For the first time in a decade, Mitch Hildebrant will miss Hills Alive.
The annual Christian music festival — which runs today and Sunday at Memorial Park— and the missionary to Africa have been closely linked ever since Hildebrant went to work for the broadcast company that produces the festival about 10 years ago.
Hildebrant has been a patient in a South African hospital for more than four months, battling surgical complications after an emergency appendectomy performed in a Swaziland hospital in March.
"I know he's heartbroken to miss Hills Alive," said his sister, Brenda Messer. The Dickinson, N.D., woman will attend Hills Alive and she knows her brother wishes he could, too. "We know that's a heart spot for him. But he'll be back. He's got a story to tell, and I know he'll be up on a Hills Alive stage again."
Hildebrant left a job as president of Bethesda Broadcasting in 2010 to become a missionary, along with his wife, Charlotte, with Children's Cup International, an AIDS orphan ministry in Swaziland. Last summer, they returned to Rapid City, where Mitch spoke at the 2011 Hills Alive event.
This year, his absence will be felt, said Tom Schoenstedt, general manager for Bethesda Christian Broadcasting stations here. "This is the first one he's missed in many years," Schoenstedt said.
Daily crowds of 20,000 to 25,000 people are expected to attend the 2012 festival, which Hildebrant helped to grow over the years. His friend and former co-worker's charisma and organizational skills will be missed, Schoenstedt said. "He led by example," he said.
This year's festival is billed as "Two Days, Two Stages and Two Dozen Bands." Performers include TobyMac, Mercy Me, Todd Agnew, Sidewalk Prophets, Shane and Shane, Big Daddy Weave, The City Harmonic and others.
In addition to its musical ministry, Hills Alive will be the site for the invitation-only Day of Hope event from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. today. Local churches and about 200 volunteers will give away 400 boxes of groceries, free haircuts, 500 pairs of shoes donated through Samaritan's Feet and a free lunch to an estimated 1,000 people who were identified by local nonprofit agencies. They got special invitations to Day of Hope. Local social services agencies also will be available to troubleshoot the needs of people who attend, Schoenstedt said.
On Wednesday, Mitch Hildebrant marked his 17th week in the hospital with new medical complications related to his kidney, said his brother, Meilon. Doctors had to install a catheter directly into a kidney in hopes of repairing a damaged ureter. That setback was the latest in a series of medical obstacles that left his brother with an 11-by-13-inch abdominal wound that required skin grafts and is still not healing properly.
"Recovery time is going to be extremely lengthy, and a return to active missionary duty will be determined by that," Meilon Hildebrant said. "His heart still lies in Swaziland with the needs of the children his priority."
Charlotte Hildebrant said by email that the couple is praying that Mitch's kidney will be saved. They were excited about a July 18 benefit concert in Rapid City on their behalf that was sponsored by Piedmont's Hills View Evangelical Free Church. Christian singer and missionary Elva Frye performed at the fundraising event at South Canyon Baptist Church that drew about 230 people, including several members of Hildebrant's family. Duane and Bobbi Hildebrant, Mitch's parents who live in Beach, N.D., also attended.
"Mitch and Char and our families are so grateful for all the prayers, emotional and financial support," said Meilon. "We ask for continued prayers of healing as we trust in God's plan.
Wednesday's concert raised more than $11,500 for Hildebrant's medical expenses. The couple has medical insurance but long ago surpassed the policy's lifetime cap.
The Hildebrants have connections to both churches, having helped plant Hills View several years ago. Hills View supports their missionary work in Swaziland with a monthly stipend.
"The two churches wanted to do something for Mitch. There's definitely a lot of people at both churches that love them a lot," said Roseann Mapa, who helped organized the fundraising concert.
Anyone interested in donating to the Hildebrants' medical expenses can make a donation to the Mitch Hildebrant Medical Fund at any Wells Fargo branch bank.