Rogueminister (Justin) has moved to a new home on the web. You can now find Justin’s writing at his new website!
Categories: alone, belief, bible, Christianity, church, drugs, faith, God, Grace, homeless, hurt, Jesus, justice, Kingdom of God, life, love, mercy, pain, Peace, Poverty, prayer, Religion
This past Monday at our Gathering service at Embrace Church I felt like the weight of the world, or at least our neighborhood, was on my shoulders. I am a fairly big guy, but my shoulders can’t bear that sort of mass. Heck, I can barely deal with my own problems many days.
On Mondays we open the doors a couple hours before our community meal, but on this particular Monday we opened even earlier so folks could join together in a service project. We made 130 pounds of laundry detergent to bless the low-income and unhoused folks in our community. Anyway, as we were were grating soap, measuring out borax, and shooting the bull the floodgates of folks’ grief broke open and poured right on me.
First, one of our regular guests brought a man to me who was plastered drunk and bawling. This man “Gary” shared with me some news that at once made me deeply outraged and profoundly sad. Gary told me that his best friend had recently frozen to death while sleeping behind a local church. I just wonder how it is that someone would feel so ostracized, or abused, or unworthy, or even self-reliant that they would choose to sleep in sub-freezing temperatures rather than go to a shelter. Are we that inhospitable?
I prayed with Gary. I put my arm around him. I tried to comfort him. Those efforts seemed largely futile. Not long after this conversation Gary started harassing other guests, as drunk people tend to do, so one of my volunteers had to have a conversation with him after which Gary chose to leave. Are we as guilty now as the folks who had pushed his friend so far to the margins that freezing to death was a better option than risking it with inside a church or a shelter? I sure hope not. Lord have mercy!
Soon after, one of our most beloved community members shared with me about the recent months in her life, particularly about why she had not been around much and what she was doing about it. I have shared about this lady before and I believe I called her “Ms. B” so I will use that alias again. Ms. B is a recovering drug addict who has experienced the love and power of God in some profound ways. At one point she was a spiritual leader in our small church community, always encouraging and praying with others. However, for economic and perhaps other personal reasons Ms. B had let her boyfriend, a crack smoker, move in with her. He, intentionally or not, pulled her away from our community. Then, praise the Lord, she was able to convince him to come to church with her one Sunday recently, and soon after she decided to kick him out of the house because she felt convicted about how this relationship was destroying her other relationships, most importantly her relationship with God.
Now, it seems reasonable to think that this is not a story of grief, but one of triumph. There is truth in that, but the story is still in process. Ms. B is still lonely. She still has financial problems. And, both of those things could easily be taken care of if she just let this man move back in with her. I am deeply concerned about my friend as she will struggle in the coming months to pay the bills, and to fight off loneliness as she lays down in bed alone at night because I know that in this neighborhood, in her world, there are many evil and destructive people and activities that might prove to be overwhelming temptations for her as she tries to keep her rent paid and stave off the residual effects of a lifetime of pain. Lord have mercy!
Not long after the conversation with Ms. B ended, one of our lead kitchen staff volunteers brought another distressed man to me. This particular guy, “Jim”, is someone for whom I have a special fondness. I helped he and his wife move, and they returned the favor. They have shared their gift for singing during our worship services, spoken words of encouragement to me and others in our community, and though they are decades older than me we have begun building a great friendship. Last week though Jim’s world was shattered. His wife was arrested, and she will likely spend up to the next year locked up. As this grown man, well-worn by tragedy, sat there with me and cried because the woman he loves is now in a cage, the many years of misfortune, hardships, and downright devastation all began coming out nearly as raw as when he had first lived them. He told me about how his young son was beaten to death, and how helpless he felt to stop it. He told me about drug abuse and years spent at the bottom of a bottle, including recent nights because alcohol was the only thing that helped him sleep. He told me about loves lost. He told me about being taken advantage of by landlords and friends. He told me about his life. What will my friend do now? Where will he go now that he can’t live in his current abode? Will he make good decisions, or will a 40 or worse be his release? Lord have mercy!
Then, of course, there were the usual conversations about surgeries that people can’t afford, how there are bedbugs at one of the shelters, people desperately searching for any sort of work they can find, and still more conversations about intra and interpersonal conflict, including addictions and abusive relationships. Lord have mercy!
“Lord have mercy” is my continual prayer, and it is a prayer that I watched God answer on this very same Monday night and in the days since. After our community meal we all headed upstairs for worship service. It started off pretty normal though the feeling seemed to be a bit more solemn than usual. I made a few announcements, said a prayer then turned it over to our worship leader. As I went to my seat I realized I needed to run home and get something, and since my house is only a couple minutes from the church, I was back before the scheduled time for the sermon to start. I walked past my friend, Pastor Josh, patted him on the shoulder, and told him to keep is short tonight. Then I returned to my seat.
About the time I sat down I saw Jim head to the prayer rail and drop to his knees. Pastor Roz motioned for me to join Jim, so I quickly got up to the front and embraced this brother as tears poured out on to the altar. Soon others were headed that way as well. It became evident quite quickly that this was not going to be a sermon kind of night. Our worship leader, Luke, continued to strum his guitar and Roz invited others to come forward if they needed prayer (and it truly was an invitation, not a manipulative plea). Next thing I knew the front of the church was flooded. We had all the pastors and a couple interns and other prayer leaders praying for folks and there was still a line. Roz got a free moment then gave one more gentle invitation and still more people came asking for prayer. The atmosphere changed. I saw the promise that Yawheh gave to Jeremiah regarding Israel, fulfilled in a small but significant way in our community. “I will turn their mourning into gladness. I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow” (Jer 31:13b).
Yesterday I saw both Jim and Ms. B. They both looked happier and more at peace than they had been in quite a while. Jim even told me that he has slept more peacefully the last few nights than he has in a long time. All their problems aren’t solved, and even though we are now helping them shoulder their burdens, and thankfully doing it as a community, we have all certainly seen that they, that we, have been shown mercy. Praise the Lord!
If you are interested in supporting my ministry as an urban missionary, please click the button below.
Categories: belief, bible, Christianity, faith, God, homeless, Jesus, justice, Kingdom of God, life, Peace
I have been sick for the last two days, and it has thrown off my schedule. I have had to postpone some plans and set aside some work, but I was reminded today how fortunate I am to have a couch on which to crash when I don’t feel so hot. That realization came sometime this morning while I was sitting at a Waffle House table with one of my homeless friends. I was supposed to spend the day with him to check out the different churches and shelters that offer meals and other services.
The plan was to meet my friend at the shelter where he stays then to come park my car at the church building since the shelter doesn’t allow people to park there during the day. From there we were going to walk to Lexington’s day center to get some breakfast, specifically coffee and donuts. While there we might check our email and hang out until it was time to move on. A few places in town offer a free lunch so we were going to decide where we wanted to go eat before we walked back to the church.
Instead, last night I went to bed sick and woke up feeling worse this morning. I still had to meet my friend because I had not other way to get in touch with him, so I got up and drove to the shelter. I picked up my friend then told him that I was not feeling so well. I asked if we could change our plans and just go out to breakfast instead so I could go home and lay down.
While we were having breakfast I asked him more about his daily routine. He talked about odd jobs, volunteering, and moving from place to place to get a meal. He then told me about how it was difficult some days to come back to the shelter because it meant facing people who were unkind, or worse, unstable. My friend’s bed is the top bunk in a room full of beds, so it is impossible for him to get any privacy or to just lay down and get some rest during the day when other folks are scurrying about. As he was talking I realized that he didn’t have the luxury of changing his plans so he could lay down and rest on a sick day.
After breakfast I dropped my friend back at the shelter. I then came home, turned on my tv, and crashed on my couch for several hours.
I think in years past I would have felt guilty about all this, but now I just feel more determined to love people the best I can with what I have. I feel more compelled to work toward justice, peace, and a bed with some privacy for every person who wants one.
Categories: Christianity, church, faith, God, Jesus, justice, Kingdom of God, life
Injustice makes me angry, especially when it is willful and blatant. We encountered one of just those sorts of injustices this past week, and we are continuing to right this wrong. Let me quickly tell you the story (yes, I did just split an infinitive).
On Monday, the night we usually feed upwards of 100 hungry people, we were having a town hall meeting at the church building. But, I am getting ahead of myself. That afternoon as we were preparing for the night’s events one of our new friends came in crying. She began to tell us that her landlord was arbitrarily charging her extra fees and claiming that she owed on her rent. The worst part is that the landlord had served her an eviction notice demanding that she pay up, plus the arbitrary fees, or she would be kicked out.
Fortunately, we know a lawyer who does great justice work for a great price (often for free). He offered his legal help, and our friend won her case. She was able to prove that she had indeed payed what she owed and that she was not due to pay any extra fees. Hooray!
Unfortunately, the landlord has decided not to renew our friend’s lease after it is up at the end of this month. Here’s the kicker. Our friend lives in a mobile home, which she and owns, but she has been renting the lot.
So, this means she now has a couple options: 1) Sell her mobile home. 2) Somehow raise the money (approx. $1500) to move it to a new park. Option one is problematic because she has such short notice, and because she may not be able to get what the place is worth. So, that leaves us with option two.
Here is where you come in. Our friend has been treated completely unjustly, so we are trying to pursue some justice by helping to raise the money to for her to move her mobile home. Also, if you know of anyone who would be capable and willing to move a mobile home for a charitable price (perhaps even free), that would of course be welcome.
If you would like to help us work toward justice for our friend, please make a check payable to Embrace Church with “Trailer Move” in the subject line, and send it to Embrace Church C/O Justin Barringer, 1015 N. Limestone St., Lexington, KY.
Also, if you are interested in supporting my ministry as an urban missionary, please click the button below.
Categories: belief, bible, Christianity, church, drugs, faith, Freedom, God, Grace, homeless, hurt, Jesus, justice, Kingdom of God, life, pain, Poverty, prayer, prisoners, Religion, sin
Tags: Addiction, Baptism, Embrace Church, Faithfulness
Most folks who know me know that I am a pacifist. My first book even took on common questions about Christian nonviolence. I often speak about nonviolence, turning the other cheek, dying rather than killing. I used to think I was a good bible teacher, but I am not so sure anymore. You see, a while back I began leading a bible study through John’s gospel. One of the regular attendees, a guy named “J”, had proven to be inquisitive, enthusiastic, and he was always kindly offering to help in various capacities during our Monday night ministry. “J” was homeless, and he had twice been attacked, stabbed and robbed over a couple week period while out and about in Lexington. I think many of us could sense “J’s” frustration and hopelessness growing even as we tried to offer encouragement and point him toward hope. We failed, miserably.
A few weeks went by without “J” attending. We didn’t think too much about it because many of our guests drop off the radar for weeks or even months at a time, but we heard through the grapevine that “J” had been arrested for allegedly beating a man to death with a 2×4. Sure enough the news reports confirmed the rumors. “J” is now in prison. Likely he will be there for a while, perhaps the rest of his life.
I sort of jokingly remarked on a few occasions that I must be the worst bible teacher ever. That may or may not be true, but I am beginning to realize that most of the change that happens in people’s lives does not happen because they sat in a particular class. There are a lot of ways in which God intervenes in the lives of people, countless different sorts of events that people can point to as places where they were changed for the better, but it seems that one of the most compelling reasons that people change is because they have others who love them through their mess. I will visit “J” in prison. I will let him know that he is still loved, that God still sees him as a person with infinite worth. I will pray with him, encourage him, challenge him to be a peacemaker and minister of reconciliation even and especially in the confines of concrete and barbed wire. I will declare over his life that Jesus does indeed set captives free and I will continue to trust that God has a plan for my friend “J” even though this detour has put him on an exceedingly more difficult path. I will challenge him to repent, to seek the forgiveness of God and the victim’s family.
Whether or not I succeed as a teacher, I am determined to be faithful as a minister of God’s redemptive peace.
Of course, not all of the stories of my time at Embrace are so dramatic, many of them are quite mundane yet eternally important. Sometimes they are even downright boring. A few weeks ago we had a baptism (that wasn’t the boring part), but since one of our worship gatherings takes place at a theater we have a portable baptistery. Our portable baptistery happens to be a plastic horse trough. Anyway, the theater does not have a particularly convenient way for us to fill the thing so I had to load it on to a small cart and wheel it into the bathroom. Me and two other guys took turns holding a small hose on to the end of one of the bathroom faucets. I know some traditions sprinkle water on congregants when a person gets baptized as a way to help others remember their own baptism. This was not a formal ritual, but we were sure getting wet as the water sprayed from the end of the hose since we could not get a tight connection with the faucet. We, I hope, remembered our baptisms as we prepared to welcome a new sister into the family.
After about half an hour of watching water slowly trickle into the trough we decided there was enough water to dunk someone. Of course a horse trough with 30 gallons of water in it is no light object to move, but we couldn’t really baptize this young lady in the men’s room, so we had to wheel the trough laden cart down to the front of the theater and up onto the stage. It took 6 of us to get it off the cart.
The baptism, like all baptisms, was beautiful. There is always something good about getting a soaking wet hug from a new sibling in Christ.
Of course once the baptism was over we had load the trough back on the cart, wheel it out the back door of the theater and dump the water out on the sidewalk. It created a small tidal wave that ran out into the street. I almost want to reconsider my stance on sprinkling for baptism after this, but it was great to watch someone die to sin and be raised to life with Christ.
Other stories at Embrace are still very much in process. In fact, most of them rest in that uncomfortable place of ambiguity between hope and hopelessness.
A few weeks ago a young lady who has been attending two of our weekly services on a regular basis came forward to ask for prayer. With the requisite tears in her eyes she told me about her addiction to heroin, about how she couldn’t see her children because of the drug’s hold on her. She asked me to pray for her. I prayed that God would deliver her from this demon of addiction. During our meal time after service I pulled “A” aside to talk more. I told her that helping folks with drug addictions was pretty new to me, but that I wanted to covenant with her to find her appropriate help. I told her that I would find her the following Sunday with information in hand ready to help her out.
For the whole week I sent messages to local friends who I knew would be able to help me out. My friend Kelly, the pastoral care coordinator at The Lexington Rescue Mission, had been working on a list of resources for addicts, which she kindly shared with me. I began checking into each program to see which would be the best fit. On Sunday, though I was teaching at another church in town, I rushed back to Embrace’s downtown campus at the Kentucky Theater to make sure I kept my word to “A”. I found her and told her about the various programs as asked her to meet me the next day at my office so we could look over them in more detail and at least get her on a waiting list or two.
The time came for our appointment and she never showed. I was angry, disappointed, and honestly sad because I still believe that she wants freedom from these chains that bind her. That evening one of her friends told me that she had hitched a ride to another city to follow her drug habit. That sort of thing makes me wanna scream and kick kittens (of course to be fair I don’t really like cats anyway), but instead I pray that God will continue the work that God has started in “A’s” life. Last week her friend said that “A” is back in town. Next time I see her, I plan to give her a big hug then a piece of my mind, then remind her once again that I love her with the love of the Lord and that I still want to help her though this mess. I don’t know where it will go. I don’t know if she will ever be free of her addiction. I don’t know if she will ever get back custody of her kids. I don’t know a lot of things, but I do know that I will I be waiting for her and working on her behalf, and I do know that as much as I am doing so that God will be infinitely more involved in her daily life, whispering to her that his grace is sufficient.
I can’t do the work that God has called me to without your help. Your prayers, financial support, encouragement and accountability make my work possible. If you think this ministry is worthwhile and God is leading you, please contribute to this small witness to God’s Kingdom.
Categories: belief, bible, Christianity, church, faith, God, homeless, hurt, Jesus, justice, Kingdom of God, life, love, mercy, prayer, Religion
It is difficult to know which stories I ought to share here. Though it has only been a couple months since I started at Embrace Church, and my work has largely been behind the scenes, there are many stories to tell. I would like to briefly (someone once told me brevity is a virtue, though I am not sure I agree) recount three encounters that are still weighing on my mind and shaping who I am.
1) Josh, the pastor in charge of The Gathering service was taking a much-needed vacation, so I was responsible for preparing and leading the service. Along with the worship service we offer a free meal to hungry folks in the community and pass out bags of non-perishable food (and occasionally fresh veggies when they are available), so I spent the day leading a small group of volunteers and interns packing the food bags, stocking the food pantry shelves, and buying the food for the kitchen staff (also a group of volunteers) so they could prepare dinner. By the time service started I was exhausted, but I had a priceless moment with a lady that energized my spirit.
Ms. “D” came up during our prayer time at the end of the service to ask me to pray for some family matters. I held her hand and put my other hand on her shoulder as we prayed. When I looked up after the prayer I noticed she was tearing up a bit. She said, “You see how you were touching me? No white man would ever do that. White people are usually afraid of me.” See, back in 1991 Ms. “D’s” face was burned with acid when she was attacked in what seems to have been (at least partially) a racially motivated attack. Since then she has had a number of surgeries and her face is permanently disfigured. I stood there sort of stunned not knowing what to say. I just continued to hold her hand and look her in the eye in hopes that my gaze would reassure her that I was not only not afraid, but I was honored that she would share that moment with me.
2) One of the prayer leaders at Embrace is brother Lawrence. Lawrence recently had a stroke so one of the other pastors, LeTicia, and I went to pick him up to take him to the hospital. We helped him out to the car and drove him to the emergency room then waited with him until he began to get treatment, in part because he has no insurance and the hospital had already discharged him twice in the previous few days, so we wanted to make sure he was actually cared for this time. Lawrence was transferred to a rehab hospital within a couple days. While at the rehab hospital a number of people from Embrace visited him, and other guests began asking why he had so many visitors. Lawrence told them that all these visitors were his family members.
This witness began to spread through the rehab facility. One day while Josh and I were visiting Lawrence around dinner time we sat with him in the cafeteria to chat for a bit. Soon the conversation turned towards prayer. We prayed for Lawrence, then he asked that we pray for everyone else in the place. The thing is, with Lawrence he didn’t mean sort of generically pray for folks, he meant he wanted us to go to every table and ask people if we could pray with them. How could Josh and I say no to this man who was recovering from a stroke? So, Lawrence began telling everyone we were his pastors while we began to ask folks if they wanted prayer. By the time we were ready to leave we had prayed individually with every person eating in the dining room that evening, including a lady who was about to be released the next day. This lady was scared because going home meant not having round the clock care. As we prayed with her her eyes welled up with tears and she seemed filled with a renewed strength and the courage to return to her home. I am thankful for a brother who has the audacity to push me into situations like that because it proved to be one of the most blessed experiences I have had in recent memory.
3) Not all of the stories I have to share are uplifting. Many of them are downright tragic. I often find myself heartbroken and feeling hopeless as I learn to trust in the God who brings life out of death. One of these stories that is fresh on my mind is about failure, my failure and the failures of our society. One morning at our Downtown worship gathering a man showed up who was released from prison just that morning. Mr. “C” had back and leg problems so he literally hobbled in to the Kentucky Theater to join us in worship and to seek help. I prayed with him then he asked if we could possibly get a cane for him since he was having trouble walking. I took Mr. “C” to a drugstore where he picked out a suitable cane. Then we began talking about where I would take him next. Mr.”C” was in prison because of an altercation he had with his roommate, so once he was released he had no place to go. He told me that he had a bad experience at one of the homeless shelters so he didn’t want to go there.
I have learned about many of the resources available to homeless people in Lexington, but I am still trying to figure out the idiosyncrasies of each agency, church and organization. They often have odd hours, particular eligibility requirements, and limited space. I took Mr. “C” to another one of the shelters only to find out that they did not allow people on the premises until later in the evening. We left there to go to the new day center in hopes that it would be a safe place for him to spend a few hours before the shelter opened. Unfortunately the center is closed on Sundays. Now here is the part where my excuses start. I lived in a different town and I had other things to attend to that afternoon, so after an hour trying to find Mr. “C” a place to stay I was ready to drop him off somewhere and move on to my other responsibilities. I still regret my attitude and decision. I ended up leaving Mr.”C” at the day center property. He said he would stay there until the shelter opened.
I saw Mr.”C” again a few weeks later and his face was covered in bruises. I asked what happened and he told me that soon after I dropped him off he was attacked by a group of guys for his pain medication. They beat the mess out of him. He spent several days in the hospital recovering before he ended up at the very shelter where he did not want to go in the first place. Mr.”C” doesn’t blame me, but I can’t help but know that I could have done more. I also can’t help but think about the ways in which our society, including the church, has failed. When people think it is ok to attack a handicapped man to steal his medication we really need to revisit some things. When there is no decent place for someone to go after they have served their time in prison we really need to revisit some things. When the church community is so scattered that we have no network to help the most vulnerable and marginalized people we really need to revisit some things.
I imagine that some readers may be wondering why I would end this post with a negative story. The reality is that though we have seen numerous people profess faith in Christ, be freed from addiction, and have their lives transformed there are far more cases when it doesn’t turn out the way we had hoped. For every story of triumph there seems to be a dozen stories of tragedy. That is the nature of ministry, especially the ministry in which I have found myself. If I only told the miracle stories or the stories that made folks feel all good inside, that would be dishonest. It is my job to plant and water. I trust that God will bring growth. Some hearts will be receptive to God’s work in their lives, others will not, but I will continue to be faithful to the calling I have received. Come Lord Jesus!
If you feel so compelled, please support my ministry as I continue to try to be faithful in this ministry to the marginalized people of Lexington. Thank you!
Categories: Christianity, church, God, homeless, hurt, Jesus, justice, Kingdom of God, life, love, mercy, Poverty, Religion
Tags: Embrace Church, Outreach Ministry
I think I had a perfect introduction to my new ministry.
Last week I was moving some of my books into my new office at Embrace Church. As I was pulling boxes full of seminary texts, commentaries, and my talking Jesus doll (yeah, like you don’t have a Jesus doll that quotes the KJV) out of the trunk of my car I was approached by a man rambling pretty incoherently. I should back up a minute and mention that I really do not like hot weather, and it was one of the first hot days of summer. I had already taken in one load and I was covered in sweat. I just wanted to get the next load in and cool off for a minute without any distractions. It is fair to say that I was more than slightly annoyed.
I engaged the man, feigning interest in his mumbling at first. After a minute he asked me if I could take him in the building to get a drink of water. I closed my trunk, pushed the cart full of books up the ramp to the front door of the church and invited the man in. I asked the administrative assistant where I could get a cup for the man. He followed me into her office and started semi-angrily talking about how he had been kicked out of this church before. As best as I could understand he was trying to tell us that he was a good guy and that it was only a misunderstanding, but then he recounted the incident (still in rambling fashion). Apparently some weeks earlier he had brought a knife to church and taken it out. He told us that he meant no harm, but by this point I was thinking it might be time for me to ask him to leave as well.
I found out later that this man had indeed showed up one Sunday morning and barged into one of the classrooms, wreaking of alcohol. He then, apparently, took out a knife and started waiving it around. Fortunately, a wise, older lady in the congregation was able to calm him down by offering to pray for him and they were able to escort him safely out of the building.
On this day he didn’t show us a knife, nor did I feel particularly threatened, but I am pretty sure I felt compassion for him. As he drank his water and continued to tell me about “the misunderstanding” I looked at him with less annoyance than when he first approached me in the parking lot. I hope I looked on him with love. I am not entirely sure I did, but I know this: In this ministry, I am right where I am supposed to be! I am once again learning to love the “outcasts,” and being opened up to what God will teach me through their presence. May I have the eyes to see Jesus in each face.
If you would like to find out more about my ministry and how you can support me, please read this letter. You can also give by clicking on the donate button below. Thanks!