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.

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