When I was in college, I used to work at a facility for the mentally handicapped. I often worked on the weekends and one of my favorite duties was taking a group of the residents to church. It was a small Baptist church where our little gaggle of adults almost made up a third of the congregation.
I loved these times because it taught me quite a bit about what Christ intended his church to be about. Let me explain:
- Acceptance – This little church embraced these 10-15 mentally handicapped adults as part of their family. Our group wasn’t stuck in some corner somewhere so that most of the congregation could steer clear of us. No, we were front and center. The church members knew our people and considered them friends, not charity cases.
- Praise and worship – I don’t usually connect much with worship music and singing but I always had such a good time singing with my challenged friends. They knew how to worship. Nothing held them back. They swayed, they belted the songs out, and legitimately were enjoying themselves. It was authentic, in the truest sense. It was joyful, unlike any kind of joyful you have ever experienced in church.
- An image of heaven – One Sunday morning, I looked around me and just took in the scene of my friends singing and worshiping and thought, “this is probably what heaven will look like. People of all states, colors, sizes, and ability praising our God.” I came to the realization that heaven won’t have the homogenized, cookie cutter feel of most our churches. Heaven will be more like a feast where the invitations were sent far and wide and in every neighborhood. Every race, color, mental capacity, social class, and ability will be represented and we will gladly join with each other in worship and praise.
The images and remembrances of these times have stuck with me, even 20 years later. Since then, I have had a soft spot for those in church who don’t fit our expectations, or cause a disruptions or two, or lack proper decorum. If the church isn’t for these people, then who is it for?
This week, I am profiling people who have had the most influence on my Christian spiritual life. Today’s profile is a minister that I knew growing up and later worked under for four years.
His Influence: As the Minister of Recreation at my hometown church I would have admired and looked up to David simply because we shared a love of sports, competition, and basketball. But there was something else about David that I soon began to notice, even at a young age. First, the Family Life Center, a fancy name for the rec center belonging to the church, that he ran was not an exclusive club for church members but was a gathering spot for downtown area kids and anyone else who might walk through the doors. In other words, the people you saw at the FLC were not the people you would expect to see in my downtown, wealthy, historically rich, large church on Sunday and that was just the way that David liked it. David didn’t just have a heart for the underprivileged and then remain a safe distance from them, he called them his friends and journeyed with them. At the FLC, I was exposed to the homeless, the mentally ill, and ethnic groups that my school rarely included. The community I found at the FLC seemed to embody what I understood to be important to Jesus – acceptance of all people and being a friend to the mostly friendless. David helped create that environment and demonstrated such acceptance and compassion that it made a huge impression on me. His was a faith that seemed to make a difference in the world, a faith that was tangible and real, something that seems to be important to young people.
What I learned from David: When my wife and I began pursuing social ministry and were just overwhelmed with the lack of obvious opportunities to serve, I emailed David and told him of our love for ministry among the underprivileged. He asked us to come visit his new ministry in town that was geared towards underprivileged families and kids. We visited and ended up serving at the ministry as sort of “missionaries in residence”. The best part was building a mentor relationship with David that taught me countless lessons about service to others, hospitality, acceptance, generosity, and love. The only people who seemed to dislike David were either people who weren’t thinking straight due to drugs, mental illness, and alcohol or people who weren’t thinking straight due to condescension, hypocrisy, and being out of touch with the Bible’s call to love the poor, the orphan, and the widow. He is not only a mentor but also a hero. He is retired now and living in downtown Houston. You can probably find him at some pastry shop reading a newspaper and noticing the unnoticeable.
What David can teach you: That Christ’s love for others was never from a distance.