When Rick Countryman started going to Big Valley Grace more than 30 years ago, the small church offered a single weekly service.
On Sunday, Countryman, now Big Valley's senior pastor, oversaw a single service again. But this time, the congregation took over John Thurman Field, with parking lots overflowing and thousands filling the stands for the church's "With One Heart" gathering.
"I'm glad you're all here," Countryman told his audience, thanking those who worked Saturday to put together the stage. "Something like this just doesn't happen."
The church, which has moved and expanded since its modest beginnings on Tully Road, attracts hundreds of people to each of its four weekend services at its worship center, which seats 1,500. Sunday's gathering was a chance for all of those folks to worship together.
Big venue change
Big Valley took advantage of a weekend when Thurman's regular denizens, the Modesto Nuts, are playing away games in San Jose. The event included a musical performance and a bounce house for children.
"You're not sitting where you normally sit," Countryman pointed out. He invited attendees to turn and greet each other, and to stomp their feet in the stands to show their enthusiasm.
With temperatures nearing 80 at the time of the 10 a.m. service, the water concession did a brisk business, and some children could be seen eating ice cream sandwiches, probably not usual church fare. A first-aid tent offering sunscreen also was a popular stop.
One preteen youngster, walking into the stadium with his family, could be heard telling them, "I get to do this and go to a birthday party today. I'm pretty lucky."
Karen Davis and her daughters, Sierra and Olivia, joined the crowd after picking up cold drinks from a stand.
"We like church a lot," said Sierra, 11. "But I like coming to the ballpark."
The Davises live in Salida and have been attending Big Valley Grace for about three years.
"It's a very loving place," Karen Davis said. "It's just full of joy."
Bee staff writer Patty Guerra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2343.