It Makes a Difference
Do you remember bus ministry? I recall a time when those of us enamored with church growth (yes, I was one of those) smirked about bus ministry and considered it a fad at best, or a labor-intensive enterprise hardly worth the return in numbers at worst. Over the years I have heard stories about bus ministry burning up engines, budgets, and church workers. Even those who championed it seemed to admit that the timing of 1970s bus ministry with the 1970s energy crisis and skyrocketing fuel prices could not have been worse. Did bus ministry work? Was it a waste of resources and effort? I cannot answer that in terms of the history or the statistics. But on a very personal level, I can say it worked for me and my family.
I repented of my fascination with methodologies and growth strategies when I realized that my earliest memories of being involved with God’s people were through a bus ministry. The Center Street congregation ran a bus route through the neighborhood I lived in as a child. I walked to school in those days and had never ridden on a bus. I was amazed at how all those people could ride around in that big bus with the aisle that seemed a mile long. I felt very important the first time that the man I came to know as Lonnie opened that folding door with the silver handle that he could operate from the driver’s seat. Each of those steps seemed to be ten feet high, and riding so high off the ground was the closest thing to flying that I could imagine. Lonnie was so cool because he wasn’t just a bus driver, he was also a fire fighter. If you had told me he was an astronaut, I would have believed it. Lonnie’s partner on this amazing bus was a man named Blondie. Where Lonnie was tall and lean, Blondie was big and strong. He was the first person I met who sported a tattoo. Not the fine art stuff so popular now. No, this was a faded blue anchor hidden in the hair of his forearms. He was the happiest man I had ever met and he would lead us in crazy songs. Among the great duos of our time such as Abbott and Costello, Calvin and Hobbes, Mario and Luigi, Han and Chewie, I would have to include Lonnie and Blondie.
When you are eight you just accept that there are wonderfully kind characters like Lonnie and Blondie and their family who invite you to ride to church with them in their red and white bus. When you are 50-plus and have worked in church ministry for more than half of your years on earth, you understand that there were probably days when Lonnie and Blondie couldn’t get the bus started. There were probably days when Lonnie, Blondie, and the other church leaders sat in boring committee meetings trying to figure out how to pay the fuel costs. You can even forgive them if they ever had a moment when they were tired and just wanted to go home and watch football, wondering if all the effort was worthwhile.
After we moved back to Fort Smith, I had the privilege of speaking at the Center Street church. I thanked them for inviting my family to ride the bus. I recounted to them the night when I came out of class and could not find my mother on the bus. However, my younger sister was there, and she was being cared for by Lonnie’s daughter. This young lady, only a few years older than me, was mature and confident. She was happy and she was telling me and my sister that we were going to celebrate when my mom got back on the bus. And we did when my mom walked on the bus. With water dripping from her hair, Mom did her best to explain baptism to me. I also shared the story of my father driving up to our house on a Saturday morning in his Baja VW Bug. He told me that he had been at the church talking with the minister and had just been baptized. He seemed very happy, and I decided that, when I was old enough to drive, I would go to the church and get baptized on a Saturday just like my dad.
Blondie was still alive at that time and he was so overjoyed to hear this story. He said that when he knocked on the door of our house and asked if my sister and I would care to ride the church bus, he was so pleased when my mother asked if the parents could ride also. It meant a lot for me to reconnect with Blondie and Lonnie and their family and all those dear people who may have been working to exhaustion to bring people to church. In my family’s case, they brought us to Jesus.
Blondie passed away years ago. When my sister told me just a week ago that Lonnie had died, I was surprised. Only a week before, I had spoken with Lonnie’s daughter (yes, the one who took care of my sister so my mother was free to be baptized) and asked about her father. She told me what they were doing and I thought it would be good to visit with him again and tell him thanks once again in person. But quite suddenly, he is gone. Yet his good work continues in me and my family. Without ordinary people striving to be obedient to Jesus in all sorts of ways, how can any of us share in the wonderful hope and joyous communion of the good news? I cannot thank Lonnie in person, but I can pay tribute to him and in doing so encourage everyone who ever wonders if their efforts make a difference. They do.