A Broken Vessel (Nov 1992)

By Matt Dabbs

by Michelle Morris
November, 1992

7A nearly comatose elderly woman smiles for the first time in months when the red-suited couple walks into the nursing home.

A young girl who still believes in miracles laughs in delight when Mr. and Mrs. Claus arrive on her front porch with Christmas dinner and a doll. The girls’ mom cries tears of joy at the anonymous generosity.

More than 10,000 children from all walks of life will find the majog of Christmas in a Winter Wonderland filled with Santa’s elves, candy-cane hosues, toy trains, and a giant snowman.

An active boy with a muscular disease calls Santa and asks for an electric wheelchair so he can play with the other children. Friends purchase the wheelchair, and Mr. and Mrs. Claus arrive Christmas Eve to present the shiny, new chariot.

These special dreams all become reality because of two people with little money, lots of faith, and loving hearts: Bill and Audrey Nash.

In the early ’70s, Bill drove Audrey to Abilene, Texas with her two teenaged children, never planning to stay “in that podunk town,” he rmeembers. he took up temporary residence at an old hotel, got a job, and started attending the Highland Church of Christ with Audrey’s family.

Neither Bill nor Audrey thought then they would ever have a place ministering to others. She was divorced. Bill, twice divorced, was a recovering alcoholic struggling with the sins of his past.

“Could God possibly use us?” they asked themselves.

After knowing each other for 30 years, the two were married July 11, 1976 and continued to attend the Highland church.

Then came a call for bus drivers and Bible class teachers. Bill volunteered to drive; Audrey requested the special needs class. Soon Bill was helping her in class because of the difficulties of dealing with a mixture of young people with emotional and behavioral problems, autism, physical handicaps, and mental retardation.

The special needs program grew to more than 40 people with various disabilities.

“For several years I watched Bill interact with others at Highland,” says David Wray, elder at the Highland Church of Christ. “He had innate pastoring skills and the ability to minister to people intuitively. He had enormous potential.”

Although many people knew Bill, few knew much about his past. The friendly, tedd-bear-like man and his wife were well-respected and known for the way they cared for people less fortunate than themselves. Most church members didn’t know of his heartbreak at not seeing the four children from his first marriage grow up. Or the pains of not seeing the two children from his second marriage for 20 years. Or his guilt for having turned away from the church for 13 years while struggling with heavy drinkin, depression, and a loss of the Christian faith taught him by his parents.

Most people saw the love in his eyes when he spoke of Audrey without ever realizing he felt she had literally “saved my life and saved my soul.”

“Audrey and I met at a church camp when I was almost 13 and she was 14,” Bill recalls. “We were camp sweethearts. After one more summer together, we went our separate ways. When our paths finally crossed again more than 20 years later, I knew I should have listened to my 12-year-old heart.”

Bill had kept track of Audrey through mutual friends and relatives, including her parents, for whom he had great respect. When he finally decided to “quit drinking or die,” he got on a bus and headed to Audrey’s parents’ home in Canada.

“I got on that bus drunk, probably with another drink in my pocket, and knew that the five-hour ride would give me just enough time to sober up,” Bill says. “Audrey met me at 5:30 a.m., and I know I looked bad and smelled bad. We had coffee together, and she dropped me at the YMCA. I soon moved into her parents’ home, and I had too much respect for them to drink there. Thanks to God’s love, the love of Christians, and a 12-step program, I’ve been sober ever since.”

A broken, humbled Bill Nash began to haunt the back rows of church again. He and Audrey reestablished their old friendship, and they soon made the trip to Abilene that led to their marriage.

One heart-wrenching Sunday night at the Highland church, Bill shared his story. And instead of rejecting him, as he had feared, the church showed him acceptance and love. Suddenly people who had never had the courage to come forward with problems began to call Bill. They began to admit their problems – and they found help and encouragement.

“Without question, Bill opened the way for other people with needs,” says friend and Highland member James Hallmark. “BIll started 12-step groups that encourage such qualities as humility, openness, honesty, and acceptance – qualities the church ought to exhibit. If someone is out there with a desperate need, their perception of the church is critical.”

Bill doesn’t easily take credit for accomplishments.

“God has been able to use me in my brokenness,” he says. “And he could not use me until I was broken.”

Since that Sunday night, the Highland congregatio has continued to search for ways to meet the needs of people. After serving part-time in maintenance for Highland, the elders asked Bill to serve as the special needs minister, overseeing the programs for the disabled as well as all support groups.

“Recent literature discusses the difference between a fortress church and a marketplace church,” Wray says. “Bill has modeled for us how to go to the marketplace and deal with kingdom issues – not institutional issues.”

Bill and Audrey have developed their own methods for reaching out to the community. Besides their annual visits to the nursing homes and day-care centers as Mr. and Mrs. Claus, they’ve developed a unique way to give children positive memories of Christmas. It’s called Winter Wonderland.

The idea first developed in 1984 as a way to allow the children at Highland to have breakfast with Santa.

“The first year the small room near the kitchen in the church’s family life center seemed impossible to fill,” Audrey recalls with a smile. “We served a full breakfast and gave each child handmade, painted gifts.”

They soon moved to the church’s gym, and later to a large, empty department store. When they first looked at the place, the floor was covered with many colors of paint, only two light bulbs were burning, and the building was a mess. Number one elf and Highland elder Roy Lewis heard of their predicament and volunteered to rewire the building to handle the enormous needs of all the decorations.

Althought the Nashes still live in an old hosue in a lower-income neighborhood, they’ve never hesitated to pour their own money into items that would make Winter Wonderland special for the children.

Each year, Audrey has created a theme for the event, such as snowflakes, reindeer, bears, or snowmen. She and Bill travelled to Michigan some years ago to pick up a 25-foot Christmas tree to serve as the centerpeiece for the holiday fantasy land, and they would decorate it with thousands of ornaments and lights.

“They just think the kids are the greatest in the world,” Lewis said. “They’ll knock themselves out for the kdis. I would leave at 11 p.m. and say, ‘Audrey, go on home.’ At 2 a.m., she’d still be there, making everything perfect, and they’d both be back up at 6 or 7 to start up again.”

Bill and Audrey stress that Winter Wonderland is a family, church, and community effort involving thousands of volunteer hours. Their daughter, artist Debbie Rhodes, hand-painted intricate winter scenes on windows and walls throughout the huge building.

For three weeks in December 1991, thousands of children from the community watched mechanical elves make toys, talked with Snow White, enjoyed storytelling and snow-filled murals, hugged Frosty the Snowman and a fuzzy bear, saw hundreds of handmade snowflakes hanging from the ceiling, and told Santa what they wanted for Christmas.

“I grew up with little money in a middle-class, blue-collar family in Detroit, but I don’t remember a time I didn’t get what I wanted for Christmas,” Bill said. “I remember our annual trips to the huge J.L. Hudson department store. The day after Thanksgiving, they would put up a gigantic toy display and hundreds of decorations. Kids, rich and poor, would wander around the place together, with no differences. I have wonderful memories of those visits.”

Bill said those memories sparked in him a desire to give other children “better Christmas memories than the reality of their daily lives.”

Unfortunately, Bill and Audrey will be unable to create Winter Wonderland this year. Audrey recalled the stories about Bill and his Christmas magic from her hospital bed, only a few days after being diagnosed with cancer that has spread to several vital organs. She planned to begin chemotherapy because, Bill said, “she’s living with cancer, not dying of it.”

Despite their smiles as they recall fond memories, tears shine in his eyes as Bill talks about Audrey’s part in all their activities.

“She’s the heart,” he said. “I’m just the hand.”

Bill looks forward to next year’s Winter Wonderland, adding, “Next year will be bigger and better than ever.”

Most of all, he looks forward to once again watching Audrey’s eyes light up at the thought of using all her creativity to bring a little happiness to lots of children.

“We’re so much a team,” Bill says. “I read Proverbs 31 and think ‘That guy is almost as lucky as me.’ “Wineskins Magazine

Michelle Morris

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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