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.