Easter 2007. I stepped into a sanctuary that was brimming with people. Extra chairs were placed in the sanctuary to accommodate the overflow crowd. We set an attendance record. The music was uplifting. The good news rang from the rafters: "Alleluia! Christ is risen!" The service soared from beginning to end on the wings of the Holy Spirit. What a worship experience!
However, I had already witnessed the power of Easter before the worship service began. To help explain what I mean, let me take you back a few months.
Trinity United Methodist Church began a ministry called Power for Peace a few years ago. The Morristown Police Department worked with then-pastor David Vaughn to provide a camp for kids scarred by domestic violence. Kids were taken on camping trips and offered a safe place to discuss their deepest hurts and greatest fears. Professional counselors and church volunteers mixed and mingled with the kids -- with the goal of helping and loving them.
Power for Peace received a Change for Children grant at Annual Conference 2006. With this grant, we finally had the resources to make a lasting difference in the lives of kids who had endured untold horrors at young ages. At the beginning of the school year, we launched Boys to Men, a ministry that also served the boys' families. The local mental-health agency liked what we were doing, so they began offering their services for free. They paid for the boys' dinners and their families' dinners at church on Wednesday nights. A local psychologist offered her services for free as well.
During this same period, Trinity hired a new staff person to direct children's ministries. Suddenly, the building resounded with children. It was, to a pastor's ears, a sweet, sweet sound. We had prayed for children. God had delivered.
What does a congregation do, however, when cultures clash? Children raised in church brought very different experiences (and a different vocabulary) than those of children whose innocence had been stolen at early ages. Children's workers tried their best. We prayed. We wrung our hands. We got really frustrated. Someone finally suggested that we get parishioners to "adopt" these kids. Perhaps assigning each child an adult mentor for Sunday school and worship would make a difference. Perhaps ... but I was skeptical. Adults, I assumed, would quickly get frustrated with the kids. The adults didn't know what they were volunteering for.
Fortunately, I was wrong.
Now, back to Easter Sunday. I was praying in my office before donning my robe and heading to the sanctuary. I heard a knock at my office door.
I opened the door to find two boys, dressed in dark suits, standing there, smiling at me. "Hey, Pastor Dale," one of them said. "How do we look?"
Truthfully, they looked so good that I didn't recognize them. A second glance helped me to see perfectly: These dapper young men were involved in the Boys to Men program! One boy had, a few months earlier, threatened to beat me up. The other boy had been thrown out of his public school, and he was a handful at church.
Now, these two boys had taken a huge step forward. One who determined to whip me now sought my approval. One who had been sent the message that there was no place for him, suddenly felt like he belonged. Two smiling boys were moving toward manhood.
It's not about the suits. In fact, I'm always a bit hesitant to acknowledge all "Easter clothes." I want people to feel comfortable at Trinity, regardless of what they wear. But two boys who have had their childhoods destroyed by forces of evil were shown by loving adults that they were worth all the trouble. For two boys whom society had labeled as "nobody," Christians opened their hearts and their wallets to give these boys a chance to feel like "somebody."
Along the short walk from my office to the sanctuary, someone shook my hand and said, "Happy Easter!" I smiled and moved on toward the sanctuary. I had already had my Easter celebration. The words, "Jesus is alive!" took on a clearer, stronger meaning for me.
Christ is alive. So is his church.
The Rev. Dale Gilbert is pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church, Morristown, Tenn.