Friday, February 12, 2010

14-YEAR-OLD BUS EVANGELIST

I was all of 14 years old when I became a bus ministry evangelist. The experience was insightful.

BACK WHEN. When I was fourteen, I became a bus evangelist. Actually, I rode the church bus almost every Sunday morning with the old driver Homer Hathaway from the time I was seven years old until I realized it was not at all cool to do so. Homer, who had only three fingers on one hand because he had blown the others off with fireworks when he was a kid, let me stand at the front of the bus as it lurched up and down the hilly Parkersburg, West Virginia streets. Apparently he wasn't much wiser in his old age. I would brace myself for chugging accelerations one way and brace for the sudden braking the other. At every stop, I pulled the lever that opened and closed the doors for church-going passengers.

ALL ABOARD. Our old 65-passenger Chevy bus served the usual Sunday riders for years, mostly families that didn't have vehicles and Sunday School kids whose parents must not have cared about God or church. The bus would pull up to the church half full. But then my preacher dad and our Children's Pastor George Branch went to a Bus Ministry Conference in Hammond, Indiana and brought back all the enthusiasm and strategies that would bring unchurched people to salvation via buses. And soon, used Ford and GMC buses were added--and two VW vans to boot.

COUNTERING THE BAPTISTS. "Bus ministry" became big stuff in evangelical churches in the early 1970s. Some churches amassed large fleets of sharply painted buses that crisscrossed the city picking up children and families, mostly from the poorer neighborhoods. If Parkersburg First Church of the Nazarene was not going to lose out to those aggressive Baptists, we needed to get in on bus ministry. And we did--big time.

PACK A BUS. George Branch led the Bus Ministry. I loved George Branch, whose enthusiasm and humor won the hearts of children. And, somehow, George talked me and Billy Fisher--my best friend who had just turned sixteen and had bought a white 1969 Plymouth Satellite for $525--into being "bus captains" for one of the VW vans. Being a "bus captain" meant you did everything you could to fill up a bus with as many people as possible each Sunday. We were to fill up the VW as many times as possible. To do that, Billy and I spent Saturday mornings calling on "prospects."

SATURDAY CALLING. So, here is a fourteen- and sixteen-year old pulling up to a house at 10:00 on Saturday morning and, in all earnestness, trying to urge groggy residents to ride our VW church van on Sunday. Looking back, I think people must've obliged just to humor us. Our "prospects" were friends or relatives of people who rode the van already, or somebody whose child had attended Vacation Bible School once upon a time, or some other odd contact. We also visited our "regular riders" and spent a few minutes with them being earnest about life, God, salvation, and church. And, after a hard morning of prodding each other to be the first to talk at the next house, Billy and I would head for a lunch of burgers.

RIDING SHOTGUN. On Sunday morning Billy and I would alternate trips riding shotgun with Walter, the VW van driver. We'd go knock on the door if the VW's nasal "beep-beep" horn didn't bring a response at each address. We'd pass out the promised riders' prize of the day--bubble gum, key chains, Matchbox cars, flowers, whatever. We'd chat with riders about everything under the sun until the van pulled up to the church door. And we'd hope that, somehow, Sunday School or the sermon would bring our riders to salvation.

FEAR AND COURAGE. Billy and I were bus captains for about a year. Seventeen took Billy in the direction of motocross racing on Saturdays and fifteen drove my self-righteous zeal into some other pursuit. We got out of our responsibility somehow without too much guilt (not an easy thing to do--to turn in your ministry badge at age fifteen). I hadn’t recollected that experience fully until now. I recall the combination of fear and courage, uncertainty and necessity, hesitancy and go-for-broke daring that would wash over me on those Saturday mornings as we approached people we barely knew or did not know at all with something we thought we knew they needed.

WHAT IS "NORMAL?" If this story sounds weird or odd now, it seemed completely normal to me at the time. As I understood it then, this was the sort of thing anyone who took Jesus seriously would do. This was one way one's life was lived as a "witness," as in "you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria and the ends of the earth." Looking back, I understand that it was more unusual than I imagined at the time, even the stuff of a ghetto culture.

RUINED FOR CHEAPLY-PROCLAIMED SALVATION. Looking back from where I stand now, I also think those experiences of spending time in the dwellings of extremely poor and dysfunctional families, listening their difficult stories and wondering how the Good News as I understood it syllogistically would make a difference, ruined me for accepting cheaply-proclaimed salvation and set the trajectory of my life to explore ways in which the message of the Bible connects with the poorest of the poor.

In the spirit of dialog, I welcome comments and/or questions. Click on "responses" below to post. They're moderated only to reduce incivility.

2 comments:

  1. You wrote that this story "ruined [you] for accepting cheaply-proclaimed salvation and set the trajectory of [your] life to explore ways in which the message of the Bible connects with the poorest of the poor." FWIW, I am glad for the way in which this event "ruined" you - because your deep, thoughtful, wise and engaging reflections on connecting the message of the Bible with the poorest of the poor help me as I learn from you. Thanks.

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  2. Thanks, Marty. What a journey of discovery, learning and grace we are on!

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Your tasteful comments and/or questions are welcome. Posts are moderated only to reduce a few instances of incivility.