This is the second installment in a series about 21 years of overcoming conflict and opposition as I’ve tried to learn how to minister and speak the truth in Garland, Texas. You can read the intro to the series in my notes on Facebook.
I began ministry in Garland in November of 1992. I had just finished the fourth and most well attended year of a Halloween production I started in The Colony, Texas. It was called House of Judgement. I had no idea at the time how big this Christian dramatic alternative to the traditional haunted house would become.
In my last year in The Colony 2,000 people came through the house. In its first year in Garland, we exceeded that number when 2,250 came through. There was great support from the new church. A wonderful lady, who has since gone to be with the Lord, donated magazine quality flyers to publicize the event. Even still, during one of the performances one of the older volunteers seemed amazed at the number of people who were coming through the House. He confided that he had believed no more than a few people would be interested.
In 1994 people waited in line for hours to witness our Halloween drama and 4,650 came through. We had certainly outgrown the church facilities. Some church members complained: “How big are you going to let this thing get?” Every year many people prayed to receive Christ as the result of what they had witnessed. By this time hundreds of people had responded to our dramatic presentation. So, were we supposed to limit the number of people who heard the Gospel?
The following year was 1995 and the church graciously allowed us to use a recreation center it owned. Over 7,000 people came through the House. More than 10,000 attended when we held it at the same facility the next year. Our final year in this venue was 1997. We had the longest lines in our history, performed into the wee hours of the morning, and well over 11,000 people came through. I don’t believe we could have accommodated more.
Each year I wrote a different script for the production. If you are unfamiliar with House of Judgment, it is a morality play performed on multiple stages. An audience, typically of between 40-50 members, enters the House every 20 minutes or so, and watches the play by moving through a maze from stage to stage. House of Judgement stories were about the lives of teenagers who faced the earthly and eternal consequences of their choices. The story changed every year, but one thing remained the same: teenagers made choices that resulted in their deaths; those who believed in Jesus Christ went to heaven; those who rejected Jesus went to hell. We had some amazing, dramatic representations of heaven and hell!
We had stories about teenagers in gangs, boy-girl relationships gone bad, racism, drugs, suicide, and other issues faced by young people. Sadly, some in our church felt that these stories, and the language used by the actors was offensive. They wanted to edit the scripts. In 1997 I submitted my script to the pastor, who had others look at it. I received it back with portions circled in red, which reminded me of getting a paper back from the teacher at school. One of the memorable offenses I was supposed to remove was the following. A young person is at a party talking about another kid, whom he doesn’t like much. He explains why the other teen is late in coming to the party: “Yeah, he’s a trainer. Always stays late after games and kisses coach’s butt.” I was supposed to edit the phrase “kisses coach’s butt” because of how offensive it was. Thankfully the pastor saw how silly this was and the phrase stayed in the script. This is just an example of a problem that had been brewing for years. We were experiencing resistance and the erosion of support for a ministry that was reaching more and more people with a real and relevant Gospel.
The recreation center had its own board of directors, and they were not always happy with shutting the facility down for this production. Additionally, we probably didn’t return the facility to the condition they expected. I take responsibility for this. My only excuse is the extreme weariness of our key volunteers by the end of a production. We had plenty of people who wanted to be in the show, but few volunteers who wanted to clean up after. A little understanding would have been nice, though.
In 1997 we paid the recreation center for the use of the facility (even though it was owned by the church for which I worked). That year many, many people prayed to receive Christ because of our event. I remember going to the board meeting one night after the event concluded. I was very tired but excited to report the phenomenal number of people who attended and, more importantly, the large number who had responded to the Gospel in the counseling room. There was no enthusiasm from the board. None. I handed them a check for the rent and the treasurer took it without comment or commendation. They opposed us doing House of Judgement there again.
That was the last year House of Judgment was done under the sole authority of the church where I served. A wise woman at the church, who had founded a crisis pregnancy center, recommended that we become a non-profit organization. HOJ, Inc. was born.
In 1998 we encountered more opposition and difficulty than any previous year. We were essentially on our own. We had no building. We had no money. We did have many young people who were interested in acting, and plenty of volunteers ready to work. I had written a brand new script based, in part, on actual events and real people. It promised to be a powerful show. We began rehearsals in August of that year, even before we had a building. The recreation center was kind enough to permit us to use their facility for auditions and rehearsals. This was also the facility where I did youth ministry each week. By mid-September we still had no building in which to perform. The church that I served was too small and would not allow us to perform in their building in any case. We were also still not permitted to do it at the recreation center, even in an emergency. What to do? Where to go?
I searched and searched for a building large enough to accommodate the show, and which we could afford. Finally, we discovered an old shopping center in Richardson, Texas with an owner who was willing to rent it to us for a month. It would cost us far more than we would have had to pay the recreation center of my church, and it had been abandoned for a decade or more. However, I believed we could use it. There were no walls, so we could build our maze and scenes however we wanted. This was going to cost a fortune compared to previous House of Judgement productions. Where would the money come from? Not from my church, which had all but abandoned the project. I decided to open multiple credit card accounts and pay for it that way.
The biggest problem immediately facing us was time. We couldn’t get into the building until October 1st, but the show was scheduled to begin on the 12th. We were going to allow parents of our actors to come through that day as a kind of live dress rehearsal. So, we had 12 days, and three or four credit cards for capital. From this we would create the largest production we’d ever done. Thanks in large part to the leadership and hard work of two professionals who were in the construction industry we met the deadline… sort of.
Ceilings in the old grocery store were over 20 feet. Most of our scenes required a ceiling of less than half that height. Problem was, the fire marshall informed us that we couldn’t create a lower ceiling unless we also lowered the emergency fire sprinklers. This was cost and time prohibitive. As the result, all of our sets were left open at the top. This would present a significant noise challenge. Audiences in one scene would hear things going on in other scenes around them: dialog, music, screaming, gunshots. It was going to be a nightmare. I just hoped people who came through would be able to hear the dialog and get the message. Honestly, I was so discouraged that I never went through and watched the show that year. I was kept rather busy trying to get audiences through, anyhow.
When the first audience of parents and volunteers came through to test us out on October 12th, the final scene was still under construction! In House of Judgement the last scene is always hell. Our hell in 1998 was simple: it consisted of crosses that the condemned would be chained to, symbolic of their rejection of Jesus’ death on the cross. They would have to pay the penalty of their sins by suffering eternal death on crosses of their own. The first several audiences that entered could probably hear a chain saw cutting the telephone poles, which were being used to construct those crosses for the final scene. Construction finished before the first audience got to the scene, but it was certainly not what I’d planned, and I’m sure it wasn’t a terribly scary hell scene… yet.
The House was finished by the following weekend and we opened to the public. We began to see a response we’d never seen before. An average of one in every four people who came through House of Judgement 1998 indicated on a card that they prayed to receive Christ. In spite of all the difficulty and imperfection of the production that year, 13,500 people experience it. We had 1,800 come through in a single Saturday night!
That year a videographer approached me about taping the show and turning it into a movie. The movie is called Dark Persuasion and can be viewed online at www.youtube.com/deorl