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.