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.