After Tessie’s call on April 24, 1996, we started making arrangements to see this “place” that the Lord had brought to mind as she read from Jeremiah 32.
Oddly enough, a couple of years earlier the Malaysian company which purchased the defunct Heritage USA property had asked Dr. Joe to serve on an Advisory Board regarding its use. So, after Tessie’s experience and our phone conversation with her, Joe inquired regarding the current status of the amphitheater and asked if we could see it.
A month after the initial call, on Sunday, May 26, 1996, Memorial Day weekend, we completed our church obligations and headed for Charlotte, NC. I can still feel my heart jumping as we drove that day. My spirit kept whispering: “This is it! This is it!”
Exiting off Interstate 77, Exit 90, we passed old highway signs still marking the way to Heritage USA, though it was long gone. At first the surroundings were beautiful. But, the farther we drove, the more unkempt the grounds became.
Shingles falling off buildings.
Hints of once-beautiful landscaping, now swallowed by weeds.
Strings of old Christmas lights dangling from trees.
We rounded a curve and there before us stood the walls of ancient Jerusalem.
So other-worldly – as if we had driven through a time warp.
We got out of our cars and approached the front entrance.
Cecil, a longtime employee on the grounds, flipped through his ring of mostly useless keys.
I couldn’t help but think. Those keys had once opened the doors to the second-largest tourist attraction in America, the lavish Heritage USA, attracting six million visitors a year.
Millions came and millions gave money. The ministry netted 126 million dollars a year.
But the arrest of Jim Bakker in 1988 put the one-of-a-kind Christian theme park in free-fall. The power-struggle over who would take control, bankrupted it. And hurricane Hugo shut it down in 1989.
It sat for years, a sleeping giant, visited only by trouble-makers with spray-can graffiti, nosey reporters who needed a quick headliner or old patrons who simply passed by, shaking their heads.
The property was considered tainted by many and was worshipped by a few. But as time passed, the worst thing happened.
It was forgotten.
But that day it would be remembered.
Cecil took hold of the rusty locks and swung open the huge gates.
Typically my first assessment of a situation is to find what is wrong and what needs to be fixed. I guess it is my “director” side. But my first look at that timeworn biblical amphitheatre left me speechless.
There was a hush as we walked through the ruins that day, as if it were an excavated sanctuary.
That day we mostly listened.
Birdie. Me. Tessie. Joe.
That day set in motion a series of questions which had to be answered.
• Were the property owners interested in leasing?
• Could we afford it?
• How much money would it take?
• Where would the money come from?
• How would we be able to live?
• Could we find a cast?
• Would anyone help us?
• What kind of sound and lights would be needed for such an enormous venue?
• Where do we even start!!?
That’s just the beginning! I kept thinking, “We can’t even afford the toilet paper!!”
We didn’t have internet, Facebook, Google search or gofundme.com! But that day we went back to Kentucky; then, one by one, we began to find answers to those questions.
I called a lighting company in Florida and told the sales rep that I needed to know how to go about lighting a huge 3000-seat outdoor amphitheatre and how much would it cost?
Him- Someone would have to see it. Where is it?
Me- It’s the amphitheatre on the old Heritage USA property. Are you familiar with that property?
Him- I sure am. In fact, I know the man who installed the original lighting in that amphitheatre!
Me- You’re kidding!!
He gave me the number for The Light Source. I called and explained our situation to Eric. I told him that we were only in the exploratory stages. He agreed to meet us at the amphitheatre to access our situation at no cost. I was thrilled!
“Where do you live?” I asked.
“Fort Mill, SC,” he answered.
“Great!” I said. “And how close is Fort Mill, SC to where the amphitheatre is located?”
For anyone who doesn’t know – the amphitheatre was in Fort Mill, SC. That’s why, when we travel together, I drive!
We didn’t tell anyone about what we had done that day – not even our closest friends. We gathered every piece of information we could access. We learned everything we knew to learn.
And we prayed.
Deep down inside we knew the Lord was getting ready to do something big.
And when we left that day, we knew we would be coming back.