The sun was starting to set as Doug DeVos, cochair of CityFest West Michigan, took the stage in Ah-Nab-Awen Park in downtown Grand Rapids, Mich., on Sunday, Sept. 9.
An estimated 18,000 people had come to CityFest that evening and were on hand to hear DeVos tell a story about his father, Richard DeVos, who had died only a few days earlier but whose longtime dream had been to help bring this event to West Michigan.
His philanthropist father, who had donated millions of dollars to many local causes, including a recent gift of $1.7 million to the Christian Reformed Church, was suffering from heart failure several years ago and had traveled to Great Britain for a heart transplant, said his son.
“We spoke to him on the phone just before he went into surgery,” said DeVos to the people who had squeezed into the downtown park, lined the sidewalks along the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum, and stood on a nearby bridge spanning the rapids of the Grand River.
“My dad told us to two things: I love you — and if I don’t live through the surgery, I’ll see you soon. He knew where he was going,” said DeVos.
His father, DeVos added, “knew he was a child of God saved by grace. Tonight you’ll hear this same message about the transforming grace of Christ…. God has given us a good night to celebrate the good news of God.”
More than 430 churches and organizations in West Michigan, including many CRC congregations, joined together with the international Luis and Andrew Palau organization to put on the two-day festival Sept. 8 and 9.
Music by well-known Christian artists such a Lecrae and TobyMac, games for children, daredevil bike riders, rock climbers, and stirring personal testimonies and presentations of the gospel featured prominently at the event that drew a total of more than 35,000 people from across the area.
“There are not many events like this that you can come to and you don’t feel a threat,” said Nancy Roelfsema, a member of a large non denominational church who attended both days of the festival. She also served as a volunteer for CityFest. “It just feels really good. This is how things are supposed to be.”
‘A look of glory and peace on their faces’
Mary Sterenberg, the CRC’s representative and prayer co-chairs with Randy Hekman of CityFest, helped to oversee trained volunteers who prayed with people who came into the prayer tent located at one end of the park. In soft voices they prayed Sunday evening as music from the stage filled the air outside.
“The prayer times have been amazing, and we’ve witnessed the Lord working in miraculous ways in people’s lives,” she said. “Some of the prayer ministers dispersed around the crowd offering prayer, while others quietly interceded in the prayer tent.”
Her favorite moment came when a couple from Albania, after hearing Andrew Palau preach and accepting his invitation to open their hearts to Christ, entered the prayer tent with a “look of glory and peace on their faces.”
“We labored long and hard on Cityfest — the tears of joy on those two faces make every single bit of it worthwhile.”
Several information booths were set up on the bridge over the Grand River. At one stood a long wooden artwork called the Lamentation Wall. It was created by artist Erica Bland as part of a CityFest outreach to bring attention to racial injustice in West Michigan.
“Racism and inequality are bigger than any one church can address,” said Ryan Verwys, a member of Madison Square CRC in Grand Rapids. “This wall is inspired by the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. You write down your prayers of lament and hope and place them in the spaces in the wall.”
The wall, he said, presents one way of bringing light to racial injustice and talking about it and, above all, lamenting the parts each of us play in it.
Kids Wanted to Know About Jesus
Before the evening events began on Sunday, ventriloquist Mark Thompson talked back and forth on a small stage in the children’s area with his partner, Kirby. A crowd of 150 or so kids, sitting on a tarp, watched raptly as Thompson said to Kirby, “I don’t want to take my hand out of you Kirby. I don’t want you to die.”
Until this point, Kirby had been spouting quick comebacks. But now he was quiet, as if pondering dark thoughts.
“I made you, Kirby,” said Thompson. “I love you. I would do anything for you.”
“You would?” asked Kirby as Thompson’s hand manipulated his mouth.
“Yes, Kirby. Without faith in me, you would be lost.”
Thompson used this mini-drama to launch into a passionate call for the kids to accept God -- who made them and loves them — into their lives. When the young people raised their hands to indicate they wanted Jesus in their hearts, prayer team volunteers in orange shirts flowed in from the sides, sat, and shared a gospel message with them.
‘We All Bleed the Same’
Not long afterward, as the main stage presentations encouraged and inspired the crowd, Mac Powell and his new band, the Family Reunion, belted out a medley of songs old and new, along with a soothing country and western version of “Amazing Grace.”
Then Grammy-winning gospel singer Mandisa took the stage, her bright smile and colorful outfit energizing the video screens set up for all to see. She told a story of her own life and her struggles with weight gain and lack of self-esteem and how faith in God has helped her.
“I realize now we don’t have to clean ourselves up for God. Just come to God, and he’ll do the cleaning up,” she said.
Also, God, she said, is the one who can pull us together in unity. We can draw attention to the killing of young black men by police — but, she said, we need to do that together.
“If we fight, let’s fight together. Tell me why we’re so divided?” she began singing, her powerful voice filling the park and bringing people to their feet.
Mandisa was singing her song “We All Bleed the Same” — a resounding anthem calling for peace in our day of sharp divides.
“Are you left? Are you right? Pointing fingers, taking sides. When are we gonna realize?” she sang, striding from one corner of the stage to the other.
“We all bleed the same. We're more beautiful when we come together. . . . If we're gonna fight, let's fight for each other. If we're gonna shout, let love be the cry.”
Making the Crucial Call of Faith
Luis Palau, although struggling with lung cancer, came to speak at CityFest on Saturday. He credited Rich DeVos for his longtime commitment to bring the event to West Michigan. Palau also shared some of his own story of faith.
Palau’s son, Andrew, also spoke on Saturday, and then again on Sunday evening.
As the son of a famous international evangelist, Andrew grew up in the Christian faith. But by his midteens, he said, he was sneaking out at night and stealing beer from a neighbor’s garage. Then for a decade he lived a wasted life, abusing drugs and alcohol, he said.
“I turned my back on God and was driven by all the garbage of the world. I went downhill fast,” he said. “My parents prayed for me, just as we have been doing for you.”
In his mid-20s, Andrew accepted his father’s invitation to attend a revival similar to CityFest. He was then living in Boston; it was winter, and the event was in Jamaica. He figured it would give him a nice break in the weather.
“I was sitting there in the crowd, hearing the words of God through my father, and they suddenly penetrated me. I felt my fears and insecurities lift, and God opened my eyes,” said Andrew Palau. “Although I was broken, I asked God to forgive me, and he cleansed me of all unrighteousness.”
He told stories of his family surviving a plane crash and of a relative who was recently murdered in Jamaica, and he added that, despite the grief their family felt, they were glad that four years earlier the young man had accepted Christ.
Toward the end of his presentation, Palau said to the crowd, now illuminated by bright spotlights, that they too could have that kind of assurance. And it could come that night.
By opening themselves and accepting Christ, they could be filled with grace — and like his father, Luis, like Rich DeVos, and like his friend in Jamaica, they could be certain where they were going when they died.
“There is a way to get to heaven — and we have all been here this weekend to tell you about it,” said Palau.
And as people in the crowd raised their hands at Palau’s invitation to ask Jesus into their hearts, Festival Friends wearing bright orange shirts came to share the good news of Christ with them, pray with them, and invite them into a relationship with God through a local church community.
From her vantage in the prayer tent, Mary Sterenberg saw all of the activity, the passage of a message of love and salvation, people responding to Palau’s plea. And a thought came to her mind:
“I think there is a great party going on in heaven right now, and I think Rich DeVos is leading the celebration right beside Jesus his Lord,” she said.
CityFest by the numbers
- 435 Grand Rapids-area churches and nonprofit ministry organizations, in partnership with dozens of business, civic, and cultural leaders, collaborated to produce CityFest West Michigan.
- 500 volunteers were involved in planning the event.
- 900 volunteers served in the on-site execution of the event.
- More than 2,000 Festival Friends trained to pray for and follow up with those who made commitments to Christ.
- In total, more than 39,000 people were reached in person throughout the months-long campaign, including multiple outreaches at prisons, a luncheon for women, Latina events, and a gathering for business and civic leaders.
- More than 220,000 viewed the events through multiple broadcasts online.
- Most importantly, more 1,833 individuals responded to the gospel message.