Sinking Sand/Solid Rock – An Anthology # 12 El Paso

el-paso-to-juarez  1960 El Paso into Juarez, Mexico

El Paso # 12

Thank God for Daddy and Mama.  We arrived at 9:00pm on Thursday night traveling all day from Pueblo with everything we owned in a small trailer.  Daddy was a master at packing and Mama helped with our baby son.  Wife was pregnant with our second child.  The parsonage was right next door to the church and things didn’t look all that bad – at night.

Early the next morning I was up and ready to be the pastor of my very own church.  One of the faithful had left a key in an outside box for us to enter the parsonage and keys to the church.  Excitedly, I opened the door of the church.

My dad was already up and around.  His custom was to get up early, read his Bible and pray.  The two of us entered the church.  We stopped dead in our tracks.  “Daddy, what is this?”  Daddy had extensive experience in building churches.  In fact, he could do anything and knew how to assess things quickly.  He said, “It looks like they used low test concrete.”  The building was one of those steel fabricated things with aluminum and steel construction set on a concrete floor.  Unfortunately the concrete did not have the correct consistency when poured in place.  There were 2 inch cracks all through the floor from front to back, sideways and all around.  Furthermore, the concrete had not been sealed so cement dust was everywhere.  The seats were pews (long benches) brought over from a church that went out of business.  Filthy.  Well, at least there were 19,000 cars per day passing along the front of the church on the dirt road.  Out back was a field of weeds native to a desert environment.  But we had great exposure!

Young, bright eyed and bushy tailed, nothing deterred me.  Nineteen faithful people were there the first Sunday morning plus my parents.  Nine of the attendees were adults.  No problem.  We had a piano.  I played it, sang the special and preached a sermon entitled “We Have a Message” from First Corinthians 2:1-10.  I preached like a bishop as though there were a thousand people there.  Oh, and I wore my deep blue, pin-striped suit with white shirt and red tie, tie tack and cuff links.  No one there told me it was sinful.  Well, at least I didn’t wear lipstick.  My salary was about $30.00 per week ($800 per month in today’s dollars) plus we could live in the adobe house for free.  Not bad, huh?

The long and short of the first few months was that I mobilized a couple of guys and we cleaned the place.  The only person available to act as janitor was numero uno (I thought I would inject a little Spanish).  I still played the piano, sang specials, preached and visited everybody in that part of town.  We had a water pipe running into the parsonage supplying the kitchen, bathroom and back porch shower.  At first the shower had a family of scorpions hanging from the top.  I politely asked them to move on down the road.  With the help of my broom they complied.

I joined every organization I could find.  Soon I was elected to serve as the president of the ministerial organization of the city, vice president of a local service club and became a member of the Sun Bowl group bringing football to the city.  Man, I was involved.  I became close friends with a nearby pastor of a large Methodist church.  That was before the Methodist church started to lose members and before their political liberalism.  He mentored me through the maze of my first time ministry.  Daddy did too, but they had gone back to Cisco and he was getting old.  The more secure Nazarene pastors didn’t want to get involved with mentoring because members might leave their church and go somewhere else, maybe to my church on the dirt road.  

A few months later my sweet and wonderful daughter was born.  She was so small, maybe 5 pounds 2 ounces.  We had no insurance.  No money.  The doctor and hospital helped because we didn’t have any money.  She was born with respiratory distress syndrome (I think they called it Hyaline membrane disease) and was at the point of death for nine days.  We couldn’t touch her.  Can my wife take any more of this; adobe hut, dirt road, no money, and two little kids, stressed out the yingyang?

It was of no consequence that I had attended college and seminary or that I had a little bit of experience.  I wasn’t focused on the inconsequential.  I had a church to clean up.  I had a church congregation to build.  Our church wasn’t the big First Church, for sure.  We were known as the low-class church in a poor section of town on a dirt road two miles from Mexico.  My seminary brothers had moved on to nice parsonages and prestige churches.  It made no difference to me at the time.  Just as I had given my time and talent to the quartet in college, I gave it all to building this church.

My custom was to study late on Saturday evenings as a last minute push toward a sermonic masterpiece.  I should have known better than to leave my door unlocked.  After all, our church was only two miles from the Mexican border and on a dirt road where an amazing array of interesting people was constantly on the move.  And too, I used the time and place in my study to think and pray in complete intimacy with God.

All of a sudden a man flew through the door knocking it wide open and fell down in front of my desk.  Scared me to death!  He was a new attendee at the church.  He was crying – sobbing, really – blubbering out about his failed marriage.  He then reached in his waistband and pulled out a gun.  I was too terrified to run.  Placing his Smith & Wesson .38 on the top of my desk he cried out, “Pray for me.”  Seminary didn’t prepare me for this.

Before long a family moved to our city and attended our little church.  By the way, there were no megachurches in those days, maybe in Dallas, but nowhere else.  We had to scratch for everything we got.  Thank God for this new family.  He was an executive, paid his tithe and his son was a prodigy musician.  The wife and mother had issues.  She got all tangled up with a local attorney.  Her husband, a Christian tower of holiness, asked if I would go with him to confront the attorney.  At 26 years of age, what did I know?  As any dumb seminarian whippersnapper would do, I accepted.  In Texas, people have guns.  We were ushered into his well-appointed office.  He knew why we were there.  The attorney opened his top right drawer showing his gun.  This Godly husband was not confrontational, thank God.  Crying and with broken heart he witnessed his faith to the attorney, told him how Jesus had changed his life and respectfully asked him to change his behavior.  All three of us were crying when it was over.  The attorney closed the drawer.

Believe it or not, prayer changes things, but isn’t it amazing how many of us are tormented by morbid fantasies?  These ghastly delusions are somewhat like that little boy heading home from church with his family.  He started crying and his mother asked why.  The little guy said, “The pastor said that we should be raised in a Christian home, but I want to stay with you guys.”  Like viscous pulp they enter our dreams and daytime thoughts; thoughts of “why,” does anyone care, will anyone attend my funeral, will my tomb go unvisited, will I ever find happiness, is there room for forgiveness, will my husband/wife shape up and fly right, why are we pressured to conform, why do some kids have bad parents, why do some parents have bad kids, I prayed and nothing happened, I can’t find a husband, I always find the stupid guys to date, why do just crazy women want to date me, I thought God would make me rich if I sent money to that preacher on TV, why do so many find it necessary to point fingers, blame, judge others – questions, questions, questions!­­­

It’s also interesting why, how and who we dismiss in our lives.  In what hierarchy do we place people?  I am dismayed when watching (and experiencing) those who place some people at the bottom of the ladder or last on their list, those who seem to be valueless.  And others seem to be in the “in” crowd!  Just so you’ll know, if I had been writing the Ten Commandments, I would have added two more: (11) Thou shalt not be arrogant; (12) Thou shalt not be mean.  It is agreed that all of us have a right to choose our friends and those with whom we wish to associate.  On the other hand, can someone have value if they are uneducated?  No money?  Irritating personality?  Smell?  Have crooked teeth?  Bad breath?  One leg shorter than the other?  Rich?  Jew or not Jew?  Greek or not Greek?  Not from Texas?

Perhaps you remember kids in school who placed their fingers in an “L” shape and yelled, “Loser!”  When one loses, does that forever forfeit his or her right to help, hope and acceptance?  When one loses, does that connote no sympathy from us?  If someone doesn’t measure up to our educational standards or cultural milieu or financial status, should they be called a “Loser?”

One Sunday a skinny little guy stumbled into the service, alone, smelled like tobacco, shabby clothes.  The following week I visited his home – dirt floor, 5 kids; twin girls, 2 younger boys, and a newborn baby girl.  One of the twins, about 8 years of age, was sweeping the dirt floor with weeds she had pulled from outside.  They knew I was coming.  The dirt floor was spotless as was the rest of the house.  I invited the family to church.  The wife never came, but the rest of the family did, minus the newborn.  When they walked through the door of the church the next Sunday morning the twins and their two little brothers were dressed in their “Sunday-go-to-meeting” best – hair combed and slicked down.  They attended Sunday school, the first they had ever attended!  Mr. Weekly dutifully went to his Sunday school class; smelled up the place. By then we were a high-class church because we had a member-lady who was a school teacher and a guy who was a plumber – he was a member and actually paid his tithe!  Oh, and the treasurer and her husband had good jobs, too, but we found out her son was stealing money from her … and us!

It just soooo happened that some people from a disbanded church visited one Sunday morning. Isn’t it amazing how the Holy Spirit works?  They entered our concrete “sanctuary” on cracked floors of low-test concrete and an aluminum roof – no pipe organ, no icons, and no Michelangelo sculptures.  We had a piano, but no one to play it except me.  We had a choir, but no one who could sing (4 old people and 2 children).  Something happened!  God spoke!  Some friends from the disbanded church came the next Sunday and brought with them musical talent being friends with Ron Patty, father of Sandy Patty of recording fame.  Most of these new people had attended a Christian college in Anderson, Indiana.  Then, the Sunday after that some more of their friends joined our family of excited Christians.  Soon, neighborhood people came to church.  A very wealthy businessman and his family were among the group from the disbanded church.  Let’s call him Ira.

By that time, Mr. Weekly and his kids were regulars.  Out of our budget of approximately $7,000 per year, we paid Mr. Weekly $5.00 per week to clean the church.  He put his X on the back of his check to cash it.  One Sunday evening, as in Acts chapter 2, Mr. Weekly walked to the “mourner’s bench,” the altar to pray – tobacco smell and all.  His little twin girls came forward as well and knelt beside their daddy.  That was an amazing site.  Before I hardly knew it Ira, wearing his thousand dollar suit was kneeling at the altar with his arm around Mr. Weekly.  Both prayed and wept as Mr. Weekly gave his heart and life to Jesus Christ.  I am compelled to mention that although this happened a long time ago, someone told me that the twin girls went to a Christian college where at least one of them married a theology student, studying for the ministry.  Was Mr. Weekly valueless?

Do you know what I learned from this?

We are all the same at the foot of the cross!

There’s room at the cross for you
There’s room at the cross for you
Tho’ millions have come
There’s still room for one
Yes there’s room at the cross for you.”  
(Ira Stanphill)


As much as could possibly be done, the inside of the church was cleaned up-fixed up.  We purchased a new Hammond organ and piano.  At this point we had a full choir of talented singers, and near professionals playing the organ and piano.  We had new pews for the people to sit on.  We filled in all the cracks on the floor and put new tile down for Mr. Weekly to clean, polish, wax and gloss up.  For three years in a row we were chosen as one of the top ten small churches for growth.  We were on a roll.

Then, let’s just say things began to take a toll at home so I resigned, moved my family into an apartment, enrolled in Texas Western for graduate studies, and got a job at a large moving company making good money.

And another theennn – my pastor friend at the Methodist church called.  He said, “It is a pitiful shame for you to be out of the ministry!   I’m going to call my friend in Dallas and see if he knows what to do.”  His friend happened to be the pastor of the 21st largest church in Methodism with attendance of over 4,000 people.  The Dallas pastor told him that he had been looking for an associate for some period of time and couldn’t find what he was looking for.  He was more of a traditional Methodist with a Biblical bent.  He said he wanted to call Dr. Robert Goodrich, pastor of First Methodist Church in downtown Dallas and the largest Methodist church in the Methodist denomination to get his advice.  Why would they want a young Nazarene guy to be their assistant pastor?  I presume they talked it over.  They sent a committee of people to west Texas to interview me in our apartment with boxes all over the place.

The committee went back to Dallas and two weeks later offered me a job as assistant pastor.  At first I was wary due to my experience in Pueblo.  They made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.  Being a Nazarene, I wasn’t sure if they were real, honest to God Christians, but how could I refuse?

As I look back on it now, the spiritual flip-flops in my heart and mind were so silly.  Why in the world did I think that by leaving the church of my birth signified a loss of salvation?  Now, do you see just how immature I was?  Nevertheless, deep inside I was in sinking sand … again!

One thought on “Sinking Sand/Solid Rock – An Anthology # 12 El Paso

  1. So excited to hear of your experiences as a young pastor, before I was born or had found the Nazarene Church, or knew you as MY PASTOR. So thankful you are writing!! I’m finding and reading!! Wish I had time to tell my stories…good to find you again! God Bless. Wendy Lanoue Riggan


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