Picture it. A North American missionary and his family renovate an old warehouse, turning it into a church. The missionary-turned pastor fills a spray bottle with holy water, and he and his prayer warriors patrol the neighborhood, anointing the street corners, where the dealers sell their drugs and the prostitutes sell their bodies.
The dealers move out. The pastor moves in. God moves through the people’s lives.
My family and I traveled hours from Tennessee to West Charleston, West Virginia, to help the pastor with his thriving warehouse ministry. We took with us our two small boys and a group of rebellious teens, some of whom were frequent visitors to my husband’s alternative school program.
Our beloved “hoodlums” made the trip even more interesting—duct-tapping one of the girls to the wall, stuffing my older child into a locker, and threatening to leave one another on the asphalt like road kill. (All things considered, we took those threats seriously.)
We stayed in the gymnasium of an affluent church down the road. We slept on the floor, but in the morning we had access to hot showers. That’s fine for adults and teens, but my younger child Michael was not keen on showers—or sleeping. I had to bathe him in a bucket.
At night he refused to sleep. One night after finally getting him down, all the kids deemed it safe enough to quietly go about their business. I’ll never forget that moment when his little head popped up. Every kid in the gym without prompting hit the floor in unison, combat style, pretending to sleep right where they were.
Kenny and I finally resorted to driving him around the neighborhood in the wee hours. If he didn’t sleep, we couldn’t sleep. If we didn’t sleep, we couldn’t work. Looking back, I appreciate God’s protection even more. We were cruising Crime Central in the middle of gang territory.
Ironically, although we planned to work with the urban ministry, the pastor gave us a different job. Our job was to promote an ultimate teen RIOT (Radical Impact on Teens) that would attract teens from the congested trailer park miles away from the warehouse to a small rural church across the highway. Unlike the urban church, this church was losing numbers, and the goal was to spread a little enthusiasm among the younger generation.
The people in charge gave us a key and told us to make ourselves at home. The church met in a very small abandoned used car dealership that was literally on the side of the road. One wrong step, and we could easily find ourselves in a real traffic jam.
“See these Christmas lights?” the minister’s wife said to me. “If you plug them in and stick them in that bowl of potpourri, you won’t even notice the smell.”
Smell? What smell?
It was mid-summer. It didn’t take us long to discover what she was talking about. Not only was the church dying, it also smelled like it. They didn’t tell us hundreds of rats had crawled inside the walls and expired. (That’s a nice way of saying they kicked the bucket and stunk up the place.)
Let me give you an olfactory image. Imagine what the essence of rotten rat and stale Christmas cinnamon smells like in 90-degree temps in a building with no air conditioner? Yeah, you got it.
Despite the problems, we were ready to RIOT. We had plenty of food and prizes and games and Bible study to outfit all of West Charleston. Three of us brought our guitars, and we were ready to rock the trailer park. (Mind you, I am a mediocre player at best. The other two guys, even at their whippersnapper ages, were already accomplished musicians.)
We built it up, and they came.
All ages. ALL ages. I’m not just talking about middle schoolers, high schoolers, and the college crowd. I’m talking Granny, Uncle Albert, Cousin Steve and pre-schoolers of every size, shape, and temperament. Our RIOT turned into a shindig. But we were prepared—for TEENAGERS!
Prior to our trip, Kenny and I had visited every Christian record company in Nashville and had secured boxes of Christian CDs to give away—hip hop, rock, and even ska. But Granny didn’t appreciate ska like she did in the old days. So we had to adapt our contemporary praise service to our meet the needs of the people.
“Good to see ya’ll,” our amazing lead guitar player said. “Come on in here, and make yourself at home.” He didn’t mention anything about the rats—didn’t have to. “We take requests.”
I flipped out. There is only so much a mediocre guitar player can do with a G, C and D.
The whole building was packed, and hands shot up from everywhere. We played everything you could imagine. I say “we” loosely. I made up chords and notes as the night progressed. Granny was happy. So were Uncle Albert and Cousin Steve, the teens and the toddlers. We made a joyful noise.
The beauty came in the form of the beautiful faces of all ages and colors and backgrounds. Behind every face was a story. Sadly, we didn’t have time to hear all of these stories. We heard a few, and we witnessed God’s intervention on a few occasions. But we had to leave the remainder of the stories for the next intersection of souls.
One of my greatest pleasures as a writer has been to listen to people tell their stories. I have been blessed beyond measure. God has opened doors I could NEVER open. The faces I’ve met are beautiful. Their stories are beautiful. I am amazed at how Jesus can transform an ordinary life into something spectacular.
I am not the story. I am the scribe, but God allows me an inside look. How cool is that? Why me? What a wonderful gift He has bestowed. I’ve interviewed a former terrorist, an inventor, a child prodigy, a woman who risked her life to deliver meals across the border to hungry children in Mexico, a wrestler named Sting, a heavy weight boxing champion, pop stars, country singers, Christian artists, and even three really cool guys who wrote the song of the year for Eric Clapton.
My point is that not one of these stories He has shown me is more amazing than the other. When Jesus intersects with a life, the results are always supernatural, phenomenal.
As much as I enjoy doing interviews, I have a desire to write fiction, and I think I finally know why. When I write my own stories, I become a student of human nature. I watch everyday people do everyday things—and I incorporate the people and their actions into my story.
I sit. I watch. I listen. And I hear God. When I’m doing interviews, I’m on someone else’s schedule. I’m usually too hyped up to REALLY hear until after I go back and transcribe the notes from my recorder.
It’s really easy to become fascinated with people who show up on the pages of magazines, but if we take time to study the beautiful faces of people we encounter every day, we can see them the way Jesus sees them. They become important, and we have a greater desire to reach out to them.
My advice for a budding writer?
Slow down. Be still. Listen for God’s instructions. Become God’s instrument. Take note of what He is allowing you to experience with your five senses. He might just have an assignment for you.