The Following Lord’s Day

December 11, 2011

On the Lord’s Day following the events recorded in my previous article, we were, understandably, in a different frame of mind than usual as we headed back down Georgia 400 to the Bluff.  In the early days of our ministry, which had begun twenty months ago, we had gone into the area with an older black lady whose husband had been a previous drug kingpin.  She was well-known and beloved, and therefore we were immediately accepted because of our association with her.  She was, as it were, our “ticket” in.  Since then we had felt comfortable being in the area, even though this lady had stopped attending.  Now we were uncertain again, vexed by the thought that by encouraging people to come, especially the children, we might be causing them to be put in danger.  During the week, as we reflected on the events of December 4th, we wondered what lessons the Lord was teaching us.  Does he want us to make changes to the ministry?  Is he telling us that we need to change our location by moving a block or two away from the “hotspot” intersection?  Have we taken our safety for granted and not relied sufficiently on the Lord for his protection or thanked him sufficiently for his watch-care over us?  As we prayed during the week, we begged, Show us, O Lord God of Armies, Show us what your will is.

Before leaving for Atlanta, Frank always calls several of our “regulars” to remind them of the study, and this week, one such person, who had not been there last week, turned out to be very encouraging.  Fairly early in the conversation, this man mentioned that he’d heard about the shooting.  Apparently, around 11 o’clock last Sunday night, he was on the platform at the MARTA train station and he overheard folks talking about the incident, including the fact that the preacher had to be yelled at to take cover!  It would appear that news of our ministry is beginning to spread.

He said that even though there is occasional gunfire, it is not often that someone is killed.  As an example, he told Frank about what happened five weeks ago, around 1 PM on a Sunday afternoon, when a man had been shot to death around Brawley and North.  This was a fellow who, the previous Friday, had robbed six people.  He was chased by some folks, went to his car, got a gun and frightened them away.  For some reason, he came back two days later, and five bullets were pumped into his chest.  He did admit, however, that there have been incidents where people were accidentally shot, and he specifically mentioned a girl having been injured in her foot.

When Frank asked him if he knew of any animosity toward us, he said that he’s never heard anything negative said about us, only positive things.  Frank mentioned that it was his understanding that the drug kingpin likes and appreciates us, and he confirmed that.  He said that no one thinks that we’re taking pictures for the police; he said, “We trust you.”  He also said that we are accepted as part of the neighbourhood – that we don’t disturb whatever deals are going down, and that we’re there just like the rest of them: it’s just that we happen to be preaching.  He also told Frank that by being so faithful in our ministry we are giving people hope.

With this encouragement we headed south on a bleak, cold and windy afternoon.  As we entered the Bluff we drove through an area that normally has a lot of children playing, but, probably because of the chilly weather and the fact that it was beginning to get dark, there was no-one outside.  As we drove into the heart of the Bluff we passed a couple of intersections where more men than usual had congregated on the street corners and I found this a little unnerving.  Everything looked a little more menacing than it normally does, and I needed to recall memorized Bible verses to restore my strength.  After Frank parked by the steps of the burned-out church building I went round to the back of the car to take the easel and cooler out of the trunk, and I heard a gunshot coming from behind me.  My heart sank, and I thought, “O Lord, not again!”  I stopped what I was doing and went up to Amy and Linda, who had arrived ahead of us.  They had big smiles on their faces, and eagerly told Frank and me that when they arrived there had been a couple of men on the church steps and a large group gathered outside the convenience store.  But the nephew of the kingpin was one of those on the steps, and he and the other man left and shoo’d the group away from the store.  The steps were now empty and the sidewalk across the street only had a few people left.  In answer to my concern about the gunshot, Linda said that was OK – nothing to worry about!

The Bible study went well.  No unusual incidents.  Frank started the study by saying that we’d carry on where we’d left off so abruptly last week!  This brought a round of laughter.  We had eleven people in attendance, and everyone seemed to appreciate the opportunity to express reasons for thankfulness.  One young man who attends regularly gave eloquent expressions of gratitude to the Lord for protection last week.  

It was dark by the time we left the Bluff and drove home.  We knew that there were folk down there who had wondered if we would return, and we have been able to put their minds at rest.  We affirmed that, by God’s grace, we will continue to bring the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ into an area that truly needs that light.

Gunfire in the Bluff

December 4, 2011

It was just after 5:30 in the evening when the first shots rang out.  The Bible study had been going very well.  It had started on time at five o’clock, and discussion on the topic of Thanksgiving had been lively.  We had a total of fourteen people in attendance, only one of which was a child.  I was sitting on the wall; Frank’s sister Gini, visiting from Richmond, Virginia, was standing at the end of the wall and, other than Frank, everyone else was sitting on the steps of the burned-out church building where we meet.  To begin with I thought little of the sound of the gunshots, as we had heard them before from at least half a block away, and on those occasions we had not been under any threat.  However, after a volley of about 8 – 10 of them, presumably coming from a semi-automatic weapon, it seemed prudent to slip off the wall and down onto the steps with the other folk.  Frank, still standing on the sidewalk, having seen the shooter in the intersection, shooting north up Brawley Drive, and then fleeing west on Kennedy, called the police.  When the shooting stopped I looked around and saw one person lying face down on the ground outside the convenience store, but he did not appear to have been hit.  Then the second round of shooting started.  Gini had not yet ducked down, and from her vantage point she saw another man running south on Brawley, in our direction, firing south down the road.  At this point, discretion being the better part of valour, she, along with the rest of us hit the steps again, and at this point it dawned on me that this was for real.  This time, my face was down on the concrete.  I imagine we were all praying that the Lord would protect us, and Gini was doing so out loud.  Frank was still standing on the sidewalk talking to the 911 operator who told him that she could hear the shots being fired, and Gini and I yelled to him to get down.  Some of the details are fuzzy, but at that point Gini and Billie saw a white SUV, with its windows down, come south on Brawley past our steps, with all four occupants bearing weapons.  Frank, still standing on the sidewalk, had his back to them and did not see them.  At that point they were not firing, and we are not sure which of the 12 – 15 shots that we heard just prior to this came from the car and which from the runner on foot.  Two cars, Amy’s and ours, were between us and the SUV as it went by, and at some point Frank sought the safety of the car.  Shortly afterwards a man came over and yelled us to get out of the area.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to stand up, but we all did so, and the group quickly dispersed.  The local folk just “disappeared” except for Billie and her son, who have been attending for a couple of weeks.  Billie, who lives in the neighbourhood, is actively involved in trying to bring about change in the Bluff, and appreciates our efforts every Lord’s Day.   We threw the board and easel and the cooler into the trunk in a haphazard manner and Billie, Amy and Frank backed their cars away from the intersection to Jett and, still in reverse, along Jett and around onto Griffin.  There we parked and regrouped.   There were no more gunshots.  Shortly after that, which was about five minutes from the time Frank dialed 911, the first police car arrived followed almost immediately by three more.  Blue lights, but no sirens.  The police were only mildly interested in the situation, telling us that what we had experienced was not unusual for this area.  They didn’t take a statement, taking note only of the fact that the car with the four gunmen was a white SUV.

Having lived in the Bluff prior to undergoing successful drug rehabilitation, a regular member of our group, Linda, had some valuable insights which she shared with Amy as she was being driven back to her apartment.  In fact, before Bible study began, Linda had indicated that she was not comfortable with so many people whom she didn’t recognise congregating at the intersection.  She had previously shared with us that the drug dealers and particularly the drug “kingpin” occasionally loiter in the area while the study is going on, and that if they did not give their approval to this activity they would have made sure that we would have been run off by now.  Linda also believes that if the kingpin had been there on Sunday, the gunfire would not have occurred, or that he would have made sure we were protected.  Apparently he holds an elevated status which is highly respected in the drug community.  Linda also said that, even though the police may not show much interest in black-on-black violence, there would be a lot of interest, and hence disruptions to the drug dealers’ business, if white workers were targeted or caught in crossfire.

Before we each went our separate ways, Billie was very encouraging to Frank, telling him that he doesn’t realise how much good he is doing.  She told him that the devil is at the intersection where we meet, and he wants to disrupt our ministry.

As Frank, Gini and I drove home, we noted the irony of the Bible study earlier, which was the second of two studies on the topic of Thanksgiving.  One of the things that Frank had been explaining to the group was God’s sovereignty, and that, even though we may not understand why certain things happen to us, we are to be grateful for all of God’s providences.  Naturally, our hearts were full of thanksgiving for the Lord’s watch-care and protection over us that evening.  We acknowledged that he had given us this experience for a reason, and that he was in complete control of every bullet.

Scripture tells us to have no anxiety about anything but to take everything to God in prayer.  Never-the-less, we need to show wisdom and discretion with regard to taking sensible precautions, and Frank, Amy and I have already discussed the possibility of some changes.  We don’t anticipate this being a regular problem, as it is the first time that gunfire this close has happened in twenty months of ministering here.  However, one thing we will do is to make sure that anyone who volunteers to join us on the steps understands the fact that issues can arise.

The real Battle of the Bluff is being fought in the spiritual realm, even as it plays out in the streets.  Nothing will happen to us that is not in accordance with the will of the real “Kingpin” of the Bluff, namely the King of kings and Lord of lords.  Please continue to pray for us as we continue the battle for the hearts and minds of the men, women and children who reside in this sad and violent area.  Psalm 34:7.

 

Downtown Update

February 26, 2011

We have had some exciting developments recently in our downtown ministry.  We are becoming much more widely recognized, and usually have at least a few residents of the Bluff sitting on the burned-out church steps or wall waiting for us to arrive.  We are able to wander the streets inviting more people to come without feeling uncomfortable or in any kind of danger.  We are particularly pleased when we have a number of children in attendance.  The children love Miss Amy, who holds “Sunday School” on the second set of steps.  Particular fans of hers are 13 year old Jenario, and his sister 9 year old Miyani who are there almost every week.  They warm our hearts with their big smiles and hugs.  Jenario is very sharp, and often sits in on the adult side, enjoying answering the questions that Frank poses by way of going over the major points of the previous week’s lesson.  He is learning a lot.

During the bitterly cold winter days the Lord still brought people to hear his Word taught.  On one occasion when it was so frigid that we knew we could not stay outdoors, one of our regular families invited us into its living room.  On another cold December day Frank and I arrived by ourselves as Bob was not with us and Amy was out of town.  We seemed to be unable to attract anyone to the steps and eventually Frank got started with me being the only person in “class”.  However, the Lord honoured Frank’s “stubbornness” and it was not long before people started joining us, and we ended up with eleven people!  The only day that we could not make it in was December 26th, because of lingering snow and icy conditions.  (That was the day that we had to delay the Alpharetta service until the afternoon).

Frank believes that the ministry would have more impact if a way could be found to purchase a house in the neighbourhood which would be made available rent-free to someone who would be willing to function as an “anchor” to the ministry.  A house that could fit our needs would run in the range of $10,000 to $15,000.  It would also be used to hold the Bible study indoors on cold and inclement Lord’s Day evenings, and maybe facilitate other aspects of the ministry.  He is working with a Christian realtor to investigate the possibilities.  We were very blessed to meet a young African-American ministerial intern whose mother was raised in the area and went to the school there.  He intends to join us at the Bible studies on a regular basis, and came for the first time last Lord’s Day.  He enjoyed the experience very much, and it was obvious that others there felt a real connection with him as he engaged them in meaningful conversation.

In mid-January three young men from Erskine Seminary visited for the weekend in order to experience our Atlanta ministry.  On the Saturday they went with Frank and the realtor to look at several of the houses in the neighborhood which are on the market.  Several of the residents who recognized Frank called out cheery greetings to him (as in “hey, Rev”) and even offered input and advice where they had knowledge of the buildings.  Frank also took our guests to the Varsity in order to taste some local colour!  Then they joined us the following evening and really enjoyed the experience.  We had a total of twenty people in and around the steps that evening.

We have a dream that one day we could claim for Christ the burned-out church building on whose steps we park ourselves every Lord’s Day afternoon!  But that really is the stuff of dreams as it is currently on the market for $220,000!  And, of course, it would cost a tremendous amount to give it a roof and make it usable.  Hopefully, however, if and when it does sell there will be no problem with the new owner about our continuing to minister there.

We are always aware of the spiritual battle that rages around us on the corner of Kennedy and Brawley.  Satan doesn’t like us bringing the light of the gospel into his domain.  So I would covet your continued prayers for the people of that neighbourhood, made in the image of God but in desperate need of being reconciled to him.

 

 

 

 

Spiritual Warfare?

October 27, 2010

This is an update on some subtle and not-so-subtle changes in our Atlanta ministry.  It all began back in early October when a minister was visiting and went down to the Bluff with Frank.  I stayed at home as I was hosting the minister’s wife and children.  Our guest is an expert in self defence and an instructor on the subject.  Later that evening he told us he had spotted two men carrying firearms and he could tell that he was marked with suspicion by dealers.  He gave us some valuable pointers about trying to ensure our safety.  He also remarked that it was dangerous for us to allow people we didn’t know into the back seat of our car in order to take them home.  He did agree with us, however, that because we are well-known there now, and are disarming, given our honesty and street innocence, dealers are not going to bother us.  The trouble that would bring would not be worth it to them.  Now, however, I can’t help but wonder who, among all the people that we see in the bluff is armed.  On the evening that our guest was there they had 10 in attendance, which was below our average.  It included Willie Brown, a first-time attender, who lives in the area and whose wife is legally blind.  They have two children aged 9 and 13.  He was very interested in coming on a regular basis.

 

The following Sunday we had 17 in attendance including Willie from last week with his daughter Miyani, first-time visitor Greg and his wife Kim, and previous attender Erica – all of whom were there when we arrived.  Willie Dyck showed up very proud that he had finally had all his teeth pulled – he opened his mouth wide so as to prove the point!  They had been causing him considerable pain and he had been unable to eat solid food.   Amy also arrived before we did because we were held up in serious traffic problems.   When we arrived we found that black ash had been spread on the steps making it difficult to find a place to sit.  We wondered if this was tied in to the pentagram that had been drawn on the wall a few weeks ago.  For “Sunday school”, Amy and Miyani sat on the other set of steps which, thankfully, was relatively clean.  The study (during which at least four different police vehicles went by) went well, but while Elder Bob prayed the closing prayer Kim, Greg’s wife, took out her compact and spent the time putting on mascara.  Then things went downhill in a hurry.  A man who obviously had mental health problems wandered over towards the end of study picking up garbage, cursing and blaspheming as he went.  Afterwards he demanded money for picking up the trash.  He seemed to pick on me.  Then Mary asked for money for something from the store.  We have an arrangement with Mary that we will occasionally loan her money on the understanding that she will repay it.  I regret it now, but I did hand over $5 to her and the demented man saw this and kept after me even more.  He was small of stature, thin with pointy features and bent over, as becoming a character from a Tolkien novel.  He kept after me, pointing his finger at me, and eventually he started to frighten me.  Willie was soliciting money to pay his rent. Frank was explaining to him that we don’t hand out money, but he was trying to come up with suggestions to help him.  Bob, in that same group, had taken notice of my difficulty, so I elected to go and put myself under his protection.  But now, with this weird little man on one side of Bob’s body and me on the other, and with that thin hand and sinewy finger pointing round Bob’s body to where I was, still demanding money from me, I told Bob that I was going to retreat to the car.  He said that he thought that was a good idea and that Amy should also head out, seeing as the situation seemed to be deteriorating rapidly.   I was relieved to see Amy get in her car and depart safely.  I got in our car and sat very still, hoping that I would not be noticed.  The little man sat on the curb and waited for Frank, Willie and Bob to finish their conversation.  He continued to seek money from them, was repulsed and ambled across the street away from the area grumbling and mumbling who knows what.  As Frank came to the car he was followed by the first-time visitor, Greg.  Because of my own troubles I had not been aware of the situation regarding Greg.  Apparently he had been after Bob to drive him and his wife to Lithonia.  He came to our car window wanting money.  This was something our guest from last week had warned us about.  We were somewhat frightened so Frank gave him $5 to catch a bus, in order to get out of there as quickly as he could.  It seemed interesting to me that his wife could afford mascara but apparently they did not have “bus money”.  All the while this was going on Mary became very loud in telling us that we shouldn’t be giving money to Willie or Greg.  She didn’t know them and, being street-wise, she was afraid they were up to no good.  Bob offered to drive Mary home – he also took Willie Dyck.  Frank thought I’d retreated to the car because I wasn’t feeling well – he hadn’t been aware that I’d just been afraid of the demented man (who resembled my idea of a demon) and was also very uncomfortable at the requests for money and the loud disputing.  That was the first time that I had felt that folk who came to the study were there for a hand-out, and also the first time that I had felt somewhat threatened physically.  On the way home we decided that we would no longer carry cash on us and that we would take a sign to put up on the church door saying something along the lines of:  “Silver and gold have we none.  We are here to study the bible.  We carry no cash.”

 

During the week I struggled with disappointment, and it was a real spiritual battle for me to overcome my fear and discouragement as we headed out to Atlanta the following Sunday.  We put up our sign and, thankfully, nothing untoward happened and no one asked us for money.  It did, however, seem as though we were under some form of attack – this time with yelling.  It was the noisiest experience we’d ever had there, with many more people than usual hanging around the corner engaging in intense, sometimes vehement conversation, also more cars – many with roaring, souped-up engines and loud rap music blaring forth from open windows.

 

Last Sunday we had serious traffic problems for the third week in a row.  Downtown Atlanta got totally snarled in horrendous traffic.  We finally got to the church steps an hour and a half after we left home!  We had a total of 16 in attendance including Willie Brown, Myoshi and their two children, and a grandfather, father and son from the same family.  The father, who was obviously a believer, was very encouraging and Frank invited him to close the study in prayer.  Amy was delighted to have five children in her Sunday School class.   Again there was an inordinate amount of noise, but no untoward events.  We had three police cars across the street with police milling around for no apparent reason.  After we took Mary’s grandsons home, we took Mary to the hospital to see her friend Leona who, while running for a bus, had been hit by a car driven by an elderly lady earlier in the week.  Thankfully it looks as though Leona will survive.

 

On Reformation Sunday, AKA Halloween, we had a party atmosphere in the street with a lot of well-behaved but noisy “trick or treat” groups going by, one of which stopped nearby and continued in loud conversation with a bit of dancing thrown in.  None-the-less, we still had a good study with 11 in attendance.  Afterwards, as we stood around talking, we heard a couple of gunshots and shortly thereafter we saw a bunch of folk materialize at the intersection coming from Kennedy Street.  An anonymous person told us it would be a good idea for us to leave but that gunshots were normal for Halloween!

 

We do trust that the Lord is doing a good work through the ministry.  We have not seen Mike or Nakisha in many weeks, and our hope and prayer is that both of them have done what they had been thinking of doing, and that is moving out of the Bluff.  Nakisha’s mother and Mike’s friend had been encouraging them to go and live with them.  Hopefully, that is where they are.

 

The spiritual battle continues.  Over the last couple of weeks I have regained much of my confidence because I have been reminded where my confidence lay.  We do indeed need to be sensible in terms of self-protection but we also need to hear, with the ears of faith, the rustling in the treetops as the Lord and his host go into battle ahead of us.  II Samuel 5:24.

 

“Let it rain, let it rain…..”

September 26, 2010

It was pouring with rain all the way down to the Bluff on September 26th.  We picked up Mary in downtown Atlanta and then drove south on 75/85 to pick up her grandsons, AC and Cory.   We had no idea of how we were going to be able to conduct the study outdoors, and were reminded of my second article to the ladies, entitled “O Ye of Little Faith”, in which there was rain all around us but the Lord kept us dry.  The storm on Sunday seemed worse than it had been on that day, and the Doppler radar had looked very threatening before we left home.  Ray Beckham, pastor of New Jerusalem Baptist Church, at which Frank had been guest preacher back in June, had already invited us to call on him for help with regard to our ministry, and indicated that he would assist us in any way he could.  Since before leaving home, Frank had been calling him to see if there was a room in his church building that we could use, but had not been able to get through to him.  However, we carried on regardless, looking to God for a blessing.  As we entered the Bluff Frank called Pastor Beckham again and we went by his house, all without success.  So we went by his church building and discovered that there was something major going on there.  Cars everywhere.   Probably homecoming, including a meal.  So that was that.  We carried on, very cheerfully, wondering what the Lord was going to do, because at that point it was obvious that the very heavy rain was not going to let up.  We arrived at the corner of Kennedy and Brawley just behind our faithful supporter Amy and looked for shelter.  Frank and Mary found a group of folk keeping dry under the barber shop overhang on notorious Kennedy Street.  So that’s where we gathered, and where Frank, out in the rain, under an umbrella, with his notes getting quite wet, struggling to keep his Bible dry, led our Bible study.  It was quite a remarkable experience.  We ended up with twelve people altogether including one lady who had come out to the church steps looking for us in spite of the rain.

So, in God’s providence, things turned out for the best because, as passers-by saw our damp and bedraggled little group, they came and joined us, which they could not have done had we been indoors and not visible from the street.  The Lord is faithful when we step out in faith and look to him for a blessing.

Recent Events in The Bluff

September, 2010

In my last article I mentioned that Mary had been tempted to stay in the Bluff following the Bible study the previous Sunday.  She called Frank two days later and said that she couldn’t go back to the corner of Kennedy and Brawley again as the temptation to go back on heroin was too great to deal with.  However, a few weeks later she called Frank and said that she hated not “coming to church” and wanted to be picked up again.   It was agreed that one of us would always keep her in sight and make sure she didn’t “disappear” again.  She has been faithful every time since, and is happy to have a constant escort.

As I have mentioned before, those of us who show up split up and go in different directions to invite people to come to the study.  One Lord’s Day in August, as we regrouped back on the steps, Frank was the last to arrive, and when we saw him coming up the road with four little boys in tow we remarked that he resembled the Pied Piper!  The parents of the little boys had become used to our being there and were very happy to let the children “come to church” with Pastor Frank.

Also that day we had a nun in full uniform join us part way through the study.  As she arrived she said that she wasn’t going to stay and listen, but wanted to thank us for our efforts in The Bluff.  However, as Frank acknowledged her and then continued on with the study in Genesis 3, she stayed and listened for a while.  I noticed that Frank weighted his teaching pretty heavily on the fact of justification being by faith alone and not by any works that we can do.  The nun nodded agreement with a lot of what Frank was saying and didn’t appear to be offended by anything.  She wandered off after a while but returned a few minutes later and stayed with us until she boarded a bus and departed.

One afternoon recently, after Elder Bob had closed the study with prayer, one of the ladies, Melissa, asked if it would be all right if she prayed.  Frank said that would be fine, and she proceeded to pray in a manner that was very touching.  As people who do not suffer with addictions, we cannot understand the pain of being trapped by drug dependence.  Her desperate supplications to be freed from her addiction were spoken with such depth of feeling that one couldn’t fail to be moved.

We have a lot of lively interaction during the study times.  On one occasion Frank even had a problem getting through the reading of Scripture because folk kept asking for explanation of words.  Each explanation led to some form of discussion and even a few rabbit trails.  But it was an exhilarating experience – I almost had to laugh at times as Frank would only get out a few words before there’d be another question leading to another discussion.  I’m not sure one should think of Bible study as being “fun”, but this was certainly a unique and fun time for me.

For several weeks the temperature in Atlanta was 98°.  The humidity varied, however, and we went from being hot and mildly damp to hot and sopping wet.  On one memorable day sweat just started pouring out of our pores and our clothes ended up wet through.  That particular day we drove 20 miles out of our way to take someone home and even then, when we got back to our house, I discovered that the back of my dress was still wet through and stuck to the back of my seat.

A couple of weeks ago, two weeks after they had come the first time, three of the four little boys from up the street came to the study again and their mother (whom Mary knows) joined us for a while.  We had also picked up Mary’s two grandsons, A.C (aged about 12) and Corey (about 6), so we had several children.  Frank was teaching on the seed of the woman versus the seed of Satan and he asked the group who the seed of the woman ultimately referred to.  It was one of the boys from the neighbourhood who answered “Jesus”.

Last week we picked up A.C. and Corey again and they went along the street to find our little regulars.  This time as Frank was teaching about Adam and Eve being sent out of the Garden of Eden, he started by having the group run through some of the good things that had been growing in the garden.  Input, from adults and children, ranged from flowers to broccoli, to trees, to fruits and vegetables that were good to eat.  Then Frank asked, but what else was there in the garden, more important than any of the other things?  And one little boy said, “To make sure you wash them first”!

Now that we are attracting children regularly, our faithful helper, Amy, who is a school teacher, has offered to teach the children separately, using kid-friendly helps.  We are very excited about this development but still need to figure out how to implement the idea.

When we took Mary’s grandchildren home, we heard from their mother Portia (Mary’s daughter) that A.C., who is very sharp and easy to converse with, has really taken to Frank.  He has talked about him to his football coach, referring to him as his pastor.  Portia (who has been recovering from a staph infection on the back of her head) says she wants to start attending and that we might need a bus soon as A.C. wants to bring his whole football team!  She referred to me as “mama” a couple of times, which I think is an African American expression of affection, and so I took it as quite a compliment.

One evening we were joined by Tiffany, who was living with her fiancé, has a four year old son and is pregnant with another baby.  She needed ongoing financial assistance and Frank spent some time giving her suggestions.  A week or two later he tried getting through to her on the phone and spoke to her fiancé who told him that she was in jail.  Then her fiancé spent some time incarcerated himself.  Then one day last week Tiffany called Frank to tell him that someone who owed them money threw a brick through their bedroom window on Sunday night and the next day stabbed her fiancé to death.  The killer was caught by police as he got off a bus in Alabama.  Thankfully Tiffany has gone home to live with her mother in Stone Mountain.

We do believe that the Holy Spirit is working in the lives of many of the people in that neighbourhood. So please pray that we may be effective witnesses, that we will not get discouraged when we have a light attendance nor jubilant when we get a large one, but that our only desire would simply be loudly to proclaim God’s Word and claim that destitute street corner for Christ.

 

Latest Adventures in The Bluff

June 27, 2010

Last Lord’s Day morning Frank had been invited by Pastor Ray Beckham to preach at New Jerusalem Baptist Church in the English Avenue neighbourhood which contains the high-crime area known as The Bluff. The pastor’s brother is Kelvin, who has been attending our Bible studies.  We were greeted warmly, as Pastor Beckham introduced Frank.  This introduction lasted for more than five minutes, with Pastor Beckham detailing not only how he first heard of Frank but all the other times they have been in contact with each other.  He spoke in quite lengthy fashion about the experience they shared at the English Avenue Neighborhood Association meeting in early June, to which Frank had taken R. P. Missions Team member, Stephen McCollum, visiting from Ireland.  This was the second EANA meeting Frank had attended in his effort to be more informed about and involved in the attempt to clean up the neighborhood.  That meeting had been considerably disrupted by a fellow who kept rudely interrupting the moderator of the meeting (Pastor Beckham).  At one point Frank got to his feet to confirm the authority and rulings of the moderator, and was verbally attacked by this person who, among other things, hurled racial slurs at Frank, accusing him of being a white racist.  An off-duty policeman in the audience threatened to call for back-up if the fellow did not stop.  Everyone was very embarrassed and apologised to Frank and Stephen.  After the meeting, this fellow asked for forgiveness from Frank and also asked Frank to pray for him.  Pastor Beckham relayed the entire story with the editorial comment that Frank had stood firm in supporting the moderator in a situation that was tumultuous and he didn’t back down.  He also emphasized the way that the Lord had brought this person to a point of repentance.

Frank preached on Ephesians 2, with the title “But God…”, the sermon lasting close to an hour.  The congregation was very lively, vocalizing their appreciation for the points that Frank was making.  This in turn made Frank more lively in the pulpit that I have ever seen him.  His gestures and the range and inflection of his voice were more pronounced than usual.  When he finished, Pastor Beckham told those assembled that they need to understand that there is more than one way to preach, and that what they had just experienced was called expository preaching.  He went on to explain what that meant, saying that they will never read Ephesians 2 again without remembering the words that Pastor Smith had preached.  He also remarked, to the vocal concurrence of the congregation, that it doesn’t matter whether one is Baptist, Presbyterian or whatever; it is the truth that counts.   There followed a lengthy altar call in which four people came forward while the congregation sang from memory a song that we did not know.  These four were led in the “sinner’s prayer” and then prayers were offered for them before we were dismissed.  Frank was thanked for his message by just about everyone there (about 60 or so people) and we both received numerous hugs and handshakes.  We were given cold drinks and invited to stay for lunch.  However, we had already arranged to drive the half hour up to eat lunch with our son and his family and rest before heading back down to The Bluff for the Bible study.

Thankfully it was not as hot as the previous two weeks.  Earlier that day we had been pleasantly surprised to see that the weeds around the steps had been cut and trash picked up.  Only four people joined Bob and ourselves, including Willie Dyck and C.J., but again, there was lively interaction and great discussion.  We are hopeful that Wallace, who was new to the group, will return.  Mike missed the study having not noticed the time but came up as we were departing, promising to try and keep track of the time in future.  Prayer was requested for Little Rotten, a young man about 18 years old who has fathered two children, is thin, diabetic and very sickly, who received four bullet wounds one day last week.  He is in the hospital and Mike doesn’t know how he’s doing.  That is just one example of life in The Bluff.

We do have some troubling news to report.  First of all, the first Sunday in June, Mary “disappeared” for a while during the Bible study.  When we found her she refused to let us take her home, insisting that she wanted to stay there the night.  Unable to force her to change her mind, we had to leave her there.  Two days later she called and told Frank that she cannot go back to The Bluff again.  Our assumption is that while there she had fallen into temptation.

Secondly, you remember Kelvin’s excitement at his having made it through detox, and his pronouncement, “I’m clean, I’m clean”.  This gave him hope that he could find a job, and excitement in the fact that his wife, who had left him when he was on drugs, now appeared to be seeking reconciliation.  However, about a week later, things went downhill for him.  He was promised a job through a family member but it was eventually given to a relative of another worker at the restaurant.  And his wife broke the news to him that she had divorced him back in April.  He has not attended the Bible study since then, but we did see him at the service at his brother’s church last Lord’s Day morning.  He promised that he would be at the study in the evening but he did not show up and is not answering phone calls.

This may well leave Frank and me without the assistance of someone from the neighbourhood.  We had always believed that we needed an African- American with us in order to be accepted by the community, but our experience over the last two Lord’s Days has shown that the Lord can use us as we are.  We may feel that our ministry has been weakened but the Lord can take even our feeble efforts and use them for his glory.

O Ye Of Little Faith

June 20th  2010

It was a hot, sultry afternoon as Frank and I headed into Atlanta.  Roadside temperature readings varied between 98˚ and 100˚.  Downtown skyscrapers shimmered in the heat.

We were still smarting from a low turnout the previous Lord’s Day evening, when, also in high heat and humidity, we attracted only one person to the Bible study in addition to Pastor Frank, Elder Bob and myself, and, for the first time, Amy Work, the daughter of Stephen Work, pastor of Quinter Reformed Presbyterian Church in Kansas.  Amy, a Christian school teacher in her twenties, had wanted to experience our downtown ministry but had been very disappointed at the lack of activity , and I was already anticipating that she would be disappointed again.  The only person from the area who had attended last week was our faithful supporter Kelvin, who was still radiating excitement over his successful detox treatment and the possibility of reconciliation with his wife.  But this Lord’s Day we knew ahead of time that neither Kelvin nor Mary were going to be with us, and I felt very faint of heart as we drove south.

So it was with little faith that we traveled on to The Bluff.  This time we did not split up to distribute invitations, but spread out across the street, staying in visual contact with each other as we walked around the block.  In spite of the heat there were several people out walking or sitting on porches.  At one point we stumbled upon Nakisha sitting in the shade on an upturned five- gallon paint can.  You may remember that we had already developed a relationship with her, and had been praying, at her specific request, that she would get off drugs and stay out of jail.  She was busy wiping eyeliner off her fingers and was most concerned that we would know that she was clean, having just taken a bath.  The subject of cleanliness came up several times, which was noteworthy for the irony, being in sharp contrast to her lifestyle.  She was pleased to see us and was keen to talk.  She told us that, since we had seen her last, she had spent 15 days in jail for solicitation, having been nabbed by an undercover officer.  Remarkably, she also said that she had the opportunity to pay a $250 fine instead, which her mother would have paid for her, but that she decided it would actually be better for her to spend the time in jail.  She went on to tell us that her mother lives in Marietta and longs for Nakisha to go and live with her but that she is just not ready to give up the drugs.  She shared that she used to have a really good job as secretary at a heart-transplant unit, as well as a home and two cars.  When she started taking drugs she thought that she could have it all.  Obviously she couldn’t, and now she prostitutes herself to feed her heroin and cocaine habit.  As we were talking, four police cars with lights and sirens blazing, swung round the corner and past us.  We assume they were about to conduct a drug raid.  Nakisha walked with us to the church steps but disappeared into a nearby house to get a towel, promising to return.  With her disappearance, the three of us were left alone to “ring the church bell” by singing Amazing Grace. 

Frank began the study in Genesis 3 and after a short while a man with an enormous amount of dreadlocks piled up on his head topped with an outsize woolen cap came and sat between Amy and me, creating somewhat of an incongruous sight.  He did wander off eventually but not before others started to join us including Nakisha, Mike and Willie Dyck (pronounced Dyke).  A total of eight of the local residents participated, making eleven altogether.  Frank solicited responses as he talked about the tempter, the tempted and the temptation.  Nakisha hit the nail on the head with some of her comments showing that she understood her sin and her need for a saviour.  She asked again that we pray for her to have the desire to give up the drugs, insisting that she needed us to pray on her behalf because she wasn’t ready to give them up.  Amy made a valiant effort to persuade her of the need to pray this prayer herself, and lively dialogue ensued between the two of them with Mike and Willie adding encouraging comments.  Willie even sounded like a Calvinist as he insisted that God will make her ready in his own timing, and that when that time comes she won’t be able to resist him.  Nakisha continued to insist, “I’m not going to play with God.  I’m not going to pray for something I don’t really want.”  However, we were impressed by her honesty and her refusal to be hypocritical.  It was an amazing experience to witness this discussion on sin and repentance.

Frank spent time praying for the assembled company, after which we continued chatting for a while.  Mike helped us to carry our ice-box and easel back to the car because, as he said, it can be dangerous loitering in that neighbourhood, even in daylight.  That fact was not lost on us, of course, when we took on this mission.  However, we have been providentially led to this street corner and believe that we will be providentially protected.  Mike went on to tell us that he had been a pre-veterinary student at GeorgiaStateUniversity until he got hooked on heroin.  He is keen to get out of the neighbourhood, realizing that he will never be able to get clean until he does.

As we drove away from The Bluff that afternoon we felt rebuked for our lack of faith.  The fact was not lost on us that, no matter how often we find the Lord gracious in answering our prayers in a way that is beyond what we could think or imagine, we are still afraid of being presumptive.  But where is our faith?  The events of that Sabbath afternoon have reminded me that not only can we approach the throne of grace boldly but that we should also look to the Lord to answer our prayers boldly.  It is true that we should not presume upon him, but we should also be more ready than we are to expect a blessing.  In this case our gracious God showed us that he can and does use our feeble efforts to bring glory to himself and encouragement to us.

The Bluff

June 6th, 2010

We have been ministering to residents of the drug and prostitution racked slum known as The Bluff for eight weeks now. We were led to go there by Mary, to whom we have been ministering for over a year. As our Bible studies in church buildings had not given us the response we had prayed for and as it appeared to be the Lord’s will that we discontinue that effort, Mary insisted that we needed to go to the heart of the problem, “out to the highways and byways,” as she kept saying, quoting our Lord.

Mary herself was delivered from her own addiction to heroin as the result of a stroke which left her in a coma for 28 days, and she constantly encourages others with addictions to get themselves into treatment centers.

Mary’s now-deceased husband was the drug kingpin in The Bluff, so even though Mary now lives in the old Imperial Hotel, which has been turned into low income apartments, everyone down there knows her and knows the difference that being clean has made to her as she loudly gives the praise to God and calls everyone to come and hear the gospel.

Driving into this neighbourhood, comprising broken down houses, boarded up buildings, and streets littered with trash including old mattresses and broken furniture, is somewhat breathtaking. Folk, including some homeless people who have taken up residence in abandoned buildings, and heroin-addicted men and women, are hanging around in groups on street corners or on porches, looking menacingly at us as we pass by, which is very intimidating. Their reaction is not surprising, as it has been made clear to us a couple of times by residents there that they are suspicious that we may be police informants. When Mary is with us, however, as we drive to the derelict church building, park and get out of the car, it is less intimidating than when we have only people from the northern suburbs with us.

This past Lord’s Day Bob, Stephen McCollum (visiting with the RP Global Missions Team), Frank and I, along with Mary, enjoyed a most exciting and blessed time. All day the weather had been stormy, and as we were driving in and out of rain for the fifty minute drive down GA 400 we wondered whether, for the first time, we would be unable to meet outdoors. Naturally, as we were driving, I was praying that the Lord would divide the rain clouds and give us a clear patch of sky so that the gospel could continue to be proclaimed, even though I knew that, in his providence, that may not be his will.

As we arrived and started talking to folk, inviting them to come to hear the Word of God, we were warmed by the reception we received. We split up to talk to people, with Bob going in one direction, Stephen in another, Frank and I in another, and Mary hugging many of her old friends, pleading with them to “come to church” on the steps of the old church building. Between us we cause quite a stir at that intersection which has one of the highest crime rates in the country, and we are coming to be recognized and even anticipated. One of the men, Willie Dyck, a Vietnam veteran who has attended a couple of times was extremely excited to see us again. He had brought his friend Cass along, having told him about Frank’s teaching and our personal interest in him and his family. A group of men that Frank and I approached said that they weren’t interested in attending, but a couple of them thanked us for coming each week, and one even said that it’s great that we “come down from the north” to preach to “poor folks like us.” The fact that he knew that we come down from the north shows that word about us has got around.

As we walked over to the steps to begin, I looked up to see a patch of blue sky and a few white fluffy clouds overhead. I was so excited, and thankful that the Lord had given us a dry patch, and I must have had the biggest smile on my face! We began by singing a couple of hymns as loudly as we could to attract people, and we soon had a total of fourteen in attendance, the biggest number so far. Stephen led the study from Ephesians chapter two. He used our white-board to emphasize his main points, and he did a really superb job, especially as he needed to interact with various members of the group as they candidly sought clarifications and asked questions. He also did well as he had to deal with loud, “souped-up” engine noise from cars and motorbikes (not to mention the extremely loud rap “music” from open car windows) as they went by. One or two of our group wandered off during the study, notably when a fight broke out round the corner. A young woman, Nakisha, for whom we have been praying, approached us during the study. She didn’t want to stay but asked if we would continue to pray for her. She wants to get off drugs and stay out of jail.

As Stephen’s presentation was coming to a close, a gentle rain started to fall and I wondered if we were going to be rained out before we could sing the twenty-third Psalm and pray at the end. However, it eased off again and we were able to complete the time as planned.

Our elder Bob Shapiro offered the closing prayer after asking for requests which varied from a new-born grandchild having already had one operation and needing more, to the most common one of being relieved from addiction.

After the study several of the group stayed around to talk to us, including Melissa who, like Nakisha, desires to be released from her bondage to addiction. One thing that is so noticeable in the Bluff is that, unlike the ritzy suburbs, most folk know that they are sinners in need of a Saviour. This makes it a privilege to minister to them.

As we drove away from the area it started to rain again, and shortly thereafter the heavens opened and it poured so heavily that visibility was drastically reduced and road conditions became a bit dicey. In our rear view mirrors we could see black, thunderous clouds receding into the distance as we headed out of the city.