Two friends sat in the congregation. McKinlee Nash and Lauren Taylor, seniors at Tupelo High, were excited to be inside Hope Church on Jan. 21. They were eager to hear the testimony from a celebrity and they felt God would do something special in the sanctuary.
Surrounding Nash and Taylor, both 18, were more than 1,300 people. Almost all of them were women.
FCA's "I Am…" event in Tupelo, Miss., and the idea that motivated it, were designed for Nash and Taylor: Young women, either in high school or college, who are in the process of maturing in a changing, demanding world. As America's culture and technology advances — in terms of the urgent advocacy of women's rights and the power within social media to depict its ideas — the women at Hope Church declared where the foundation of their identity comes from: God.
"The idea was really fitting," Nash said. "It made hearts open up and people question who they are in Christ."
Krisi Boren was the woman who first dreamed of the night. Boren, the part-time FCA administrative assistant in northeast Mississippi, loves to gather people and let God work. In August, she, as the lone woman on staff in the area, wanted to increase ministry opportunities for women in the region by providing an encouraging message. Boren prayed.
A student pastor at North Mississippi Worship Center, Boren, 33, felt the best group to minister to were women similar to Nash, her cousin. She translated her idea to people by using a three-word phrase: "I Am…"
Only the third word, intentionally, was left blank.
The weekly FCA Huddle at Tupelo High heard Boren's idea for the event Nov. 3, 2017. During the Bible study, Boren told the student-athletes the third word in the phrase is the most powerful. Too often, she said, Christians don't fill the blank with what the Bible describes as God's believers. Boren asked the group, with Nash and Taylor in the room, a question: What's your third word?
Boren framed the event's goal with the same question for all the women — and a few men — to answer for themselves.
"I felt in my heart the Lord was wanting to really speak into the hearts of young ladies regarding who they were," Boren said. "Well, the world tries to fill in that (third) word so many different ways. God's Word never fails and never changes. That's how we began."
A three-minute video started the event. Nash, a long-distance runner and one of the Huddle's leaders, was the first woman to give her testimony to the crowd. Last year, Nash wanted to be bolder in sharing her faith. After Boren asked her to participate in the video, Nash couldn't say no.
Nash looked into the camera and revealed her past struggles. Am I good enough? Am I pretty enough? Am I smart, cool, brave enough? Through her relationship with God, Nash said she understands He can use her in many ways for His glory. The video ended with Nash saying three words: I am enough.
"That was necessary to say," Nash said. "God shows me that I am good enough to be a disciple for Him and how blessed I am that I get to share the love of God to those women."
Taylor, a soccer player who is also a Huddle leader, brought her notebook that night to write notes for herself to look back on. She wrote about the strength of Anna Avery Edwards.
Anna Avery Edwards impacted several people at FCA's "I Am…" event with an emotional performance.
Dressed in white, Edwards, a ballet dancer, stood on stage and explained her physical condition, one that leaves her looking cross-eyed. Born with isotropic strabismus, Edwards' brain allows for only one of her eyes to focus at a time, which makes the other become inward.
Beyond the disappointment of three failed surgeries in her childhood, Edwards also faced judgmental people. Edwards shared with the crowd how difficult it can be for her to dance because of her eyesight. She expressed how she learned to love and accept herself, how she can help others who are different by God's design
Then, she jumped and pirouetted with grace to the song, "We dance," by Steffany Gretzinger
When my faith gets tired
And my hope seems lost
You spin me around and around
And remind me of that song
The one You wrote for me
And we dance
Oh, we dance
"You felt the presence of God during that dance," Nash said.
Many in the crowd attended the event to hear reassuring words from Sadie Robertson, the keynote speaker. At 20, Robertson has captivated millions for her faith, personality and authenticity. She gained fame through her family's popular reality TV show "Duck Dynasty." A best-selling author, Robertson's second faith-based book, "Live Fearless," was released last week.
Boren felt Robertson was perfect because of her age and influence. Robertson knew she was called by God to the event for two reasons. She loved Boren's idea and she wanted to partner with FCA after being a member of her Huddle at Ouachita Christian High in Monroe, La.
Laurie Bishop, Tupelo's Huddle sponsor and volleyball coach, put an alert on her iPhone for Nov. 27, 2017, the day tickets for the event went on sale. Bishop purchased 15 tickets, $18 each, for Nash, Taylor and other students. Within 36 hours, more than 600 tickets were purchased. The event sold out before Christmas.
"As someone who's involved with teenage girls, literally, every day, I thought it was such an awesome thing," Bishop said. "We're focusing on empowering our girls through Christ, not by the world's definition of empowerment. High school is a really difficult time, especially for girls with appearance and acceptance. Any event where we can put all that aside and the girls can bond, all through the lens of how Christ sees us, is important."
Sadie Robertson stressed the importance of reading the Bible to the crowd during her message.
Robertson, in her message, emphasized the word wholeheartedly, her third word. She read from the Bible and energized the crowd to be committed to Christ. She motivated the women to be sincere to themselves, not to conform to the standards or trends of society.
"I wanted to remind them of the truth of the gospel, remind them of the power of the Word, remind them what the Word actually says," Robertson said. "We have people who have fallen asleep of the gospel because they're not reading it."
Taylor related to Robertson. During her junior year, Taylor said she became a victim of anxiety. She doubted and considered herself unworthy of love, an ordeal she explained to the Huddle.
"I realized one day I wasn't reading my Bible," she said. "That's what I should have been doing the whole time. That pulled me right out of it. Every day I read my Bible and I share it on Instagram. So many people have commented back. It helps me realize that other people are struggling, too, and now, though this, I can help some many other people."
Robertson ended her message with an invitation. She asked anyone in the crowd who felt they needed God in their life to stand up. Nash watched a teenage woman with brown hair stand up and raise her hand.
"She was the first girl to give her everything to God," Nash said. "With her doing that, other people started standing up. It was really amazing."
A woman praised God during worship songs while wearing a white wristband that was given to everyone who attended the event.
Each person left Hope Church with a white wristband. Imprinted on them were seven words: I am who HE says I am.
Several women purchased pink commemorative T-shirts. Boren was grateful to take pictures with several women at a photo booth. Before their photos, women could hold a board with one word written on it — such as brave, chosen, free, loved and restored — to represent their third word.
"Seeing people post on social media what their new word was, and what had been replaced in their life and what God showed them, I'm still on a spiritual cloud nine from it," Boren said. "I want to shout, 'Yes, God!' I feel like this cheerleader for just the reaffirming of exactly what God has already said."
Boren chose free, because she is free from the opinion of people, from her past and from the enemy because of God. Bishop, 34, picked known, for God knows everything about her. Taylor feels she is enough because of God's promises in the Bible. Brooke Pace, an 18-year-old senior at Amory High, selected strong.
"There's a calling for this generation," Pace said. "We need to step up and know who we are, so we can spread the gospel."
Since the event, Boren has seen people wear their pink "I Am…" T-shirt. She often introduces herself to the person to get their thoughts from that night.
"To hear the testimonies in the middle of a restaurant in Tupelo is pretty cool," Boren said. "They ask us if we're going to do it again (next year)."
Each time Boren is asked, she has answered with one word: Definitely.
Photos courtesy of Aaron Adams. Videos courtesy of Ben Watson and Amos McFalls.