Who could have predicted a gun would advance the Gospel of Jesus Christ? I mean Lord , you could have chosen another way, right?
"If I die today, I know where I am going! Do you, do you, do you, and what about you? Is Jesus your Lord and Savior."
ENCOURAGE CHURCH: The beginning.
We planted Encourage Church in my home with one family. It grew to a few families and we were granted permission (by the Cleveland School Board) to rent a school. The prayer and purpose was to impact the lives of young African-American men with the love of Jesus Christ. We were informed by a police captain that the area we were planting was a tough neighborhood and should consider another area. However, I moved my family into this area to have an impact for God and could not turn away.
My first challenging encounter was seeing three young men in my minivan, as I returned to the parking lot from a meeting. Ummmmmm, THEY WERE TRYING TO STEAL A MINIVAN! I clicked the arlam on my keys and scared them half to death. It was funny seeing them jumping over each other trying to get out (the things my wife and I have been through). As they fled the scene, I screamed, “wait guys I’m starting a church here next week.” THAT WAS MY MENTALITY!
Encourage Church: They came.
Sunday after Sunday we met with a small group. Questions of our relevance came creeping into my mind and heart. Did I hear God correctly? Was I wasting my time? Was this really worth it? Then, out of nowhere IT HAPPENED. After 3 months of low turnout, over 50 young African American men showed up directly from the neighborhood, which was a sight for sore eyes. We began utilizing the gymnasium for basketball each week. This kept them coming back and allowed relationships to form. We attracted high school, college, and some professional athletes each week. The competition was at a high level and I knew I had to compete as a way of ingratiating myself with the fellas (it also didn’t hurt that I was a former pro player). We would gather together and pray, teach, and even provide food. The numbers grew to about 125 and forced me to buy uniforms, keep score, and (at times) hire referees to build structure.
Encourage Church: The challenge.
The most challenging part was feeling like I could do more (spiritually) for my guys. However, while playing on the court with the guys questions about God, church hypocrisy, and salvation would often come up. They would also seek advice about girlfriends, baby momma drama, college, employment, and sexually transmitted diseases. Nothing was off limit! God was up to something and I didn’t want to mess it up with a “churchy service” (despite the desires of some volunteers). Even though I was doing what God was calling me to do with these young men, I still wanted them to have the joy and peace that I found in Jesus. So, I began to pray that God would give me an opportunity…any opportunity (ummm…be careful how you pray).
Encourage Church: The gunshots.
About 1 ½ years into Encourage Church a young man walks in for the first time. He received, the traditional, Encourage Church hugs from our senior ladies, stationed at the entrance point (with the metal detector and security). He had just been released from prison, and no one knew he made it past security with a gun in his bag. After 45 minutes of competition, testosterone would take over.
LET'S STOP HERE A SECOND.
As an athlete, I am familiar with arguments and "testosterone intensity" associated with the game of basketball. It was not uncommon to break up fights or trash talking that occur from week to week. However, I notice something different about this guy. He felt disrespected, and (for him) something needed to be done.
I watched him carefully as he sprinted to his bag and reached in it. I Immediately stepped in front of him, which was not the smartest thing to do. He said, “Nah, Pastor Mark I’m cool . . . just getting my shirt.” Play continued for another 10 minutes, but this time I sensed something was going to happen. AND IT DID! He reached into his bag a second time, the other guys sprinted toward the exit signs (to get their guns from their cars), and with one last glance at me he dashed toward the exit doors with his gun. Shots fired and people scattered.
Encourage Church: The Prayer.
In that moment, I remembered my prayer to God. “Give me opportunities to transform lives!” AND THERE I WAS, surrounded by 45 young men who were slightly panicked and looking to me. THIS WAS IT…I said, “If I die today I know where I'm going, do you, do you, do you?” It was the quickest come-to- Jesus moment ever. Fortunately, the police department was located in the high school and acted swiftly. Bullet holes were found in many of our vehicles, but no one was injured. God’s protection was all around us. I prayed for an opportunity to share the Gospel and I got it!