In Jena, revival overpowers racial tensions

JENA, La. (BP)--On Sept. 20 of last year, more than 20,000 people from across the nation gathered in small Jena, La., to protest an outbreak of racial tensions at the local high school, exposing old feelings of racism and hate.

Celebrities such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton fueled the media's glare on this small community of foresters and farmers. The only thing people outside LaSalle Parrish knew about Jena was the label of "racist" in the newspapers and on TV.

What could possibly transform this community torn by mistrust and innuendo? A movement of God's Spirit.

On Feb. 17, Midway Baptist Church in Jena began a revival meeting. Of all the churches in the area where something divine might occur, Midway was among the most unlikely. The church did not have a pastor and was in a time of transition after years of decline. Yet Midway's members were willing to follow the leadership of their interim pastor, Bill Robertson, in scheduling a four-day revival.

In preparation for the revival, Robertson, the Louisiana Baptist Convention's pastoral leadership director, and the church engaged in three weeks of special prayer on a personal level and as a body of believers. Extra efforts were exerted for outreach, and publicity was circulated throughout the community through the newspaper, posters and mailers.

The meeting began with Robertson's Sunday morning sermon to the "normal" crowd of about 225 people. Much the same on Sunday evening, with the addition of a few African Americans who were welcomed and came back Monday evening.

After a time of singing prior to Robertson's message each evening, the congregants were encouraged to pray a simple prayer: "Dear Jesus, speak to my heart tonight and I promise to be obedient to whatever You tell me to do."

Something spectacular happened on Monday evening. "There was a sense that the Holy Spirit chose to visit this church," Robertson said. "But at the invitation, no one moved. Few spoke. We had a sense of the awe and wonder of God at work but we were too amazed to do any thing about it."

On Tuesday evening, the crowd grew to more than 300 and reflected a mix of races. A singing group led by Craig Franklin, editor of the local newspaper, the Jena Times, led the congregation in two songs and then stopped.

"I sense there is someone here who needs to testify," Franklin said.

A woman stood and said she knew God's Holy Spirit had called her to come to the altar on Monday night but she hadn't stepped out. She wanted to confess her disobedience and said she would be coming at the invitation time that night to "get right."

Robertson told her to not to wait, that the invitation to come to God is always open. People began to move out of the pews and flooded the altar.

"There were tears, sorrow and repentance," Robertson recounted. "A spirit of brokenness flooded the room as a community leader stepped up to me and said, 'Preacher, I've been living a lie. I joined this church five years ago, but I've never been genuinely saved.' As I began to lead this man to repentance and faith, other adults began coming to the church leaders and asking for prayer and inquiring how they might be saved."

At the end of the service, five adults and two adolescents had surrendered their lives to Christ. There had been too many to count at the altar. "The numbers don't matter," said Roberts, who did not preach during the service that spanned nearly two hours. "God is working and we are participating with Him.... God was working in the church and in the community."

Word of the meeting spread throughout the community and the 400-seat auditorium was filled Wednesday evening. People from several other congregations were there and had brought guests. Again, several adults surrendered their lives to Christ. Although Robertson had prior commitments for Thursday and Friday, the church's deacons invited Franklin to preach on Thursday and the African American pastor of L and A Baptist Church, Jimmy Young, to preach and bring his church's choir on Friday.

Franklin, a longtime resident of LaSalle Parish, said Young was the first African American asked to preach in a predominately Anglo congregation. Again on Friday evening, adults continued coming to Christ during the evening's invitation.

At the conclusion of the Friday evening service, Franklin asked that those with a burden for a lost person come to the altar and cry out to God for that specific person.

On Sunday, Midway Baptist was filled to capacity. The L and A Baptist Church also was filled. They met together on Sunday evening to a standing-room-only crowd and five more adults surrendered their lives to Christ.

On Monday evening six more adults and an adolescent were saved. Franklin reported that some people came to him and shared that the person who was saved was the person they prayed for on Friday.

"It's amazing to watch the work of God during the invitation," Franklin said. "There are people present who don't know why they are there. At invitation time, you can see the power of the Holy Spirit breaking over their lives and they are miserable ... and lost. Yet they keep coming back."

"This is a work of God in the most unlikely place," Robertson said. "Isn't it just like our God to do something extraordinary like this so that no man can share in the glory? Community leaders would have to work for decades to bring peace to this community. Our God desires to bring the peace of Jesus into individual lives and this community now."

Robertson said he believes that if this movement of God were to happen in a major city, it would translate into hundreds if not thousands of adults coming to Christ. "But before the power of God shows up, there must be brokenness," he said.l

Since the meeting began until the following Tuesday evening service, 25 adults from Jena's Anglo and African American communities have turned to Christ and three have surrendered to the call to ministry. Midway Baptist's leaders have extended the revival meeting until Friday, Feb. 29, in an act of obedience to God's Spirit.

John L. Yeats is director of communications for the Louisiana Baptist Convention and recording secretary of the Southern Baptist Convention.

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