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.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

My Texas Odyssey: Part 1

From the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, as cited at

n. pl. od·ys·seys
1. An extended adventurous voyage or trip.
2. An intellectual or spiritual quest: an odyssey of discovery.

Note: this series of blog entries will be part travelogue, part journal, part memoir, part character sketch, part writing exercise (my writing gears are rusty after several months of idleness), and maybe part something else I don't yet anticipate. However, more than anything else, it is a love letter to Texas and the people I love there.  The parts are simply because it was too long to publish as one entry, and another part will be published each Saturday until it's done.  I hope you enjoy these stories.

Introduction: In The Beginning . . . Texas

My first thought of Texas as a definite place occurred long before I fell in love with Texas or dreamed I'd ever live there. I was about six years old, around 1971, and my Mama and Daddy had met this couple through their work with Amway. This couple, Tom and Brenda V., had three kids, and Tom would eventually lead both my Mama and me to our first experience of faith. We lived in Trenton, Georgia, and they lived out of town in the country up in the mountains. They were originally from Texas, somewhere around Temple, I think.

I remember we were up there in the autumn (I remember that because it was cool and it seems like the leaves on the trees were turning and beginning to fall) at their house. My sister, Cindy, and I were playing with the other kids. The two boys had this toy football game; it was a miniature football field with two teams of little plastic football players; it plugged into an electric outlet, and after setting up the teams in position, you turned it on and it vibrated. (It was made by Tudor and you can still buy older ones on Ebay.) There was no rhyme or reason to it at all, and the little men just gyrated around the board randomly (sort of the way the Cowboys seem to be playing some games at the time I write this), but anyway at some point the little figure with the ball would topple over (which meant being tackled), vibrate out of bounds, or (rarely) actually cross one of the goal lines to “score” (and it would just as likely be the other team's goal – at least the Cowboys haven't done that this year).

I remember when we played, the boys would inevitably be the Dallas Cowboys, and they regaled me with tales of how great the Cowboys were, how great coach Tom Landry was, and, most especially, how great quarterback Roger Staubach was.

I have never had a natural affinity for sports, much preferring to read a book or to write than spend my time watching or playing sports (except that I loved playing sports at school during recess or just playing with friends growing up). Even today that is true (the part about me preferring reading a book or writing, not playing at recess or with friends). I have always enjoyed watching sports when I do; it's just not something I schedule around. But if I'm with others who enjoy it, I enjoy it as much as they do. (I am so totally inept in my knowledge of sports, when my nephew called me the other day to talk on the phone, the first thing I asked him, he being a true sports fan and me trying to impress him that I was current and knowledgeable for a change, was, “Do you think Georgia's ready for Alabama this weekend?” Somehow, I thought I'd seen someone talking about this on Facebook, and of course, since it was on Facebook, I thought it must be true. After a moment of confused silence, he broke it to me gently: “Georgia doesn't play Alabama this year.” Oh. Um. Ok. “Check please!”)

The one exception to my sports-less wasteland was this: since that day in 1971, I considered myself a fan of the Dallas Cowboys, and am to this day. Based on nothing but these boys not much older than my own six years, and whose parents were from Texas, telling me how great the Cowboys were (even if they didn't do so well on the vibrating football field we were using). Of course, when I actually moved to Dallas, my connection to the Cowboys was even more real to me, and remains so.

In February, 1980, a few weeks before my 15th birthday, I walked to the front of our church during what is known as the “invitation” in many evangelical churches, and said that I felt like God was calling me into the ministry. I was in ninth grade.

I felt like I should get a theological education, going to Bible college first and then seminary. I considered several schools, but because my church and pastor had strong connections to First Baptist Church of Dallas, and because I had a cousin who was a pastor and had gone there, almost right away, I decided that I wanted to go to Criswell College, in Dallas, Texas.

So it was, in August, 1983, we packed everything I owned into a rooftop carrier on my Mama's little Honda Civic, and Mama, my sister Cindy, one of her good friends, and I headed west on I-20 out of Georgia for Dallas. The only times I had been out of Georgia was to go to Florida or the Smokey Mountains in North Carolina on vacation, several trips to Chattanooga, Tennessee, trips to Alabama to see relatives, and a trip my senior year in high school to Washington, D.C.

I still remember the moment we came over a small hill about 10 or 15 miles east of Dallas, and suddenly rising up out of the flat land that spread before us, there it was: big, beautiful, glamorous and glorious. In that moment, I fell in love with that city. And knew, somehow, even before I realized what it meant, that I was coming home.

Chapter 1: Journey to Blossom

I have been in Kansas since January, 2010, and before my most recent trip last week, which prompted this bit of writing, had not been back to Dallas except for a couple of trips in the truck when I passed through and was able to stop for several hours.

I left Topeka the morning of Tuesday, September 25, going south on US 75, through Tulsa, and the Indian Nation Turnpike in Oklahoma, and then south on US 271 into Texas. Just north of Paris, I was welcomed to the state I had longed to return to since the last time I left.

A few miles east of Paris, I came to Blossom, Texas, my first stop on this trip. Blossom isn't a place I historically have connections to in Texas. But this is where my friend Billy lives now. And it started in Dallas almost 30 years ago . . .

Within three days of arriving in Dallas in August, 1983, I had a place to live (an apartment I shared with two other Criswell students) and I had a job.

Criswell College had no student housing and I had to work to support myself through school. I went to school full-time Tuesday through Friday and worked after school. My first job was in east Dallas at the Sears on Ross Avenue. The store was already on life support when I got there, and it has long since disappeared, currently replaced by a small shopping center anchored by a grocery store, as in the photo below.


On that first day I went in to work in the customer service department, one of the people I met, and with whom I worked most days until closing, was a man in his early 50's named Billy. He was a nice man, and helped me learn the procedures in my new job. I told him I was a student at Criswell, and he told me that when he was about my age, in the early 1950's, he had gone to Bible college as well, at the time thinking he might become a missionary to Africa. So began a friendship that has lasted almost 30 years.

During the years I was in Dallas, Billy was a friend, mentor, teacher, example, and most of all, an encourager. I have never met anyone in my life who models all that it means to be an “encourager” more than Billy. He is a quiet, gentle man, with an easy infectious laugh, and the most remarkable memory for details of his personal history I have ever encountered. I think Billy has stayed in regular contact with every friend he's ever had, going back to connections in his 1940's high school class and church youth group.

After I left Sears to go work at the Dallas Public Library's downtown branch, we kept in touch, and we rarely missed our weekly lunch at McDonald's, Arby's, or Church's Chicken, usually in east Dallas. I didn't have a car during part of that time, and he'd always come pick me up at school or home or wherever I happened to be.

I never shared my struggles, fears, doubts, frustrations with Billy but that I ended up being strengthened and encouraged. It remains so to this day. Over the years, I introduced my circle of good friends to Billy, and he became their friend as well. Over the years he was in Dallas, Billy served as a friend and mentor to no less than 5 Criswell students, some of whom I didn't even know.

After spending many years working his regular day job at the Dallas Independent School District and then working a second job at night (many years at Sears, and then, later at the library), he and his wife (Sarah, whom I considered a good friend as well) retired, and bought a house in Blossom, near the area where Billy grew up. We never miss a week exchanging e-mails, and I know I never miss a day being prayed for, because I and my family have been on his daily prayer list for years.

Billy is that rarest of friends in the earth who is a treasure to be cherished, one of those people who is loved and admired by all who know him. Including me. Thank you for almost 30 years of friendship, encouragement, and faithfulness. I am a better man because of your influence.

I was able to spend a few hours visiting with Billy on this trip, and I can't think of a better way to start a trip to Texas than by seeing my first and oldest friend from Dallas.

Next time, Part 2 will cover the following:

 Chapter 2:  Heartlight -- "Jesus' Love Rules!"
Chapter 3:  The Early Days