Ten years ago today, under cloudy skies and a slight rain, I set foot onto a grassy field in the middle of Shelby Farms just outside of Memphis, TN. I had spent the night prior in a tent about a mile away on the same farm, surrounded by thousand of strangers who were doing the same. My travelling companions on this journey were two buddies, Brad Walker and Mike Vincent, as well as my sister, Jessica, who decided to come along the night before.
We had gathered at the church parking lot and loaded up my 1983 Ford LTD with all of our stuff. Brad wanted to bring his guitar along, so we had it ride basically on the hump seat in the back. We prayed for our journey and what God had in store ahead of us and then got on the road. As we pulled away, I told the group “I know this car will get us to where we are going, but I am not sure if it will get us back.” They looked at me with a little bit of fear and wondering if I were kidding only to discover that I was totally serious. The car had been running a bit rough lately and was periodically overheating, but I felt as if this event was something God was calling me to. I figured we would get there and then figure out later how we would get back if that became necessary. We stopped a couple of times on the way down and each time I added some oil to the car and silently prayed that God would keep the vehicle running.
We quickly unloaded all of our stuff, learning at that moment that we would have to walk our stuff in quite a distance. I also then learned that the parking lot for vehicles was not exactly close to where the car was currently dead. I approached the car with trepidation, fearing that it wouldn’t start up again. Thankfully, it fired right up and I had no trouble making it to the parking lot.
At the designated time, we found a seat on the hill across from this video screen and waited. After a few moments of making sure all of the equipment was working properly, we were greeted by Louie Giglio via video link. I had heard that there were a couple of campsites like ours, but didn’t understand the size and scope of what I was a part of. Louie gave a nice welcome and then informed us that there were 5 campsites our size scattered around the Farms complex. What?! He was broadcasting from the main stage that we would all gather at the following morning, but for now that area around that stage was set aside and being consecrated.
There were people in a tower next to the field reading the entire book of Psalms and praying over the field non-stop in the 24 hours leading up to the following day’s start time. Louis then asked for each group to scream and yell when he called out their campsite number. After each number was called, we could hear a sustained cry coming up from somewhere distant over the hills. Some were louder than others, but the cry that went up from our site was incredibly loud, so I assumed that size of each camp was similar and that the distance between camps was the determining factor in volume difference. This was when I fully understood how many people had gathered for this event.
After the service, which included a brief Scripture being read and a couple of worship songs being sung, Louie asked that we spend the remainder of the night in prayer and preparation for the following day. He knew that he was asking thousands of college students to not goof off and do typical camping stuff, but he believed it would be appropriate to be still and silent on the night before such an event. And so, with a final evening prayer, we walked back to our tent in silence. I remember sitting outside our tent under the stars and being able to hear crickets above the amount of noise generated by the thousands of students around me. It was a setting that almost demanded that you pray or read your Bible. And that’s what we did.
We awoke the next morning and ate something for breakfast before heading off toward the main stage area. It had rained a bit overnight and the ground was soggy and muddy. We started off in the general direction that we thought the stage was and joined a growing parade of students as we went. We walked in relative silence and I was reminded of the story of the Israelites at Jericho. We, like they, were walking with great anticipation for what God was about to do, not knowing exactly how or what that might look like. We were still trying to prepare for something we couldn’t fully articulate, but we knew that God had called us to this place for this exact purpose. And so we walked for a mile across the fields of Shelby Farms and came to the crest of the hill surrounding the main stage area.