The audience sang hymns, like “Christ Arose” and “He Lives” and heard a sermon from the Rev. Dr. James Speed during the 30-minute event at the Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park. The service was put together jointly by the Kiwanis and Rotary clubs of Marietta.
Speed began his sermon, which started just before the sun came up at 7:14 a.m., by recalling another Easter sunrise service he took part in as a student minister in 1956 at a different national park, California’s Death Valley. He said a surprise rain settled the sand after a dust storm earlier in the week threatened to wipe out the event.
That led Speed, who retired as pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Marietta 13 years ago, into a discussion of the surprise Mary Magdalene and disciples felt when they came to find Christ’s tomb empty on Easter. Standing atop the steps of the park’s visitor center, he told those gathered in the field in front of him that an Easter surprise is a good thing.
“Let yourself on this Easter morning be surprised,” he said. “Be surprised, not because you’ve hearing something you’ve never heard before, but be surprised about its meaning for you in your life and in the way you live. Maybe you’ve believed it all your life, but in the turmoil and destruction of life, you forget what the resurrection of Jesus really means to you.”
Karl Schwelm, 64, said he’d been coming to the sunrise service at Kennesaw Mountain for 20 years. He said Sunday’s event was one of the better attended services he’s seen there.
Schwelm and some of his neighbors on St. Mary’s Lane followed a trail from near their homes to the battlefield park. For Steve Mitchell, 36, and his wife Stacey, 34, it was their first time attending a service there.
“It was wonderful,” Stacey Mitchell said. “The service lasted the perfect amount of time for the kids. The walk along the way in the dark was great.”
Stacey Mitchell’s mother, Pat Sadler, was visiting from Jacksonville, Fla. While she hadn’t attended the Easter event in Kennesaw before, she said she used to go to a sunrise service at Vicksburg National Military Park while she was growing up in Mississippi.
“We could see the sunrise and the river, but this is good too,” she said. “Here comes the sun now.”
Kevin and Mary Kay Heiling, both 55, brought their Airedale terrier, Riley, to the service from Acworth. The first time attendees of the service said they planned to do some hiking in the battlefield park before they leave.
“What a great way to start Easter,” Mary Kay Heiling said. “This is a great way to enjoy God’s creation in a beautiful place.”
Sunday’s event was the 15th sunrise service at Kennesaw Mountain. Rotarian Holly Walquist, who sits on the event’s organizing committee, said Kiwanis started the prayer service and Rotary joined in three years ago.
Walquist said the audience was estimated at between 1,000 and 1,200, considerably larger than the 2011 crowd of around 800 people.
“It was just a gorgeous morning and the service was wonderful,” she said. “We got some really good responses from folks.”
Speed, who joked that this was the first time he’d delivered a sermon from behind a cannon, said afterward that there were quite a few more people at Sunday’s event than the “at most” 50 who showed up at Death Valley 56 years ago.
“I think this was really nice, and a good affirmation of what Easter is all about,” Speed said.