TAMPA, Fla. — On a sunny Tuesday morning, nearly 400 “foot soldiers” gathered for a pep rally at the Sheraton Tampa Riverwalk Hotel.
The soldiers — church members from across the nation — had saved their money and taken vacation time to spend a week in Florida.
They came not to visit Disney World or sunbathe on the beach, but to sweat and knock doors in the name of Jesus.
“It’s real inspiring,” said Collier James, an assistant minister at the Trinity Lane church in Nashville, Tenn. “People come from everywhere to help this one location.”
Every two years, the Crusade for Christ — which started in Chicago in 1979 — draws hundreds of volunteers and leads to dozens of baptisms in a different major city. Thousands worship at a nightly gospel meeting.
“It’s a great evangelistic thrust,” said Harold Rodriguez, minister of the 29th Street church in Tampa. “It’s simply about knocking on doors and preaching the gospel — nothing more or nothing less.”
Each morning in Tampa, the campaigners opened their Bibles for a devotional and sang songs such as “Salvation Has Been Brought Down” and “Just a Little Talk with Jesus.”
Then, carrying boxes filled with crusade fliers, they marched outside to board 10 chartered buses that dropped them off in neighborhoods throughout the city.
Like a pep rally before a big game, the assembly served to motivate members taking the good news to strangers’ doors.
But campaigners interviewed by The Christian Chronicle said they didn’t need any extra inspiration to talk about the Lord.
“I’m psyched up already,” said Reyna Cravens, 27, a member of the Southside church in Stockton, Calif. She first participated in the crusade in Birmingham, Ala., in 2003.
THOUSANDS OF BAPTISMS
The first crusade three decades ago brought 3,000 people to a convention center on the Windy City lakefront.
In all, 150 souls were saved that first year, said Daniel Harrison, minister of the Chatham Avalon church in Chicago, who has served as the crusade’s national director from the beginning.
“The primary goal is to go and evangelize an area, to put 40 and 50 and sometimes 100 people in an area where a congregation is, and have them knock those doors and teach those Bible classes within that area,” Harrison said. “And it has been very, very effective.”
Organizers estimate that the 15 crusades — in cities from San Francisco to New Orleans to Indianapolis — have resulted in more than 2,600 baptisms.
“That’s a real conservative number,” said John Dansby, the crusade’s business administrator and minister of the Russell Road church in Shreveport, La.
One of the most successful efforts occurred in Dallas in 2005, when 454 people were baptized during and after the crusade, organizers said.
By press time, 83 people had been baptized in Tampa, many in a large plastic swimming pool set up in a convention center ballroom. If past experience is any indication, that number will increase as local members follow up on contacts.
Billboards featuring nightly speaker Jack Evans, president of Southwestern Christian College in Terrell, Texas, helped give the church a higher profile, said Bobby Bell, a deacon at the Highland Avenue church in Tampa. Bell said he even heard discussion of the crusade at his barbershop.
Ten area congregations helped organize the crusade and provide lunch: Jackson Heights, Southside, Highland Avenue, Northside and 29th Street churches in Tampa; Southside, Pinecrest Park and 20th Street churches in St. Petersburg; Booth Street church in Safety Harbor; and Laurel Street church in Plant City.
“We exposed people to the Church of Christ and Jesus,” said Bell, who served as a bus captain, helping shuttle out-of-town members to the right locations. “But the real work begins now that the crusade has left.”
A MATCH MADE IN HEAVEN
Many of the “foot soldiers,” who range from teenagers to senior citizens, said they cannot imagine missing the crusade.
Earl and Rosa Wilson, members of the Gateway church in Homestead, Fla., have helped with nearly every crusade since 1987. Each was single when the crusade came to Orlando that year. They met — and fell in love — when assigned to the same bus.
Separated by hundreds of miles, they didn’t see each other again for a few months. But when they got together, Earl brought a ring with him. “I didn’t know it would lead to marriage, but I knew there was something special about meeting him,” said Rosa, who lived in Flint, Mich.
Both in their 60s, they say they have no doubt where they will be in 2009 and 2011 if the Lord grants them physical and financial health: knocking doors in Kansas City, Mo., and Washington, D.C., sites of the next two crusades.
Lord willing, Kenneth Jackson, his wife, Etta, and their daughters, Ashley, 18, and Kaylah, 14, plan to be there, too.
Kenneth, minister of the Lewis Street church in Little Rock, Ark., said of his daughters: “They’ve been knocking doors … since they were tiny. My oldest one was knocking doors in a stroller, literally.”
Kenneth, a crusade personal work coordinator, grew up Catholic. Before he started dating his future wife, she gave him three gospel tracts. They helped persuade him to be baptized.
“Everywhere I lived until I was 23, I lived within three blocks of a Church of Christ and never knew anything about it,” he said. “So, when I came to the knowledge of the truth, that’s why I started getting involved in evangelism.”
Door knocking has fallen out of favor in some circles, but the Jackson family still believes in it.
“There are so many faithful members in the church today because somebody knocked on their door,” Etta said. “One soul makes a huge difference. You never know who you’re going to reach who is then going to lead many others to Christ.”
If anything, door knocking is more important than in past times, Harrison said.
“Technology is one thing,” he said. “But eye-to-eye contact is something entirely different. … People are starved for a hug, for somebody to just put an arm around them.”