Saturday, November 10, 2012

My Texas Odyssey: Part 5

Note:  this is part of an ongoing series of blog entries centered around my recent trip to Texas.  I'm publishing it as a series because it's too long to publish as one article.  If you come to this in the middle, I will post links to the first, previous and next articles each week.

If you missed Part 1, here's the link: 
My Texas Odyssey:  Part 1
For Part 2, here's the link:  My Texas Odyssey:  Part 2
For Part 3, here's the link: My Texas Odyssey: Part 3
For Part 4, here ya go:  My Texas Odyssey:  Part 4

Chapter 6: The Vision of J.C.'s House

There is much about my trip to Texas that brought joy to my heart, and there is much in writing this recounting of my love for Texas and the people there that continues to do so. But there is no joy more full and complete for me than this part of the journey.

On Thursday, September 27th, my second full day in Dallas, I actually went about an hour and a half southwest of Dallas, to Cleburne, an unassuming small town.  It is also the heart of a vision bigger than Texas and as timeless as eternity. It was birthed, in human terms, in the hearts of my cousin Chris, and his wife Deb, who live in Cleburne.

But, as with all the people of whom I write in this series, their story doesn't begin on this trip. It actually begins over 30 years ago in the little town in Georgia where I grew up . . .

I didn't grow up around my cousin Chris very much of our childhood. His Daddy, Jackie, was in the Army, which carried him to far-away places for long periods of time. One of my favorite people in the world, my great-aunt Mary (Chris's grandmother; “Granny” to him), went to those far-away places also.

But, occasionally, they would come to Georgia, and it was during those times that Chris and I became as close as brothers, the best of friends.

It was during one of those visits that Chris taught me to play chess, a game which I love to this day, but which I am still very lacking in for skill. No doubt, he could still beat me easily.

During that same visit in the 1970's, between his living in Okinawa and Maryland, we created memories which we still love to recount again to this day.

Chris's little brother, Shane, whom I also dearly loved, was about 5 on this particular trip to Georgia. Chris and I discovered a wonderful secret about Shane: he would repeat anything we told him to say, without reservation or fear. And, since both Jackie and Mary were no strangers to casual cursing, we couldn't get him to repeat much of anything he hadn't already heard. So Chris and I thought how hilarious it would be to send Shane into my Nanny's house, where all the adults were playing Aggravation (a board game that was a hallmark of any typical day in my Nanny's house back then), and repeat one of these witty curses which we had been having private fun with all morning long. Chris and I would be free of blame, and we figured they probably wouldn't get after Shane too much because of his age.

I never said we were geniuses.

We made sure Shane had it down what he was supposed to say, and then we sent him in the house to make his pronouncement. We hid in the back yard behind the storage shed, and Shane ran across the back yard, flung open the back door, went in and yelled, “Shut yer damn mouth!”

For a rare moment, there was silence around the table. Then, Aunt Mary, who by-God wasn't gonna hear something like this from nobody's kid, especially not one of her damn grandkids, pushed the chair back. Shane knew the wrath of God Almighty was about to descend upon him, so he did what any intelligent boy would do in that situation. He blamed Chris and me (which happened to be the truth, but we all know that wouldn't have mattered in any case).

Chris and I were laughing at the cleverness of our little scheme when we heard the back screen door slam open. Uh-oh.

“Chris! Allan! Git yer asses up here NOW!”   It was Aunt Mary.

I don't remember what we said, but it was something approximating, “Oh, shit”.   As my Nanny might say, “Y'all just as well as signed your death warrant to git Mary riled up like that.”

The mind has a way of blocking out traumatic events, so I can't say for certain what happened after that. But I know we didn't ever tell Shane to repeat anything ever again.

Another memory from that time: my Daddy had given me an old Sony reel-to-reel tape recorder to play with. And Jackie had scores of old 45 rpm records from the 60's that we somehow got access to. So, sitting in the floor of the living room at my Nanny's house, we created our own radio shows, with us as DJ's. We'd spin records, do interviews, commercials, all on tape, which we would then play back with much delight.

Yet another memory: I had gotten a replica of the bridge of the starship Enterprise from my favorite TV show Star Trek, along with dolls for Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy, and Mr. Scott, for Christmas. Chris and Shane came over to spend the night with me several times, and during those visits, we loved to act out scenes from our favorite Star Trek episodes. And we created our own episodes . . .

Mr. Spock approaches Captain Kirk on the bridge. They are alone.

Spock: “Captain, I've got to admit it! I can't hide it any longer! I've always loved you, Jim!”

Captain Kirk: “Oh, Spock, I've been waiting for years to hear you finally say it. And it's true for me, too, you handsome pointy-eared Vulcan, you. Come here.”

At that point, to our 10-year-old-perverse-delight, the Captain and Mr. Spock would come together in a sloppy-kiss embrace that could rival anything in any romantic drama ever to come out of Hollywood.

On one of those periodic visits also, in 1977, Chris's mom Bobbie (whom I still love to this day), took Chris, Shane and I to see the original Star Wars movie.

At some point when they were older, Chris and Shane went to live with their mom in Fort Worth, and they were all still living in Fort Worth part of the time I was in Dallas, so we got to see each other occasionally, and I took the kids there more than once on a visit.

That was another thing, among many, that Chris and I had in common: we both loved Texas, and came to adopt it as our home of choice in our young adult days.

Perhaps the most important thing we discovered about one another was that, around the same age, we had both gotten serious about our faith, and we shared a sense of God's call on our lives for ministry and service. To discover that we were not only cousins and best of friends, but brothers in our faith, was a joy and delight to both of us that remains so to this day.

One thing that will always mean a lot to me is that when my granddaddy Boe passed away in March, 1988, Chris was there at Nanny's, along with our cousin Kristi, giving what comfort and care they could in Boe's last hours. I will always be grateful that Chris was there that day, and that was one more thing that cemented my love and appreciation for Chris over the years.

Another point of memory for me: I had come from Dallas to visit in the summer of 1991, before I lived on the streets of Fort Worth, and before I moved to Chicago and Jesus People USA. Chris was living in Rome at the time, but was moving back to Texas. So, in the pretense of helping him move, I got a ride with him back to Texas. That was a special time for me that I will always treasure.

In 2002, when I made my visit to Texas during one of the darkest periods of my own life, I met Deb for the first time. And, from that first meeting, she wasn't just married to my cousin Chris: she was my cousin, as much as if we were knitted together by flesh and blood. I love and admire my cousin Chris, who is a great man, but I will have to admit that this is one of those cases, as I have experienced in my own marriage to Charlotte, where Chris married above himself in this precious woman named Deb. She is a treasure in the earth if there ever was one.

I discerned in both of them a love and partnership rooted in their faith and passion for people that was far more than just chance and choice; they bore the mark of destiny, a shared destiny, an eternal partnership.

During our visit, the encouragement, strength and hope I received from them renewed my own hope and gave me strength for the hard days that were yet before me. I will always be grateful to them for their friendship and love during that time.

So, on to the present. Chris and Deb both work full-time jobs, but their real vocation and passion is the ministry they have to teenagers. I have seen teenagers at their home and when they are there, it is their home, too. And they know it. They are just as comfortable in this home (perhaps moreso) than any home they name as their own.

Chris and Deb love their kids, and the kids know it. Chris and Deb are literally giving their lives – all that they have and all that they are – for the vision they have to be a place of refuge for teenagers in need, whatever the need.

Their name for this vision: J.C.'s House.

As Deb has told me more than once, if they had the room, they'd move every teenager they know who needs a safe place into their house now. And, over the past few years, there has never been a time when they were not providing a home for at least one of their youth group, and many times more than one.

On this last visit that I enjoyed, along with Chris and Deb, there was Chris's daughter Maegan, a young man from their youth group who has lived with them several years, and a precious woman of God from their church named “Little Eagle”, who blessed me with her contagious humor and love of God and people.

Cleburne, Texas, doesn't seem like a place that would warrant much attention from people who are not from there. But it is truly a bright spot in the earth that is the focus of heaven itself, and where a work of eternal significance is taking place.

I'm just glad I'm getting to watch it happen.

Next time, I will talk about someone named Henry, and what it is about him that could make me drive 200 miles just to spend a couple of hours with him . . . I hope you will join me.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

My Texas Odyssey: Part 4

Note:  this is part of an ongoing series of blog entries centered around my recent trip to Texas.  I'm publishing it as a series because it's too long to publish as one article.  If you come to this in the middle, I will post links to the first, previous and next articles each week.

If you missed Part 1, here's the link: 
My Texas Odyssey:  Part 1
For Part 2, here's the link:  My Texas Odyssey:  Part 2
For Part 3, here's the link: My Texas Odyssey: Part 3

Chapter 5: "My Kids"

So, to sort of reset the context of things for you, since I am jumping around in time so much in this series, it is Wednesday morning, September 26th, the beginning of my first full day in Texas on this last trip. After visiting First Baptist Church, I am sitting in my car wondering where to go next. I had texted several people to let them know I was in town (finally), and hadn't heard from anyone yet.

While I was pondering my visit to First Baptist, reliving in memory all that happened there so many years ago, my phone rings. It is Perla.

Joy floods my heart at the sound of her voice. She gives me her address, and I head from downtown to the place she lives now, which is not all that far from where it all began . . .

The last Sunday In February, 1985, I ran the regular Sunday morning Pleasant Grove route as I usually did. Two of the girls who had been coming for a while, Gracie and Trini, brought their cousin, Maria, then 9, to church with them. She lived with her family in Oak Cliff.
That Tuesday, after school, I went by to visit them. They lived in a duplex apartment on Poinsettia in the Oak Cliff section of Dallas. The kids were home, but the parents were still at work. Besides Maria, there were five kids: Lorena, 13; Alex, Maria's twin brother, 9; Junior, 7; Perla, 6; and Marcos, 4. I stayed for a while, and I remember playing with the kids and them all wanting to jump on my back, wanting me to pick them up, chase them. Just like hundreds of other kids. Lorena had a guitar and had learned some songs, so she played the songs she knew and we all sang them. I talked to the kids about church, God, and school.
The kids told me that there were two other kids who lived in the apartment upstairs, sisters: Roxy, 9; and Sandra, 8. They weren't home then.
After a while, when the parents hadn't come home from work, I found out what time they came home, and told the kids I'd come back the next day to meet them and talk to them about picking them up for church. Maybe I could meet the kids upstairs, too.
I remember that day so vividly because I wrote about it in my journal that night. I wrote about how, even in the course of doing the normal work the ministry involved, sometimes you just knew something special had happened, even if you didn't know what it was. Meeting that family was such a special occurrence.
The next day, I went back over, met the parents, Lupe and Rosa. I also met the kids upstairs, and their mom, Orie (whom I wrote about in Chapter 2). Orie was a single mom, a godly woman who already went to church. But she agreed to let the girls go to church with me.
Before long, I became more involved with those two families than any of the others. It was some combination of circumstance, needs that presented themselves, and something more than words can quantify. I became friends with Lupe and Rosa; Orie and I became best friends and as I became more involved in the lives of both families, it wasn't long before I loved those kids as much as if they had been my own flesh-and-blood children. It was nothing I could explain then, and I can't explain it now. There was just a special connection with them, and I knew they would change my life forever.
It wasn't long before I started calling them "my kids". And I meant that in every way those words could convey; in some way different from the hundreds of other kids, they were my kids. I would talk to my family in Georgia about "my kids" and they would tell me that it would be different when I had kids of my own; but I knew it wouldn't. I loved those kids, was as committed to them, as if they had been my own. I loved all the kids and families I worked with, but there was something special and unique about my relationship with them.
I never tried to replace their fathers, and never tried to quantify exactly how the kids saw me, but they loved me as much as I loved them.
Eventually, both families moved away from Poinsettia, but I kept track of them, and my relationships with them continued to grow and thrive.
I remember the first time I kept the kids. By then, Rosa and Lupe were not together any longer, they were living in Irving, and Rosa worked at night sometimes. Lorena had moved out of the house on her own. I had went by to see the kids, and learned that Rosa had to work that night, and didn't have anywhere to take the kids. The kids begged me to stay with them so they wouldn't have to stay alone. I told Rosa I would do that if she wanted me to.
I had a Hebrew exam the next morning that I needed to study for. I went home, got what I needed, and went back to Irving. I don't remember much about that night except that when it was time for the kids to go to bed, they all wanted to sleep out in the living room where I was going to sleep on the couch. They argued and fought over who would get to sleep on the floor closest to the couch -- and me. We finally solved it by fixing pallets on the floor and the kids slept with their heads toward the couch -- all equally close to where I was sleeping. I remember looking at them all laying there as I fell to sleep, and thanking God for bringing them into my life.
I woke up about 4:00 the next morning to study for my Hebrew exam before I had to get the kids up for school. I remember turning on a small lamp on the bar between the living room and kitchen, sitting on a stool going over my Hebrew vocabulary words I had written on index cards, straining to see and not fall asleep. I remember wondering what my studying Hebrew had to do with the reality I was living in, working with these families and kids who needed so much. I knew I wasn't going to spend my life in some musty old office, cracking Hebrew scriptures open to prepare sermons for rich white people.
I passed the exam that day -- barely.
As time went by, I would take the kids most weekends. Most of the time I would pick up Rosa's kids and we'd all go to Orie's and spend most of the weekend. Other times, I'd go by Orie's and pick up the girls and all the kids would go to my house. Many times, the kids would go with me as I did whatever work the ministry required, which was growing more and more.
One thing that Perla and I did when I was in Dallas was to go back to that old house on Poinsettia. It looked much the same as it had 27 years ago.


And here is the house with Perla in front:


The kids would go with me everywhere, and were my shadows whatever I was doing. When the time came that I left First Baptist Church, they went with me to the Spanish-speaking church I went to in west Dallas.

When my great friend Terry (whose story comes later in this narrative) moved up to Wapanucka, Oklahoma, to pastor a church up there, about twice a month (sometimes more, sometimes less), the kids and I would go up there for the weekends. Those trips to Oklahoma are still some of the memories the kids talk about most when we speak of those early days. In 1987, when I went to Georgia for Christmas, I was able to take Alex, Maria, and Junior, with me on that trip. I recently found an old video from that trip that my Daddy had made, and I will treasure it always.

Alex ended up living with me full-time for a couple of years (1989-1991), and Roxy lived with Alex and me during the summer of 1990.

When I left Dallas in 1991, to move to Chicago and Jesus People USA, the hardest thing about leaving Dallas was saying good-bye to the kids, Rosa, and Stretch and Orie. I never dreamed it would be over 10 years before I would go back to Dallas or see them all again.

In 2002, I was living in Florida with my precious wife, Charlotte. I had just went through a year-long battle with a serious illness, and watched my life and everything I thought my life was about crumble before my eyes. I was angry, I had lost (or abandoned) my faith, my marriage was in turmoil, and there were times I didn't even want to live.

Late in 2002, I had reconnected with the people in Dallas whom I loved and hadn't seen for eleven years. My world was falling apart, and I didn't know what to do. I ended up driving out to Dallas during that time, and was joyfully reunited with Stretch and Orie, Rosa, and all the kids. Even though I was struggling, doubting, and so much had changed for me during those years, I was accepted, welcomed and loved as much as ever. My kids were all grown now, and most had kids of their own. (Roxy had moved to California, and I wasn't to see her until 2007. I wrote about that reunion here.)

After that visit in 2002, I lost touch with them again until 2009. Since then, I have been able to maintain contact with them, especially because of Facebook. And my connection with the larger extended family of Rosa's sisters, children and grandchildren, has blossomed again, and it has brought much joy to my heart.

What I have found amazing over all these years is that the connection I had to these people has been passed on to their children as well. I will share 3 examples of this.

In 2009, when I went to see one Junior, one of his kids came running up to the gate of the fence in front of the house as I was getting out of the car. He had been a baby when I had seen him in 2002, and he didn't remember me from that time. But he grew up knowing who I was and the fact that I had been someone special in his dad's life. He ran up to me, hugged me, and said, "My dad said you were like his dad, so I guess I will call you 'grandpa'."

Also in 2009, when I visited, I was going somewhere with a couple of Perla's kids. Edith, the oldest, told me that she heard people in the family talking about me and she said, "I wondered what all the fuss was about. But I've just been around you for a little while, and I'm already used to you, like you've always been here."

And, on this last trip, no moment was more special to me than when I went to pick Perla's kids up from school one day. She had not told them I was in Dallas yet. The kids came out of school, looking for their mom's car. It wasn't there, and they were looking confused. I got out of my car, and just stood there, waiting on them to see me. All of a sudden, Beonce, who's about 9 or 10, saw me. Her books and backpack went flying all directions as she dropped them, ran up to me, threw herself into the biggest hug, and shouted, "Allan! Allan! You finally came!"

Who could ask for a better legacy than this?

I could write for hours about my visit with the kids, their kids, Stretch and Orie, Rosa and that whole extended family, but space and time won't permit it here. I will just include some pictures of me and the kids from the old days (thanks to Roxy and my Mama for these).


More recent pictures from this last visit (as well as a few videos) can be found in my pictures on Facebook.

Next time, I will talk about my visit to Cleburne with my cousins, and this thing called "J.C.'s House". I hope you'll join me.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

My Texas Odyssey: Part 3

Note:  this is part of an ongoing series of blog entries centered around my recent trip to Texas.  I'm publishing it as a series because it's too long to publish as one article.  If you come to this in the middle, I will post links to the first, previous and next articles each week.

If you missed Part 1, here's the link:  My Texas Odyssey:  Part 1
For Part 2, here's the link:  My Texas Odyssey:  Part 2
Chapter 4: First Things

A Place I Used to Belong.   On that first morning I was in Dallas on this most recent trip, in addition to driving through the east Dallas neighborhood I called home when I first moved to Dallas in 1983, I went downtown to visit First Baptist Church. I had two purposes in mind: (1) I wanted to see the new construction. Almost everything that was part of the five-city-block campus when I lived in Dallas has been torn down, and the church is in the midst of a massive building project that will cost $130 million when completed, according to information on the church's web site. (2) I also wanted to try to find out about the lady I had worked for at First Baptist from 1984 to 1986, Libby.

I found a place to park close to the church, and got out of my car, amazed at how foreign this place looked that had once been so familiar to me. When I was in Dallas, Criswell College was located on the church campus. They have their own campus now, near the east Dallas neighborhood I used to live. I took some pictures, marveling at how everything I once knew here, with few exceptions, was different.

Where the old building was that used to house my office is a new facility, though it's not part of the new construction. I don't know when it was built, but it was after I left Dallas in 1991. I walked through the door of this newer building to be greeted by this formidable looking security station and several officers sitting on duty.

Was this part of First Baptist Church? Or had I walked into a bank or something by mistake? No, signs indicated I was in the right place, on the very ground where three stories up I had an office.

The security guards looked at me as if they wondered if I was homeless (and, once, I was, but not this day). I approached. They were professional and polite but not welcoming.

Can I help you?” From a young woman who could have been one of the kids I worked with back in the mid-1980's, I suppose. Not the kind of “can I help you” that is the literal implication of the words.  It was the kind of “can I help you” that means, “I know you don't belong here, and my goal is to get you out of here as quickly as possible so I can go back to my Facebook or something.”

I explained that almost 30 years ago, I had worked here . . . on this very ground where we were, in the old office building. I had worked with Libby R., and I know she retired years ago, but could I find out how she's doing?

A phone call is made to someone somewhere in the depths of these new offices.   A few moments later, I learned that Libby was alive, but not doing very well, suffering from numerous physical and mental challenges.

I thanked the officers for their help, and walked in much sadness through the door back out into the streets of a city that used to be home to me, and in some ways still is. But, not here. I didn't belong here now. This wasn't my place any longer.

But there was a time I did belong here. And it all began with a phone call . . .

It was June, 1984. I was home after finishing my morning classes at school before I went to work that night. Ben was asleep and Steve was at work. The phone rings. I answer it.


“This is Libby R., from First Baptist Church. Is Allan Mills available?”

“This is Allan.”

She went to tell me that she was the director of Primary Education (1st – 3rd grades) at First Baptist, that she was looking for an intern, and that someone who used to work for her had recommended me. Could I come in for an interview? Sure.

I went in for the interview and found out that the internship was a 25-hour-a-week position that paid $500 a month. I would mostly be doing clerical and administrative things during the week, and would work in one of the Primary Department Sunday school classes on Sundays.

The pay was less than I was making at the library, but I was impressed by Libby and it was a chance to be on the staff of First Baptist Church, which I thought would look good on my resume when I got out of school.

I barely knew the guy who had recommended me to Libby. He was a former Criswell student who had worked for Libby before. I only saw him a few times in passing when I worked in the nursery at First Baptist sometimes on Sunday nights to supplement my income (they paid their nursery workers). His son was in the class I helped with a couple of times.

But he told her that I was a hard worker and was good with the kids. So she called me.

I quickly grew to love Libby. She was one of the most dedicated and caring people I have ever known. And she was married to her job and to the church she loved with all her heart. She worked 14-16 hours a day during the week, and she expected anyone who worked with her to work as hard as she did. And I did.

I got into a comfortable routine and was thankful for the opportunity to work with Libby.

One of the things I did on Sundays was use a station wagon the church owned to go out to Mesquite, east of Dallas, and pick up a little boy who was in third grade for Sunday school. His name was Eric, and since he was going into 4th grade, and a different department, I would no longer be picking him up after September, 1984.

Each year, around the time that school started, children were promoted in all the Sunday school departments. The director of the class I worked in, Charley, and I set up appointments to visit with all the kids that would be promoting into our third grade department that fall.

It was a Tuesday night, and our last visit had been to a family who lived in Pleasant Grove, near the intersection of Jim Miller Road and Lake June Road. We were done, and Charley was taking me home.

When we turned north on to Jim Miller Road to get to the freeway, we passed a house where there were about 10 kids playing in the front yard.

Without even thinking about it, I said, “I wonder if those kids go to church anywhere?”

Charley: “Wanna find out?”

Me: “Sure.”

So Charley made the U-turn in his pickup, and we went back to talk to the kids.

My thought was that since I was not going to be picking up Eric up for church much longer, I could pick these kids up if they wanted to go to church.

The house where the kids were outside playing was actually the grandmother's house, and the kids were all cousins, brothers and sisters. They didn't go to church, they said, and the grandmother said it would be okay if they wanted to church on Sunday.

That Sunday, I rolled up in the station wagon, not expecting too much.

Before I could even get out of the car to go knock on the door, the front door opened, and the kids started pouring out. Not just the kids Charley and I had talked to, but even more cousins. The station wagon was full.

Each Sunday, more and more kids came. I started picking up kids all over Pleasant Grove. Soon, I had to use a van to hold all the kids, and before long I was making 2 trips in the van because of all the kids that were coming.

Libby saw the potential for ministry in what was happening right away. She said we'd call this new outreach “Primary Plus” and she turned me loose to concentrate on that work full-time. My 25-hour a week job quickly turned into a 50-hour a week job, and it was hard to stay afloat at school.

But I was good with kids, and I felt like I had found what I was born to do.

In just a few months, the work we were doing with Primary Plus eclipsed everything else for me. Libby even got the unprecedented approval to hire a second intern just to work with me on Primary Plus. That was Greg F., who became my best friend and whom I love to this day.

By the time I quit working for Libby and First Baptist Church in July, 1986, we were working with over a thousand kids and families every week from all over the inner city of Dallas and surrounding cities, running programs on Saturday and all day Sunday, and every day in the summer. All because Charley and I made that U-turn on a whim.

In my work with Primary Plus, I became engaged in the lives of the families during the week, and it totally changed my idea of ministry. My theology was changing, my passion to work with people was consuming me, and I loved what I did.

As the number of people we worked with exploded, the time I had for interacting one-on-one with all the kids and families was more limited, so I did what I could. I would try to take different groups of kids to the park or to McDonald's (where ice cream cones were a quarter) during the week, and as different families had needs, I would try to help them.

I am trying to be brief (“Oh, really? Is that what this is? Your attempt at brevity?”), and so must leave out much that my heart would include in this story. But the bottom line is that my view of ministry was changed, my theology was changing, and the passion of my life was to work with families on the margins of society, the forgotten ones.

As I became more and more committed to the work I was doing with families in the inner city all over Dallas, I realized after a while that I no longer belonged at First Baptist Church. My theology and ideas about ministry had changed, and I felt like I needed to be closer to the people I was giving my life to serve.

So it was, in the summer of 1986, with much pain and sadness, but also joyful anticipation, I left First Baptist Church to start doing the same work at a Spanish-speaking church in west Dallas, and I moved from east Dallas to Oak Cliff to live with one of the families I had been working with for a while.

It was during this time that I met my great friend, Terry, for the first time. But his story comes later.

And so things come full circle.  I left First Baptist when I felt like I didn't belong there any longer.  And on this recent visit, I was reminded that that hasn't changed.

Next time, I will talk about the special connections I had with two families, and how those connections continue to this day.

Part 4 is here.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

My Texas Odyssey: Part 2

Note:  this is part of an ongoing series of blog entries centered around my recent trip to Texas.  I'm publishing it as a series because it's too long to publish as one article.  If you come to this in the middle, I will post links to the first, previous and next articles each week.

If you missed Part 1, here's the link:  My Texas Odyssey:  Part 1

Chapter 2: Heartlight – “Jesus' Love Rules!”

Leaving Blossom, I headed west out of Paris on US 82 to Bonham, picked up Texas 121 back to the road I started on in Topeka (US 75), and headed south toward Dallas – my city. It was about 120 miles, more or less. My next stop, and the place I spent my first night, was actually a little north of Dallas, in Carrollton. Here live my longtime and dearest of dear friends, Stretch and Orie.

We had a joyous reunion, hugged a lot, took some pictures, and just enjoyed being together once again. It had been too long.

My history with Stretch and Orie begins with just Orie. And, I must say that my history with Orie is intimately intertwined with my history with other people in Dallas whom I love, but for purposes of this part of my story, I will separate them somewhat, though some overlap is unavoidable.

In early March, 1985, I was just a week or so away from my 20th birthday. I was in school, and by then I was working in ministry at First Baptist Church, working with kids and their families all over Dallas. That week, I had come to visit a family because one of the girls in that family had come to church that Sunday with her cousins.

I knocked on the door, met the rest of the kids, but the parents were at work, so I told them I would come back the next day to meet them after work. The kids lived in the downstairs portion of a two-story duplex. That first day, they told me that their best friends, two girls, lived upstairs with their mom, but they weren't home then either. I told them I'd try to meet them the next day when I came back to talk to their parents.

That next day, when I came back, the parents downstairs were home from work, and the two girls who lived upstairs with their mom and her brother were home also. The mom who lived upstairs with her girls was a woman named Orie.

I will come back to all the kids and what happened with them in a later section, but this is Orie's part of the story. Orie and I talked briefly, I explained who I was and why I was there. She was a single mom in her 20's, and after just a few minutes, I realized that I was in the presence of someone who loved Jesus as much as any person I'd ever met in my life.

She already went to church with her girls, she told me, but because the kids downstairs were going to start going to church with me, and because her girls and I formed an obvious connection right away, she agreed to let them go with me the next Sunday.

Orie and I quickly became best friends. I could talk to her about anything, and she confided her own struggles to me – but her talk of struggles always ended with her confidence that God would provide, she would prevail and be victorious, no matter the obstacle or difficulty. Her faith was infectious, and in the many difficulties of working in ministry with families with incredible problems and needs, she encouraged me to trust God as she did.

When both families moved from that little duplex on Poinsettia street in the Oak Cliff section of Dallas, I kept up with them. Orie moved in with a friend of hers, another single mom with two teenagers named Lorna. I quickly became friends with Lorna as well, and before long every Friday night found me at Orie and Lorna's for our weekly all-night movie marathon. This was in the days when movies were just coming out on VCR tapes and you could rent movies just about anywhere. I would always fall asleep on the floor of the living room by about 2 or 3 am, and of course everyone else with more endurance than me would make fun of me for “wimping out” once again.

Perhaps Orie's greatest influence on my life during this period was helping me navigate the waters as my theology and faith began to undergo some changes. My idea of ministry was changing, and some of my core beliefs about God were changing as well. She was always there for me, to talk, pray, encourage, and teach. I will be forever grateful to her for her friendship during those days.

In 1989, Orie met a man at a Christian music club in the Deep Ellum area just east of downtown Dallas. He had the most unusual name of “Stretch”. As I was to learn, his name was the least unusual thing about him. Stretch became Orie's friend, which meant he became my friend also. Stretch and Orie eventually married, and are still happy together more than 20 years later.

Stretch had a ministry called “Heartlight”, and the delightful (but strange to me at the time) tradition of greeting others in the ministry with the phrase “Jesus' Love Rules!” Heartlight was many things. At the time, it was mostly a deliverance ministry, but there was also a teaching and discipleship ministry as well.

Over time, I became involved in Heartlight, first in the discipleship meetings, and then in the outreach every weekend in Deep Ellum. (It was my involvement in Heartlight that directly led to me meeting Chuck Brock, living with him on the streets of Fort Worth from August to November, 1991, and then going to Chicago and JPUSA.) Those events are outside the scope of this narrative, but they make a good story anyway. These days, Heartlight continues, but the primary focus is a weekly church service at an assisted living facility north of Dallas. Twenty years ago, no one involved in Heartlight at the time could have predicted such a development. As Stretch might say, “it's a God thang.”

What I mostly have to write about Stretch and Orie and my friendship with them over the last 2 decades and more is that they have modeled the truth of “Jesus' Love Rules!” in my life more than anyone I know. The truth that Jesus' love is the motive, goal, and victory in any situation. In my darkest days, even when I would have said I had lost or abandoned my faith, Stretch and Orie met me with that unconditional love and acceptance that models God's; indeed, it was God's. And, over the years, no matter where my journey of faith has led me, I have been met with that same love. Including this most recent trip.

No one has had more influence in my spiritual life in the last 20 years than these two, and I am a better man, more whole as a person, because of it.

And so, it was certainly true that, in the city I have long considered my heart's true home, no place feels more like home to me than wherever Stretch and Orie happen to be.

To Stretch and Orie, I say: thanks to both of you for the friendship, fellowship and joy that you have brought to my life, and which will never end. And, oh yeah: Jesus' Love Rules!


Chapter 3: The Early Days

After spending that first night with Stretch and Orie, on Wednesday morning I didn't have anywhere specific to go yet, so I spent the morning driving around the places I lived when I first came to Dallas.

The first two places I lived in east Dallas are still there almost 30 years later, and they have probably aged during that time about as well as I have.

When my Mama and sister had to leave Dallas to go back to Georgia, I still didn't have a job or a place to live. I was able to rent a student dorm room for a few nights at the Dallas Bible College in Mesquite, just east of Dallas. The college is no longer there, but I was sure thankful it was there in 1983. I had everything I owned and about $500 in that little room. No car. Not a lot to bank your whole future on at 18.

But I had a lot of faith. I knew God was going to take care of me.

My Mama and sister left about noon. By about 3:00 pm, I got a call to that little dorm room from the guy at Criswell who helped students with housing and jobs. He told me that there were a couple of Criswell students who were looking for a roommate.

About 7:00 pm, one of the guys, Steve, himself in Dallas less than a week, drove out to Mesquite to pick me up. We loaded all my things (mostly clothes and books) in his little car, and drove to what would end up being my home for the next 18 months: “The 5400”, apartments at 5400 Live Oak Street in east Dallas, just east of Munger Avenue. Here is how it looked on my recent trip:

Steve took me to a two-bedroom apartment on the second floor. I was home.

The other guy, Ben, had been a Criswell student for four years, had gotten his B.A., and was a year into his Master's program. Ben had one of the bedrooms, paid half the rent for the privilege, and Steve and I shared the other bedroom and split the other half of the rent, which came to $150 for each of us.

Ben was originally from Memphis, but had lived in California in his 20's (he was in his early 30's when I met him), drove a truck for Levi's between LA and San Francisco, and then experienced his religious conversion, and moved to Dallas to go to school at Criswell.

Steve was 22, and was from Chicago, which interested me at the time because my favorite Christian band, Resurrection Band, was from Chicago, where they lived in a Christian community called Jesus People USA (JPUSA). Steve was from an inner-city church on Chicago's near-north side called Armitage Baptist Church.

Ben worked nights in a building downtown and went to school and slept during the day. Steve got a job about the same time I did selling auto parts at Sears, which was in walking distance. I rode to school with Steve, or rode the bus if our class schedules weren't the same.

Memories I have of those first days: Ben, Steve and I got along very well, and soon became good friends as well as roommates. That Thanksgiving, my first away from home, we were all invited over to share the day with a couple in their late 20's (Rob and Kerry) who lived in the same apartments. Rob was a student at Criswell, and a good friend of Ben's. They had a baby, and they were working to put Rob through school. I remember the joy of a home-cooked meal for the first time since I'd come to Dallas, and I remember watching the Cowboys play.

I remember that in the living room, standing in a corner behind the TV, was a full-size cutout of Steve Martin as his character from the movie Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, which Ben had lifted when he and some friends had gone to see the movie. Steve Martin was standing with a gun pointed straight out, and that's what greeted anyone walking through the front door. Kind of like a scarecrow for burglars, I suppose. A few times, we propped it in the living room window as a joke.

I remember we all loved watching Miami Vice on Friday nights when it started. I still love that show, and any time I watch it, I think of watching it with Ben and Steve in that apartment in east Dallas.

When Ben graduated in 1985, Steve and I still wanted to be roommates, but we couldn't afford the part of the rent Ben would no longer be paying when he left. We ended up finding a small two-bedroom apartment about 4 blocks from where we had been living at 5015 Bryan St. Here's how it looked on my trip (the same as the day I moved in 28 years ago):

Steve and I lived there until I moved in August of 1986.

Soon after graduating, Ben accepted the position of pastor of a church in southern California, where he met and married someone and, the last account I had of him around 1989 or 1990, he had a child. I have often wondered where he is and how he is doing now.

However, during the time I knew him in Dallas, he taught me many things about living on my own and living in the real world with a real faith that was not cloistered in a classroom with its nose in a book. He had a raucous sense of humor, and we all laughed a lot during those days.

The most important lesson I learned from Ben was that (much to my surprise at age 18) I was not always right, and that just because I was told something or read something it was not necessarily so. Ben taught me that real faith didn't mean shutting down your brain, abandoning critical thinking, or not questioning things.

The clearest memory I have of these things is one day when Ben and I were talking about theology (a favorite past-time of theology students, as you might imagine). He said something that went against my very dispensational view of the Bible, and I challenged him that his wasn't the standard Southern Baptist view.

Very simply, he asked me to demonstrate from the Bible the truth of the view that I had been taught and which I had always assumed was the only correct view. When I could not, I remember him just smiling and telling me that not everything I had been taught was necessarily true.

Not too many years later, I found that to be more prophetic than I could have realized, as my own theology and faith underwent tremendous change.

Steve was a more serious person by nature, but from him I received a great gift as well. Coming from an inner-city church in Chicago, Steve came to Dallas and school with a passion for reaching and helping people on the margins of society. While I immediately started attending First Baptist Church, he started attending an African-American church in Oak Cliff as the only white guy there.

Steve challenged my conception of ministry, and from him I learned to have a heart for the city, especially those people in the forgotten neighborhoods of the inner-city. I was very surprised when, seemingly by accident, that's exactly where my path led. Steve helped prepare me for that path, and I will always be grateful to him for that.

Even after I moved in 1986, we still maintained close ties. Steve was in school at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary when I left Dallas in 1991, ironically to go to Chicago, where I would live only a couple of miles from his home church. We lost touch after that, and I often wonder about him, and silently thank him for his influence on my life.

Next time, Part 3 will contain the following:

Chapter 4:  First Things, about my relationship with Libby, and my ministry at First Baptist Church.