Saturday, December 23, 2006

Christmas at Midnight

Last night HPC had a Christmas party. It wasn’t at the church, more of a ‘Midnight Outreach take-out party’. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Midnight, this is an outreach where we go to the streets, strip clubs and hang-outs that are frequented by people who are currently losing the battle to darkness. Our goal is to bring hope to the hopeless and to demonstrate the love of God to the lost and hurting. Midnight Outreach is another effort at being a healing place for a hurting world.

No party is complete without decorations, food and presents. In the early evening we loaded up the van and headed down Airline Highway to ‘Kittens’ and ‘Escapades’. Both of these establishments are referred to as ‘gentlemen’s clubs’, but I think that may be a misnomer. We had gotten permission from the managers to decorate the ladies dressing rooms so we hung streamers, tied up bows and put out the desserts and chocolates. To say the very least, the ladies were surprised to see us there. We also brought all of the dancers gifts: a Chick bag loaded with trinkets, candy, books and HPC info. Disbelief replaced suspicion as they unloaded their prizes. They simply couldn’t believe that we brought them a gift. One woman looked at a volunteer and said, “Thank y’all so much. This is the only present I’ll be getting for Christmas.” The volunteer smiled at her, told her she was welcome and reminded her that God knew where she was at. The dancer hugged her and said thank you again. Despite the fact that this woman was standing there with her clothes in her hand and a garter full of dollar bills, she recognized the unconditional love of God. How cool is that?

After the strip clubs we got ready to go to the north-side. We often do outreach at The Alamo, a by-the-hour motel that’s close to the Baton Rouge Dream Center. As we pulled in, the place looked deserted. There were a couple of people hurrying across the parking lot but not the usual crowd. Then I realized that it was almost the end of the month; when people run out of money before they run out of month, they get evicted. Hence, the empty lot. The guys got to minister to some fellas in the parking lot and we got to meet a family who’s living in one of the rooms.

If you’ve ever been in a Motel 6 you’ll have an idea of what the Alamo if like. Imagine the Motel 6, and now downgrade another 4 levels. The room was probably 12’X15’ and had 2 double beds, a dresser and a bathroom. Two sisters and their 4 children live there.

We brought them toys; the only Christmas they will have this year. They are planning on getting a place when their income tax comes in, hopefully something a little bigger. The youngest baby, Jamal, has sickle cell anemia and didn’t look well at all. We got to pray for him, his mama and everyone else in the room. His mama wiped away tears as she thanked us for coming out and praying for him. We gave gift bags to both ladies, hugged them and wished them a Merry Christmas.

After The Alamo we headed over to North Street to visit Bennie’s bar. The bouncer had never let us into the bar, but he usually takes roses in to the ladies for us. Last night, we got in. The place was pretty empty, with two ladies sitting alone at opposite ends of the bar and a weary-looking barmaid behind the counter. We gave the ladies roses and some of our volunteers started chatting with the bartender. As it turns out, she will be burying her son this morning. He died of cancer. Last month she buried her nephew, but I’m not sure that he died of natural causes. She cried as the volunteers reached across the bar and prayed with her. Outside we got to minister to the bouncer and to a woman who had just got off work. She works for the city during the day and tends bar at night. She looked tired and was grateful for prayer. We gave her a Chick bag too. As I was walking towards the van I saw one of our guys praying with the bouncer. I believe he’s had a change of heart about us.

Once we were done on the north-side we headed back to Airline. We wanted to take roses back to the ladies in the clubs and chocolates to the bouncers. We stopped by Hooters and gave the girls there their Christmas presents. You would have thought that they’d won the lottery. They were clapping and screaming and jumping up-and-down. They loved the socks and chocolates and everything else. They always enjoy the roses, but the Chick bags just put them over the top. It was wild. Escapades was really hopping, with cars parked up and down Airline for a quarter-mile. We couldn’t go back in with the roses because it was too crowded. Maybe next time. We got back into Kittens and before we left the manager pulled a volunteer aside and said, “I want to thank you again for what y’all are doing. You have no idea what this means to these girls. Thank you, really.”

Since one of the clubs wouldn’t let us back in, we had leftover roses. The only thing we could think of to do was to find another club. As it happened, Southern Kumforts was right down the road. The ladies there got roses and then we went back in with gift bags. Another dancer said that it was the only Christmas gift she was getting. Seems to be a lot of that going around.

With only a handful of roses left we decided to stop by Waffle House. After being at a motel, a bar and three strip clubs it seemed like a logical idea. The waitresses were excited to get their roses and Chick bags. The diners were even more surprised when we handed them gifts too. We wished everyone a Merry Christmas and loaded back into van.

Between 7pm and 1am we handed out 96 roses, a few cases of chocolates and 87 HPC Chick bags. We took these items into forgotten places, scary places, into places where sin normally has full control. The love of Christ, His hope and forgiveness, at least momentarily, shone very bright in those dark places.

I was pretty hyped up after the outreach so I stopped at Wal-Mart on the way home. I was cruising the deli aisle when a woman from frozen food hollered out, “Ma’am, ma’am, can I talk to you?” I half expected it to be one of the dancers, but I didn’t recognize her. I walked towards her and said, “Hey, how you doing?” She pointed at my shirt and said, “Are you from Healing Place Church?” I smiled and said yes. I asked if she went there and she said, “I don’t really go there, but I watch all the time on TV. That Pastor Rizzo guy, it’s him, right?” I nodded and said, “Yeah, Dino Rizzo. You should come check us out sometime. I think you’d like it.” She said that she definitely planned on going real soon. She asked me how she could get a shirt like mine (red Serve shirt). I explained about the Serve Team and told her about the outreach we just finished. I mentioned Escapades and her eyes got big, then I mentioned the Alamo and thought she might tip over. “Wow”, she said, “They really need that.” I grinned and said, “We all do”. She nodded and looked to the floor. I extended my hand and she looked up. I told her my name and told her I’d love to see her at church. She shook my hand and said she was coming, soon. I wished her a Merry Christmas and walked away.

I am so grateful that I belong to church who wants to make room; to make room for the broken, the lost, the sinner; to make room for me. Thank you, Healing Place Church, for making Christmas possible for so many. All glory to God!

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Making a List

Last Saturday was our the culmination of our HPC Toy Drive, the delivery of Christmas toys to over 200 families in Baton Rouge. That doesn’t include the toys sent out at Donaldsonville, St. Francisville or our Spanish campus, all of which totaled about 2000 toys.

The Toy Drive started a couple months ago when HPCers started buying toys for needy families. Over the next eight weeks the toys were collected, sorted and packed for various groups and families. By Saturday morning the Annex parking lot was covered with toys, maps and Christmas cards. Dozens of volunteers showed up to deliver gifts to families across the city.

The goal of the Toy Drive, like most of our outreaches, is twofold: to meet the physical needs of people who need help, and to demonstrate the unconditional love of Jesus Christ. Our volunteers not only put gifts into their hands, they had the opportunity to talk with them, pray for them and remind them that they’re not forgotten.

One of our volunteers knocked on a door and found an eight year-old babysitting her infant sister. They were waiting for dad to come home, but nobody knew for sure when that would be. During their visit, the volunteers delivered the toys and then led the 8 year-old in a prayer of salvation. Praise God. An interesting side-note of this story is that the volunteer almost didn’t come that day to help out. Her sister is battling cancer, and the volunteer wasn’t in the Christmas spirit. She decided to show up only because HPC had been delivering meals to her sister; she thought that since HPC had stepped up, she would too. Because of that decision, there’s now one more name in the Book of Life. What a gift.

It’s easy to get tangled up in the materialism of Christmas, but what it all comes down to is salvation. Jesus’ entire purpose, from His birth to His death, was to make a way for sinners (you and me) to be reconciled to God. I can’t think of a better way to honor His birth than by bringing the gift of salvation to others.

Merry Christmas and all glory to God!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

A Day With the Plumber

Yesterday I spent most of the morning being a plumber's helper. Since I know nothing about plumbing, the 'helper' part was mostly turning the water off and on and running to the hardware store for parts. It was interesting.

I'm one of those people who hate to call the fix-it guy. Partially because of the financial implications of it, but mostly because I would like the stuff to get fixed on it's own. (That almost never happens but I continue to hold out faith). The other thing that sometimes happens is that I try to fix it myself. That may be why the light switch in my bedroom now operates the ceiling fan in the living room. I'm still working the kinks out of that. The other night I dropped my favorite earring down the sink...before I got it out I managed to drive a wire coat hanger through the drain pipe. The upside is, I now know how to replace a drain pipe. size almost never fits all, no matter what the package says.

At any rate, I had a good day with the plumber. He was kind and patient and he didn't charge me an arm and a leg. We talked about Jesus and church and Pastor Dino. He doesn't attend HPC but he had heard Dino was a good man. That was cool.

I'm so grateful that God sends people to help me. It can be scary as a single woman to have workers in the house, especially when you don't know who they are, what they're doing or how much it will cost. Once again though, God's grace was sufficient. All glory to Him!


The Community Hall was packed out for the Turner Plaza Christmas party. Thanks to the efforts of Cooking For Christ and Baton Rouge Dream Center volunteers, the residents enjoyed Christmas carols, bingo games and a scrumptious turkey dinner.

As always, the residents were at their finest. Vera, a very spry 88-year old, showed up in full make-up and mink, while Road Runner opted for a more casual jeans and T look. An elderly newlywed couple were celebrating their 4-week anniversary, and several of the other gentlemen had enjoyed a few holiday drinks before our arrival. Needless to say, it was quite a time.

After enjoying the meal prepared by CFC, Claudia and Romaine got the party rolling with a spirited game of Bingo. To make it holiday-specific, the winner had to yell “Jesus” instead of “Bingo”. Now, on a good day bingo can be challenging, but when it’s being played by a room full of elderly, disabled and intoxicated people, it gets wild. The stakes were high too, with coveted prizes such as vaporizers, Depends, boxed chocolates and support socks. Since most of the players either couldn’t hear the numbers called, or couldn’t see the numbers on their cards, the volunteer’s skills became critical. With a near 1:1 ratio, there were almost as many volunteer as residents. Thankfully, once the food was served, CFC volunteers stepped up to the plate to help out. By day’s end all of the residents had won a prize.

The management of Turner Plaza was initially skeptical of us hosting a party there. She later told one of our staff that the residents have been disappointed so many times by groups who make promises but don’t show up, that she seldom allows groups to come in. She was very pleased with our event and said we could come back anytime. Our hope is that we will be able to make Turner Plaza a regular outreach with the mobile medical team in the early Spring.

I’m so glad to be a part of a church that keeps its word. I’m grateful that when we say we’ll be there, we actually show up. God is like that…He never makes a promise that He doesn’t keep. If He tells you to step out and do something for Him, you can know with certainty that He will meet you there. All glory to God!

Monday, December 18, 2006

Christmas Toys: 'Tis better to give than receive

These are a few of the 1700 toys that were donated to Healing Place Church to be distributed to families in need. How cool is that?
Above are a few of our volunteers that came to help deliver them across the city. HPC has the best volunteers EVER!

I got a new camera for Christmas but I haven't got it figured out yet. I'm hoping to be able to capture some of our outreaches on film, but so far it's mostly experimental. Stay tuned for further updates. Christ is Lord!

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Back Home

I spent the majority of today in airports: a couple hours in Syracuse (NY), then a few more (unplanned) hours in Atlanta (GA) and finally a walk-through in Baton Rouge (LA) to pick up luggage. It was a long day.
I've spent the last few days visiting my family in Canada. (I fly in and out of Syracuse because it's half the price and because I accidentally let my passport expire). Anyway, it's always good to see family, but always hard to leave them. I was explaining to my nephew that I had to go on an airplane to come home and work. He uses sign language, in which I'm not even close to being fluent, so either he knows I left on a plane or he thinks I'm gone out for chicken. I'm sure my sister will clarify.
Every time I leave them I wonder how hard it is for God when His kids are away from Him. I love my family, and I know that God has called me to work here in Baton Rouge, but it's hard being away from them. I talk to them every couple of days, but I rarely spend much time with them. The phone calls give me the latest info but it's not the same as sitting on the couch, sharing popcorn and laughing while we watch a movie. There's a difference between having the info and spending time.
I think it's like that with God too. How often do I pray in a way that gives Him the info (i.e. my wish list), but I don't take time to sit down and enjoy His company? Do I treat Him as my Savior and Creator, or do I do treat Him like a drive-through where I place my order and wait at the next window? Thoughts to ponder.
I want to live a radical life for God. I want everyone who knows me to know that I love Jesus with everything in me. How am I ever going to do that with a fast-food mentality?
Father, help me to want You more than I want me. In Jesus' name I pray.

Monday, December 04, 2006

It's in the Bag

On Saturday we did a community clean-up outreach at the Baton Rouge Dream Center. We had a couple dozen adult volunteers and almost 50 junior-highers from Pathfinders. It was a good day: lots of energy, visible results and sunshine the whole time. We sent teams out in four different directions to help some of our neighbors by fixing up their yards.

When I asked where I was supposed to go I was told to continue picking up trash from along the street. Huh.

It’s not that I have anything against trash pick-up; I had been doing it for the past hour while waiting for the teams to arrive. I guess I just thought that I would be going to one of the project houses. As it turns out, I thought wrong. I put on fresh gloves, got a new trash bag and went back to the street.

Trash picking is not a very cerebral exercise so I had plenty of time to think. That can be a dangerous arena for me. I often tell people, “My mind is like a dark alley; I should never go there alone.” So, with my thoughts, my decidedly questionable attitude and my trash bag, I continued down Roselawn Avenue.

I often write stories about the outreaches I attend, and I try to pray that I will tell the story that God wants told. I can usually gather the story from others, but I tend to write better when I’ve experienced it myself. The bottom line about trash pick-up was that I was bummed that I wasn’t going to have a story to write. After all, what is there to say about garbage?

God spoke to my heart and told me to pay attention. I have learned that, if I’m willing to listen, everything has a story to tell.

The trash that lined the streets became very interesting to me. I decided that a lot can be learned about society by what they determine to be useless. And I’ve decided that the definition of trash is, in some cases, community-specific. For example, on Saturday we picked up enough random auto parts to start building a car of our own. In my neighborhood, you just don’t find radial tires or electrical systems lying beside the road. Another thing I noticed is that, in 2 ½ streets, I don’t recall seeing a single coin on the ground. I could probably walk to the end of my subdivision and pick up enough change for the value menu. I guess a dollar in Prairieville is different than a dollar in north Baton Rouge. Interesting.

We picked up paint cans, potato chip bags and broken glass. There were lots of whiskey bottles, but no water bottles. There were junk food wrappers but no sign of actual groceries. I noticed a number of cat food cans, and it reminded me of an article that I had read about cat food being a cheaper source of protein than tuna. I hoped that there really were cats around, although I didn’t see any. We also picked up items that, by any standard, are considered bio-hazards – just more evidence of what goes on in the streets.

We eventually made it all the way around the block. It looked considerably better, but the trash bags really did tell the story. The paint cans told me that somebody cared enough about their house to paint it, but didn’t care enough about their neighbor to throw the cans in the trash. The socket wrench told me that someone cared enough about their car to fix it, but not enough about their tools to put them away. The whiskey bottles and condoms told me that people are trying to fill a void, but the emptiness remains. I fear that it will take more than a few trash bags to cleanse this community.

I had to repent to God for my attitude about picking up trash. Writing this story has called a lot of things into question. What do I consider disposable? What does God consider disposable? Should there be any difference between the two?

Do I consider the soul of a crack-addicted prostitute any less valuable than the soul of my sister? Do I treat them any different? What about the guy that I see pimping that twelve year-old girl? Do I remember that Christ died for him? Do I tell him?

Every time we do outreach we are surrounded by the discards of society; the ones who failed to measure up, the ones measured by their failures. Each one of us gets to decide whether we are willing to look past the filth, past the addictions and brokenness that dictate their lives. We get to decide whether we see trash or treasures.

Jesus answered and said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.”
Luke 5:31-32

The sacrifice that Jesus made on the cross was for everyone. He shed His blood so that sinners, all of us, could come back into right standing with God. He picked us up, broken and bruised, and He made a way for us to find peace and forgiveness. That peace and forgiveness is for all of us…no matter what side of the street He finds us at.

All glory to God!

Sunday, December 03, 2006

People in the Neighborhood

We had an outreach yesterday at the Baton Rouge Dream Center. Usually if we’re downtown we’re handing out groceries or hygiene products, but on this particular Saturday we were there to clean up the neighborhood. With the help of a couple dozen volunteers and about 50 Pathfinders (Junior High Ministry), we hit the streets with trash bags, rakes and lots of energy.

We had talked to some of our neighbors earlier, asking if they would mind if we raked their leaves and trimmed their grass. They were happy to comply and grateful for the acts of service. Our youth were a true representative of Healing Place Church, reaching out with a smile and a helping hand. It was awesome to watch.

Miss Catherine lives next door to the Dream Center. She and her family face struggles with health and finances and, because she’s in a wheelchair, basic yard work is a challenge. She told us she’s lived in the house for several years and has only been in the back yard twice. When we asked if we could rake her leaves she asked if we were joking. By the end of the day she was thanking us and saying her yard has never looked this good.

Down the street is a daycare center. We had gotten permission to clean up their playground and plant some flowers in front of their facility. With the branches picked up, the leaves raked and some pansies in the ground, it looked like a whole new place.

Over on Tuscaloosa a team was working on Miss Jamie’s house. She does her best to maintain her home and yard, but looking after a grandson who has near-debilitating arthritis takes up much of her time. She is genuinely grateful for whatever help we can offer and always has time for prayer. I watched her watching our young people as they pulled weeds and picked up trash. As she sat on the steps with one of our volunteers I wondered what was going through her mind. The look on her face seemed to be one of peace; a look I’ve seldom seen on her before. What a great opportunity to be a healing place for a hurting world.

The corner of 39th and Odell is a happening place. I’ve never driven past there when there wasn’t at least a half-dozen people congregating around a patio table in the yard. It’s an odd sort of gathering; a collection of those seemingly forgotten by society. They spend their time visiting and sipping beverages wrapped in small brown bags. Walking up to the table I could feel the hopelessness and oppression. Small wonder they spend their afternoon drinking tall boys. When asked about raking the leaves we were directed inside to speak to the lady of the house. She was happy to see us and thanked us repeatedly for the Thanksgiving basket she had received. She told us it would be a blessing to have some young people help out with the yard work. When the team arrived on Saturday morning she was overjoyed. By the time they had raked the leaves and pulled the weeds she was almost in tears. She told our team leader that it was the best day of her life. (Selah).

There are lots of jobs more glamorous than picking up trash or raking leaves and I don’t recall a single scripture that commands us to clean our neighbor’s yard. There are however, several places that tell us to go and tell. Sometimes that message is best communicated through our actions. We didn’t send out our youth group with a handful of tracts, and we didn’t tell them to preach hell-fire to anyone they met. What we did was to ask them to change the world by serving one; by offering themselves, a smile and a helping hand.

Then the master said to the servant, ‘Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled.
Luke 14:23

Since we’re in the hedges anyway, we might as well take a rake! All glory to God.