[Part 1 of A Preacher and a Plague is the story of Evangelist Billy Sunday coming to Erie and the Spanish Influenza pandemic which hit the world a few years later. Part 2 is about a more recent evangelist and the current pestilence.]
Franklin Graham is a no nonsense, straight talking, doesn’t pull a punch – evangelist who is advancing his father’s legacy of spreading the gospel through the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA). Talks between BGEA and a group of Erie church and business leaders began in 2012. The goal was to bring an evangelistic festival to Erie the likes of which had not been seen since the Billy Sunday campaign 100 years earlier. Their faith in God and tenacity paid off. In the fall of 2014, 14,000 people attended the festival.
Just as Billy Sunday’s team inspired the formation of the Erie City Mission in 1911, Franklin Graham’s team left its mark on the group of friends who prayed and prepared for the festival. This group, the Erie Christian Business Leaders Association, has put hands and feet to the charge written in James 2:17, “So also faith, if it does not have works, by itself is destitute of power.”
This dedicated group of city leaders has expanded its reach over the last six years. They continue to meet monthly, praying for unity and societal reformation. Even during this stay-at-home order, the group is praying together via a weekly Zoom call. A yearly highlight is the Prayer Breakfast, when guest speakers and community leaders explore ways to impact the city. This growing public expression of community wide faith and trust in Jesus Christ and the work inspired by it has truly been something only God could do!
It’s as if God was plowing the ground with Rock the Lakes. Softening the soil of people’s hearts, much as He had done with the Billy Sunday campaign. He seeded open hearts with renewed zeal, and faith to build a unified network of believers in preparation for a storm they didn’t even know was coming.
The novel corona virus was first reported in Wuhan, China in December 2019. From there it has spread around the world. Today is May 9, we have maintained our stay-at-home state wide order, in what feels (to most) like treading water, since March 16. Erie hit the peak of the pestilence about April 9th, and now we are swimming down the back side of the Covid-19 curve.
As a community, how are we handling the crisis? How are we dealing with the requested discipline of social distancing? It is a new, temporary challenge for all of us. As a comedian once said, “Growing old is inevitable, growing up is optional.” What are we learning about ourselves, how are we growing as a community?
We’ve all seen the headlines. Governor Wolf and Erie County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper hold daily Covid -19 news conferences, keeping us abreast of what’s happening. Erie statistics as of May 8 are: 114 people in our county have tested positive for the virus, 2,503 tested negative, 79 have recovered, 2 elderly have died. 64% of positive cases here are over the age of 65.
Perhaps the most distressing news according to USA TODAY and FORBES, is 33 million Americans have applied for unemployment benefits in the last two months. Americans have been put out of work in the swiftest, most stunning collapse the U.S. job market has ever witnessed. The good news is, most of those jobs should come back. Franklin Graham asks, “Should we have shut down the countries commerce for the corona virus? This is a question that will be debated for some time. No matter what historians end up recording as the successes and mistakes of the Covid-19 pandemic response, my prayer is that through all of this upheaval and uncertainty, people will assess their lives and consider where they stand before God.”
During this ongoing conversation I’m hoping and praying we continue to show the kindness we have shown each other here in Erie. Let’s share our thoughts about all this with sensitivity and tact. Personally, I’ve never had an opinion I wasn’t willing to share! I might disagree with your opinion but I still respect your right to have one. None of us knows exactly what tomorrow will look like. But if God has proven one thing, it is that He loves us and has not forgotten us. If we put our faith and trust in Him, He will be with us through the storm.
This is a photo from Art As Prayer, the caption reads, “We’re all in the same storm but we’re not in the same boat.” That’s true, none of us have exactly the same circumstances – some have a medically high-risk child, or are vulnerable themselves. Some are working from home, others are unemployed, or their small business is about to go under. For some this is a mild inconvenience, but others are struggling. I have a friend who lives alone and has to stay at home, alone. Another friend is sheltering at home with his three teenage grandchildren while his daughter goes to work at a local hospital every day. I’m remembering what the psalmist wrote in Psalm 57:1, “Be merciful and gracious to me, O God, for my soul takes refuge and finds shelter and confidence in You; yes, in the shadow of Your wings will I take refuge and be confident until calamities and destructive storms are passed.”
Erie has shown her character in this storm. In a demonstration of shared sacrifice, we stayed home to buy some time and flatten the curve so as not to overwhelm the health care system, and it worked. When the County Executive was asked about hospital numbers a couple weeks ago, these were the stats. Saint Vincent has had five Covid patients, the two from Erie County that passed were in Saint Vincent. The VA Medical Center has had one Covid patient (Hamot and LECOM weren’t giving numbers.) Crime in the city is down…. not up. Churches and prayer groups are meeting on-line. Some are even seeing an up-tick in people asking about salvation. Families have been figuring out how to do the home-school / work at home challenge. Volunteers have been delivering meals (and diapers!) to families in need, and to front line health care workers. A gazillion face-masks have been sewn. As needs in the community arise, people have acted to meet the challenge, which is not surprising. God has often used challenging times to reveal strengths and weaknesses.
Post Plague Recovery
NWPA is among the first regions in the state to gradually reopen. If you’re interested, here is a link to the basic outline of Pennsylvania’s phased Reopening guidelines: https://www.pa.gov/guides/responding-to-covid-19/#PhasedReopening
As we rebuild after this shut-down, our community and our nation has an opportunity to walk through a new door. What will life look like on the other side of the door? What does the door look like? This makes me think of how Frank Lloyd Wright approached architecture. Wright was a renowned architect 100 years ago who is famous for designing buildings that are in harmony with nature. For him, a door was not just a door, it functioned as more than a way to get from one room to the next. He designed each doorway to give a hint, a foretaste of what was in the next space. There is symmetry to his design that involves the entire structure in its natural setting.
How do you see the doorway into your next space? What do you see on the other side of this re-set; for yourself, for the community, for the Kingdom of God? What problem is before you to solve? What gift do you have to share? My grandmother used to say, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” The earth has great need right now, imagine what could be at our doorstep. It’s time for creative innovations, unfettered imagination and higher-level thinking in all sectors of society. It’s time to unseal what has been hidden. Let’s fill the earth with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord (Habakkuk 2:14)!
God’s original symmetry of design is meant to enhance the world and all sectors of society. Imagine the convergence of His design, the abundant flow of a community that is patterned after God’s Kingdom principles. Imagine us leveraging this divine pause in time, by asking God to heal what is broken and restore society as we move into a new era.
Billy Sunday’s campaign brought revival to Erie; the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Rock the Lakes brought an awakening. We’ve been revived, we’ve been awakened, let’s keep our hopes up!
Praying for you as we turn our hearts to God,