I confess that I was somewhat of an oddity as a child. There are some who might argue that I’ve retained this quality into my adulthood. When I was about eight years old, my family was part of Brethren church plant in Grand Rapids. Actually, my father is the one who initiated the plant and functioned as a sort of lead elder for a time. There was not an abundance of Spanish language ministries in Grand Rapids when my family moved to the city in the early 90’s. And so, an inner-city, Spanish-language dominant, Brethren church was conceived and brought forth in the southwest side of the city, where a growing population of Latino immigrants had begun to take hold. When the church received its first convert to Christianity, he was promptly properly seasoned and made ready for baptism by immersion. We were still doing home meetings for worship at the time and the announcement was made that “this Sunday” we would have a special evening service across the street around the neighbor’s pool. I realized then that I had never been baptized. After the folding chairs were put away, I went up to speak to the elders, including my father, who were in a sort of huddle. I asked them, “What prevents me from being baptized?” They chuckled and someone asked me if I even knew what baptism meant. They instantly became solemn when I replied by quoting Romans 6:3-5.
“…don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his.”
For the life of me, I can’t ever remember memorizing that passage of Scripture and the look on my Father’s face suggested that he didn’t remember me doing so either. There were no further questions.
I was baptized in the neighbor’s in-ground swimming pool along with the other candidate. That anyone in that neighborhood had a real swimming pool was just as much an anomaly as the sight of church folks in their dress clothes gathered around the pool while singing hymns in Spanish. The sun set the sky on fire in its twilight. I don’t know if God troubled the waters as it says in the old-time Spiritual. But, I do remember that the water was cold. Ironically, I also recall being asked to share a testimony while standing there in that freezing water. I didn’t have anything to say. After a few moments of silence, they dunked me anyway.
The scene must have set some sort of precedence. Every other baptism in the church had its unusual elements. A narrow horse trough was used for several other baptisms. There were chosen rivers in nearby public parks for baptisms too, and I vaguely remember someone getting tossed into lake Michigan. I’m sure that if it ever came to it, the church might have been willing to take someone into the backyard and hose them down in the name of the Trinity, but thankfully the elders were fairly resourceful and found other means to perform the sacrament. One thing for sure is, the new church plant was determined to make disciples of every Latino-immigrant nation represented in the ‘hood. It was determined to let everyone in its vicinity know that Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world. I was more than glad to participate. This was only my introduction to God’s mission to the world. The Holy Spirit would stir a passion for God’s Word and missional engagement in me that was deeper still.
Sometime later, my family moved across Division Avenue to the southeast side of Grand Rapids. We then lived in the proximity of Garfield Park. I loved playing basketball and I was allowed to go the park on my own to shoot hoops in the afternoons. I began sneaking to the park with my Bible smashed into my pocket or hidden beneath my shirt. I’m not sure if my mother ever noticed, and now that I look back I’ve never asked her if she did or didn’t know what the square looking thing was under my shirt. I would walk past the basketball court to the west end of the park where there were several tall trees. Then, I pulled out my Bible and instructed the trees to, “Hear now, the Word of the Lord.” I took it upon myself to exhort those trees boldly with the words of Psalm 96: “Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them; let all the trees of the forest sing for joy. Let all creation rejoice before the Lord, for he comes to judge the earth…” I found several other Scriptures related to their context and situation to use as sermon material. I conducted whole worship services in that park and did all but collect an offering. This was more than just modeling what I saw on Sunday mornings. I didn’t fully comprehend it at that time, but God was forming my heart for the preaching of the Scriptures.
Short of reaching 20 years old, I met Dr. Duke. The church of my upbringing was going through significant turmoil with its leadership, organizational structure, and multi-ethnic tension. Feeling that I needed a change in order to continue growing as a Christian, I labored in prayer, asking God to lead me in the way which I should go. In what may seem like a major pendulum swing (and it certainly felt that way), I began attending an African-American Pentecostal church. I’m not sure when it began, but I began to notice a senior gentleman who tended to sit in the mid-section of the pews on the right side of the sanctuary. I don’t know what about him called my attention, except perhaps that he always seemed to carry an impressive sort of presence, as if he carried a sort of power in his demeanor. Whatever it was, I made a mental note to try and find a way to meet this man and find out who he was. When a class on ministerial training was offered at the church, I signed right up. As it turned out, this man, Dr. Duke, was the teacher. After several weeks, the class dissolved for unknown reasons, but I was very impressed with Dr. Duke’s knowledge of the Bible. Maybe he noticed that I was very serious about the class and wanting to grow as a disciple of Christ because he took me under his wing and we began to meet outside of class. I learned that he had once been a church planter and had a degree in social work and counseling. I began asking Dr. Duke all sorts of questions. I wanted to learn more about the Bible and interpreting Scripture. I wanted to know why different denominations have different traditions. When I wanted to learn about preaching, he invited me to join him on his regular visits to Mission in downtown Grand Rapids.
The Mission was a men’s rehab center which doubled as a homeless shelter. Dr. Duke and a friend of his, Pastor Waver, would visit the mission on Tuesdays at noon and take turns preaching for its chapel services. The first week I visited with Dr. Duke, he asked me on the spot to lead the attending group in a couple of songs before the preaching of the Word. Well, I was scared out of my wits. I was in a completely new environment and had no idea what I was doing. But, I came to learn. I walked up to the microphone and sang some worship songs that I learned at church. Several of those gathered there joined in the singing. The next week was Dr. Duke’s turn to preach. Again, on the spot he instructed me to preach in his stead. Well, if I was scared the previous week, at this I nearly peed my pants. I had no idea how to preach, let alone how to bring the Word to a congregation of folks who were at their wits end with life’s troubles and fighting various addictions. Perhaps that was the point… Dr. Duke looked at me sternly. He told me that this week it was fine to say no, but next week I would be preaching and that was that. Needless to say, I watched him intently as he preached. I took note of demeanor, his tone, and his style of teaching. And the next week when he tossed me the microphone, I went up to the podium with my rookie preaching notes and gave it all I had. It was in this way that Dr. Duke apprenticed me for missional ministry. I would preach, then we’d go over my sermon, noting improvements and needed changes.
Together with Pastor Waver, we sat at the lunch table with people who lost their homes or were estranged from their families. Many of the visitors also dealt with mental illnesses. After a few months, Dr. Duke was unable to continue visiting the mission. Pastor Waver, who was a bi-vocational church planter, also had to make some schedule changes. Because of this, he too was unable to continue volunteering at the mission. Our team of three became one. I continued volunteering at the mission for as long as I was able and increased my once a week commitment to several times a week as needed. Over a three-year period, I learned to eat whatever those gathered at the mission were eating. I learned to silence myself and listen to their stories. I learned to pray with them and to let them pray for me. I had never preached at a church before or pastored a congregation. But, something about serving at this Mission felt absolutely right.
Dr. Duke had a small office in his home. Once when I visited with him, he invited me to his office to talk about some of the books he had there. When I walked in, I immediately noticed the number of degrees that he had framed on his wall. To this day, I don’t think I’ve met anyone with such a strong educational background, yet he never flashed his degrees or talked about them much. I was so curious that I asked him about each of the framed degrees on his wall. I can’t remember them all. However, there was one that seriously caught my attention. It was a seminary degree. As he began to tell me about his experience going to seminary, I began to feel the Holy Spirit tugging at my heart.