This is the third 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 first two chapters in the series in my notes on Facebook.
I’ve been accused of being negative. Sorry, I’m trying to be more positive. I think faith is positive. It just seems I’m always fighting some kind of adversity. Maybe that’s the case with everyone. Probably that’s the way it’s supposed to be. If everything is going well, if I’m not fighting anything, I become comfortable and I don’t grow. Of course, if growth is predicated on conflict, I should be a spiritual giant by now! There’s more to it than just dealing with affliction, offense and opposition. I have to overcome, and that won’t happen apart from Christ working through me.
House of Judgement 1998 was the most difficult project for which I had been responsible, until I started a church. How the church got started is a story all it’s own, and I’ve written about it previously.
My church was founded under unique circumstances. I didn’t just come up with the idea one day. Really, my hand was forced. It became readily apparent that I could no longer be part of the status quo in youth ministry (as if I ever was!). A vocal but influential minority at the church where I served previously were unhappy with my unorthodox methods of reaching teenagers. I made this worse by doing stuff like bleaching my hair and doing our youth meetings at a place called the ROC (instead of at the church– as if the church is a building, but that’s another discussion).
Everything came to a head on February 15, 1999 when I was pulled over by the police at 2:00 A.M. with a car full of young adults. When asked why, the officer in charge told me I had made an illegal u-turn. Okay. We had just returned from… Dunkin Donuts. Pretty shady place to take young people, I know. When the police officer asked the ages of the people in the car, one young person was about a month short of his 17th birthday, so he was technically in violation of curfew. I should have checked before I let him go with us, I know.
It was cold outside. The 16 year old in question was not dressed for winter weather, but the officers took him out of the car, searched him and kept him shivering out there. I was frustrated and made the comment under my breath (I thought) that they’d see me in court over this. That is one of the stupidest things I’ve ever done. Promptly, the senior policeman, who we will just call “Officer Lurch,” appeared at my window like a quantum particle. “What did you say?” he demanded. I repeated myself. That may be the stupidest thing I’ve ever done.
“Step out of the car,” commanded Officer Lurch. He then made me spread eagle on the hood of his cruiser where he searched me. For what, I didn’t know. He put me in the back of the police car. No handcuffs. He and his partner spoke to the young adults in my car, and continued to keep the 16 year old out in the cold. Officer Lurch got into the front passenger seat of his warm police car and lectured me through the screen. He told me that they had the right to pull anybody over for anything they pleased at any time. At this point I had become wise enough to remain silent. The lecture about putative police rights lasted about 15 minutes.
At some point I was made aware that they had called the 16, nearly 17, year old passenger’s parents to come and get him. Since I wasn’t being charged with anything, –in fact, they never wrote me a ticket for the allegedly illegal u-turn– I asked if they’d let me out of the back of the police car before the young man’s father arrived. I didn’t need the guy thinking I’d done something wrong. Officer Lurch said, “We’ll see.” I could only watch helplessly when the young man’s father arrived and stared at me sitting like a criminal in the back of a police car. The man left with his son, then things got really interesting.
Officer Lurch came to the back of the police cruiser and commanded, “Step out of the car, please.” I complied. “Step around to the front of the car please.” I complied. As I was escorted to the front of the car by Officer Lurch, his rookie partner, who we’ll call Officer Buzz, circled around behind me, pushed me down on the hood of the cruiser and snapped handcuffs tightly on my wrists. Next–as in after I was cuffed–Officer Lurch circled back to the open door of the police car (not my car), and in one fluid movement appeared to reach into the back seat to remove a small plastic baggy with a dark substance in it. He walked up to me and shook the baggy in my face. “You’re under arrest for possession of marijuana!”
Officer Lurch, then turned toward the shocked passengers in my car and waved the baggy. Taunting with a smirk, he said: “See, your youth minister is a doper!”
I thought, ‘This can’t be happening!” It was like I’d been dropped into the middle of some B-rated cop show. I didn’t know what to say, so I shouted, “I’m being framed!” as the dirty cops put me back (now handcuffed) into the police car. I was being framed. I guess they figured if I was going to see them in court, they’d give me a reason.
The officers then took charge of my car to have it towed, and made the remaining young adult passengers walk back to my apartment in the cold. I spent several hours in jail before I could post bail. I didn’t sleep, I assure you.
That week I spent money getting my car out of the impound, more money on a drug test within 24 hours, which proved I was clean. I even paid for at polygraph by a respected operator used by smaller police departments. The results? I was telling the truth when I stated: “The marijuana taken from the back of that police car was not mine.” I had to hire an attorney to present all of this. Once the Dallas County prosecutors office was confronted with the evidence, along with my clean record, they declined to pursue the case. The charges were dropped even before my arraignment.
Sadly, the information about my arrest got out, and there were those intent on ruining my reputation in the community. Gossip and rumor spread. “Did you hear about the youth minister who got arrested?” A member of our church heard the news from a police officer in line at the grocery story, another member heard it from someone at the bank. I had already informed our pastor of the incident, Next I held a meeting of all the youth parents and presented my case and the evidence of my innocense. The great majority of them believed me. I had spent seven years in that church as an honest, upright (and health conscious) associate pastor and youth minister. Later the same night I made the presentation to the rest of our congregation. Most of them believed my story, but not everyone.
Apparently, the disbelieving were vocal enough to have an impact. I was told by the pastor that my position would be reduced to part-time by the onset of summer. I was called to minister full-time. I had worked hard. I had done many good things at that church. What to do? I prayed.
I determined that God was calling me to start a church where people who felt unwanted, rejected and judged could come and find grace. I presented this idea to the pastor, and he was enthusiastic and supportive. We went to the local officials of the church’s denomination and they chose to sponsor the launch of a new church. On July 4th, 1999 City of Refuge was born in Richardson, Texas. We started with about 30-40 young people and a few adults. There was no model for this church, just the philosophy found in Jesus statement:
“It is not the healthy who need a physician, but the sick. But go learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Matthew 9:12-13, NIV).
Everyone who attended received Christ’s unconditional acceptance. Many allowed his mercy and grace change there lives. There were also people who used this grace as a license to justify their bad behavior. It was a rough start. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. In fact, I could write an essay on how not to start a church.
In February of 2002 we determined that God wanted us to change the name of the church. Jesus taught that his followers are to be a light to the world like a city set on a hill. Zion is a name for Jerusalem in the Old Testament. It appears many times in connection with promises that God has made to his people. We are his people. His promises are for us. I don’t mean to say this about my church alone. All people who put their faith in Jesus have access to God’s “very great and precious promises” (see 2 Peter 2:2-4). Zion is a name that we hoped would remind the people of our church of this truth.
12 years later I started to notice that some people misunderstood the name Zion. Some thought it was Jewish, others associated it with Rastafarianism. Zion has a great biblical history, but too many organizations, good and bad, use it. So, at the risk of appearing unstable, I proposed that we change the name one last time. I looked at the passage of Scripture from which we got our motto, “Spirit and Truth.” It is from the story about Jesus and the woman at the well. He promised a hurting outcast that if she asked, he would give her living water, water that would become a spring inside her, “welling up to eternal life.” Life Well. I want to live a Spirit filled, Christ focused life, and I want to receive the overflow of rich and satisfying life that Jesus offers to those who believe. I want to help people to live life well. Now our church is called Lifewell and our new motto is “living life well.”
Along the way I’ve prayed that I would be vindicated, that my name would be cleared and my reputation restored. I had hoped one of those police officers somehow would have the conscience to come forward and tell the truth by now. Not yet, but I still have hope because I still believe the promises I received when I first came to Garland.
“So do not fear, for I am with you;
do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you;
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
All who rage against you
will surely be ashamed and disgraced;
those who oppose you
will be as nothing and perish.
Though you search for your enemies,
you will not find them.
Those who wage war against you
will be as nothing at all.
For I am the Lord, your God,
who takes hold of your right hand
and says to you, Do not fear;
I will help you.”
(Isaiah 41:10-13, NIV)
I suppose I could just forget about this terrible incident and move on, but the church I pastor is right around the corner from the church where I was youth minister when all of this occurred. We still do ministry at the ROC, a community center owned by that church. I have to believe that what happened to me was for a reason. God’s providence ensures that nothing takes place in the lives of any of his children apart from his approval. “God causes all things to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). I do love God. I have been called. He has and will use this incident for good. I may not have had the courage to start City of Refuge if it wasn’t for what happened to me that cold February night in ’99.