Hope Network Newsletter: Weird is Relative (Nov 1992)

By Matt Dabbs

by Ron Carlson, Guest Writer (introduction by Lynn Anderson)
November, 1992

7The following story struck a nerve in me that needed striking. So I persuaded the man who lived and wrote the story, Ron Carlson, to pass it on to the Wineskins readers through my Hope Network Newsletter. Although these stirring lines are convicting, they also ring with hope! Besides, they will introduce you to a refreshing and gifted writer.

His daddy was crippled from the Korean War. His mama never saw 40. They were burned to deadth in a trailer house fire. Mike somehow escaped the tragedy, but he was on his own at 16, a tragedy waiting to happen. He is 40 now; his mama would be proud.

He has been an alcoholic and a drug addict. The railroad canned him a decade ago because he was trouble … born on the wrong side of the tracks. he spent the ’80s in Lake Tahoe working the strip and following Satan’s orders. he peddled cocaine for sport and profit, lived on the edge, often dangling precariously from a broken branch above the fiery pit. He never married. A street-wise Irish Setter was his only steady companion.

He called me several years ago. He was off the cocaine, on the lam, lonesome, and weary. He said he loved me, that he missed his old buddy. I knew he meant it. We were best friends. Old relationships seldom die. They crack and break, but usually the pieces can be restored.

I had left his seamy world in 1980 to follow Jesus. He had really called to find out how the religious experiment was working. I told him, “Swell.” he was surprised. I wasn’t.

He called again a few months ago. He had moved to Seattle, found an honest job, rented an apartment, inherited a cat; his conversation made sense.

Perhaps it was more than coincidence that I was in Seattle recently for the Great Northwest Evangelism Workshop. I snuck away from the brethren early to spend the weekend with my old friend. Sometimes a Christian has to take leave of the safety of the brethren to see what the pagan competition is up to. I call it market research, and I am always a little surprised to rediscover the turmoil of life in the trenches without God. It’s not too pretty.

I spent Saturday afternoon listening to Mike scold his niece about the evils of drugs and casual sex. He later confided to me that she would like him to butt out of her life and let her make her own mistakes … just like he had the freedom to do. His pain at the response was obvious and his appreciation of freedom tainted.

Later in the afternoon he persuaded me to muster enough courage to visit his brother. This was no small decision. His brother lived in a crummy little apartment on Capital Hill among the punks, homeless, drag queens, contemporary lepers and other world-class wirdos. It was not a fun place, good place, or safe place. It was basically an awful place. Sirens. Stench. Trash. Decay. Poverty. Hoplessness. Intoxication. Death. Satan’s calling card was everywhere. This was his turf. Gangs of devils were on every corner sporting his colors, looking for a fight.

“Caution, you who enter here!” One may survive to get back out, but one can’t remain unpolluted from the journey.

Mike’s brother is dying of AIDS. he got it the old-fashioned way … he earned it. No victim here, just a committed homosexual.

He was too weak to open the door. We found him huddled in a corner curled up in a semi-fetal position, attempting to light another cigarette. The flicker of the match was the only light in a room.

Mike turned on a lamp and his brother’s slight shadow was cast on the wall. A 90-pound body doesn’t take up much wall space. He looked like death. White as a ghost. All I could notice were his eyes. They were huge and black and haunting, much like those I’d seen in photographs of the concentration camps a half-century ago. I felt like I had invaded a mole’s den. I somehow expected to see Gollum appear at any moment with Bilbo Baggins not far behind. I swallowed hard and breathed deep to keep the vomit down.

I averted my eyes from the zombie’s stare and scanned the cave. Bottles and bottles of medicine were everywhere, an empty tribute to man’s genius in the face of impending death. On the wall by the door hung a cheap frame containing an obnoxious fluorescent bumper sticker: “Life’s a Bitch, Then You Die.”

We had stopped and bought him some chocolate ice cream. Everybody likes chocolate ice cream. He didn’t want any.

“Who’s that with you?” he asked Mike irritably.

“It’s Ron Carlson. Do you remember him? It’s probably been 20 years since you’ve seen him”

There was a pause. “Yeah … yeah, I remember him.”

There was another pause. He looked my way. “Where do you live, Ron?”

“Dallas,” I meekly responded.

“The Big D?” His voice raised with the first hint of interest. “That’s where I got this x@#+ disease.”

More silence from everyone.

“Don you go to Father McGee’s church?” he asked expectantly. “it’s St. Francis up on Walnut Hill. I love Father McGee. Do you know that he is going to get my ashes? He’s going to sprinkle them over White Rock Lake. Have you ever heard about the Lady of the Lake? Well, I’m going to join her soon and we’re going to terrorize Dallas together!”

He seemed pleased by the prospect.

We stayed a little longer and chatted. I was sick to my stomach. All the talk of death and ghost stories was unsettling. In contrast, Mike seemed unaffected, as if it was standard procedure.

In the hallway outside the apartment, Mike stopped and visited with other inhabitants of the AIDS colony. He was at ease, while I was as nervous as a cat on a hot tin Texas roof. I wanted out of the building and back to the safety of my rent-a-car and freeway motel. The people looked hideous. They smelled funny. They talked strangely. They acted like they were on drugs. I finally pulled Mike from the building and his ministry and we sped off and out of Capital Hill … much to my relief.

Back at his apartment we talked late into the night about life. He was looking for some new skills to help process the craziness of his world. We discussed the Lord at some length. He was receptive; so much so that he volunteered to go to church with me the next morning.

As God promised Noah, morning appeared, and although hesitant, Mike put on his best Dockers and we drove down the street to the church building. He was scared, and he wanted to back out, but I wouldn’t let him. Beads of sweat spotted his brow. He caught his breath and burst out in confession: “Ron, I haven’t been to church in 23 years!”

He fidgeted anxiously for a moment and continued. “What do I do I can’t pray. I can’t sing. I can’t kneel. I don’t know anybody. I don’t belong with these people.”

Suddenly the craziness of the whole event struck me The same fears and emotions that had encircled me the day before on Capital Hill were now directly transferred to my old friend as we circled the parking lot. As I gazed out the window I saw church people everywhere, dressed in their Sunday best, replet with big smiles and demonstrative displays of phileo. Mike was scared of my brethren. In his eyes these were the enemies … strange creatures from an alien world. The tables had turned. Elders were like the punks, deacons were like the homeless, preachers took the role of the lepers, and at this point, I may as well have had AIDS as far as he was concerned.

I had to laugh.

Then I cried.

Then we went to church.

There is a moral to this story: Weird is relative.

How do we share Jesus with the legion of “weirdos” and castoffs that pound the hot pavement of our cities? I do not have any of the answers, but this I now know. They ain’t going to come to us ’cause we talk funny, hug funny, smile funny, think funny, and live funny.

Who among us has the heart and compassion to enter their world? Who is willing to eat with the prostitutes and tax collectors? Who is willing to dispense the balm in Gilead? As purveyors of hope, physicians to the ill, merchants of mercy, and disciples of Jesus, how long will we tarry in our ivory towers? There can be no Christian impact without contact. Isolated piety doesn’t win souls.

The darkness of the pagan realm is great. But the light of the world is greater. “You may be blameless and genuine, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast the world of life …” (Philippians 2:15,16). The world is wicked and estranged from the Creator, but we who are reconciled are first and foremost ministers of reconciliation, and it is our mission to bring the good news of peace to the Ninevash of our generation.

The urgent call to ministry in the trenches is clarion. Christianity must hit the streets. We must roll up our sleeves, clad ourselves in the armor of God, and enter the turf of our adversary. Of course it comes with a risk, but show me where Jesus ever said that the Christian way of life was risk-free. Had it been, he would have stayed in heaven, and we would all be lost in the muck and mire of our sins, a fate far worse than AIDS.

Although our ministerial history in regard to valuing the weird has been anything but dynamic and effective, there are presently numerous urban ministries emerging and evolving across the land that promise a brighter tomorrow A new openness fostered among many churches has permitted uniquely gifted Christians to leave the safety and sanctity of our strategically located fortresses in exchange for the fallen neighborhoods of inner-city chaos. These new foot soldiers, often unorthodox by traditional standards, are dedicated to reclaiming our cities for God, and to do so, they have taken the gospel to the streets. With hearts full of compassion and mercy, they have chosen to take Christ to the lost rather than waiting for the lost to trample down our doors. And it’s working!

Dallas, like every city in America, has its own version of Capital Hill. Even smaller cities need to address the plight of the downtrodden. Ministry to the poor and poor in spirit needs to happen in every community. In an attempt to neutralize Satan’s influence in the heart of Dallas, the Central Dallas Food Pantry was born in humble beginnings about four years ago. Joe Roberts, an ex-biker turned disciple, was hired to operate the ministry, and he has had much success in ministering to thousands during this time.

Today, the Food Pantry shares space with the newly-formed Central Dallas Church of Christ, an evangelistic effort designed to penetrate Satan’s strong-hold and reclaim the turf for Jesus. Carey Dowl, assisted by Santiago Pinon (a second-year student at the Center for Christian Education) , are active on the streets of Central Dallas preaching the gospel of peace to the mass of disenfranchised folks in the area. Ten people have been baptized in the last couple of months. Classes entitled “Life Skills” are helping people acquire the tools necessary to compete in the “real world.” Love hope, mercy, and faith are being dispensed in quantity. Progress is evident. Victories are just over the next hill.

Thanks, Ron, for this brief but compelling glimpse into downtown reality … and for the hope!

Besides the encouraging word from Central Dallas, points of light pierce the urban darkness of a number of other cities as well. If God has burdened your heart for the inner city you may want to find out more about these. To mention just a few:

Houston
The Impact Church of Christ, planted by Charlie Middlebrook,
2420 Washington Avenue,
Houston, TX 77007
telephone 713-864-5667

San Francisco
The Metropolitan Church of Christ, led by Kinwood Devore,
315 Rolph Street,
San Francisco, CA 94112
telephone 415-359-9836.

Dallas
The Central Dallas Church of Christ, led by Carey Dowl
801 N. Peak Avenue,
Dallas, TX 75246
telephone 214-826-9535.

Nashville
Inner City Ministries, led by Lytle Thomas
185 Wharf Avenue,
Nashville, TN 37210
telephone 615-255-1726.

North Little Rock
The Levy Church of Christ,
5124 Camp Robinson Road,
North Little Rock, AR 72118
telephone 501-753-4860 – oversees an inner city work led by Gary Neal.

Memphis
The Highland Street Church of Christ
443 South Highland,
Memphis, TN 38111
telephone 901-458-3335 – is beginning an inner city ministry with Anthony Wood serving as minister.

And there are others. Perhaps God will ignite the next grass fire of our movement in the inner city. Indeed, as Harold Shank says, “The next revival may well be among the poor.”

For news about what is happening in the Christian world at large, get on the mailing list of International Urban Associates (IUA), 1043 W. Madison Street, Suite 200, Chicago, IL 60607. Their newsletter is published by Ray Bakke, author of The Urban Christian.

Wineskins Magazine

Ron Carlson is Dean of Students at the Preston Road Center for Christian Educaiton in Dallas.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1584 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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