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How Hellion Teenagers Sparked Revival in a Small West Virginia Town

Twenty-five years ago this month, a full-page advertisement appeared in the middle of a small-town newspaper in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia.

The ad showed a cartoon of Jesus in the style of the TV show South Park. He was standing on top of a globe, wearing only shorts and a pair of boxing gloves. His fists were raised, like he’d just gone 12 rounds with somebody.

Immediately, the 663 residents of Berkeley Springs started asking questions. The image of Jesus seemed blasphemous, and the list of speakers didn’t help. They knew those names—Matt Carter, Geary Burch, Garrett Kell, and Jason Seville were high school and college boys who played sports, chased girls, and partied on the weekends. Kell’s Sunday school teacher, Tom Close, rarely saw him in church.

Courtesy of Garrett Kell

“He was a hellion,” Close said. And sure enough, a rumor sprang up that “Garrett’s throwing a party at the church!”

But when some folks complained in letters to the editor, Close wasn’t among them. And on July 30, he showed up at the Christ Night Revival.

“God can change anybody,” he said. Unless the teens proved him wrong, he’d take them at face value.

“I had a feeling I knew what was going to happen,” he said. “I’d taken kids to different events—Christian concerts and things like that. They’d get some loud music—drums and guitars. They’d sing some Christian rock songs.”

He was right about that—the music was loud. But nothing else about Christ Night was predictable. Curious locals crammed into the church until it was standing room only. Most of them weren’t Christians. They listened to the boys share their stories of coming to faith—dramatic stories of God’s salvation from drugs and sex and alcohol.

When Kell did an altar call, nearly 50 people came forward. At a second Christ Night a few months later, about 750 people—more than the population of Berkeley Springs proper—would pack the high school gym. The momentum produced three more Christ Nights over the next few years.

“Quite a number of people came to know Christ,” Kell said. “Marriages were reconciled. Sins were confessed. Church attendance spiked.” Families were changed. Businesses were built on Christian principles. And out of that summer came pastors, a missionary, and a military chaplain.

“This is a place that might be overlooked or disregarded or forgotten by some people,” said Ricky Love, who’s now planting a church in the community where he was selling drugs 25 years ago. “But it’s a place God cares about.”

Party Town

Berkeley Springs has always been a party town.

In 1747, Thomas Jefferson’s father found the warm mineral springs. The next year, George Washington visited what would be dubbed the country’s first spa. The wealthy began weekending there, and they spent so much time dancing, gambling, and horse racing that one Methodist bishop called it an “overflowing tide of immorality.”

After the springs, the town’s most distinctive landmark is a castle built by Samuel Taylor Suit, who made his fortune distilling whiskey. After he died in 1888, the local newspaper reported that boys broke into the castle and stole wine to bring to a dance.

Kell and Seville in 2000 / Courtesy of Jason Seville

More than 100 years later, the boys of Berkeley Springs were still partying.

“As a sophomore and junior, I was drinking most weekends,” Jason Seville said. “I thought it was the best time of my life.”

He was earning good grades in school, getting awards for wrestling and football, and juggling girlfriends in two different towns. On the weekends, he, Kell, and others hosted keg parties that could draw hundreds of attendees.

Seville remembers talking with friends at a Monday football practice, recounting his weekend of drinking and fooling around with girls.

“Hey, Seville,” one of his coaches called, exasperated. “Was that before or after the FCA [Fellowship of Christian Athletes] meeting?”

Christian by Process of Elimination

Seville was the president of FCA at Berkeley Springs High School.

If you asked, he would’ve told you he was a Christian, but that was by process of elimination—he knew he wasn’t a Muslim or a Hindu or an atheist. When his parents sporadically took him to church, he’d sit in the balcony, play tic-tac-toe, and think about girls. When topics like sex or drinking came up in FCA meetings, he and his friends “were more about glorifying those things than submitting [themselves] to God’s Word,” he said.

He remembers his FCA leader, Bob Donadieu, weeping at one of those meetings. “He was so brokenhearted, trying to steer it back to what the Bible says,” he said. “And we were telling stories and glorifying it.”

When his football coach threw the FCA at him, Seville didn’t have a good comeback.

“Deep down, I realized he was absolutely right,” he said. He decided to clean up his life by avoiding alcohol and girls. But he couldn’t do it, so he set a new, lower standard: “I won’t get drunk every weekend.”

Seville was struggling even with that when somebody asked if he’d heard about Kell.

“Garrett was at college,” Seville said. “Somebody said, ‘Hey, did you know Garrett Kell became a Christian?’ I laughed out loud, because I thought, I’m not a Christian. But that guy is definitely not a Christian.”

Kell’s Conversion

You could hardly blame Seville for his reaction. After enrolling at Virginia Tech, Kell moved in with three girls and started using cocaine and ecstasy.

On Halloween in 1998, Kell invited his high school friend Dave Light, who loved to have a good time, to a party. But this time Light was different. He told Kell he’d become a Christian, that he loved Jesus, and that Jesus loved Kell too.

Kell and Light / Courtesy of Garrett Kell

“I blew it off,” Kell said. Later, he’d write to Light, “I know you’re just trying to be a good boy and all, but when you came down here and wouldn’t drink, you looked like an idiot. I mean, you were just sitting there with a cork in your mouth. What is wrong with you?”

But Light had seemed peaceful in a way Kell couldn’t stop thinking about. Curious, Kell picked up a Bible and randomly opened it. The verses he read—Ezekiel 18:20–32 and Romans 2:4—scared him, so he closed it again.

Over Christmas break, Kell felt guilty enough to confess to his sister everything he was doing. “Dude, you’re going to kill someone or die,” she told him. Something had to give.

In the middle of the night, Kell called Light. Light came over, carrying his Bible and crying a little. He’d been praying for Kell every day since Halloween.

“The Lord began a transforming work in me,” Kell said. He loved to read the Bible, especially with a black light on while he was smoking weed. But when he couldn’t remember anything afterward, he started reading sober. He started going to church. He started showing up at Cru meetings.

And he started evangelizing.

World’s Least Sensitive Evangelist

“I felt like I needed to share the gospel with everyone,” Kell said. For a while, he was perhaps the world’s most enthusiastic and least sensitive evangelist.

“We had a drug dealer who brought our cocaine—we called him the ‘white devil,’” he said. “I felt like I should tell him about Jesus. So one night I printed out all the verses on hell in the Bible. I went to his house and nailed them to his door.”

When the dealer called a few hours later, scared and angry, Kell’s roommate figured it out. “I bet it’s Garrett,” she told him. “He’s been reading the Bible and he’s losing his mind.”

Although the dealer didn’t come to faith, Kell didn’t stop. When he was home for spring break, he invited his buddies over. Expecting a party, they showed up with cases of beer. But when they walked into his house, nobody else was there. Weirder yet, Kell was locking the door behind them.

“I sat down and opened the Bible and started reading judgment from Revelation 20:11–15,” Kell said. “I told them they were all going to hell.”

Seville tried arguing.

“I’m a good person,” he said. “I just blow off steam now and then. God knows my heart, and we’re cool.”

“No, idiot, his kindness is meant to lead you to repentance,” said Kell, flipping to Romans 2. “If you don’t repent you are storing up wrath for yourself for the day of judgment.”

“Okay, you’re right,” Seville said. “Jesus is real, and I love Jesus. But I’m going to do my thing first and maybe figure out my faith in college.”

Kell turned some more pages. “Tonight, your soul may be required of you,” he read from Luke 12:20.

Oh, no, Seville thought. He’s read the whole book.

Seville didn’t get saved that night, but he’d been confronted with his sin. And by the time school let out, he’d come to know the Lord.

“The Lord changed my affections immediately,” he said. At church, he moved from the balcony to the main sanctuary and started paying attention. He drove a few towns over to buy a Bible—one with tabs so he could easily find Matthew or Malachi. He took it with him everywhere, even on the stage at graduation.

Some of the other guys were changing too.

Summer of 1999

At the beginning of the summer, Kell went to see the pastor at the United Methodist Church his family sometimes attended.

“I’ve been using my influence to help a lot of people go to hell,” he told 69-year-old Owen Womack. “I needed to start leading people to heaven.”

He laid out his plan: “I’ll throw a kegger at my house. And then, about an hour in, I’ll come down, turn on the lights, stand on the keg, and tell them they’re all going to hell and need Jesus.”

“Hmm,” Womack said. “I love your zeal and your creativity. But how about you use the church instead? I’ll give you the keys to the building. You can do anything you want here—but not a kegger. Let’s ask God to do something.”

Dave Light, Garrett Kell, Jason Seville, Ricky Love, and Gary Rothstein / Courtesy of Jason Seville

So Kell and his friends started fasting and praying.

Here’s what a prayer meeting of recently converted teenage hellions looks like: They snuck out of their houses at 2:00 a.m. They drove to church, where they marched around the building seven times, praying God would put up a hedge of protection. In the dark sanctuary, they sat on every seat and prayed for whoever might sit there.

Seville remembers Light raising an alarm: “Guys! Guys! Look what I found. It was on a desk that I walked by. It says, ‘Satan.’”

It was a Scotch tape dispenser that actually said ‘Satin Tape,’ but “we were on edge and looking to go to war,” Seville said.

They prayed over the tape too.

South Park Jesus

While praying on the dimly lit stage, Kell suddenly pictured the sanctuary full of people, with more standing in the back and more leaning in open windows. He believed it was a vision from the Lord and it gave him a goal: he’d invite everyone in town to church for a revival.

“If you asked me now, theologically, I’d say you can’t plan a revival,” Kell said. “But back then I thought revivals were just when people got together and talked about Jesus.”

Since Kell was a marketing major, he took charge of the publicity campaign. He named the event “Christ Night” and asked the only graphic designer he knew to create a picture of Jesus conquering the world. The graphic designer, who wasn’t a Christian, used the image of Jesus created by South Park.

“We thought it looked awesome,” Seville said. “We ran it in the Morgan Messenger, mailed it to everyone we knew, hand-delivered it to every business in town, and posted it on every bulletin board we could find.”

The next week, letters to the editor began appearing in the paper, accusing the boys of blasphemy and sacrilege. Seville didn’t know those words and wondered if they were a good thing or a bad thing.

Both, it turned out. The accusations stirred up even more buzz around Christ Night: Were the boys serious or making fun? Did they want to talk about Jesus or throw a party?

Everyone wanted to know the answer. When the doors finally opened on July 30, the place filled up.

“We had to line the aisles with chairs, people sat on the floor, and the lobby was crammed with people who couldn’t get a seat,” Seville said. “We didn’t have to open up the windows, but it was very close. To date, it’s the highest percentage of non-Christians I’ve ever seen gathered in a church. I think at the time we estimated 80 percent non-Christian attendance.”

Christ Night #1

Sixteen-year-old Jonathan Yost was at the church that night.

“I’d seen all of those guys at parties,” he said. “I’d seen them messed up. I was looking around the church thinking, Hey, we’re just a bunch of sinners in here.”

The programming was a bit of a mess—the message never materialized and the testimonies rambled on too long. But Yost couldn’t tear his attention away.

“This was my first real encounter with young people taking a stand for Christ,” he said. “I talked to probably a dozen people who shared the same thought—something fresh was happening. You just knew it from the moment you arrived. God was moving in a new way. Looking back, I know there were people praying for this.”

Yost originally went to keep his sister company but ended up gutted by his sin and guilt. He and his sister both became Christians that night.

Up in the balcony, high school senior Brian Potter was running the sound system. He didn’t party, but he knew the reputation of the young men on the stage. He could hardly believe the testimony Kell was sharing.

“It was a big shock,” he said. “I didn’t know to the extent he’d gotten involved [in sin] once he went to college, and now he’s telling everybody they need to follow Jesus.”

Potter was visibly affected enough that Close, who was nearby, offered to take over the sound booth so Potter could respond to the altar call.

“I had prayed to accept Christ as a little kid, but I considered that night a rededication,” Potter said. “To this day, that’s the largest altar call I’ve ever seen. I can’t even tell you how many of us went down to the altar.”

From the stage, Kell could see “a third of the building had people on their knees, leaning forward, who couldn’t reach us. It was quite a response.”

His parents got saved in that season. So did his sister, Seville’s parents, and Seville’s brother, sister, and brother-in-law. All over town, families were coming to faith.

“It was a huge game changer,” Seville said.

Christ Night #2

Christ Night was so successful that the guys planned a second one over Thanksgiving break. Christ Night Round 2 featured Jesus “the almighty” Christ vs. Satan “the deceiver” in a “fight for your afterlife!”

Shelby Abbott and Garrett Kell in 1999 / Courtesy of Shelby Abbott

By changing the venue to the high school gym, they could fit a bigger crowd—and they got one. More than 700 people—some driving in from surrounding towns—showed up.

One was Shelby Abbott, Kell’s Cru leader at Virginia Tech, who had come to see the revival Kell had been talking about. He knew Kell was a young Christian—in fact, he’d been worrying that Kell’s spiritual growth rate was too fast and he was going to flame out.

“Way more people were there than I thought were going to show up,” Abbott said. “At the end, he did an old-school altar call. And I’ll never forget—people got up out of their seats and went up to the front and knelt down to pray to receive Jesus. And Garrett walked around and put his hands on people’s heads and prayed for them. And I was like, What? Is this for real?

Another person asking that question was Ricky Love. He’d grown up rougher than Kell or Seville, exposed to substance abuse and dysfunction. When he was 14, his parents separated. Shortly afterward, he dropped out of school.

“For about a decade, I broke bad,” he said. “I went farther and farther into the downward spiral of party life.”

Smoking weed progressed into a long line of harder drugs, and taking drugs progressed into selling them. Love can tell stories of guns being pulled, people hit with baseball bats, and multiple fights in one night. As the fun of his lifestyle wore off, he felt increasingly anxious, depressed, and suicidal.

Then a friend of his invited him to hear Kell tell his story.

“I knew Garrett,” Love said. “We’d done drugs together. I heard he became a Christian and wanted to be a pastor, but I could not see Garrett doing that. I couldn’t figure out why he would change, why he’d stop having parties.”

Love showed up at Christ Night 2 in a velour tracksuit and boots, with gold chains around his neck and cocaine in his pocket.

“A whole group of us went—we sat at the very farthest top bleacher,” Love said. “I thought the night was corny. I thought the music was dumb. Then Garrett got up and finally, here was something I could relate to. He talked about Romans 2, about not despising the patience and kindness of God, about storing up God’s wrath for the day of judgment. I was like, Oh, yeah. That’s me.”

When Kell did the altar call, Love didn’t leave his seat. But he did pray, God, if you’re real, I’d ask you to do the same thing in my life that you did in Garrett’s life.

“I felt like I was going to fly out of the room,” Love said. “When we left, my friends were drinking. I didn’t because I didn’t need to. I felt good. I felt happy.”

Pastor Ricky Love baptizing a new believer last year / Courtesy of Wellspring Church

Within a few months, Love had stopped the drinking, drugs, and sexual immorality. He started going to church, reading his Bible, and studying for his GED. Then he got baptized, went to college, and enrolled at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

In 2019, after a decade of ministry, Love felt called to come home to Berkeley Springs and plant a church.

“The first people we baptized were one of my best friends growing up, his mom, and his sister,” he said. Today, his congregation has grown to 50 people, primarily new converts or those who were unchurched.

Every November, on the anniversary of Christ Night 2, Love texts Kell and Seville, “Thank you.”

Small-Town Revival

The momentum of Christ Nights 1 and 2 carried through Christ Nights 3, 4, and 5 over the next few years.

“I have no idea how many people got saved through those,” Seville said. “Probably hundreds.”

The town changed as drug use dropped and church attendance ballooned, Close said. Sins were confessed. Families were restored. And the FCA leader who’d wept over the sins of his high schoolers watched dozens of them come to Christ.

Seville, FCA leader Bob Donadieu, and Kell / Courtesy of Garrett Kell

“Because of Christ Night, there was a group of 50 to 60 kids that met every Thursday night to worship and pray,” said Yost, who was the FCA president his senior year. “I had a Bronco, and I’d pack kids in there like sardines to bring them home afterward.”

Yost is now a chaplain in the U.S. Air Force in Richmond, Virginia, where he’s led thousands of young soldiers through programs such as the Alpha Course. Kell is a pastor at Del Ray Baptist Church just outside of Washington, DC. Seville joined him there following six years of pastoring in China.

“I’ve never been part of anything like that since,” Kell said. “The guy who lived down the street from my parents used to thank my dad every time he saw him, because his daughters came to know the Lord through that, and it changed their family. . . . It gives me hope that God can swoop in at any time. He can and does move in miraculous ways.”

Kell doesn’t plan on hosting any Christ Nights at Del Ray Baptist, but that doesn’t mean he’s not praying for revival.

“The Lord did a great work,” he said, “and I pray he’ll do it again.”

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