Loving First in Louisiana
By Carl Stagner
When the church received an invitation to promote spiritual health at a local health fair, their response was an emphatic yes. It’s hard to imagine a church that would turn down such an opportunity for visibility and witness in their community. But the opportunity presented to Pineville Church of God in Pineville, Louisiana, was certainly a unique one—unique enough, perhaps, that other churches may have turned it down. The health fair was hosted by PFLAG, which stands for Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.
“I’ve heard it said that the gospel is always the same, but our presentation is always changing,” Suzi Ellis reflects. Suzi, whose husband serves as one of the co-pastors at Pineville Church of God, coordinated the effort. “This was an opportunity to share Christ’s love outside the walls of the church. I was happy to attend and proud to say, ‘You are welcome at Pineville Church of God. We love you.’”
An estimated two hundred people showed up at the health fair, surveying tables and browsing the booths of various organizations, businesses, and two other churches. While the city of Pineville is a smaller city by itself, when combined with a neighboring larger city, the twin communities claim about 60,000 residents. Suzi notes there are 212 churches listed in a local directory; why were there only three churches present that day?
While a host of responses could reveal the answer to that question, Suzi simply contends the absent churches missed a blessing. “We distributed copies of the Bible, the plan of salvation, and Bible crafts for kids, but mostly we enjoyed the sunshine, exchanged life stories, and made new friends. I spent the day getting acquainted, playing games, sharing about our church, eating, and just enjoying the beauty of the day. I’m saying our job was simply to minister to them and let them know they’re loved and that we are a church they can come to.”
Suzi recounts that one person asked if their church was “affirming” [of their lifestyle]. She responded though her church isn’t, everyone is welcome at Pineville Church of God, saying, “You can join us for worship. We will be your friend and we will love you.”
But the interactions at the church’s table that day were anything but uncomfortable and awkward. In fact, they were enriching for Suzi and the church’s volunteers. “[Our guests] were tender, loving people,” she explains. “They didn’t act surprised to see our church there as much as they were really encouraged to see that we would be there. Obviously, we’re passing out Bibles, but they showed interest and hunger, even, about our church, what we do, and what we’re all about. Many said they didn’t even know our church was there until that day.” Suzi further notes that two ladies accepted an invitation to visit with her at home to begin a Bible study in a welcoming, non-threatening environment. “Could we all just have more conversations?” Suzi asks, rhetorically. “Can we sit down together?” Sadly, these conversations don’t happen without proximity.
Not unlike many in the Church of God, the experience has hit close to home for Suzi. Perhaps you, too, know someone—a family member, a friend, someone connected to your congregation who has “come out.” These connections cause us to consider the best ways to love, reach, and engage others with the message of Jesus.
“I’ve been reading in the Psalms and came away with the conclusion that, if my dreams don’t scare me, they’re not big enough,” Suzi reflects. “I’ve been telling my friends at church, ‘I’m so scared.’ I ask, ‘What if someone says this? What if they ask this or that?’ But God had to get me past that, and he did. The world outside the church is in desperate need of Jesus. In 1981, Bruce Carroll’s song, ‘Who Will Be Jesus to Them?’ won a Dove Award for ‘Best Inspirational Song.’ It simply asked, ‘Who Will be Jesus to Them? Who’ll show the love that restores them again? They do not need a judge; they need a friend. Who will be Jesus to them?’”
Suzi and Pineville Church of God have said and shown that they will.
Learn more about the Church of God movement at www.JesusIsTheSubject.org.
Feature (top) collage: Suzi Ellis (seated at right) at the health fair.