Dubbed a ’21st century Billy Graham crusade on steroids,’ revival aims to unite Mississippians

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Peter Morgan / Associated Press

People raise their arms during a musical performance at the Rev. Billy Graham’s Greater New York Crusade in Queens section of New York on Saturday, June 25, 2005. It was the second night of Graham’s three-night crusade in the city.

Prisoners dedicating themselves to Jesus Christ, public schoolchildren penning essays on a united Mississippi, and tens of thousands of people across the state coming together in a show of racial reconciliation.

That’s the vision organizers have for a Night of Unity, a mass religious revival Saturday at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium in Jackson aimed at drawing people of all races, faiths and backgrounds into the Christian fold. A set of powerful business, church and political leaders in Mississippi back the event, hosted by a new nonprofit called Unite Mississippi.

“It’s going be a move of God like we haven’t seen in a long time,” said Unite Mississippi chair Chip Miskelly, of the Miskelly Furniture company. “What we’re hoping is this will be the catalyst — not the end, but the beginning of something that will unify our state and will be an example for the rest of the country to say, ‘If they can unify Mississippi and have a great revival, why can’t we do it here?'”

The free event will feature motivational speakers including Tony Evans and performances by Israel Houghton and the Mississippi Mass Choir. It will also include an altar call where attendees will publicly share their experiences.

In an interview, Unite Mississippi deputy director and pastor Larry Nicks called the event “a 21st century Billy Graham crusade on steroids.”

The Night of Unity is meant to evoke the crusades of Graham, the internationally renowned Christian evangelist who first publicly spoke against segregation while preaching in Jackson in 1952. Graham’s crusade in Mississippi drew tens of thousands of attendees from across the state.

Miskelly, who attended a second Graham crusade in Mississippi, in 1975, still remembers the impact it had on him. Four decades later, a group of pastors across the state have worked on making the revival into reality for the last couple of years, meeting with the Billy Graham organization and praying regularly.

Miskelly and Bishop Ronnie Crudup Sr., of New Horizon Church, agree that the revival will not just bring all religions and races together but also bolster Mississippi’s economy.

“It’s not a trickle-down,” Crudup said. “It’s a flow-down, and it begins to effect yes, the economics as well. We already know that. We know that something like this isn’t just religious, it doesn’t just touch the church house.”

Unite Mississippi is registered as a religious association, state records show. The organization does not appear in a search of federally registered nonprofits with the Internal Revenue Service.

Nicks estimates that the nonprofit will spend over $750,000 on the event, including promotions, in addition to in-kind donations from various partners, he said.

“Typically, to do something of this size, the cost would be $3 (million) to $4 million,” Nicks said.

Unite Mississippi lists Gov. Phil Bryant, AT&T Mississippi president Mayo Flynt, real estate developer and former Mississippi Development Authority executive director Leland Speed and the Mississippi Association of Broadcasters among its donors and sponsors.

A spokesperson for the governor did not respond to requests for comment about Bryant’s involvement in the event.

Earlier this week, Bryant declared April as a “Month of Unity,” although in past years he has issued proclamations calling April “Confederate Heritage Month.”

Organizers said that security for the event will be provided by local law enforcement agencies including the Jackson Police Department, Mississippi Highway Patrol, Capitol police and the Hinds County Sheriff’s Department; SWAT teams and bomb squads will also be on hand.

The Mississippi Department of Corrections will livestream the event across state prisons that evening, corrections commissioner Pelicia Hall announced in a promotional video for the event earlier this month. Hall is listed as a sponsor of the event.

Miskelly wants chaplains and pastors to be on hand at correctional facilities during the event to receive prisoners who chose to convert that evening.

“We see this as an opportunity to continue to work with faith-based organizations,” Hall said in a statement. “The department has historically worked with faith-based groups to provide various activities, programs or services.”

MDOC will stream the event “in as many locations as possible to the extent resources allow,” according to agency spokesperson Grace Fisher, who said that participation is voluntary.

Though organizers said the federal prison in Yazoo City, which holds over 4,200 prisoners, would also livestream the event, a spokesperson at the federal facility told Mississippi Today that prisoners would not be able to view the program “due to our capacity to stream the information to the inmate population.”

An essay contest open to high school students asks “what would a united Mississippi look like to you?” Winners could win up to $1,000 in cash or electronics.

Unite Mississippi also contacted Jackson Public Schools superintendent Errick L. Greene to hand out event tickets to all JPS students, according to Miskelly.

“The tickets will be available to students, but it’s ultimately up to parents if they should decide to attend,” said Greene in a statement, adding that no public funds will be used in support of the event.

Nicks said organizers expect the event to draw over 60,000 people on Saturday and that they believe “over 8,000 people will surrender their lives to Jesus Christ” through the Night of Unity.