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Introduction

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The Descent to Compassion 2012

 

The disciples walked with Jesus beyond the four walls of the temple and learned what sharing the Kingdom message was truly all about. In the Descent to Compassion, we will go beyond Sunday morning service, past evangelism projects, and out into the highways and hedges where life happens and does not stop for a 30-minute sermon. We will come along side of where Jesus is walking and working every day, desiring His people to join Him in the work.

Divine moments happen every day because God is always at work. Each and every day we get up, if we open our eyes, we can see Him – or we can blindly walk away. Through experiencing these moments of divine encounter, our lives receive fresh meaning. Living this kind of compassionate lifestyle keeps one other-focused instead of self-focused. Good works have been prepared in advanced for us, and the Lord is ready to lead us by the hand to discover where those works exist.

The Descent to Compassion speaks of how to live a life full of inspiration and true fulfillment as the believer follows Christ into the sea of humanity all around. Jesus touched the untouchables, and He is asking His people to descend to the place of humility and compassion and touch those whom He would touch – every hurting heart.

Our world cries with the forgotten. Who are they? Where do they live? What do they need? Who will grace them with it? The world is not about bringing God to it; God is already there in the faces of the forgotten. God always has been with the broken, the destitute, and the poor. The call of the world is to walk where God walks. It is a journey that will change you forever, no matter wherever you find yourself in this world.

When I first went to the city of San Francisco with a burden and call to plant a church, I had the desire I was going to do something extraordinary for God. “God needed me,” I thought. He was calling me to start a work, to start something new and different. What I found was the opposite. God was not calling me to do something great for Him.  God was not doing that at all. God was doing something much greater than that indeed! He was inviting me to join Him in what He was already doing. He was asking me to follow him into servanthood by walking the road less traveled, that road being the road of compassion.

The word compassion means many things to many people. For some, it is just a word that means to feel sorry. For others, the word means something the weak have for the weak. Of course, the list could go on and on, but when you actually get right down to it, compassion is a God thing. Compassion started with Him. Compassion means, “to suffer with.” If compassion were a guide, you could follow it to where people hurt. You would find a path that is full of pain, a road of wilderness, and brokenness.

The road would be lined with the people of the world. They live in great big houses, and they live outside with no house at all. The road is a lonely one full of lonely people waiting to be noticed, loved and rescued from hopelessness. To have compassion, to live with compassion, you and I must immerse ourselves in the human condition of just simply being human. It is not a way you walk by yourself. It is a way you follow Jesus on. It is a way that points people home. I encourage you to join me as we take: “The Descent to Compassion”

 

 Chapter One

The Shopping Cart

Copyrighted material,

The Descent to Compassion 2012

 

God has a sense of humor, which I’m sure of. The last place I would have thought I’d be living was San Francisco. My country-boy life in North Carolina was just perfect for me. After all, it is the land of grits, livermush and all things Southern. Raised in a small Southern town, the last place I would have thought I’d end up would have been an inner-city urban jungle as a church planter. Not many years after giving my life to Christ and after obeying the call of God to preach, God called me from my comfort zone to the strange new land of the Bay Area in Northern California. I can see God in my mind’s eye right now, as He possibly called a few angels close to His side and said with a giggle, “Watch this.”

On April 17, 1994, we opened the doors of Providence Christian Center for the first time. My wife, Amy, and I, along with Dr. Ron Hooks and his wife, Lenore, felt excitement in our hearts at the journey God was calling us to venture. San Francisco is a diverse and unique city with a motley group of people from every walk of life, and we couldn’t wait to get started.

Through the efforts of a mail and phone campaign, we had targeted every zip code, except for one, which was purposely left out because it had a sordid reputation. We were given advice before we started not to target the area known as the Tenderloin. However, we would eventually end up calling the Tenderloin our home for many years.

Our first service netted 50 people in attendance. The crowd was racially diverse but not economically diverse. Unbeknownst to us, God would soon change that. Off to a great start, elation carried us to the next Sunday service. However, excitement soon turned to despair as each week the crowd faded in size. We gradually declined from 50 to 40 to 30 to less than 20 people.  As the attendance continued to decline, so did our motivation. Restless nights of tossing and turning on our beds became the norm, at least for me. Defeat weighed heavy on my spirit, like an elephant standing on my chest, making breathing almost impossible. Perhaps you have been at a similar place in your walk with God? You are obeying God, and yet everything seems to be falling apart.  All you can do is hold on, trusting that God is simply writing a paragraph of your life story you’re not suppose to understand yet.

Soon, only our two families and a few other people continued to meet. How had we arrived at such a situation? The first service proved exceptional, but now, utterly confused, I felt angry toward God. Surely, I thought, He had not called me to the city to fall short? After all, the back-story getting to this moment had God’s fingerprints all over it. Had He removed His hand?  Now, before I finish this story, allow me a few moments to share more about my calling to San Francisco.

When I first sensed the call to San Francisco, a dwindling congregation was not the picture I had in mind. I expected the church to grow rapidly and be one filled with a middle-class congregation. Little did I know that God had an entirely different plan for my life and ministry. The church would one day be filled with a beautiful diversity of people from all racial, social and financial classes, but God wanted to start first with the forgotten and build from there. It was God who led us here, and God who would keep us.

While attending Bible College in Charlotte, North Carolina, Pastor Loran Livingston of Central Church of God came and spoke to our class about the call of God.  I will never forget that day. It is one I have returned to many times in my ministry in order to achieve the staying power needed for compassion ministry.  I have often said, “Anyone can obey the call to go, but can they obey the call to stay?”

Staying is hard, and it is the call of God that will be the anchor that keeps you in place when everything looks to be falling apart.  Leaving may come, but it should happen when God is calling you to another place, and not just when you are looking for a way out.

After a brief introduction to our class, Pastor Livingston made the following statement, “Do you know what the church really needs?”  He paused for dramatic effect, and we waited like starving children for the next morsel of food.  “It’s for people to begin new works in our inner cities.”  When he made that announcement, my heart felt like it turned over in my chest.  God was speaking to me, and I could not deny it.

I kept this information to myself and did not share it with my wife until much later.  I spent many nights waking up with this burden on my heart and mind.  I could not shake the call from my thoughts; it hung with me like when you walk though a spider web, and it sticks to your face. Wondering what God was doing brought me much excitement.

A few months passed, and I found myself once again, in the same class where God first spoke to me about the city. During our prayer request time before class began, a young lady, Debbie Zambrano, spoke up and said she would like us to have a special prayer for her city. “I’m from San Francisco, and we do not have an English-speaking church there for our denomination,” she said. We have been praying that God would send someone to plant a church there.” God took hold of that statement and, in my heart, it met the one made months earlier by Pastor Livingston. An explosion went off inside of me. I knew what God wanted me to do. He was calling my wife and me to pioneer a church in San Francisco.

I remember the day I shared with my wife everything God had been speaking to my heart. I was excited, but at the same time, anxious about how she would react. My stomach felt like it was tied in knots. After sharing with her all that had been happening in me over the last few months, I asked her a straightforward question: “What would you think about going to San Francisco and starting a church?”

Her response was astounding. She replied, “I can think of a million places I’d rather go, but if God is calling you there, He is calling me, and I will follow you wherever God calls.” Time seemed to fly by, and before we knew it, we were destined to California. We informed our families and church of our move, sold our home, packed up a U-Haul, and left our past life behind.

When we finally made it to San Francisco – via Fresno, living with Darryl and Ann Crawford for the first few months, who became like our step-parents – we spent all of our money just to make the down payment for an apartment in San Francisco. We had only four dollars left in our bank account and no jobs, but we were there.

Amy and I held hands. I opened the curtains in our new home, we got down on our knees, and I said, “God, here we are! Use us in this work and please take care of us.”  God answered that prayer several times over the years. If fact, a local pastor, Dennis Adams, who would become one of my best friends, heard we had moved to the city and knew we had no food because of our money being swallowed up by the rent. He came over and took us shopping, and by the time it was all over, we had enough food for a month. It was miracles like that, proving to Amy and me that God was with us every step of the way. However, testing would soon come because it always does.

After only a few months, I was feeling overwhelmed wondering how Amy and I were going to do this all alone. I had thoughts of giving up. This was the hardest thing we had ever attempted. I remember praying one night and asking God for help. I knew deep down we could not do it alone, but little did I know, that at that moment God was dealing with Dr. Ron Hooks who had been my youth pastor in North Carolina.

The next day Ron called me on the phone and shared with me the burden the Lord had laid on his heart about joining us in San Francisco. With tremendous excitement, I confirmed to him that I had been praying for help. Ron immediately made the necessary preparations and moved his family to California to join us in the call.

But after only a few weeks, we had dropped from 50 to less than 20 people, and I was quite confused. What was God doing?  Where were we going from here? Little did we know, God was doing something quite different than we expected, and we were walking right into His plans.

The following Sunday, before service, we were all drinking coffee when a homeless man peeked his head through the door and asked a question that would set in motion a monumental change to come: “What are you guys doing?” At first, we just looked at one another, but then someone replied, “We are planning to have a church service.” Then he asked us if he could have a cup of coffee, and of course, we answered “yes.” We shared with him a cup of coffee, and he joined us for service. His question was like God speaking to us. It was as if God Himself was asking us, “What are you guys doing?” This question from the lips of a homeless man changed the course of the ministry and the course of our lives.

Later that afternoon, Ron called and expressed a plan to feed the homeless. He suggested that the following Sunday our wives stay behind and prepare sandwiches, while he and I would venture into the streets to invite the homeless to join us for service.

I remember the first Sunday we fed the homeless. Our wives stayed behind and put everything together, while Ron and I made our way into the streets. Ron went one way, and I went the other. I walked for several blocks around the church and on the way back, I saw a homeless man asleep under some sidewalk bushes. I used my foot to tap the bottom of his shoes to wake him, and when I did, he came to life like I had just shocked him with a Taser.

I could see frustration in his eyes as he said, “I’ll move along officer.” I assured him that I was not a police officer but a pastor. I asked him if he was hungry, and he told me he was. I informed him that I was the pastor of a new church right up the street, and that we had food, if he would like to join us for service. He smiled and said he would love to.  I helped him to his feet, and together we began to make our way to the church.

On the way to church, I saw another homeless man pushing a shopping cart approach me. I took the same route as I did with the first man and asked him if he was hungry. He also was hungry, and so I told him about the sandwiches and our church service. He looked me in the eyes and said, “I have this shopping cart with me.” I said back to him in a funny sort of way, “We have parking, and it will be okay.” He laughed and said, “Let’s go then.”

San Francisco is known for its hills, and so as we made our way to the service we had one whopping hill to conquer before our descent down the other side. We drew attention from many who passed because of the hilarious and extremely loud sound one of the wheels made. The homeless guy with the cart had tangled debris surrounding one of the wheels, causing it to turn in an unbalanced way. The wheel would make a constant clicking sound accompanied by a rattling every few feet. As we slowly walked up the hill, the broken wheel produced the sound of an old wooden roller coaster, making its climb to the top, clickety-clack, clickety-clack, clickety-clack, clickety-clack, rattle-rattle-tattle. Needless to say, it was funny beyond words. I had this image of getting to the top of the hill, and all of us jumping in the cart for the ride to the bottom, but that would not happen this day as tempting as it was.

When we arrived at the church, Ron had found a few guys, and I had my two.  We invited them in, shared our food, and just sat and talked with them for a long time. The conversations were colorful and laced with so many cuss words I felt like I was in a drunken bar scene. There we were, sitting in church, hearing abrasive language, and loving every minute of it.

After they finished eating, we started service, and I preached my first sermon to a homeless crowd of five. When the service ended, I gave an altar call, and two of the homeless men gave their hearts to Jesus. I felt beautifully used of God. I felt rescued from my anger, and a deep sense of new direction excited my heart once again.

We continued going out into the streets Sunday after Sunday, inviting the homeless to come into our church. Before we knew it, attendance grew to around 150 people. It was not long until there were so many homeless showing up before service that Ron began to take others with him into the streets, so I could stay behind to prepare for service and keep the place safe.

After watching our church drop from 50 to less than 20 only a few months earlier, we were now so full that we were running out of room. The seats were full of warm bodies and attendance growing each week. I was preaching to a crowd, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that something else was missing. I felt no true warmth in my heart or compassion for any of them. Little did I realize that it is possible to have a crowd, to have a successful ministry, yet still not be connected with people the way God wants us connected. God was about to break into my world and show me the road less traveled-the road most try to avoid like a pandemic, a road leading to true greatness in His Kingdom.

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