Easter faithful celebrate alongside Olympian Lolo Jones in Clovis

The Fresno BeeMarch 31, 2013 

U.S. Olympic track and field standout Lolo Jones' Easter message at a Clovis megachurch -- that it's important to rely on God's strength in tough times -- was drawn from her life.

Favored to win the gold medal in the 100-meter hurdles at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Jones clipped the ninth hurdle in the finals and finished seventh. After having back surgery, she tried again in the 2012 Olympics at London but finished fourth -- just out of medal contention.

But "God showed me that he can use the worst situation and mold it into good," said Jones, who has her eye on the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Jones spoke at the two Easter services Sunday at Northside Christian Church, each nearly full with about 1,500 people.

Her appearance was the first by a celebrity at a Northside Easter service in three years. Musical celebrities and show-biz personalities shared their faith at services from 2004 to 2009. But then the church went to simpler services rather than spend money on celebrities, which could have sent the wrong message to worshippers in a tough economy. This year, "it felt right for us to do it again," said Jim Corrao, Northside executive pastor.

Northside was among many Valley churches presenting the Easter message of Jesus' resurrection and hope.

But because of the heavy rainstorm that hit early Sunday and left outdoor areas muddy and wet, some churches had to adjust sunrise services.

At First Congregational Church of Fresno, about 50 people gathered at 6 a.m. in the fellowship hall instead of the church's courtyard.

It created a lighter moment when congregants sang a hymn with lyrics that includes a reference to "the skies," but the roof blocked their view.

"We really planned on being outside," said the Rev. Norman Broadbent, smiling.

The Easter service had a special moment -- the baptism of Destro Gayton, 4 months. He had been hospitalized at Children's Hospital Central California for sleep apnea and other illnesses.

"He's getting better," said Patty Gayton, Destro's mother.

Kathleen McDougald said she felt a connection to Destro.

"I was baptized at my grandmother's church in Napa on Easter," she said. "I told the mother that Easter is a special time to be baptized."

At Northside, Jones worshipped alongside other congregants during the service. At the end, she was introduced through a video in which she talked about her background.

A native of Des Moines, Iowa, Jones and her four siblings were raised by their mother, who worked various jobs. Their father was in and out of prison. The family moved many times. At times, they were homeless.

Jones' mother made sure her children had one stable thing -- church.

After the video ended, Jones joined Northside senior pastor David Rutherford at the pulpit.

Although disappointed in her race in Beijing, Jones said, she felt God whisper to her: "You are here. You weren't here four years ago."

"It gave me great peace," she said. "That night, I did praise and worship. I had a smile after a big defeat. You can rely on God in his strength."

Jones, 30, also talked about her decision to abstain from sex until marriage.

"I saw the consequences of having premarital sex; my mom had five kids and was not married," she said. "I hope others would also make the decision to remain pure."

Some people in attendance said Jones is a role model, especially to youths.

"You have to inspire the young people," Nancy Nelson said. "Otherwise, they leave the church. They feel they don't need church anymore."

Michelle Barba said Jones is someone who is living out her faith.

"Her message resonates; she has overcome a lot," she said. "It's hard for young people at this time. There are so many conflicting things going on, especially in the media."

The reporter can be reached at rorozco@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6304.

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