The Vandelia I LOVE vignette #5

Birthday Party Ministry

This is gonna sound really weird, (I think), but here goes: Special Agent D and I – a couple of young-to-middle-aged, white boys from the college-educated, white-middle-class side of the tracks – found ourselves throwing birthday parties for young children in the homes of complete strangers!  Let me unpack this a bit.  Some readers might recall Tony Campolo’s birthday party for a hooker in Honolulu, but I sense my story is as strange as a baptized version of a Quinton Tarantino movie.

Imagine with me for a moment, two white guys knocking on the door of an apartment at the Cricket Court complex – 152 units of Section 8 housed, mostly poor, black, single mammas and their young children with obligatory drug-dealers’ cruising the lot, thumpin’ the HipHop, showing off their shiny rims, and making more babies – (anyway, back to the two white boys knocking in the midst of this scene).  Go there with me a moment.

The door opens about three inches and stops as the little security chain restrains it.  Suddenly, about knee high you see a pair of young curious eyes appear.  Right above them appears another pair.  Right above those, yet another pair.  And from behind these eyes a voice shouts, “Who is it?”  And then three little voices in unison say, “Mamma, It’s the cops!”

Yeah…  “The cops.”

If you are a white guy of roughly 30 to 40 years of age, and want to impersonate a cop… well, just go beat on a door “down in the ‘hood” and see what it’s like.  It’s really just that easy.  Special Agent D and I experienced it many times as we reached out to the poor of our community for Jesus.  It never ceased to amaze me.  I literally have to be about as far from being a cop as it gets without being a criminal.

But stay with me a minute.  Now imagine Mamma comes to the door and we white boys, the “cops,” ask if it would be okay for us to throw a birthday party for the kids.

What do you think will happen?

I can’t make this stuff up.  I really would not believe it if I had not lived it.  And I would not have lived it, if Vandelia had not sent me to the streets on a mission from God.  And now I want to tell Vandelia, and the world along with her, some of the CRAZY things God did with our answer to his call.

Okay, in good Tarantino fashion, flashback with me now to the beginning of this escapade, and let me show you just how this crazy thing came to be.  But I think, also like Tarantino, the unpacking of it will be just as strange, yet somehow believable.

Remember the hooker I told you about here?  Well, she had a bunch of sisters, and well, one of them was a very hard-working driven woman who would not allow drugs in her home.  She had a blistering tongue and could roll her neck with a sense of moral authority that struck fear in my heart the first time I met her.  This woman did not think Special Agent D and I were cops.  No.  We were friends with her hooker-sister, which to her meant we were drug dealers.  She did not trust us.  But when her sister sobered up for 9 months, we won a second chance at a first impression with her.

Anyway, this authoritarian sister – being the hard-working disciplinarian of the family – also collected kids from her other sisters.  Her house was full of the rug rats her delinquent siblings had created.  She was a one-woman tour de force for reason, for sensibility, for good… in her own neighborhood and in her own family.  And while her sisters were in and out of jail, their children came to live with her.

Special Agent D and I got to know these people.  We saw the odds stacked against this fine woman and the children she was saving.  We wanted to help.  And quickly we found out that one of the children was about to have a birthday, but there was precious little money with which to celebrate.  Special Agent D and I calculated the cost of a cake, some streamers, balloons, and a few party favors.  This was “do-able” we thought.  So, we set the date and time and made the preparations.

When the appointed hour arrived, it turned out that one of the children had gone to visit cousins at Cricket Court that day.  There was nobody with a car (that worked) available to go retrieve the child to bring to the party.  Now… Special Agent D and I both had vehicles.  I drove a truck that would seat 3.  So, when Special Agent D and I ran down to Cricket Court to pick up one child to take to the birthday party, this was just not going to be a problem… Right?

Here’s the thing: Cricket Court is notorious for little kids running hither and yon around the complex – and there are hundreds of them!  So when Special Agent D and I arrived looking for the one we intended to take back to the birthday party that Jesus was throwing for the rug rat at the hooker’s sister’s house, we had to search through the mob of rug rats at Cricket Court to locate the one we were after.  And, well, if you have been following these vignettes for a while, you know that Vandelia had already been reaching out to mobs of these kids – as I told about here and here.  Special Agent D and I were already finding ourselves in the social network of welfare children from the Vandelia Village.

Are you catching the complex, Tarantio-ish plot development here?  This story was ripe to get UGLY!

I am not saying we knew all the kids.  No. We only knew a couple, but that is all it took.  When a couple of these kids realized that Special Agent D and I were on the premises of Cricket Court, they went bonkers wanting our love and attention!  Quickly we had a mob of 3 to 9 year-olds flocking to us.  And of course, we were there in search of only one in particular to take with us to a birthday party.  And when we found the child we had come for, there was only enough room in the truck to take just that one child.  But of course that one child told all the others that we were taking him to a “birthday party.”

It was like a stick of social dynamite exploded in our faces.

Just imagine a couple of dozen poor kids jumping up and down begging to go to the birthday party!  What do you do?

I am gonna let you sit with that a moment….

 

….

 

No.  Keep sitting with that…

 

Okay.  Here’s what developed then:  This one little girl, about 9 years old, pops off saying, “Today’s my birthday… I don’t get no party.  Can I come?”

Can you feel the knife in your heart?  I did.

Let me ask this as kindly and as Christianly as I can:

What in the HELL do you do with that?

I was stunned.  But of course TODAY is YOUR birthday TOO!!!  Are you for real, little girl???  Do you really expect me to believe that???

Seriously, I almost asked her that.  I was her chump.  I knew it.  I was recoiling inside.  I am a sucka and everyone in this apartment complex can plainly see it.  But just then, as if the Spirit of God wanted to intervene (did I just say “as if” ???), one little boy I had met across town in a completely unrelated context stepped forward from the mob.  I had been teaching this kid to pray at his grandmother’s house on odd weekends.  And this 7 year-old wanted to lead the whole mob in a prayer.

Now… with kids… you can do that!  I didn’t know you could until just that moment, but I am telling you, YOU CAN!  So… we did.  We made a huge circle and let this little boy lead us all in a prayer.  And while he prayed, my heart began to soften up.  And when he was done, I had the presence of mind to ask the little girl her name and apartment number.  I deeply regretted that I could not celebrate her birthday with her there and with all those kids just then, but I pleaded with her heartbroken eyes to TRUST me to come back one week later and throw her a party.

She had no choice.  So… she accepted.  But I was now on a hook I never imagined.

Special Agent D and I left there with the child for which we had come searching.  We took that child back to the original birthday party and the hooker’s sister’s house.  We had a great time!  Took lots of photos.  Made lots of memories.  Loved on those kids like as if we were playing the role of Jesus in the APOCALYPTIC BANQUET OF THE AGE TO COME!  And then….

And then I was bound to plan another party for the next weekend.  And it felt soooooooooo open ended, like we were about to step on a never-ending treadmill of birthday parties.  And where would we throw the party???  Apartment 14???  Do we know those people???  Everyone in Cricket Court, like everyone on 65th Drive, thinks we are the cops!  “These people” (as we are apt to label them) don’t trust the cops!  How exactly is this gonna work???  And, heaven help us, if it does work, when will it end???  Oh, my God!  My life is not my own!  I am scared.  I am overwhelmed.  And anyway, what lasting change in these lives will be achieved with a few balloons, streamers and chocolate cake???

One week later, Special Agent D and I arrived at the appointed time and place: the door of Apartment 14.  We knocked.  The door opened three inches.  The obligatory eyes and the obligatory question with the obligatory answer:  “Mamma, It’s the cops!”

“What do you want from us?”

“Ma’am, Do you have a daughter by the name of [Agent Belated Birthday]?

“Yes.  What did she do?”

“Ma’am, she turned 9 years old last weekend, is that right?”

In a fearful tone, “That’s right.”

“And she did not get a birthday party.  Is that right?”

Now in a totally perplexed tone, “Uh… no.”

“Ma’am, would it be okay with you if the Vandelia Church throws her a birthday party here today to make up for missing it last week?”

“Ummmm…. really?  Ummm… okay… I guess. Ummm…. come in, will you?”

I thought you would never ask!

Special Agent D and I walked into that apartment and interrupted a football game the adults were watching on their gigantic Rent-A-Center TV.  The children went on a mission trip throughout the complex, rounding up other children to come to the APOCALYPSE, while Special Agent D and I took over that home.  We hung streamers; we aired up balloons; we cracked out $10 worth of party favors from the dollar store, all while the adults tried to watch their game and tried to ignore us taking over the place (at their own invitation, btw.  Hey, we all know you should NEVER invite a vampire into your house.  The same goes for Jehovah’s Witness and Mormons… Right???).  And really, just what are social graces anyway?

In about 10 minutes, we had that apartment decked out in balloons and streamers.  Kids from the complex began pouring in by the dozens!  We fed them sugar-packed chocolate cupcakes and Cool-Aid.  We sang Happy Birthday for the 9 year-old girl in front of all her friends and family!  (I have a photo of this girl smiling and holding a balloon that makes me cry to this day.)  And once the APOCALYPSE broke out in this apartment, suddenly a couple of kids began batting a balloon over one of the streamers almost like a tennis match.  The adults sitting on the sofa watching TV began to join in the fun.  And then suddenly 30 people crammed into this tiny Section 8 apartment were batting balloons in a festive, ballistic free-for-all!

And then we prayed.

And thanked Jesus for the grace he brought to us that day.

This is but one of the untold stories of the Vandelia mission to the neighborhood.

The telling of it is long overdue.

This is what your left foot, Vandelia, was doing in the dance just then, and I think you should know about it.  Perhaps you could find that rhythm again and go with it???

What do you think LIFE in the AGE TO COME is like?  Is it like a mustard seed?  Is it like throwing mountains around, walking on water, stopping the sun in the sky?  Is it like lions lying with lambs and children playing with snakes?

Is it like throwing perpetual birthday parties for little kids?

Do you think such birthday parties at least lift the veil just for a moment so that we can experience here and now just a taste of the AGE TO COME????

Think about it.

 

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The Vandelia I LOVE vignette #4

Communion.  Midnight.  Children.  Shootings.  Jesus.  Hookers.  Drug dealers. Ministry.

Yeah… those were the days.

In this vignette, I will now tell of the night we stopped a murder with a communion service.  This was truly a highlight in my life and ministry.  Perhaps we could call it clandestine consecration.

Special Agent D (SAD) and I were learning clandestine consecration.  Here is how we figured it out: When we heard the name of a rumored drug dealer out on 65th Drive (and then passed it on to a handful of little grannies in a prayer circle back at church), those drug dealers would wind up going to jail.  It was quite remarkable.  It only took a couple of weeks worth of prayer before God seemed to move in dramatic fashion to bring about change in the lives of these guys.

First we heard about a guy named “Blue.”  We passed the name along to the prayer-warrior grannies.  About two weeks later, we heard that “Blue” had been arrested and was in jail.  Then we heard of “Black.”  We passed the name off again.  About two weeks later, “Black” was in jail.  This got us thinking and talking.  And soon drug dealers in the neighborhood began to dread us.  They actually heard about this little process and feared us getting their names and passing them on to the grannies!

I can’t make this stuff up, folks!

We represented the cutting edge of Vandelia in a spiritual swordfight on the streets of Lubbock.  Through us, God was having a real and mysterious impact that was just bigger than the sum of our parts.  SAD and I were not coordinating these events; we were not conducting this orchestra or choreographing this dance.  We were not that smart.  But we knew well enough to take advantage of the bridgehead God had given us in this battle for the Promised Land.  We put word out on the street that our grannies were hungry for new names to pray for.  Thus our message was: REPENT! The time has come, and the Kingdom of God is at hand! (Mark 1:15).

The Spirit of God hovered over the sea of chaos in Genesis 1, and out of that came to birth all the wonders of old creation.  Fast forward through the eons to the Vandelia Village in Lubbock, Texas, and we were witnessing the Spirit of God hovering over the sea of drugs, prostitution, and drive-by shootings – the mess from which New Creation was coming to life.

This was the backdrop for the scene where God stopped a murder with a prayer service.  It happened one night when I went out on the streets with a handful of men from several other churches as well as Vandelia.  It was a real ecumenical effort on this particular night.  And one of the men who went with us was (the late) Rev. Rodney – a formerly homeless ex-con-turned street evangelist who had gone to prison under a life sentence for murder only to get out when a law student from Illinois took his case as a class project, wrote a writ, and got him freed.  That actually was not what turned Rodney’s life around, but it was part of his story that proved very meaningful on this particular night.

As had become our custom, we set up our table on the dark, empty lot of 65th Drive and gathered around the lantern to pray and meditate.  That’s when we heard it: A voice from the darkness.  It could have been a voice from heaven, but then again it was asking a hard question rather than making a proclamation.

“Hey!  Are you the real Christians?”

I was looking around the table at a couple of guys from some very hardline Church of Christ congregations, but also at a Methodist, a Pentecostal, and a Baptist.  I almost wanted to say, “No.  We are not the real Christians; we’re Methodists!”  But I sensed that my idea of humor would not really be funny, so I stifled my joke.  And then the same voice interrupted the silence with his own answer, “You must be…. No one else would come out here to pray.”

Then the voice in the dark announced, “I need prayer.  I am about to kill somebody.”

Wow!  At that, the motley crew gathered at the Lord’s Table began urging the man to come out of the shadows and join us.  He did.  His name was Juan.  He was already quite inebriated and filled with rage.  He said that his woman had taken up with another man.  He knew right where they were and what they were up to just then, and he wanted to go shoot them both.

That’s when Rev. Rodney found the right words for Juan.  He said, “Man.  Let me tell you.  It’s not worth it.  I did exactly that very thing.  I went to prison for it.  I was there more than ten years.  When I got out, I found my daughter.  She said to me, ‘Daddy, Where were you when I needed you?'”

Rodney’s daughter had been raped while he was away in prison.  His moment of vengeance not only took the girl’s mother away and effectively ended his own life, but left his little girl to fend for herself in a vicious world.  And as his story tumbled out for us, it really sucked the fire and the poison out of Juan!  Juan sat there and prayed with us for half an hour in the dark, empty lot by the lantern and ate the Body of Christ and drank his Blood instead of killing people.  Our little ministry was an adventure to us, and it saved at least three lives!

We went back to that spot a couple of weeks later, and Juan found us again.  A couple months after that, we met Juan yet again.  He continued to be very thankful for the hand of God and Rev. Rodney’s wise words in his moment of need.

Again, I tell these stories so that my readers, and especially anyone from Vandelia, will know what the left foot of that Body of Christ was doing in the dance just then!  Not many from Vandelia were there to see it.  I don’t know how many there are even aware of it.  But this was Vandelia’s ministry to that dark place in the neighborhood God granted us as a Promised Land.  It was good times.  And I remember them fondly like treasures in my heart.

The Vandelia I LOVE vignette #3

Midnight Communion.

That is what Special Agent D (SAD) and I called it.  That is what my most previous post describes – the birth of Midnight Communion.  That little ministry had such a deep impact on me… on my imagination.  We confronted the meanest streets of Lubbock at the meanest hours of the night armed only with the love of God, and we found that the drug dealers, the pimps, and the prostitutes were afraid of us!  It was a thrill.

I posted several days ago under the title – Stupid Things I’ve Done For Jesus – about loving a hooker.  I did not describe our communion service in connection with that post, but it was involved.  When I stop to reflect on that relationship, I am still utterly amazed at how our celebration of that lost lamb made such a deep impact on her life.  She sobered up for nine months, and we did not even ask her to try!  I will not hide the fact that currently she is not doing so well, but I can’t help but wonder what would have happened to her if more and more church people had ventured out on those streets to love her.  That touch, that shout for joy at finding her, the story that unfolded about how I had searched for her for months on end….

Would it have made a lasting impact if dozens of church people repeated that interaction with her?

But then there were those shootings I referred to as well.  SAD and I had not been out there the night those people got shot, but we invited Vandelia to attend a special communion service at the sites of each shooting following worship that next Sunday.  Only a small group followed us there, but perhaps there were about a dozen.  And the remarkable thing that I can’t forget is how the children from the apartment complex joined us for those communion services AND told what they had experienced.  These young children described their fear as gunfire broke out, how they ran for their lives, and when it was over about the Police and EMS response.  They took us to the still visible blood stains, and we drank Jesus’s blood there with them.

And it is the children that I want to highlight in this post particularly.  It seemed that the adults tended to fear us and think we were undercover cops, but the children just did not care about that.  They were as innocently curious as children can be.  But the kicker is that we encountered them at midnight on the streets.

I recall this one night in particular when SAD and I had set up our communion table and lantern in the empty lot of 65th Drive, and then we set out to invite people to join us for communion.  But by the time we were set up and reaching out, the adults all disappeared.  The kids, however, came flocking to us.

In those days, I was very shy about children’s ministry.  I was all in favor of it, but I had no ambition to be a part of it.  In fact, I did not really want to be involved at all.  But when we were set up to receive people to the Table of the Lord in the middle of 65th Drive at midnight, we were willing to take anybody who would accept the invitation.  And well, on this one occasion, it was children!  (Mark 9:37 …anyone???)  Some of them were quite young!  One was in diapers and not old enough to speak… and I met her completely unattended by adult supervision at midnight on the worst street in Lubbock for drugs and prostitution!  She was left completely to the care of the other children.  I could have stole her, and no one would know (I think)!

Suddenly SAD and I were surrounded by children ranging in age from 6 to 14.  I do not recall how many, but I think we had about 8 of them.  And they were most insistent that we should welcome them to our party!  SAD and I consulted each other and decided it was important to get permission from some parental figure if at all possible.  The kids were able to locate this one little, old lady in one of the apartments who gave them permission to join us in the dark, empty lot across the street.

What can I say?  The party was on!

It was very cold that night.  SAD and I wore coats, but the kids were running around in blankets.  So, we all huddled close and shivered around our table in the dark.  SAD began telling the children the story of Baby Moses and then the Exodus, and as he spoke, these kids from the poor side of town (kids who in my experience as a substitute teacher for LISD were often among the hardest to control in a classroom setting) sat there like perfect, little soldiers eating up every word for over an hour!

As I recall it, we opened up the communion with prayer, but we also asked the kids to share their lives with us as we ate the communion bread and drank the Sparkling Grape Juice.  The kids began lamenting that one of their friends had not joined us for the party.  I inquired why not?  It turned out that this adolescent boy, who we will call “Agent X2,” had felt ridiculed by these same kids earlier that day at school.  Agent X2 had worn a shirt to school that day which the administration had deemed inappropriate, and so he was sent home.  However, the problem was that being unable to obtain appropriate attire, he had been forced to wear his mother’s shirt, and the kids knew it was his mother’s shirt, so they had made fun of him.  It broke my heart!  This kid was so poor, he could not go to school dressed appropriately and was ashamed.

We prayed for Agent X2 in our communion service.  We talked about how Jesus cares about stuff like that.  I think the kids at our worship service began feeling really convicted about their ridicule of Agent X2.  And I cannot imagine how we might have addressed this concern if we had not been there at midnight with our crazy idea that communion at that place and in that hour might serve God in some way!  Go figure!

We spent nearly two hours with those kids in that dark, empty lot on 65th Drive, and they ate up every minute of it.  But SAD and I looked at each other thinking about how the cold, night air at 2am was a good time to call it quits.  We each had jobs and a “day life.”  We began explaining to the kids that we needed to pack it in and go home.  They pleaded with us to stay.  We insisted; they caved… but only on the promise that we would return to do it again soon!  “Tomorrow night???? Please… please… please???”  We escorted the children back to the apartment where we met the “granny” who gave us all “permission” to go into the dark, empty lot across the street at midnight on the worst, crime-ridden street in Lubbock.  She took the kids back in with her, and at last it was quiet as SAD and I walked back to our table to pack it in for the night.

At that moment SAD turned to me and asked, “That woman… was she really trusting or really stupid?”  I said, “That woman was really stupid.  She does not know us.  We could have been anybody.  We could have done anything with those kids.  But I will say this: Even if we never come back again, those kids will always remember the night those two, crazy, white boys took them into the dark, empty lot across the street and worshipped Jesus with them!”

No one will ever be able to take that away from them.  That moment of imaginative celebration will go with them.  They will always remember it.  It will always be a touch stone whether we build on it or not!  That is power!  And I hope that long after I am dead and buried, that at least a couple of those kids, when they are old, tell young children about that crazy night and the impact Jesus had on them!

I am so deeply blessed to have played this tiny role in Vandelia’s ministry.  This is one of the brighter moments that led me to embrace a prophetic ministry.  I have always centered ministry on that Table of the Lord ever since.  And we were sent there by Vandelia!

The Vandelia I LOVE vignette #2

During my early years at Vandelia, I developed a close partnership with my fellow-worker and fellow soldier Special Agent D (SAD).  SAD was about the same age as me, and like me, he also took his professional training in Christian ministry.  So I suppose it was only natural that we form a dynamic duo, as if Jesus had sent us out in pairs (think Mark 6:7).  And I must say that SAD’s real strength was in his imaginative use and understanding of complex things like maps and statistics.

SAD was a wealth of information that proved ingenious, but which almost no one would want to research to find out.  It was through SAD that I learned about the crime and poverty stats of our neighborhood.  I mean it would be easy for someone such as myself living outside of the Vandelia Village to simply think that most of the headline-grabbing crimes were spread out around the city – or to think they were disproportionally associated with “The East Side” (African/American dominated) area of town.  But SAD enlightened all of us at Vandelia Church about the fact that we were situated right in the most troubled district of our city.

Once you coupled that erudite information with a keen theological interest, as SAD was apt to do, we began to view the Vandelia Village as the Promised Land that God had marked out for conquering by the church!  And SAD had already ventured out on those streets late at night to see first-hand what the riff-raff was doing in the wee hours.  When he told me of one of his Lone Ranger/late night adventures where he confronted a pimp beating a prostitute in a dark alley, I insisted that he take me along on any future outings!

SAD and I began meeting weekly to pray and discuss the things God was doing in our imagination(s).  Over the course of several weeks (months really), we formulated a plan.  It just so happens that I had recently read a great little book (I highly recommend) called The Meal Jesus Gave Us: Understanding Holy Communion, by Tom Wright (aka N.T. Wright).  I had begun to view communion in terms of spiritual warfare, and in time I convinced SAD that we should take a communion service to the streets of the Vandelia Village at midnight and see what God would do with it.

I have several vignettes to share from those adventures, and I expect to offer at least two of them in subsequent posts.  If you have been reading this blog for a few months, you know that I have repeatedly referred to (and promised to share in detail) an experience I had stopping a murder one night with a communion service.  I will tell that story soon.

For now, I merely want to focus on my partnership with SAD and our initial ministerial duet.  I can’t help but recall the first night we showed up on 65th Drive at about midnight with a small card table, a lantern, a few folding chairs, a couple of Bibles, and crackers and grape juice.  We pulled up on an empty lot across the street from the El Cid and Spanish Flair apartments.  In the parking areas of both complexes, I could plainly see a couple of groups gather like a block party.  I estimated between 75 and 100 people drinking, smoking, playing loud music.  As I hopped out of my truck and began setting up my table, the crowds dissipated quickly, and nearly everyone disappeared into the shadows of the night.

The empty lot we set up in was dark as night, but the parking area across the street was dimly lit.  When I had my table set and the lantern lit, I immediately crossed the street looking for the crowds that had all but vanished.  There was hardly a soul to invite, but I found a few there in the emptiness.  I told them we were having a worship service and if anyone needed prayer, they would be most welcome to join us.  Then I went back to the table and joined SAD to pray and read Scripture and meditate.

After a few minutes, our senior pastor and one of the church elders drove up and joined us.  SAD had made a point to purchase a bottle of Sparkling Grape Juice and set it next to the lantern on the table.  In the dim light, we all remarked about how the juice looked like a bottle of wine.  Just then from out of the thickness of the dark in that empty lot, a drunk man stumbled up on our party.  Immediately we all implored the man to join us, but he belligerently pointed at the bottle and announced, “I’ll give you five dollars for that bottle right there!”

The words no sooner formed on his lips than he suddenly noticed the Bibles and the sacramental nature of the table.  Then he immediately back peddled and apologized, excusing himself in embarrassment and shame.  And despite our strong urging, he would not join us, but rushed away into the darkness of the night from which he had emerged.

That first night out demonstrated to us that just by showing up, we could have a profound impact on the single-worst, crime-ridden, city block in all of Lubbock, Texas.  We came armed only with a Bible, a lantern, and the Body of Christ broken for us!  And the very people we had thought we were supposed to be afraid of, were instead terrified of us!  God had in fact prepared a table for us in the presence of our enemies (Psalm 23:5), and our enemies fled like roaches when the lights come on!

Sure enough, inside of a month, that one city block experienced a night of bloodshed.  Three people were shot there in a drive-by shooting, and a fourth almost died in another shooting just 6 blocks away – all in one night!  SAD and I became determined that this street needed more of our ministry – not less!  And we returned again and again to that lot.

In the early days of that ministry, we did not attract a whole lot of the people we were reaching out to.  Instead, as we learned over time, those people holding those beer-bust/pot smoking parties were in fact paranoid and thought we were cops undercover!  Ha!  And the cops sometimes stopped to check us out too.  They repeatedly warned us that this street was dangerous.  The security guards at the apartment complex nearby too would warn us again and again.  It was obvious that the conventional wisdom was not with us, but apparently the foolishness of God was (I Cor. 1:18, 21, & 25 … anyone???).

Meanwhile, SAD and I just kept showing up.  We had a number of minor (yet notable) encounters even in those early outings, but mostly we just showed persistence in the belief that our worship in that place at those times was making a difference.  I can recall praying – petitioning God – to grant his favor to that street and transform it into the jewel of Lubbock.  I can recall daring to imagine people from all over Lubbock coming to that street to seek healing and fellowship from the people who lived there.  And eventually, we had a few major encounters – adventures that I intend to post on next time.  But SAD and I spent many of those nights developing our faith in things we could not see and no one else was even daring to imagine.

Yeah.

Those were good times!

The Vandelia I LOVE vignette #1

In keeping with my previous post, I want to explore an imaginary, family, photo album of the church I love.  When I joined Vandelia, I landed a role as Bible class teacher even before I actually became a member.  I spent a solid year of Sunday’s leading my class through the Gospel of St. Mark (my favorite book in the Bible).  I had a great time preparing every week, and it seemed my offerings were deeply engaging more often than not.  There seemed to be a sense (based on feedback) that my class both challenged and resonated with offerings from our senior pastor!  I felt validated by that to say the least.

But when I wrapped up that first year, I closed our study and gave up the role of teacher.  I felt I had taken my turn and the baton should be passed.  I hoped there might be more opportunities in the future, but I had no desire to be the featured presenter forever.  And it was around that time that I became more aware of and involved in Vandelia’s very robust “neighborhood outreach” ministry.  Now… for any blog readers unfamiliar with Vandelia, let me give a brief account.

Several years before I arrived at Vandelia, a woman there began gathering resources and helping the poor people of our neighborhood.  We will call her “Agent G+.”  The “+” stands for how dynamic this woman’s ministry became.  She had a lot of talents and flair to match.  The Spirit of God moved in this woman powerfully!  Energy that would make the Energizer bunny gasp.  And she started a core outreach which she called “A Cross the Street.”

I should say that Vandelia’s church building sits in an obscure neighborhood.  It is a strange mix of wealth on the one hand, but poverty, race, (white, black, and brown) – AND – it is statistically the highest crime district of the city of Lubbock. There are more burglaries, assaults, stolen vehicles, incidents of vandalism, prostitution, drug deals, child abuse, and more low-income apartments in that neighborhood than any other.  Also, there are more shootings there.  And despite Vandelia’s location in the midst of all this, hardly a member of that church lives in that neighborhood.  Vandelia is 99.9% white middle-class and from other neighborhoods.

So, Agent G+ tapped into a wealth of adventure and pain when she ramped up her A Cross the Street ministry.  Her bridge across the street spanned a socio/spiritual Rubicon!  She had her work cut out for us.  The need was great, but she found that through writing grants and establishing a 501c3, she could raise lots of money from sources beyond Vandelia to cover all the financial costs.  Vandelia need only supply volunteers.

Meanwhile, Vandelia, being a fairly small church of less than 500 regular members had in recent years paid off the note on the church building.  And just when other churches were doing the same, but then deciding to join the “white-flight” district on the new and shiny side of town, Vandelia instead decided to add on a basketball gym and multipurpose building with which to minister to the kids of the Vandelia Village.

Suddenly, the Vandelia Village had a potent ministry in her midst.  And between Agent G+’s programs of bill pay assistance, clothing closet, food pantry, bus passes, and so forth, the rest of the church added support with manpower and broadened the project to include Wednesday night meals for the public, tutoring for school work, AND this daring little “church of Christ” even asked a local Baptist evangelist to come hold revival-style worship services in the main sanctuary on those Wednesday nights.  It did not take long for the house to be a rockin’… if you know what I mean!

Soon we were employing off-duty cops to patrol the place.  We had mobs of kids packing the joint and bringing all their noise, all their smiles, and all their problems with them.  I mean it put that little church to work!  Makes me think of Spinal Tap when Nigel said, “My amp goes to eleven!”  Yeah.  We rocked.

Our Baptist evangelist (I will call him Agent Baptisto) was a late, middle-aged Hispanic man who, in his young days, was a ranking leader in the local Brown Berets.  He had street-cred as they say.  He began holding training seminars for evangelizing the neighborhood.  And that is when I joined the fray.  A group of us regulars went to his lectures for a few weeks, then we hit the streets like working in a college lab course.  And he asked us nice, white, middle-class imports to go in pairs and hit the streets of this troubled neighborhood with him and knock on doors announcing: “Hi…  we are from the church up on the corner.  We are canvassing the neighborhood asking people what kind of needs they have that Jesus could address….”

Here’s the kicker: As we did that invariably the person behind the door would ask in a suspicious tone, “What church???”  And as we described it to them, every last one of them would finally ask, “Do you mean that church where [Agent G+] goes?”

Yeah.  That one!

And then I accompanied some of my partners into these homes where we assessed various needs and offered to pray for them.  Time and again, I looked at electric bills, empty cupboards, kids rooms with no beds in them, lack of clothing, roaches climbing the walls, kids gathering around their momma’s knees while tears welled up in their momma’s eyes.  And time and time again, I watched my white, middle-class brothers and sisters in Christ (who in other conversations at other times in other places revealed their enthusiasm for FOX News casts and some conservative political candidate and their dread of liberals, taxation, and “these people” on welfare), suddenly transfigure into glowing garments of light and pray with “these people” and then suddenly feel the futility of their own prayers.  Then I watched them reach into their wallets and cut a lot of red tape as they just openly funded supper tonight for a welfare family… no food stamps, no drug tests, just the free gift of Jesus’s love.

(And you know what?  They are right.  “Big government can’t do that!”  But then neither does hard work and personal responsibility.  Only God can do that!)

Wow!  God does some strange things with us Republicans when we open our hearts to him!  Our hearts melted in his presence, and we responded with GRACE!  The very people who dreaded their tax money going to exactly this cause, suddenly emptied their wallets for the asking – and it wasn’t the poor asking for it; no, it was the rich asking what they could do in the name of Jesus!

Yeah.  I saw welfare momma’s burst into tears and hug some stuffy, white people in their roach infested apartments and houses and say AMEN to Jesus.  I saw it time and again with my own eyes.

But really it was only a fraction of the white, middle-class people from Vandelia who I saw do this.  I think a lot of them played various parts in the overall project.  Don’t get me wrong.  Plenty of volunteers led a Bible class, tutored a poor kid in math or English, cooked the evening meal and/or cleaned up after this circus, but only a few went on this mission with Agent Baptisto.  Only a few of us heard “these people” say, “Oh, you mean that church where [Agent G+] goes?”  And I think my mouth (and keyboard) needs to tell what my eyes have seen and my ears have heard!

It was an incredible start.

Not that the money fixed everything.  It did not.  But the money was a deeply symbolic gesture right at the heart of the picture, because it was the sacrifice, the treasure my brothers and sisters in other settings lamented giving to “these people.”  The most powerful part of the picture was not in the lasting change the sacrifice made in the lives of the poor, it was in the powerful confrontation the rich had with God, and that is thoroughly biblical (see Luke: whole gospel pretty much but starting in 1:53).  It was the interface of Jesus and his sheep.

No.  You cannot expect a wad of cash to change everything or to have lasting change for good.  But when the broken contrite hearts of the rich got together with the broken contrite hearts of the poor…? God opened my eyes.  I saw people transfigured and transformed.  It was a blink of an eye, but I saw it.  It was one of the most powerful spiritual experiences I ever knew… but then they kept happening.  And I will post more of them as time allows.

If you are connected with Vandelia Church in Lubbock, Texas and reading here, I want you to know this bit of church history that has mostly gone unnoticed.  Yes, I can recall “Family Forums” of old where Agent K got up and described the mayhem of our Wednesday night circus and all in one breath told of fights breaking out in one part of the building while a piano was played in worship in another, of children running through the sanctuary with food and the panicked expression of one of the volunteers as another child vomited on her shoes – AND in all of this Agent K called these children “our little blessings.”  Agent K’s speech that day both inspired and struck fear in our hearts.  But I did not get up and tell what I saw, what I participated in, and there is every reason to believe, you don’t know about it.  But I did what I did and saw what I saw as a part of the Body of Christ at Vandelia – the same body you belong to.  And you might oughta know what your left foot was doing IN THE DANCE just then.

The Church I Love (part 2)

Last September I offered a post called The Church I Love.  In that post I mentioned that out of all the churches I ever belonged to, only two of them really jazzed me.  I then spent the rest of that post describing, briefly, the first one – New Life Church in Abilene, Texas.  I now want to take some time and tell about the second one, Vandelia Church in Lubbock, Texas.

I don’t usually post praises of the church.  This blog spends a LOT of time and energy calling out the church of America that so blithely closes the homeless out and consigns them to the cold of night.  I regularly pray and work in every imaginative way I can to change that, and I am not at all bashful about criticizing this huge (and yet almost unnoticed) elephant in the room!  AND YET… I love the church.  I am a critic from within!  Like Israel’s prophets of old, I am very much FOR the people of God.  I just am FOR THEM BEING FOR GOD rather than their Republican agendas, their home security, or any other phenomena that get in the way.

That said, I have a handful of very beautiful experiences too.  Experiences that teach me… that open my mind, my heart, to ever new dimensions of God’s will for this world.  It is entirely appropriate that I share those too.  And I hope that describing these experiences will challenge the church to repent ever bit as much as my criticisms.

In this post, I introduce Vandelia Church – a church I have referenced extensively throughout this blog.  I became involved with Vandelia about a decade ago and fell in love with that body even more passionately than I did with New Life, if that is possible.  Perhaps I should not say “more than”… but I did spend a lot more time and energy at Vandelia and my ministry took on far more dramatic and prophetic dimensions there.  And in fact, I have so many experiences to share regarding my time with Vandelia that I expect to turn this into a series of posts where I account for and explore my very small part in the church history of that body.

However, to come to a fuller disclosure, I will say that my relationship with Vandelia has been a rocky one for the last 6 years.  In fact, I suffered (still do) some deep disappointment with that body shortly after I announced my desire to commit to prophetic ministry there.  That too is ironic because the very first time I ever visited Vandelia was when I attended a conference that discussed prophecy in the church where I first learned that it SHOULD be desired (something else I previously posted on here).

Shortly after I announced that I desired prophetic ministry, I attended worship on a Fourth-of-July Sunday and took an American flag to church with me.  I held that flag in my left hand along with my Bible in the same hand.  I let that flag trail on the floor behind me as I walked through the lobby and the hall to Bible class and then to the sanctuary for the worship hour.  I called it “Drag a Flag” Sunday.  It was my prophetic dramatization of that PROUD flag bending a knee before the LORD in his house.

There were a lot of pie eyed expressions and pursed lips as I did that.  Only one man confronted me about it later, but I certainly found out after that “We will NOT listen to you” – as one of the shepherds told me on another occasion.  I made that symbol of American pride and power bend the knee in the House of the Lord, and it pissed off a lot of people!  The unspoken message was LEAVE OUR IDOLS OUT OF THIS!!!  And I became functionally shunned.  I earned a prophet’s wage right in my own beloved church home!  (Mark 6:4 anybody???)

Yeah…. We’ve had a rather icy relationship since then.  But I never stopped loving that church.  It just seems to be from a distance and from behind the ice now.  And there are other developments that came in shortly after “Drag a Flag” Sunday when Vandelia officially embraced the book (and “philosophy” of) When Helping Hurts.  Quite frankly, Vandelia still needs to repent from that too.

BUT…

Back to the LOVE part(s), I write here so bluntly, and open with these blunt words because when I say that I love this church, I want you to understand that I mean it.  I have reasons to take my marbles and go home.  But there were about 5 years of rich experiences that I don’t think even most of Vandelia really knows about, experiences that I have to share which for the Glory of God need to be shared.  And I expect that I need several posts to do that justice.

So… please stay tuned as I share what I think are some truly mind-blowing Spiritual experiences that I found in a little West Texas church of Christ (of all places) that have power to confront the Rulers and Authorities in the heavenlies.  And I will post them under the title: The Vandelia I LOVE.