Panama City, Fla.—”Free pancakes. Free rides,” yelled Hannah Wiggins as she walked down the Panama City Beach strip waving business-sized cards in the air.
After getting brushed off by one-too-many sunburned Spring Breakers, the University of Kentucky student turned and said, “I don’t know why anyone would turn down free pancakes.”
More than 870 Baptist Collegiate Ministry students took part in Beach Reach 2015, including 105 from Kentucky. The servant evangelism ministry, a LifeWay-sponsored event, offered free transportation and breakfast for two weeks in March to college students on Spring Break in Panama City, Fla.
“There’s a lot of darkness down there,” said Brian Combs, collegiate evangelism strategists at the Kentucky Baptist Convention, “but there are also a lot of people that don’t know Jesus. Beach Reach gives our students the opportunity to practice their faith, while also meeting a need of helping other people encounter Christ.”
But like free pancakes, Combs said the offer of free salvation through Christ gets ignored, too.
Abbey Hudspeth said she dismissed God’s pursuit of her heart despite growing up in a strong Christian home and attending church regularly.
Last Spring Break, Hudspeth was standing in the drink mixer aisle of a major retailer in Panama City when she was greeted by a familiar face. It was Jonathan Clark, her Baptist campus missionary at Murray State University.
“I immediately felt embarrassed,” said Hudspeth, now in her second year at college.
As a freshman, she had only attended a few BCM events, but enough to know that Clark was in town for Beach Reach.
Looking back, Hudspeth said she was living a double life. She would go to BCM events just to have something to tell her parents, then hide the fact she was hitting the party scene on the weekends.
“I was pushing God away and even stopped believing he existed,” Hudspeth said. “I was trying to convince myself that living a lifestyle of sin was going to be okay, that I could handle it, that I would be happier.”
After the encounter with Clark, however, Hudspeth said the Holy Spirit began convicting her. Hudspeth purchased the mixers, but spent the rest of the week sober.
“God just kept bringing me more and more people, especially through the BCM,” Hudspeth said of the next several months. “They encouraged me to be vulnerable and honest with myself and with God.”
Hudspeth later followed the Lord in believer’s baptism on May 11, 2014.
As another Spring Break approached Hudspeth found herself packing for Panama City once again, but this time she would be the one reaching out to lost college students
“I really want to encourage and inspire Spring Breakers who are exactly where I was last year,” Hudspeth said. “I want to help reveal to them there is so much more to life than what they are doing. They are worth so much more than they are giving themselves credit for.”
On an average night, Beach Reach provides free rides for about 1,200 college students many of whom are high, inebriated or both. During rides, BCM students attempt to quickly engage passengers in spiritual conversations.
“I’ve seen people get on the van who were drunk, stinking of alcohol, and within a 30 minute ride be able to comprehend a gospel presentation and be saved,” said Jon Barron, UK’s campus missionary. “I get God bumps just thinking about it.”
A group of BCM students from the University of the Cumberlands were able to experience a similar salvation story on their first night of van ministry.
D.J., a tall athletic young man given three-days off by his university coach, found himself at the right hotel chain, but the wrong location. Alone and somewhat inebriated, D.J. asked for a ride.
Some may call it coincidence, said UC Campus Missionary Dean Whitaker, “but there’s no such thing as random encounters.
During the 20-minute ride, D.J. prayed to receive Christ. Minutes later, the singing of “Amazing Grace” rose above the rumble of tires on the pavement.
“God is good. He is so good,” Whitaker said as he drove the van back to camp with a wide smile.
While teams of Beach Reach students seek to engage Spring Breakers with the gospel through street and van ministries, an equal number gather in the chapel to pray.
“I believe the power of Beach Reach is that everything is covered in prayer. It is the muscle that moves the hand of God,” Barron said.
For hours at a time, students pray for individuals by name. Projection screens provide information about vans, their passengers and where they are going. Teams in the field text in prayer requests throughout the night.
“Pray for Willie. He lives in PBC and believes in pagan gods of nature.”
“Just had Abby in the van and she confessed she was a cutter. Please pray for healing of her heart and that she comes to pancakes tomorrow!”
“Just had a conversation with Breon, a Muslim. He had lots of questions and doesn’t know what to believe.”
“Pray for Mike. He says he knows he is a sinner and he is tired of feeling empty. He wants to pray and receive Christ.
When someone makes a decision for Christ, the word “SALVATION” pops up in the prayer feed and the whole chapel erupts in applause. There were 40 decisions reported during the first week alone.
Beach Reach is about students serving students and free pancakes are one more opportunity to start conversations with lost people, Combs said. BCM students sometimes arrange to meet people and continue van conversations from the night before over a plate of warm pancakes and syrup.
Volunteers with Georgia Baptist Disaster Relief made more than 27,000 pancakes during the two weeks of Beach Reach.
“We have some BCM students who go down there and have never shared their faith before,” Combs said. “Beach Reach gets them out of their element and encourages them share their faith with total strangers in an intense environment.”
Zach Kiser, a BCM student at Morehead University, described his life as anything but intense, and maybe even a little bit sheltered.
“I was so hesitant to go out and prayerwalk that first night that I was shaking,” Kiser said. “I’ve never been around anything like this before, but it has been a good opportunity for me to grow.”
And that push is what makes Beach Reach so impactful, Combs said.
“When they go back to their campuses, where it’s much less intense, they think ‘Why can’t we do this on our campus?’ It pushes them out of their comfort zone, helps them have an experience that comes back directly to campus and it positions our campus missionaries to plug them in,” Combs said. (KBC)