UPDATED: 12:26 p.m. March 31, 2015
By Rebecca Flannery
Months of planning finally came to fruition Sunday as thousands of Waco, Baylor and surrounding community members gathered at McLane Stadium. However, this time it wasn’t because of football.
The Gathering, an event combining the churches of Waco in a singular arena, took place from 5 to 7 p.m. The event website calls the Gathering a historic event as this was the first time congregations met in a grand celebration.
“Tonight, there is one church in Waco, Texas,” said Ramiro Pena, executive director of the event.
The crowd filled up over half the stadium as Israel Houghton, a Grammy award-winning Christian music artist, led the massive choir in song to kick off the two-hour program. Members from surrounding churches were able to join the 900 person choir six weeks in advance.
Canned food donations were being taken as congregants entered the stadium. Jimmy Dorrell, founder of Mission Waco, worked with 60 volunteers to collect the donations and said the collection netted 23,727 pounds of non-perishable items.
Videos of Bryce Petty, former Baylor quarterback and Chip and Joanna Gaines, Baylor alumni and stars of the HGTV show “Fixer Upper,” played intermittently throughout the program where they were able to share testaments of their Christian faith.
“At one point, football will end,” Petty said in his video. “Who I am in Christ will never end.”
Guest speaker Dr. Tony Evans, Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship pastor, spoke to the congregation about what it means to be a Christian. He said Christians needed to be committed to Christ rather than the Christian culture.
“It’s not about church and it’s not about religion,” Evans said. “It’s about a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”
Audience members said they were excited to be a part of the historic event. Tomorrow Allen, a member of Antioch Community Church, said her stepfather had always wanted to hear Evans speak in person.
“I’ve been excited for this since I heard about it a few weeks ago,” Allen said. “I can’t believe it’s going to be on TV.”
Josh Carney, University Baptist Church lead pastor, and Omari Head, Acts church college pastor, said they were encouraged by the unity aspect of The Gathering.
“The experience was beyond my expectations” Head said. “To see so many people in one place to lift up the name of the Lord was greater than anything I have ever experienced in Waco. It was unbelievable.”
Carney said the idea for The Gathering was proposed to Waco pastors in November 2014 by Drayton McLane Jr., President and Chancellor Ken Starr and Pena – who all spoke at the event. At the initial meeting they discussed unity of local churches, logistical issues and the overall format. Carney said since that time, church leaders met, discussed and prayed together about the event.
“We were excited about the unity aspect and impressed with some of the inclusive thoughtful steps that were being taken in planning worship,” Carney said.
Willie Mitchell, stadium supervisor, said they began setting up the stage on Saturday for the initial run-through of the program.
Traffic before and after the event was congested around the stadium as parking in the area was limited. The reserved stadium parking was off limits to the general public and buses were shuttling people to and from parking lots off site. Baylor and Waco police were directing traffic, beginning around 1 p.m.