Festival of Hope brings fond memories, special invite for Ohio Twp. pastor
The Rev. John Guest traces the origins of his faith to one day in London in 1954, when the riveting preaching of world-renowned Christian evangelist Billy Graham changed his life forever.
“The whole experience was so invigorating,” recalled Guest, 78, senior pastor at Christ Church at Grove Farm in Ohio Township. “I was literally ecstatic about making the commitment, and the rest of my life has been about trying to get other people into that same relationship that lit up my life.”
Six decades later, Guest happily welcomed the invitation to pray privately alongside Billy Graham's son Franklin Graham with a quiet foursome on Friday evening in a locker room down a hall behind the main stage during the first night of the Three Rivers Festival of Hope in Consol Energy Center.
“It's an honor to be invited with the inner leadership to pray with the main man here,” said Guest, representing one of more than 500 churches that helped provide volunteers for the three-day event.
The core message and evangelical energy reverberating through the arena resembled that which captivated Guest 60 years ago, but the setting sure looked different.
The large choir, organist and lone speaker have been replaced by flashy lighting and a DJ while videos project onto a giant screen and Christian musicians who rap, rock and belt out powerful ballads that rival Top 40 hits.
Most seats were filled in the arena, set up to accommodate up to 16,000, and organizers expect standing room only during Sunday's performances, when Michael W. Smith and the Charlie Daniels Band take the stage.
Guest, a native of England who has made the Pittsburgh area his home base for the past 40 years, has come a long way from the fresh-faced, mop-topped teenager who balked at people trying to “talk religion at him.”
He was 18 the first time he visited a church, and he went only in hopes of winning back the girl who had broken his heart. He kept going back because the English preacher intrigued him, and he devoted his life to God after that preacher urged him to see Billy Graham.
In the years since, Guest has traveled to more than 30 cities and countries such as Ghana, Romania, Albania and Ukraine to put on smaller-scale versions of Billy Graham Evangelistic Association's festivals.
“He has the heart of an evangelist like Billy Graham,” said Kathleen, Guest's wife of 47 years, who met Guest while he was preaching at a Young Life camp in Colorado in 1967.
Shortly after they married, Guest helped found the Coalition for Christian Outreach, a Pittsburgh-based campus ministry program that has grown to more than 200 staffers working with 105 colleges.
About 5 p.m. Friday, a couple of hours before the main event, a woman with a big smile approached Guest.
“You're the reason I'm here today,” M.J. Ludwig, 62, of Salineville, Ohio, told him.
She explained that she had her spiritual awakening while hearing Guest speak during the summer before she started college.
“I realized there's not a little box called religion that just sits over a shelf; this was something that changes everything,” she said. It probably helped that Guest had a charming accent and good looks, she added with a chuckle.
Friday wasn't the first time Guest has met with Franklin Graham. He recalled pulling the son of “America's pastor” aside at an event several years back.
“Franklin, I want to thank you for the price you paid for not having your father around all the time when you were a little boy,” Guest told him, “because I am the fruit of his traveling to England.”
Guest has also met personally with Billy Graham, who invited him and his wife to his Montreat, N.C., home in the early 1990s to encourage him to continue his evangelistic work.
He recalled something Graham said that day that resonated deeply: “They say that I step out on the platform, and it's like I'm reaching up to the heavens with my hands joined in power,” he told Guest. “Little do they know, I'm scared stiff on the inside.”
“I've been there — that's true,” Guest said. “There are times when I've gone to go speak, and I've got my material, but I feel like I've got nothing to say — because you want to hit people where they are. It's not a matter of making speeches; it's a matter of reaching people's hearts and minds.”
Natasha Lindstrom is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8514 or firstname.lastname@example.org.