When people think of Panama City Beach, Florida, often referred to as “The Spring Break Capital of the World,” words like “prayer,” “faith” and “fellowship” are probably the last thing on one’s mind.
However, on Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, Panama City Beach, Florida, transformed.
Gulf Coast Getaway is a yearly event that is designed to bring college students from multiple campus ministries together from all over the nation. During the stay at Edgewater Beach Resort, students come together to worship, learn and grow through guest speakers and musicians.
Arkansas Tech University was represented by the Church of Christ Student Center, or CCSC. The CCSC brought around 70 Arkansas Tech students on a 13- hour drive, myself included.
Several of the students had already attended a Gulf Coast Getaway, but this was my first time and I was uncertain of what to expect.
The event had been hyped up to me for months, with friends constantly reminding me of its greatness.
When we arrived, I just wanted to lay down and give my back a rest. Riding 13 hours, packed into a church van is not so good on the vertebra, as it turns out.
Unfortunately for my vertebra, there was business to attend to, as we arrived just in time to put up our luggage and attend the welcome worship.
Once I stepped into the ballroom where worship was being hosted, care for my vertebra took a backseat. In fact, it slipped my mind entirely.
Instead, I immediately felt the power of Gulf Coast Getaway. The ballroom was a beautiful, smoky mess, with lights that flashed just about every color on the spectrum.
If that wasn’t enough to take in, there were over a thousand students. Students from Auburn University, University of Alabama, Louisiana State University, and tons more, with the furthest travelling from Detroit, Michigan.
The students were standing, sitting, dancing, laughing, and for a minute Gulf Coast Getaway began to feel like “The Spring Break Capital of the World” in January.
Then the worship began.
During worship, I caught myself looking around at my fellow CCSC members and a few of the students from LSU that had just introduced themselves to me.
That was when I realized “this is something more, something special.”
We’re college students, we stress about grades, money, food, and everything in between. We come from different places, we have different skin, some of us are poor, some of us are wealthy.
But for that moment in time, we were all one. We left our stresses behind. Race, gender, sexual orientation, money, none of it mattered.
I have never felt closer to a complete stranger in my life, and it is a feeling that I hope everyone can experience.
Accompanying the worships throughout the weekend were “breakout sessions.” These were hour long classes or events that focused on a certain topic. They were scheduled between lunch and dinner, which left me with a moral dilemma on if I should go to class, or enjoy the beach.
I attended all the classes but one, and managed to soak up some valuable fun in the sun as well.
I come from a farm town of about 1,600, mostly elderly. Being in a place that beautiful, with so many people uniting for a common cause was extraordinary.
One of the most moving moments I had over the course of the weekend was on Sunday night, just a few hours before we were to leave.
I decided to jump into the hot tub while I waited on some friends. I found the least packed hot tub that I could and joined a group of strangers. The strangers happened to be from University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, of all places.
Maybe it was our common ground in being Christian, or being Arkansan, but we immediately bonded and they invited our group to join them in a prayer. The prayer was a long one, we all went around and prayed aloud.
I don’t remember what we talked about before and after the prayer, I don’t remember what they said their majors were, and I don’t remember what their names were.
I do, however, remember them asking us to join them in prayer and that is a memory that I will never forget.
Panama City Beach, Florida, transformed on Martin Luther King Jr. weekend.
It turned a city that is known for its wild parties into a place of prayer.
It turned people who were drifting away from God into people who have never been more faithful.
And it turned me, someone from a small town who has only been a Christian for a few months into someone who has witnessed fellowship on a massive scale.