Serving the Southern Illinois University community since 1916.

The Daily Egyptian

Serving the Southern Illinois University community since 1916.

The Daily Egyptian

Serving the Southern Illinois University community since 1916.

The Daily Egyptian

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“They were in tears:” Emotions run high at annual sunrise service

Many+admire+and+photograph+the+sunrise+at+Bald+Knob+Cross+March+31%2C+2024+at+Bald+Knob+Cross+of+Peace+in+Alto+Pass%2C+Illinois.+
Ethan Holder
Many admire and photograph the sunrise at Bald Knob Cross March 31, 2024 at Bald Knob Cross of Peace in Alto Pass, Illinois.

As the sun rose over Alto Pass on Easter morning, it cast a brilliant orange glow onto the 111-foot cross that sits atop Bald Knob Mountain, the highest point for miles. Those gathered on the hilltop were moved to tears by worship music that echoed throughout the surrounding valley, and the touching words of a southern Illinois cancer survivor.

The lawn of Bald Knob Cross grows packed as many attend the sunrise service for Easter March 31, 2024 at Bald Knob Cross of Peace in Alto Pass, Illinois. (Ethan Holder)

The gates opened at 5 a.m. that morning, and guests began walking up to the clearing at the top of the hill. Once there, they laid out blankets and unfolded lawn chairs to face the stage that sits opposite the cross. Event organizers approximate that close to 2,000 people made their way up the mountain to experience the once-a-year event.

Many watch as the sun rises at Bald Knob Cross on Easter March 31, 2024 at Bald Knob Cross of Peace in Alto Pass, Illinois. (Ethan Holder)

Local food and drink vendors were available on-site prior to the service including Dave’s Bagels and Cold Blooded Coffee. Bagel shop owner David Waun said that he has deep family ties to the event, as his great uncle Wayman Presley was one of the founding members of the Cross. He sees the event as a great way to give back and stay involved with the organization. People come from all over, excited to be there and enjoy the message of the service, he said.

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Worship began promptly at 6:15 with music led and organized by local business owner Chris Parton, along with a regional band and choir ensemble.

“It’s really cool because they’re not part of any certain group, they are a full collection of worship leaders, teachers, authors; they represent churches and families from our entire region,” explained Jena Guined, executive director of Bald Knob Cross of Peace.

During the event various speakers took the stage, including Guined and keynote speaker Eric Gregg, a three-year member of the Cross’s board of directors. Gregg’s message was heavily tied to his recent battle with colon cancer, encouraging listeners to keep faith, courage, and positivity, even through hard times.

“When you get a diagnosis like that, of course it’s terrifying,” Gregg said.

His intentions for the service were to instill hope in others, remind them that they are not alone in their struggles, “and let them know that you’ve just got to keep your faith, you’ve got to keep being courageous, and you’ve got to keep moving forward.”

As a former high school soccer coach and a member of local government, Gregg said that in everything he does, his goal is always to change at least one person’s life for the better.

Speaking at the event was also a “full-circle moment” for the southern Illinois native, whose grandfather had a hand in raising the money necessary for the building of the Cross. Construction of the monument was finalized 61 years ago in 1963, but this Easter marks the 88th year that the land it sits on has hosted the sunrise worship service.

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According to the Bald Knob Cross of Peace official website, locals Wayman Presley and Reverend W. H. Lirely believed there was a need in the community for a place where people of all denominations could gather and worship. Their sights landed on Bald Knob Mountain, and the first Sunrise Service was held that same year in 1937. Plans to construct the Cross would surface later, around 1950.

Steve Gradraver admires the sunrise with a group of onlookers March 31, 2024 at Bald Knob Cross of Peace in Alto Pass, Illinois. (Ethan Holder)

“The Cross is just such a special place, not only in southern Illinois, but also in the Midwest and in the whole country,” Gregg said. It’s a very holy and inspirational place. The Sunrise Service certainly just puts everything back in perspective and it helps me to kind of refocus on what’s really important.”

Event attendees shared the same sentiment.

“Seeing the sun rise, it was pretty magical. And if you looked around at everyone, you could definitely tell His presence was there,” said guest Ansley Bailey. “I mean, people were in tears. I was in tears.”

Guined said that the event has continued to grow every year in the three Easters she’s been with the Cross. This year more than ever, she’s noticed local people who have lived in southern Illinois their whole lives saying that this was their first Easter Sunrise Service and that they really enjoyed it.

“I think that the Word has just grown so much and any time something great’s happening people want to be a part of it,” she said. “I think the challenges of life have just given people a desire to come together and be a part of something bigger than themselves.”

People pack onto the lawn of Bald Knob Cross to attend sunrise service for Easter March 31, 2024 at Bald Knob Cross of Peace in Alto Pass, Illinois. (Ethan Holder)

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