Alumni Recall Impactful Trip to Bill Graham Revival on Day of Preacher's Passing

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Alumni Recall Impactful Trip to Bill Graham Revival on Day of Preacher's Passing

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Billy Graham brought revival to Minnesota in 1950.

Young and filled with the Holy Spirit, Billy Graham preached about souls broken down by sin on the road of life, and of the redeeming power of Christ to fix what was wrong. The Baptist evangelist attracted throngs of Minnesotans to the Minneapolis Auditorium for a twenty-day evangelistic crusade.

Hillcrest students got to go to the Sunday evening crusade, traveling on the school’s choir bus. Lovingly known as the ‘Old Blue Jet,’ the GMC school bus featured special individual seats so that its forty-two passengers could travel long distances in comfort. And travel they did; the bus brought the choir on 4,000-mile-long tours, once a year, every April. Brand-new in 1947, the bus transported the Hillcrest Choir to Seattle; in 1948, the choir toured in California. In 1950, it went all the way to New York City and the 59th Street Church in Brooklyn, and then back to Fergus Falls.

The bus would also bring a group of students to attend Billy Graham’s Minneapolis event. The trip to hear a young and spirit-charged Billy Graham was deeply memorable for the forty girls and boys from Hillcrest.

Dr. Billy Graham had electrified the nation, becoming America’s number-one evangelist by 1950. 1 Seating at his event in the Minneapolis Auditorium was on a “first come, first serve[d]” basis, with 11,000 chairs available. Graham’s basic message was simple: “This is God’s hour of decision and Minneapolis hangs in the balance.” The “hawk-nosed and handsome” preacher spoke with fiery passion.

“Flailing his arms, crouching and pointing, coiling his big [6’ 2”] frame around the Bible he read from” or “wrestling with the microphone, he gave his audiences not a moment’s emotional letup.” After preaching about “Heaven, Hell & Judgment Day,” his stirring concluding appeal was for sinners to make “decisions for Christ.” 2 Dr. Graham clearly expounded upon the idea that “heaven is a literal place,” and that “Christians go there the moment they die.” He preached that “there will be wonderful reunions as loved ones are recognized up there. . . . What a glorious place it will be—with streets of gold, the gates of pearl . . . and the trees bearing a different kind of fruit every month.” He gave a “detailed picture” of Heaven, and a description of Hell, as well. He described Hell as a place where “there will be weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.” He said, “I believe . . . that there is literal fire in Hell, but if there is not . . . then the Bible is talking about something far worse when it speaks of the flames of hell. What ever it is going to be is so horrible that it cannot be expressed in the language of man.”

Graham’s “old-time religion,” as it came over the public address system, stressed the need for repentance from sin. Graham spoke in a metaphor about Judgment Day: “God is going to say, ‘start up the projector!’ Because from the cradle to the grave God has had His television cameras on you. God has every sinful word on his recording. The only thing that can save your soul is to let Jesus Christ come into your heart. Are you ready?”

Thousands of Americans had responded to Billy Graham’s call for revival. The blond-haired Calvinist-inspired Baptist preacher had become nationally known after his four-week- long Los Angeles Crusade in 1949, when over 250,000 came to hear him at “the largest revival tent in history.” The Hillcrest administration gave students an opportunity to be a part of that “great national revival,” as Dr. Graham proclaimed it, “an old-fashioned, heaven- sent, Holy Ghost revival.”

The Old Blue Jet bus took the students on a trip that was memorable not only for the chance to hear the “deep, cavernous voice” of the Southern Baptist evangelist, but also for a mishap-filled bus ride that had the students laughing and yawning and cringing and snoozing along the way.

One of those students was Mabel Benson, a Brooklyn girl who had just turned age sixteen. She recorded the events of that day in a letter to her mom and dad back east. Mabel had arrived in Fergus Falls just two weeks before the trip to the Crusade. She was new to Minnesota, being a junior at a boarding school far away from home. Here is Mabel’s story about her adventure as she wrote it to her parents, and as she has told it to this day.

Dear Mom, Dad, and [sister] Margie,

I am writing this letter in my free period (3rd period) and I am just about sleeping. We went to Minneapolis at one o’clock yesterday afternoon and arrived home about half-past six this morning.

We went on the choir bus and the art teacher Joel Lunde, and Harland Helland, a graduate from Hillcrest and a seminary senior, took turns driving. We got there fine in about four-and- one-half or five hours. We were supposed to be home before midnight because we had classes right away on Monday morning.

We heard Billy Graham, the great Evangelist that we read about in the Faith and Fellowship magazine a few months ago. The building held 11,000 and it was full and he had to go and preach a sermon just before he preached to the big audience, to 1,000 that had gathered in the annex. He was just wonderful. Hundreds made decisions for Christ.

You should have seen us on the way home. We were a little over half way and we stopped to get something to eat and when we were going to take off again, the bus wouldn’t start. The drivers had to crank the engine in the front but they could not get it to start.

So, Lunde and Helland and all of the boys came out of the bus and started to push it, with the thirty-five girls still on the bus, in order to turn over the engine to start it, and did we ever laugh! When it finally started, we drove quite a ways and then we had to stop and the drivers fixed something. 

When we were about twenty miles from home, near Evansville, the bus just completely stopped. The bearing on the distributor went out so that the rotor was turning off center so it wasn’t touching the contacts like it should.

Both of the drivers, Helland and Lunde, were farm boys who were quite mechanical and they figured out that if the distributor was held in a certain position, then the engine worked fine.

So Harland Helland had the idea that he could hold the distributor while Joel Lunde drove the bus. The hood opened from the side by the front fender and near the headlight and Harland figured that he could lie down on the fender, put the hood down over his upper body, and straddle the headlight, holding on to the headlight with his legs. He had Joel Lunde pull down the hood over his upper torso, with his bottom sticking out from the side of the hood. All we could see from the inside of the bus was his rear sticking up for about ten miles—we laughed until we were almost sick. It seemed like a happy ending but then everything started to go wrong.

After two miles we drove over a skunk and the laughter stopped suddenly. We hit it square and the front and rear tires squeezed the smell out of it good, and we had to stop to get air because the smell was so terrific. Under the hood, Harland had it worse—he put his nose right up to the engine’s carburetor because the gas smelled better than the skunk.

About six miles from home, and at about 2:30 in the morning, the bus stopped completely. It had run out of gas. And the battery was almost gone so it wouldn’t budge. We were going to send the art teacher to get help but there wasn’t one house in sight for we were in a place just like a flat prairie. We hadn’t been there more than two minutes before it started to lightning and we knew we were going to have a big storm, so it was no use trying to walk to a farmhouse. While the thunder roared and the lightning flashed terrifically, we tried to make ourselves comfortable and ready to stay there for a while and sleep, but we couldn’t—we had to get air because we thought the skunk must have gotten into the bus, the odor was so strong.

A truck finally came along and took one of the drivers, Harlan, to town, and he went to get his car and then he drove to Co-op Oil Company and hired a tow truck. And the tow truck came and the truck pushed us all the way home.

At six-thirty in the morning we came marching slowly in to the Hillcrest building so sleepy we could hardly walk. I guess that’s enough for that.”
— Mabel Helland

All the Hillcrest students got an opportunity to attend the Billy Graham Sunday Crusades. The Old Blue Jet bus made three trips to the Twin Cities that fall in 1950—two of the trips were smooth with no problems, but the bus ride Mabel Benson was part of would live on in her memory. It would go on to become a Hillcrest legend—an unforgettable combination of spiritual revival mixed with skunk scent and cranky engine troubles, with the thunder and roar of a late- September cloudburst, complete with the crackle of lightning in the dark of night.

It was funny how it worked out—Mabel Benson, the Brooklyn girl born to Norwegian immigrant parents, graduated from Hillcrest Academy in 1952 and returned to the East Coast to work. There, she became reacquainted with Harland Helland, who by this time had graduated from the Lutheran Brethren Seminary and was a youth worker at Brooklyn’s 59 th Street Church, where Mabel attended youth group. And so it was that the former bus driver and innovative mechanic who had grown up on a dairy farm in Fergus Falls married the big city girl who had once laughed at his ungainly appearance, draped on a blue-and- white bus fender, on the way home to Hillcrest after the famous Billy Graham Crusade.

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Hillcrest Visits Community Groups to Share Uniqueness of HLA

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Hillcrest Visits Community Groups to Share Uniqueness of HLA

Hillcrest teachers involve the Gospel into the explanation of the world. Our instruction naturally expresses the interdependence of knowledge (what is taught) and virtue (what action to take). All course instruction thus provides a clear understanding of what is required for human beings to flourish, and provides the nurturing value of a healthy functioning school community.
— Excerpt from Hillcrest's Statement of Faith

After some rousing singing and a friendly handshake from everyone in the room, President Brad Hoganson stepped to the front of the service group meeting to bring a greeting from Hillcrest. He spoke of a move from New Jersey, the ease of coming back to a place like Fergus Falls because it feels like home, and the first few months he's had in the office of President at Hillcrest. Following the introductions, President Hoganson introduced long-time staff member, Wayne Stender, to deliver an update from Hillcrest.

The update started with a short story of a student from Norway who clapped her hands in delight in driving down Alcott avenue, seeing Hillcrest over the top of the hill as the steeple peaked from behind buildings. The student was driving with her parents after a shopping trip in Minneapolis, and in returning to Hillcrest the student cheered from the back seat, "I'm home! I'm home!"

Stender then went on to explain why students have a love for Hillcrest and the Fergus Falls community. He started by outlining the three core values of Hillcrest: to build faith, develop intellect, and strengthen character. He went on to explain how Hillcrest does this with the interlinking of knowledge and virtue in a faith-based education environment. 

To close, Stender pulled up a document from Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the man known as the father of American medicine. Rush was writing to a group in Pennsylvania as the nation looked to develop an education system.

Our schools of learning will render the mass of the people more homogeneous, and fit them for uniform and peaceable government. The only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid in Religion. Without this there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments.
— Benjamin Rush 1798 letter on Education

Rush believed that education was a foundation that would equip people for productive citizenry in a republic. He spoke to a link in what some have called the triangle of freedom. Namely, Rush believed that in order to have freedom one must have developed virtue. He went on to say that in order to develop virtue one must have a religious order that builds virtue. But, in order for one to have a religious order they must have a system that provides freedom. Some have taken Rush's letter and developed a sort of engine they call the triangle of freedom, where freedom, virtue, and religion must all be developed in successive fashion if the mass of people are going to live in a free society.

Stender outlined how Hillcrest's focus in building faith in Jesus Christ, addressing all faith systems in hopes of educating students that the most comprehensive faith system that brings about the best human flourishing is the Christian perspective. Stender went on to say that Hillcrest's faith-building program is gaining notoriety, as students build faith in dormitory life, classroom instruction, and extra-curricular activities. 

From these school functions, Stender explained that students develop intellect, studying the natural revelation of God through the systems and orders of the universe. 

As students build their understanding of the world, noting that God has intricately designed it to function according to his character through order and design, students begin to internalize these truths. These truths then form and strengthen character that aligns to the nature of God because every academic discipline at Hillcrest uses the Bible as a primary text.

As Stender closed he noted the incredible international community that has come to Hillcrest, highlighting how this impacts the local community. Because the approach to education focuses primarily on students being made in the image of God, all students feel they have a place to belong at Hillcrest, as the school works to build faith, develop intellect, and strengthen character that is grounded in Jesus Christ.  

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African Mission Comes Full-Circle in Family Story of Heart for Africa

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African Mission Comes Full-Circle in Family Story of Heart for Africa

In 1914 BERGE REVNE sat in a stuffy classroom in GrandForks, North Dakota listening to a tearful teacher. As E.M. Broen paused his teaching to wipe tears he shed for the lost in the world, students scribbled notes in Norwegian, pulling life-changing lessons from the words that echoed in the dimly lit classroom filled with Bible School students. The simple Christian education Revne received led to an inspiring story that has shaped Hillcrest as we welcome students from the
African continent.

Revne’s classes helped mold a blond-haired boy into aNorwegian evangelist with viking-like resolve. Statistics from his Church History class weighed heavily in Revne’s notebook, as he frequently paused in astonishment to consider the number of people who had never heard the Gospel. The barrage of numbers translated to souls in Africa as Revne sat in the dusty classrooms where he looked over the expanse of North Dakota.

HIS MASSIVE HANDS, WEATHERED FROM SEASONS OF FARMING, GRIPPED THE COLLARED SHIRT THAT DRAPED OVER HIS CHEST WHERE HIS SOUL STARTED TO ACHE FOR THE HEART OF AFRICA.

The Church of the Lutheran Brethren (CLB) had a decades-old ministry to China when Revne graduated from the Bible School. The Bible School, and subsequent High School, were training grounds for lay people to engage in larger mission fields. As Revne realized his future in missions, he began seeking a call from the Lutheran Brethren’s mission organization. When a return letter from the CLB mission group directed him to China, he politely declined. He felt called to another people, and his decision would be used to build an expanding mission heart in the CLB, directing their vision across the Atlantic Ocean.

Revne waited. After completing his work at Bible School, declining the mission invitation to China, he called the CLB to a mission outreach in Africa. The mission culture worldwide was beginning to embrace a passion for Africa after the world answered the call to China at the turn of the century. A 1910 mission conference in Edinburg, Scotland caught the attention of many larger mission organizations, and the eyes of missionaries started scanning Africa. Revne hoped to convince the CLB to embrace the new continent. It wasn’t easy.

Articles in the CLB periodical raised a call to Africa, and homes were stirred. The Lord pricked the hearts of individual church members to consider the unreached people in what mission groups were calling the dark continent. At the CLB annual convention in 1915 a motion to consider mission outreach in Africa was presented on the floor for discussion. Conversation was enlightening, and a deep concern was shared by the convention, but Revne walked gingerly out the church doors without a call. So, his bags remained unpacked.

CLB President E.H. Gunhus took a bold step following Revne’s disappointment, pointedly writing in a synod periodical that,

AMONG THE NORWEGIANS WE OFTEN HEAR THE CRY, ‘CHINA FOR CHRIST.’ WHY NOT ‘AFRICA FOR CHRIST?’
— E.H. Gunhus

 The response was negative. A fear arose in the synod that the added cost in sending missionaries to Africa would jeopardize the work of the CLB in China. The vision for the CLB in Africa was threatened by a fear of finances.

The CLB nevertheless commissioned the Board of Missions to explore in great detail a mission venture in Africa. They presented a report to the CLB Convention of 1917 in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Two full sessions were committed to the report, drawing out questions of whether the CLB should open a new mission outreach, thereby joining a massive movement of mission forces to the heart of Africa. The arduous discussion eventually led to a vote to open CLB missions in Africa. It passed unanimously.

Revne waited two full years for his call to Africa. After the vote at the convention, Revne and
his wife floated on excitement as they prepared to leave the United States for the Sudan. Passport delays kept the young missionary couple from boarding the boat in their timeframe,
a small exercise that would build muscles necessary for future challenges. Finally, in the winter of 1918, Berge and Herborg Revne stepped foot on the African coastline, a proverbial landing on the moon that was a strong statement that the CLB is open to the people of the world.

The Revnes celebrated Christmas with a band of missionaries in Nigeria. The Sudan United Mission welcomed the couple that January as co-laborers, equipping the Revnes for their
work with Nigeria’s largest people group. However, the Sudan United Mission desired all missionaries to break denominational ties and meld into an ecumenical effort. The Revnes didn’t want to leave their CLB roots, and started a nearly two year exploration of unreached places in Africa, giving the CLB a heart for the entire continent, rather than a simple region or people group focus as other mission sites had developed.

Revne’s viking-like instincts took over. He traveled over untraversed land, writing to supporters to communicate his heart. 

The Norwegian people, whether in Norway or America have never refused to travel...We who work for the Kingdom of God should be willing to overcome even the dangers of the north pole or south pole in order to get the Gospel out!
— Berge Revne

Overlooking serene settings in the heart of Africa, Revne desired that the CLB develop a passion for this part of the world, knowing that technology would soon open opportunities of greater contact. In a letter written to the CLB convention of 1920, Revne noted, “I believe that airplanes will be no small factor in the spreading of the Gospel, especially in Africa.” Revne’s expansive vision planted a mission group in Cameroon that morphed to fund its own church body, growing independently from CLB support in the 1960s, fully self-functioning with no CLB missionary support in 1997. Mission outposts throughout Chad, Africa also resulted in Revne’s passion to reach across land and sea to minister to unreached groups. This expansive vision drew out expressions in the DNA of the CLB that is represented today at Hillcrest. Revne could not have foreseen that in a few generations his great granddaughter, Karissa Wiebe, would sit in Hillcrest classrooms realizing his prophetic words about technology enhancing mission
outreach fulfilled at Hillcrest Academy.

Karissa sat at the lunch table at the CLB Youth Convention with the August air turning slightly dry. She gazed at the Rocky Mountains from the lunchroom window as her six friends pondered Hillcrest. Questions about Hillcrest’s athletics programs, financial aid, and how the dormitories work seemed like menial questions for a handful of hearts who were feeling pulled to Hillcrest. Karissa spoke of the things she would miss, of spending time with family and her love for cheerleading, but a short sentence revealed an aspect of her ancestry that is becoming more real at Hillcrest: “I want to build my own faith.”

Over the next few weeks Karissa vacillated between attending Hillcrest and staying home. Students had started climbing the four flights of Hillcrest’s steeple to move belongings into the dorm when Karissa’s mother left a voicemail at Hillcrest asking if it was too late for Karissa to join. The flurry of paperwork, trips to Walmart to stock her room, and meeting a host of new students kept Karissa busy until the second week of school, when she was finally able to settle in to Hillcrest and focus on the reason she is attending.

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Now sitting atop her third floor perch overlooking Fergus Falls it is hard not to draw connection between Karissa’s story and her great grandfather’s. Revne ventured in unknown territory to expand the hearts of the CLB in Africa. Karissa can look down the hall of her dorm room and see four African countries represented. In many ways, Revne's work opened doors to welcome students from Africa into the school tradition that called him to give the Gospel to their country.

As Karissa lives her time at Hillcrest it is exciting to think that this story has come full-circle, opening hearts and minds to consider the expanse of God’s providence and supply, as he completes His mission with a small school dedicated to training young people for a life of Gospel-oriented significance.

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