By MARGARET DWIGGINS
The lives of a Nebraska family have not been the same since their 4-year-old son survived a near-death experience and started talking about visiting heaven and meeting with Jesus. Little by little, the boy, Colton Burpo, revealed things he could have had no way of knowing. He said he’d met his father Todd’s grandfather and correctly identified a photo of him, although he’d never seen one before. He said he’d met an older sister he never knew, not knowing that his mother, Sonja, had miscarried a baby before he was born.
On Friday, Todd and Sonja Burpo will visit Findlay to tell their story and share the powerful things that have happened in their lives since Todd wrote a book about Colton’s experience, “Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back.”
The book has been translated into more than 35 languages and has been on the New York Times Best Sellers list for 193 weeks since its 2011 release. Earlier this year, during Holy Week, the movie “Heaven is for Real,” starring Greg Kinnear as Todd, was released. The film had a budget of $12 million and has brought in over $100 million. It was recently released on DVD.
There is also a children’s adaptation of the book, titled “Heaven is for Real for Kids.”
The presentation will be held at 7 p.m. Friday at the University of Findlay’s Koehler Center.
Since the release of the book, the Burpos have traveled around the world telling their story, giving a presentation titled “Heaven is for Real Live.” Often, Colton, now 15, is part of the show. He will not come to Findlay, however, as school started in Nebraska last week and his parent insist that he not miss classes.
“One of the biggest questions we get is how do you keep Colton normal,” Todd Burpo said, explaining that their way of accomplishing this is to make sure he never misses school and is involved in extra-curricular activities.
“He participates in sports. He loves music and performs in the show choir and band,” Burpo said.
Burpo promised that the Findlay audience will still be able to see Colton “up and personal” on a large video screen, which is almost even better, as Colton is more relaxed when he’s by himself in front of a camera than he is on stage.
Although Colton has been telling his story for more than a decade, like most teens, he finds it “unsettling” to get up before a crowd of thousands of people and talk, but, his father said, “he can stand up and sing and he’s so totally at ease.”
Burpo said his son has been singing in front of crowds since he was 5.
The Heaven is for Real shows are high-energy presentations that include testimony from the Burpos, videos, praise, worship and music by the band, Read You and Me. The show is appropriate for people of all ages, he said.
Burpo, who is still pastor of Crossroads Wesleyan Church in Imperial, Nebraska, a town of about 2,000 in the southwest part of the state, said the family takes its message on the road about two to five times a month, both nationally and internationally. In addition to Colton, the Burpo family also includes Cassie, 17, and Colby, 9.
Burpo said Colton’s heavenly experience happened when he had appendicitis and needed emergency surgery, and his doctors told his parents to prepare for the worst. Burpo was moved to write his book after hearing his son’s astounding descriptions of heaven, some of which were scripturally accurate in a way that Colton could not have possibly known.
Burpo said the family’s story has been met with skepticism, and even some harsh criticism. People have accused the Burpos of making up details of their son’s illness or exploiting a near-death experience for their personal gain.
“I was investigated pretty thoroughly,” he said. “The medical record was investigated.” But the best way to prove the veracity of the story is to come to Imperial, Nebraska, and talk to the people who live there. Had the Burpos made up details, or even tried to stretch the truth, he said, it would have been quickly discovered in a town the size of Imperial, and everybody would know it.
Residents who were skeptical could have their own conversations with Colton, and “Colton is his own best witness,” Burpo said. “There’s no way a 4- to 7-year-old boy could make that up, not with mom and dad not around. They knew something really happened.”
He said wherever they go, audiences ask the same questions. They want to know what the people there were like in heaven, what Jesus was like, if there are animals (there are), and how people get there.
“A lot of people come to these events not knowing how to heal the hurts they carry. (They want to know) why do bad things happen to good people, and how do we go on from that?” Burpo said.
“Death is scary, if you don’t know much about heaven,” he said.
Burpo said the family was very happy with the movie version of his book, particularly with the little boy who was cast as Colton.
“The relationship between Greg Kinnear and the little boy (played by Connor Corum), that’s what made the film,” Burpo said.
The Burpos’ visit is being sponsored by Good Hope Lutheran Church in Arlington. Eric Alli, who is coordinating the event, said he saw the movie “Heaven is for Real” and was so moved by the story that he went online in search of information. He found the Burpos’ website, heavenlive.org, and saw a video of one of their live events, and knew that it was the type of event people in Hancock County are hungry for.
Alli, a member of the Arlington church, approached the congregation’s executive council to seek support for a local show. Presentations were made to the membership during church services and the congregation gave its approval.
It’s a mighty project for such a small congregation, but Alli said they’ve received good support from volunteers and sponsors.
The event is not intended as a fundraiser for Good Hope Lutheran. Any proceeds after expenses will be divided between Christian Clearing House, Lutheran Social Services, Habitat for Humanity, and the church, to benefit its food pantry and mission trips.
Alli said the show is perfect for church groups and encourages congregations to gather before the show for supper, and/or hold discussions about the Burpos’ story afterward.
Tickets for Heaven is for Real Live are $20 for adults and $12.50 for students and are available through the Arts Partnership’s box office, online at artspartnership.com and at the door.
Dwiggins: 419-427-8477 Send an E-mail to Margaret Dwiggins
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