by Frankie L. Holbrook
There is a church in woodruff park where the concrete walls are the pews, and the instruments are our hands. The worship team is made up of people who have everything they own in bags by their feet. We close our eyes when we sing, and we clap to songs like “Jesus on the Mainline” as Eddy leads us in song. He stands beside the old oak tree in Woodruff Park. He is slightly elevated by the concrete surround of the tree. This is his stage. This church is real. There is no judgement here. The only expectation is that you need Jesus.
Vicar Mary or another leader from the church always gives a message. The words are barely audible over the waterfall in the background, so we all lean in to hear a little better. Most of my friends here know the word well. They can recite large portions of the bible from memory. There is an opening prayer, a worship song, and sometimes we have the treat of one of the attendees sharing a song, a special talent, prayer needs, or something positive. Bobby once shared that he was going to get to stay in a hotel for a week. He had someone sponsor a room for him at a nearby hotel. This was extremely exciting for him since he has not slept in a real bed in such a long time. Russell once shared a song with us. He sang “I Can Only Imagine” at the top of his lungs with tears welling up in his eyes. I had tears in my eyes too. He told me a story about how his Dad would yell at him whenever he sang. His Dad would say things to him like “you are not a good singer”, “your voice sounds awful”, and “you will never become anything!” He jerked a little when he said these things out loud. I could tell he had not shared this with many people. When he agreed to sing for us, he admitted he had not sang in front of anyone for a very long time. Russell’s hands are worn from living on the street in such rough conditions. He has OZZY tattooed on the tops of four of his fingers on one hand. He says he likes Ozzy Osbourne and Taylor Swift. Of course, I laugh with him about this. We were all so moved by his song. It helped him to feel a little joy. Russell had the spotlight for once without someone saying mean things to him. He was a star for those four minutes. The light of Jesus was shining down on him.
My first visit to this church was about six months ago. I did not know what to expect. What I found touched my heart in a way I could never explain. It is something you must experience yourself. The rain was coming down in Atlanta that day. This meant the traffic was worse than normal. I wore old jeans and had thrown on a little leather jacket with a hood. Parking was not hard to find which is rare in Atlanta. The parking attendant even allowed me to park without paying. Jesus was sure blessing my steps. I took a minute to thank him before I ran in the rain the two blocks it took to get to Woodruff Park. Once I crossed the street, I saw the small white tents, the folding table, and the small group huddled underneath. The rain had not stopped them from praising Jesus. We praised him right there in the rain singing “I’m going home to live with Jesus, won’t it be grand, won’t it be grand.” Yes it will be grand, was my only thought. His presence was overwhelming in that moment. I met some of the best people I know on that day. My eyes were shown his glory, and my heart was shown how he loves each one of us. We shared prayer and the word under that tent with the waterfall sounds in the background. Communion was offered just like every Sunday. We all lined up to receive a torn piece of bread to dip in a fancy cup of grape juice. After we wished each other blessings, the lunches that are donated were given out. This is the highlight for the attendees who are homeless, because this may be the only meal they receive today. Everyone welcomed me with big hugs. There was more genuine happiness in these people than I would have ever expected. You expect to see suffering and hear complaints, instead you see joy and hear stories of hope. Once the sandwiches were eaten, and the closing prayer was said, it was time to go. I turned to get ready to run back across the street…one last glimpse. The lump was forming in my throat. I knew the tears were coming. I ran back to my car. The parking attendant just waived with a big smile. I hoped he wasn’t going to come say “hi”, because at this point, I was about to start sobbing. I finally got the car door opened and sat in the front seat with my head leaned back against the head rest. The tears ran down my cheeks. I wiped the tears and the rain away from my face with the back of my hands. My chest was full. I was sobbing. All I could think of was one verse and two words.
1John 4:19 “We love because he first loved us.” Be love.