Harvest Crusade at Angel Stadium takes on new urgency after the death of pastor’s son

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

It was a question that many were thinking, but no one dared ask.

When Christopher Laurie, son of Harvest Christian Fellowship leader Greg Laurie, was killed in a car crash July 24, the first order of business was tending to the family -- particularly Christopher’s wife, Brittany, who is due to give birth later this year, and their young daughter, Stella.

Sooner or later, though, someone would have to raise the issue: What about the Harvest Crusade? Would pastor Laurie be able to rebound from the shock of his son’s death to lead the three-day evangelistic gathering at Angel Stadium being held Aug. 15-17? Should he even try?

Laurie answered the question himself when he unexpectedly showed up at his Riverside church Sunday morning to thank his flock for its outpouring of support and to assure the group that he and his family were doing well.

He punctuated his brief comments with the jokes and self-deprecating asides for which he’s known. At one point, though, his voice cracked with emotion and he was momentarily unable to speak. “I can’t be afraid of suffering,” he later told his audience. “I will continue on, and with greater commitment. I have a task to do and I’m going to do it.”

A sense of relief spread across the church hall and spilled out into the shaded courtyard with its overflow seating. “After witnessing that, we felt the Crusade was not in jeopardy and that it was only going to be strengthened by what happened,” said pastor John Collins, the Harvest Crusade’s executive director.

The timing and circumstances are lending a new sense of urgency to this year’s Crusade and to Laurie’s message that it’s better to get right with the Lord sooner rather than later -- because later may never come.

The Laurie family’s loss made headlines around the globe. More than 20,000 condolence messages have been posted on pastor Laurie’s blog so far, some from as far away as Kenya.

Whether people attend the free Crusade out of desire to lend support to their grieving pastor or out of curiosity, some say there could be record crowds. (Angel Stadium can hold about 46,000 people. Last year, more than 102,000 attended over the course of the three days.)

“It’s usually a pretty full event, but I imagine this year it will be even more full, if such a thing is possible,” said Richard Flory, research associate at the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at USC and co-author of a book published this year, “Finding Faith: The Spiritual Quest of the Post-Boomer Generation,” which deals in part with Laurie’s ministry.

“People are going to want to come and hear what he says” in the wake of his son’s death, Flory said. “I think there’s a resonance there that he’ll be able to tap into between his recent family experience and evangelical theology -- ‘I miss Chris, I love him, but I know where he is: in heaven.’ ”

It also won’t go unnoticed that Christopher Laurie, who was the church’s art director, was behind the look of the Harvest Crusade bumper stickers, posters, invitations and fliers and the Harvest website.

“I think it will be particularly poignant that Greg will be able to stand up and realize that those people were in those seats because they were given an invitation that Chris had designed,” Collins said. And some people will attend, he said, because they got the message that “life is brief and can be taken from us at any moment.”

Now in its 19th year, the Harvest Crusade seeks to put a hip new twist on the old-fashioned revival. The Harvest network urges followers to bring a newcomer along. At the end of each night filled with Christian rock music and guest speakers preaching the Gospel, Laurie calls on those present to make a commitment to Jesus Christ.

To date, nearly 300,000 have chosen to do so, and more than 3.6 million have attended past Harvest Crusades, according to the church website.

Laurie has sought to branch out, bringing Crusades across the U.S. and around the globe. However, he’s still best known in Southern California, particularly in Orange County, where he grew up, and in Riverside, where his church is.

“Around Southern California, he’s ubiquitous -- he’s a regional star with appeal” that comes in part because “he’s not divisive or political,” Flory said.

At first, the momentum heading into this Crusade revolved around Laurie’s new book, “Lost Boy.” The autobiography introduced many followers to a side of their pastor they knew nothing about, including his chaotic upbringing by a hard-drinking woman who was married seven times and his drug use as an aimless young man in Newport and Huntington Beach.

Then came the July 24 crash. While it remains under investigation, this much is known: Christopher Laurie was traveling alone at a “high rate of speed” at 9 a.m. when he slammed into a California Department of Transportation tractor in the carpool lane on the Riverside Freeway, not far from his father’s church.

“It’s just inevitable,” Collins said, that his death will be part of the story that unfolds during the Crusade and that the event will now act as a memorial of sorts. “To not acknowledge it will be almost to dishonor Christopher’s life and his role in the Crusade.”

There was still another question that needed to be asked: Could talking about Christopher cut another way? Could Laurie run the risk of appearing opportunistic when his family is still mourning?

“Sure, that would always cross our mind when we think about it,” Collins said. “But then we have to go back and ask ourselves, ‘What would Chris want done?’ This is what his life was about: helping communicate this message.”

Collins added that Laurie “feels deeply that Chris would want him to move forward and to present the Gospel with a new boldness and clarity.”