By Heidi Sampson
Special to The Free Press
---- — For Todd and Sonja Burpo of Imperial, Neb., a short vacation quickly became a nightmarish struggle when their young son’s appendix ruptured.
Untreated for six days, the abscess filled with poison. Not yet 4 years old, little Colton very nearly died if not for an emergency surgery at a hospital in Colorado.
The young boy’s struggle, recovery and seemingly miraculous life-and-death vision into heaven spawned a ministry, a bestselling book -- and, now, an appearance in Mankato.
Keystone Promotions, a small group of volunteers led by Karen Skow of St. James, is bringing the Heaven is for Real live event to the Taylor Center/Bresnan Arena at Minnesota State University at 7:30 p.m. on Friday.
“Our primary goal is to get this message to the community while finding a way to give back to our youth,” Skow said, noting that a portion of all proceeds will benefit the Fellowship for Christian Athletes and the BackPack Food Program.
As for the Burpos, parents Todd and Sonja said they found their faith in God tested when they were given no promises regarding Colton’s survival rate when he went in for surgery in March 2003.
When he came out, Colton immediately called for his father saying, “You know I almost died.”
Unsure as to why Colton would make such a statement, Todd, a Pastor of Crossroads Wesleyan Church of Imperial, changed the subject.
“The truth was I was not ready to face that possibility. I didn’t want to talk about death,” Todd said. “I didn’t want Colton to think giving up was an option.”
Four months later, the family passed through North Platte on a family trip to South Dakota. The familiar terrain sparked a conversation regarding Colton’s previous stay in the hospital.
In an Arby’s parking lot, Colton, who was by now 4 years old, revealed the location of his parents during that fateful night of surgery.
“In a 4-year-old’s way of communicating, he told us that I was praying while his mother was talking on the phone,” Todd said. “After we had left Colton, I did go back to the pre-op room to get our things. Realizing I had the room to myself, I shut the door and prayed. Sonja went to place calls asking for prayers in Colton’s name, activating our local prayer chain.”
Then, Colton began sharing his experiences in heaven. One evening while Sonja was completing the household finances, Colton told his mother he had “two sisters.”
Oddly enough, Colton claimed the other sister had brown hair and was slightly younger than his older sister.
“Prior to almost losing Colton in surgery,” Todd said, “Sonja’s miscarriage was our lowest moment as parents.”
The couple had been two months along and just about to announce their upcoming pregnancy when Sonja lost their second child over Father’s Day weekend in 1998. ‘
“We became pregnant with Colton soon afterward so we tried to focus on having the next child,” Todd said. “We just never had that conversation with him. How do you tell a 4-year-old that babies can die in a mother’s stomach without scaring them?”
During a drive to place a bid on a job for Todd’s overhead door company, a business he operated on the side of his responsibilities as a pastor, Colton calmly asked his father if he had a “grandpa named Pop?”
Within moments Colton added, “He’s really nice.”
The man Colton spoke of, however, died in a car accident when Todd was 7 years old. Back at home, Todd showed Colton the last picture he had of Pop, specifically saying this was how he remembered his grandfather. The picture displayed a 61-year-old man with glasses. Todd remembered Colton staring at the photo but there was no recognition upon his face. Instead, the boy handed the photo back saying, “nobody’s old in heaven” and “nobody wears glasses.”
Curiosity led Todd to ask his mother if she had a younger picture of his Pop. When the photo arrived in the mail a few weeks later, Todd and Sonja called Colton into the room and placed the photo in his hands, asking what he thought without revealing who was in the photo.
In the picture, Pop was 29-years-old.
“In half a second after receiving the photo Colton says, ‘Hey, how did you get a picture of Pop?’” Todd said. “It didn’t take us long to realize that Colton was telling the truth because of his age. He’s not 14. The only reasonable explanation is his.”
In the years that followed, Colton began to tell his story publicly during funeral services as a way to offer hope.
“I’m a pastor. I’m not a writer but people I didn’t even know would come to me and tell me I needed to write the book,” Todd said. “I didn’t even know how to get a book published and I had heard the horror stories related to the publishing world. I finally just told God he had to bring the publishing world to us if that was what he wanted and he did.”
Filming for the movie ‘Heaven is for Real’ will begin this week in Winnipeg, Canada. The target date for the upcoming movie’s release is set for Easter of 2014.
“We are currently acting as consultants,” Todd said. “We really had to pray over whether a movie production was the right path for us. It’s one thing to see your life in print and an entirely different feeling to see your life on the big screen. God really had to convince us that this was something we needed to do. In fact, a lot of our current journey began with my telling God, ‘I don’t want to do this. If you want this, you have to make it happen.’ And he has every time.”
The Mankato event is sponsored in part by United Prairie Bank.
If You Go What Heaven is for Real live event When 7:30 p.m. on Friday Where Taylor Center/Bresnan Arena on Minnesota State University campus Tickets General admission is $15 and available at United Prairie Bank locations in Mankato, Mountain Lake, New Ulm and Waseca. Tickets also available at Ticketmaster.com. A portion of all proceeds benefit the Fellowship for Christian Athletes and the BackPack Food Program.