MARSHALL - Don Piper believes in miracles.
"I am a miracle," Piper said.
Piper shared his near-death experience in his book: "90 Minutes in Heaven: A True Story of Death and Life."
Photo by Jenny Kirk
Members of the Marshall Area Christian School junior high worship band sang a song of praise just before keynote speaker Don Piper took the stage at the MACS 5th annual Promise Banquet Thursday evening.
"It's really good," said Cottonwood resident Char Rekedal, who was one of more than 620 people who heard Piper speak at the Marshall Area Christian School's 5th annual Promise Banquet Thursday evening at Southwest Minnesota State University.
From the time he took the stage, walking on legs that doctors said would never work again, Piper mesmerized the sold-out crowd.
"God is still in the miracle business," Piper said. "That's important because you may need one someday. And God wants to hear our prayers. If he can put a man back together in a red car, he can fix a marriage or do anything else."
Piper's journey cannot be explained easily. He was pronounced dead by four EMTs on Jan. 18, 1989, after a semi slammed into his red Ford Escort, crushing him from all directions.
"It was gruesome," Piper said. "I had been dismembered, so they put a tarp on me so no one could see me. No one else was hurt so they were all working on me, but despite their best efforts, they pronounced me dead."
So what's Piper doing in Marshall? It took him a long time to understand that he was part of a much bigger picture.
"After the crash, they called the church and they started a prayer chain," Piper said. "People launched into prayer. It spread like wildfire. Twenty years later, I'm still meeting people who said they prayed for me."
Minister Dick Onarecker, who, like Piper, was returning from a church conference, came up on the scene and also felt compelled to pray. He insisted that he be allowed to pray over Piper's body even though police officers originally resisted, telling him they were waiting for the coroner.
"(Onarecker) said God told him to pray for the dead man," Piper said. "Never had he ever thought of doing something like that before."
From the moment he was killed, Piper said he was transported to heaven.
"It was dazzling," he said. "God lit the place with his majesty and glory."
Everyone he met in heaven was familiar, Piper said, including his grandfather, teachers and his next door neighbor.
"They were all people who had influenced me in my Christian life," said Piper, who then challenged the audience to ponder who they'd greet at the gates of heaven.
MACS parent Tricia Foster found Piper's testimony touching.
"His message was absolutely critical and I appreciated his challenge," Foster said. "He asked 'what are we doing in Marshall, and who have we really thought about that we want to reach and see in heaven and what can we do to make a difference in their lives and do to help them get there?'"
Nobody that he knew was planning to go to heaven the day they died, Piper said, but thankfully, they were ready. In high school, Piper said he gave his life over to Jesus. Little did he know that he'd glimpse heaven 23 years later.
"I think I saw it so I can be here tonight, to tell you, to your face, that heaven is real," Piper said. "And, Jesus is the way, the truth and the light."
But it took Piper a long time to come to grips with his experience. After his 90 minutes in heaven, Piper said he returned to his broken body.
After getting past the disbelief, realizing that Piper was alive, those on the scene had a huge challenge - getting Piper out of his pulverized car. Later, in the ambulance, Piper remembers being in agonizing pain.
"I was so frightened," he said. "And, I knew then that I was never going to be the same again."
Not only did Piper endure 13 months of hospitalization, 34 different surgeries and excruciating therapy, he was confused. He couldn't understand why God would let him see heaven and then take it away.
"There were long, dark nights," he said. "I could do nothing. I didn't understand. I asked God if he could send someone who had been through this. But he made me realize that this is not about me. This was about what he can do through me."
Piper said he eventually realized God wanted him to deliver a message.
"He needed me to be that person that people could talk to," he said. "I had to get hit by a truck to figure it out."
Piper's message struck parallels with the mission at MACS, which is to equip children to excel in a life that is pleasing to God. Education, he said, is really about building a spiritual foundation.
Cindy Nelson, MACS kindergarten teacher and parent of MACS alumni, also spoke to the crowd, offering her gratitude and testimony of the MACS school system.
"My husband Mike and I made the decision that we wanted a Christian education for our children," Nelson said. "We wanted a place for our children where the word of God is the absolute truth and the absolute way. And, that's what brought us to MACS in 1992."
The Promise Banquet is the biggest fundraiser of the year for MACS. Tim Gross, MACS fundraising chairman, said that there are three main reasons for hosting the event.
"One is fundraising, but we also try to raise awareness of the school in the community," Gross said. "Third, it's also to raise the awareness for potential families in the future. It's a lot better than a brochure that lays in the corner and gets dust on it. It's like a living brochure."
A good deal of the money raised at the event goes toward tuition-assistance for students to attend MACS. The second priority, if there is money left over, goes toward improving the school.
"It's a very powerful thing that we've been able to say 'every dollar you give goes to the school,'" Gross said.
Banquet emcee Wade McKittick called MACS a "little slice of heaven."
MACS committee members have chosen a variety of keynote speakers before Piper, including Michael Reagan, son of U.S. President Ronald Reagan, Dave Dravecky, a Major League Baseball pitcher who lost his arm to cancer, Kirk Cameron, who portrayed teen heartthrob Mike Seaver on the award-winning television series "Growing Pains" and is now a devoted Christian speaker, and Ken Davis, a Christian comedian and author.