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.

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