It was good, but I forgot some of the words," said the humble teenager from East Clairemont Southern Baptist Church in San Diego and a three-year veteran of the FAITH program, a Southern Baptist Sunday School evangelism program to help laypeople share their faith.

Bekkedahl was one of more than 20,000 volunteers recruited by San Diego-area churches, many of whom were Southern Baptist, who made the four-day mission one of the most successful evangelistic initiatives in the history of Southern California. During the mission, more than 270,000 people piled into Qualcomm Stadium, including a stadium-record 72,000 on Saturday evening. More than 16,000 people made spiritual decisions in those four days.

Mission San Diego was Graham's 413th crusade since his first in 1947. Many expect it will be one of the Southern Baptist preacher's final public missions. Although he has scheduled crusades in Oklahoma City in June and Kansas City in 2004, Graham's health battles have caused the evangelist himself to discuss his mortality.

During the four-day mission, Graham used timely illustrations to explain a timeless Gospel. On the mission's opening night, the evangelist who was born only four decades after Thomas Edison invented the incandescent light bulb used a computer illustration to explain the miracle of God's forgiveness. Using several well-remembered biblical stories, such as the Prodigal Son and the Rich Young Ruler, Graham's messages focused on God's free offer of salvation open to all.

On May 10 Graham continued a pattern in his missions that he started in 1994 by including a special evening focused on reaching area youth. Four bands, including dc Talk and Salvador, brought the crowd to their feet, dancing and jumping up and down before Graham quieted it with his Gospel presentation.

"I came mostly for the music," said 17-year-old Casa de Oro Baptist Church member Ashley Shriver. "I really enjoyed Salvador."

One of Shriver's friends joined 4,200 others who made their way to the stadium field Saturday evening during Graham's invitation to pray and accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.

Local San Diego church leaders started thinking about an event of this magnitude after a school shooting in early 2001 made national news. The recent war with Iraq made the mission particularly timely. More than 20 percent of the troops deployed in Operation Iraqi Freedom hailed from San Diego.

"This city has been broken by so much tragedy," said Thomas Gleghorn, senior pastor of Mission Village Southern Baptist Church in San Diego. "For someone to stand in front of these people and say I know there are tragedies, but there is hope on the other side, that's powerful."

Patriotism and support for American troops dominated much of the mission. One of the event's most enduring images was Michael W. Smith's passionate flag waving during a song dedicated to the troops on the mission's opening night. During the second night, Maj. Gen. Robert Van Antwerp received a standing ovation when he gave his testimony.

Pastor Douglas Johnson of First Baptist Church in Imperial Beach, Calif., said the mission could give an important burst to outreach efforts in the San Diego area. During the mission, Graham cited statistics that only 15 percent of the people in East County and South Bay in San Diego have church homes.

"This will strengthen the churches," Johnson said "The churches have shown such unity in putting this together. This shows the community that we can come together as Christians and we care about them."

Gleghorn has attended three of the city's four previous Billy Graham missions. He was 8 years old for the first one in 1958, a freshman in high school for the second one in 1964 and now a senior pastor during this year's mission.

"It's exciting our people; it's exciting our city," Gleghorn said.

Gleghorn said he encouraged the members of his church to invite others to hear Graham. Of the 36 families involved in his church, 23 of them participated in the event.

Johnson said he had members of his church serving as counselors, ushers, on the finance team, picking musicians up from the airport and in all sorts of other roles related to the mission.

"Being a pastor of a smaller church, we could never pull off something as grand as this," Johnson said. "But we can be a part of it. Joining hands with all of these other brothers and sisters, God can use us."

Navy man Eric Amesbury, a member of East Clairemont Baptist Church, learned firsthand what it's like to play a part in a massive event like Mission San Diego. He had an opportunity on Friday night to counsel a couple who came forward during the invitation. While the wife wanted to recommit her life to Christ, the husband began a first-time relationship to Jesus.

"Obviously I didn't do a thing to bring them down here," Amesbury said. "I didn't bring tears to the wife's eyes, but she was elated and excited. God did that. It was great to be a part of it."

One of the most moving moments in the four-day event happened on the mission's final day when Evelyn Husband, wife of Space Shuttle Columbia commander Rick Husband who was killed in February, received a standing ovation as she walked onto the stage for her testimony.

"After the accident I was filled with overwhelming grief and sadness," said Evelyn Husband, who has two children. "It made no sense to have my husband die and still have hope. On Feb. 1 I knew right where to run and His arms have held me very tight. He is trustworthy."

Throughout the four days, Graham focused on what he has focused on for his past 50 years in ministry -- watching people begin personal relationships with Jesus Christ. As the first night of the mission ended, Graham gave his signature alter call, waiting nearly 17 minutes as people streamed out of every corner and crevice in the stadium. He likened the occasion to the day, nearly 70 years earlier when, as a teenager, he made his first commitment to Christ at a revival in rural North Carolina. He had been one of the last people to come forward that night.

"We're going to wait until every one of you has come," Graham told the audience. "There is still time for you to come."


(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: GRAHAM IN SAN DIEGO and FRANKLIN'S FERVOR.

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