Thousands expected to attend 75th Annual Stone Mountain Easter Sunrise Service

By Beth Sexton

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The man who walked away from Hollywood and a music career with seven albums and five number one Billboard singles behind him, will be standing on top of Stone Mountain Easter morning proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ. Once known for his mega-hit This Is How We Do It, the nationally-known American singer, songwriter, record producer and pastor, Montell Jordan will be the keynote speaker for the 75th Annual Easter Sunrise Service on top of the mountain.

Montell Jordan. Contributed photo

Jordan, a Grammy-nominated R&B recording artist and actor, who was the primary male solo artist on Def Jam’s Def Soul imprint until leaving the label in 2003, is now the worship leader at Victory World Church in Norcross. He will preach Easter Sunday morning, April 21, to the thousands of men, women and children expected to climb Stone Mountain or ride the cable car to the top to watch the sunrise and hear a message of faith and hope. Jordan has a testimony about how God led him to walk away from the fame he found as an R&B recording artist to become a minister of the gospel.

Park gates open Easter morning at 4, with the Summit Skyride opening at 4:30 a.m. The sunrise service begins at 7 a.m. with a message delivered by Pastor Jordan and music provided by area choirs and singers. Vehicle entry to the park is $20 for a one-day permit or $40 for an annual permit. Skyride fees are $15 for round-trip or $12 for one-way. The park also sells an all-attractions pass with information available at the gate. Church vans and buses enter the park free that day. An estimated 5,000 people are expected to be in the park for the sunrise events that Sunday.

A simultaneous 7 a.m. sunrise service will be held at the base of the mountain on the Memorial Lawn with Rev. Robert Mason from For Eternity Christian Church in Stone Mountain leading the worship. A third Easter worship service will be held later that morning at the Stone Mountain Campground. Dr. Dan Parker will preach at the campground Easter morning from 9 to 9:45 a.m. He is pastor emeritus of the First Baptist Church of Stone Mountain.

For many years, the Stone Mountain Sunrise Association has organized the non-denominational annual Easter morning worship events on top and at the base of the mountain with Stone Mountain Ministries leading worship at the campground. For close to two decades, Jim Lancaster and Bob Bailey have been involved with Stone Mountain Ministries and helped build a relationship with park officials, employees, guests and others not only at Easter, but throughout the year as they ministered to people camping at the park. Many campers are there for fun and recreation, but there are a number of campers who make the campground their base while in Atlanta receiving cancer treatments at area hospitals. Bailey and Lancaster were always available to minister to those campers as they faced difficult times.

The two men, along with other volunteers also provided a weekly worship service for the campground and spent several days each week interacting with guests and others. Volunteers also helped with festivals in the park and offered pastoral care. The campground ministry was started by the late Walter Gilbert, who worked with the Georgia Baptist Mission Board.

“Helping people along spiritually and bringing people to Christ—I had a good time with that for 16 years,” Bailey said. “…My heart and life were in it.”

Bailey and Lancaster retired and were recently honored for their many years of service. Lancaster was named the emeritus director of Stone Mountain Ministries and Bailey was named emeritus chaplain of Stone Mountain Ministries.

Today, the work of Stone Mountain Ministries and the Stone Mountain Sunrise Service Association have become part of Stone Mountain Missions, a new entity led by Rev. Rick Kirkland and under the auspices of the Stone Mountain Baptist Association (SMBA). The SMBA represents many churches in Rockdale, Newton, Walton, DeKalb and Morgan counties. Headquartered in Conyers, the SMBA joined other church associations and the Georgia Baptist Mission Board in 1994, to develop a ministry at Stone Mountain Park prior to the 1996 Summer Olympics. The park ministry is reportedly one of the only ongoing ministries following the Olympics in North America and the only known one to remain in Georgia.

Ministries in Stone Mountain Park continued to grow as the SMBA helped in many ways, such as getting a Georgia Baptist health grant for a health advocate nurse to be placed in the park. In January, Herschend Family Entertainment, the nation’s largest family-owned themed attractions corporation, which partners with Stone Mountain Park tapped the SMBA to coordinate ministry throughout the park. Stone Mountain Missions will now coordinate the sunrise services, campground ministries, chaplaincy and other pastoral needs throughout the park.

SMBA missionary Dr. Larry Cheek said he is thrilled for his association to provide “Christian ministry to the number one attraction in Georgia, Stone Mountain Park.”

“Thousands of people from all over the world visit the park each year,” Cheek said. “This gives evangelical churches and volunteers an opportunity to literally reach around the world from our doorsteps.”

Kirkland, who is also minister of education at Bethany Baptist Church in Snellville, said he is hoping other evangelical churches of all denominations will join the work of Stone Mountain Missions and provide volunteers and other assistance.

“We are multi-denominational,” he said. “We’re looking forward to whatever God has laid out before us…I want evangelism teams put together so if we’ve got an opportunity to speak to people about Jesus, I want people who are willing and capable to talk to them. I think God has given us this opportunity to evangelize the world because the world is literally inside that park on any given day.”

Anyone interested in volunteering or helping Stone Mountain Missions in any way is asked to contact Kirkland at rkirkland@stonemountainbaptistassociation.org. Also, anyone interested in being part of the mass choir that will sing at the mountain for the Easter Sunday Sunrise Service should also contact him for more information.

This is the 75th year worshipers have trekked to the top of the granite mountain to watch the sun come up on Easter morning. Stone Mountain native Barbara Spivey remembers that first sunrise service when she and the members and leaders of her church youth group simply decided they would climb to the top and watch the sunrise on Easter. There were maybe a dozen young boys and girls from Stone Mountain First United Methodist Church, who along with their youth leader, Lucille A. Lanford climbed the mountain that morning. Mrs. Spivey said they had such a wonderful time, that others joined in the next year and soon the Easter Sunrise Service grew into an Easter tradition for hundreds and then thousands of people throughout the region.

That first Easter sunrise service on the mountain was in 1944, before the land around Stone Mountain was officially owned by the State of Georgia. In attendance for the first one, Mrs. Spivey has been there for Easter sunrise on the mountain almost every year since then. She missed a year when her son was due to be born the day after Easter and there were other years due to illness and circumstances where she was unable to go, but she says she’s been more years than she’s missed.

She plans to be there again this year to watch the sun come up on the famous mountain that sits 1,686 feet above sea level. Mrs. Spivey rides the Summit Skyride these days. She said she has sweet memories from those first few years when her small group would climb the mountain Easter morning and then go back to the church to enjoy breakfast together. Still active at Stone Mountain United Methodist Church, Mrs. Spivey said the crowds soon got too large for breakfast, but says there is still a bond of fellowship among worshipers on top of the rock.

“It’s special to me,” she said. “But I never thought about it being the 75th. It’s been that many years. It really is something when you stop and think about it. I don’t think a lot of people have the privilege of attending something like that. I know there are a lot of beautiful places to have sunrise services and God is everywhere, but you certainly feel closer to him when you’re on top of the mountain.”

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