Choirs, Churches, and The Family Business

I don’t want my wife to become a Catholic. Not, as in the Seinfeld episode, that there’s anything wrong with it. While she finds Catholicism to be meaningful and beautiful, she gets a personal fulfillment from another type of ecclesiastical community.

I’ve become a Catholic recently. But, that isn’t my heritage. My heritage, my lineage, is that of a Protestant. My mother was Protestant. My father was Protestant. My grandfather on my mom’s side was a Lutheran minister. It gets pretty muddled beyond that. Although I was baptized and confirmed as a Lutheran, growing up I went to a Methodist church. And, like any self-respecting teen, as soon as I was confirmed, going to church was over for me.

When I was a young adult, I began to feel a very strong desire to return to church. My wife, Liz, shared that pull. We didn’t know where to go at first but I remember saying that I didn’t want to waste our time by going to a church where the people weren’t “all in.” We decided to go to a nearby Assembly of God church. We had been married there and had no doubt that the pastor was fully committed to the Bible.

I was the only male younger than sixty in that church so, with the pastor’s support, we began attending (ultimately joining), an Inter-Denominational church. Our Assemblies pastor didn’t approve of that particular church but we were sure we new better. The twenty two years that followed were more like being customers of a family owned and operated business than being members of a church. And, for that reason, please cut me some slack when I describe my Evangelical Protestant experiences.  They come mainly from one, off the track, church.

This was a church that was formed when the founding pastor had a disagreement with the church he was pastoring. It’s actually a fairly stereotypical illustration of how many Protestant churches begin. There was a squabble (this one happened to be over money), and the pastor convinced 16 people from the congregation to come with him so he could start his own church in the basement of a bank. There, he could lead his new group unfettered, not controlled by anyone else. I was a member of three Evangelical churches during my 37 years as a Protestant. But this one, a family owned and operated enterprise, formed most of my understanding of Protestant churches. So, I do realize that the picture is clouded.  After the family owned one I went to two denominational churches, both within the Evangelical Free denomination. They were not too similar to each other, oddly. One seemed to be a traditionally styled EFC congregation and the other clearly borrowed the playbook of the independent one. One thing the three of them shared was a right leaning political position. They sang patriotic songs on US holidays. They had the United States flag on the “platform”.

Liz became a soloist at the first church as it grew. She was one of the very few singers in the regular rotation who was not a family member. I’m going to get a little “churchy” and say that, when she sang, the Holy Spirit moved. It was never a performance. What came out of her mouth on Sunday mornings clearly was more than the sum total of her ability. Grown men often wept, they were so deeply touched.

The church continued to attract new members and was about to outgrow the building they’d bought. They added onto it but the building was too small the moment the doors opened on each new section. My wife was ministering in song, I served as a deacon, and my son found his first girlfriend. And, that’s when the wheels came off and I first peeked behind the curtains and saw the wizard.

Someone in the youth group told a “youth worker” that my son and his girlfriend were going “too far.”  The youth worker did what was protocol in that church and told the pastor without confronting my son or his  girlfriend. So, the other father and I were called into a meeting where we were ambushed by the pastor, his son, and a few witnesses. The pastor presented his concerns and then two youth witnesses came in to tell of their fears. The pastor told s in grave tones that we, as fathers, must order our kids to stop seeing each other.

Perhaps it had never happened before but, the pastor was pretty shocked when both fathers refused to break them up. Just as he really began to heat up, one of the youth worker witnesses came back into the room and recanted! He said he’d been pressured into saying there was an issue when he really didn’t see one. even the son now realized that there were no substantive complaints about our kids. But, when he said that to his father the dad shut him down. obediently, he hushed himself.

What happened next was beyond the pale. Realizing that nothing untoward had happened between our kids and knowing that many people were aware that this meeting was happening (although we didn’t know) he tried a different tact. Rather than being the righteous judge, he petitioned us to break our kids up so the reputation of these two respected youth leaders would not suffer. That’s right! As loyal church members we were to make our kids appear guilty in order to protect the youth workers reputations, even after one had admitted that he was not telling the truth.

What happened next was really crazy. It’s the type of thing that could only happen in a church where the pastor is CEO and answers to no one.

Part Two is coming your way soon.




Car Sales, Broken Legs and FuXion

I have a background in car sales. I did it for years. I was a salesman, a “closer”, a desk guy, a finance manager. I worked in big Highway stores and I worked for small, family owned dealerships. I was reasonably successful. I loved every aspect of it.

My first job in the business came when I answered an ad in the paper for a mysterious class which would graduate its students to a high paying career in the automotive industry. The idea of selling cars actually was fascinating to me although I was concerned that I exhibited none of the personality traits I’d seen in the guys I’d bought cars from.

I went on the interview, determined to present myself as I really was, wanting the interviewer to decide if I really was salesman material. I felt pretty good that, without faking a car salesman persona, I got the job. They apparently saw something in me that made them want to hire me. What the saw, it turned out, was the number 6. The training company had contracted with the dealership to hire six candidates and train them to sell cars. I was to be the 7th. I was not going to be hired. But one of the other six guys broke his leg falling down the stairs on the last day of class so they were forced to hire me in his spot.

When our sales careers launched I immediately was the one who had difficulty. I couldn’t sell a car. No matter what. I know now that I had no idea where I was in any deal I was working. I was lost. The dealership was frustrated. I got called into the General Sales Manager’s office and, after closing the doors for privacy, he begged me to quit. I wouldn’t. I’d left a steady but unfulfilling job to try this and I wasn’t going down without a fight.

When I wouldn’t quit, he looked for a seventh guy so he could replace me. He found the new guy he wanted and sat him at the desk in front of me. To intimidate me, the manager told me the plan. I was to be fired at week’s end.

It never happened, of course. That day, the guy behind me went home and, during a dinnertime argument with his father, stood up and drove a huge carving knife into his father’s heart. While it didn’t end well for the son or the dad, my job was safe. They still needed six.

The guy they hired to replace me became a good friend. I listened to how he handled selling situations and modelled his strategy. I became a good salesman. Together, he and I waged friendly competitions for Salesman of the Month. We often accounted for 60% of the dealership sales in a given month. Over the next decade, we worked together at quite a few dealerships. We always got each other jobs at our new dealership because that’s what car guys do. We looked out for each other.

Now, I always liked that business, even the hours. It was a good chapter in my life. I just kept at it because I wanted to succeed. I’m proud that I hung in there and that I didn’t give up. Because I soldiered on, I was there when the breaks came my way. I lean upon that now, as I launch my new home based business. I’m doing it because I like it. And, I’m pretty curious to see what’s going to happen to pave my way.

Break a leg.


Brotherly Love, Courses, and Exclusion

Here’s an email I received from someone who, I thought, was a friend. He is a local pastor who teaches Bible classes in his church for a fee. I was interested enough in one of the classes that I was willing to pay that fee.
I trust you are well. I took a second to look at your facebook page and noticed a medical test.  Did everything turn out alright?
I am writing because you recently enrolled in one of our classes on Catholicism.  You and I have had a few interesting conversations about Catholicism  and frankly I found your you interjecting into many things I write to be distracting  and contentious and thus I defriended you. As President it is my opinion that you will be a distraction in our class on Catholicism. You have made up your mind on much of what will be taught and I sincerely think it would be better for you not to attend. Your motives in signing up maybe pure but the outcome will be less than that and be a determent to our other students 
Again, I hope you are well
I deleted the two instances where he identified his “school” by name. Other than that, the email is as he wrote it.
I had taken a class at his church on the Church Fathers. I was still a Protestant at that time. The class sparked in me a wonder about what actually happened right after the Ascension of Christ. What was the early Church like? Who were the “thought leaders” of that day? The course was amazing. It covered a great deal of the persecution of the day and the heresies that were fought against. It covered the process the Church went through in establishing the Canon. But, the course leader, the “dean”, did something that strongly aroused my interest. I had never realized it before but his determination to never use the word “Catholic” made me see for the first time that the original Church was Catholic! I know it shows my ignorance but I’d just never considered that until that course on Early Fathers opened my eyes.
Now, what my erstwhile pastor friend was afraid of is beyond me. I took that course, saw an obvious anti-catholic bias and never uttered a word. I never asked a question. I never answered one. I never spoke. I never felt it would be appropriate to challenge the “dean” on anything. At least, not in a church setting.
I did interact with the pastor on his Facebook account. I did it because we were friends. He asked a question and my answer differed from his viewpoint. I never thought that would be a problem. He did chastise me immediately on that page so I apologized and asked if we were okay. No response was forthcoming for awhile so I asked again. This time he responded:
Ross, thanks for your words but I wasn’t at all offended. I attempted to write back explaining I understood your bemusement. The message didn’t send because I was in my basement. It will appear below. You and I are good.
So, for some crazy reason, I thought that he and I were “good.”
Apparently, we weren’t. We weren’t good. He defriended me on Facebook without ever telling me that he had an issue with me, without ever going to me as he often preached should be done. Jesus Himself is quoted in the fifth chapter of Matthew as saying that you should resolve conflict between yourself and a brother before even presenting a gift to God. That seems to make relationships between Christian brothers pretty important. Yet this pastor cut me off without warning, without an attempt at resolution and after assuring me that we had no problem between us. It was as though he, as another pastor friend of mine said, “believes the lie that they (pastors) are special.”
And how, I wonder, could it be that although my motives may be pure the outcome “will be less than that?” And how can my mere presence in a classroom where no one knows me be a “determent”? Is this voodoo/Christianity? That’s the only reasonable assumption to a position that asserts that a person purely interested in learning, committed to silence and unknown to anyone else would cause a less than pure outcome.
The amazing part of this is that he was using a textbook that I consider to be fair and objective in its description of Catholicism. So, it can only be that he was planning for the course to deviate from the book and would teach untruths about Catholicism. He was afraid I’d call him on it. I assured him I wouldn’t have.  And even though I’d promised to not speak, the thought of me hearing the lies taught as truth was too embarrassing  for him to bear.
I know that his actions are in no way typical of my Protestant brothers. I will continue to side with Pope Francis when he says that the only acceptable term for a Protestant is “brother.” I will continue to want the best for this pastor. Because, as Pope Francis also has said, any division between Christians is of the devil.
I want to get along with him because we are brothers and the way for brothers to relate to one another is clear. And I don’t ever want to believe the lie that I am special.

Hips, Hospitals and Surgeons

Thanksgiving has come and gone. It always is a great opportunity to reflect upon our lives. The holiday teaches us to be mindfully grateful for all of our blessings. And it challenges us to keep those blessings in the forefront of our thoughts even as the holiday itself recedes.

For me, this Thanksgiving, the blessing is obvious. After years of dragging a painful right hip along with me everywhere I went, I finally summoned the courage and had a total hip replacement the first week of November. When this Thanksgiving arrived, I was without any restrictions, able to attempt any movement, and I was pain free for the first time in years. That’s a lot to be thankful for.

I put a lot of thought into having this surgery. I live in a borough of New York City, Staten Island, famous for horrible medical care. I’ve heard it said many times that, if you are visiting someone in a Staten Island hospital and get sick, call an ambulance to take you to a Manhattan hospital. I’d had reconstructive back surgery some years back and I had that procedure done in a Manhattan Hospital. It was a total success.

That surgery had a great surgeon and a great hospital behind it. This one, with different insurance options, would be different. I am retired now and, with government changes to healthcare, my insurance coverage was greatly changed. I also mishandled the open enrollment options, this being the first year I had to deal with that. My health insurance plan gave me two choices. The first was to choose a surgeon I trusted and do the surgery on Staten Island. The other was a surgeon, recommended by someone I trusted but not known by me, who would perform the surgery in a better, Manhattan hospital.

I opted for the surgeon I trusted in a hospital I didn’t. The results did not surprise. The Staten Island hospital was a dungeon. Paint peeled from the walls, the lighting was poor, the room was tiny. Medical personnel, while examining my roommate, actually repeatedly bumped into me through the privacy curtain. The floor in my room was never mopped during my entire stay. I saw a nurse spill urine onto the floor and “clean” it by placing a gown over it and swishing that gown around with her foot. Even that, did not prompt a wet mop. My bedclothes were never changed, even though I had fevers and soaking sweats each day. There was dried, caked urine on the floor of the restroom and we used a commode shared with several other rooms.

On the other hand, my surgeon also was what I expected. The surgery was a fantastic success. I was sitting up in a chair the same day. I walked the day after. Because he used a more innovative approach, I had absolutely no hip precautions. From the beginning I was allowed to do absolutely anything I thought I could. The surgeon visited me in my tiny room, answered all my questions and was as charming and attentive as anyone could reasonably expect. That type of care has continued now that I am in my post-op phase.

Now it’s the time of year for open enrollment. And, yes, I will be more diligent in choosing my coverage this year. I will choose a better policy this year. But, I will be very mindful that the most important choice is the doctor.  I chose the plan with the right doctor this year. And for that, I’m very thankful.



Love Wins, Kind Hearts, and Weak Hearts

Recently I wrote about my friend, Hugh Hollowell. He is the director of a ministry to the homeless, Love Wins.  You can find it in the archives. It’s Love Wins, Rabbit Holes and Swimming The Tiber. That post had been written a few weeks ago and was waiting for the chance to be posted, to be birthed into a blog piece. Between the time it was finished and the time it posted, life happened. Hugh’s wife has had an ongoing heart issue and is on the list for a transplant. The schedule for the heart transplant has ramped up and, with that good news comes other issues. Please read Hugh’s story as he writes the first ever guest blog on BrokenThinking.

How Can I Help, Hugh?

A helping hand

I don’t want to write this post. But if there is a question I have been asked more than, “How’s your wife, Hugh?” the last month or so, it has been, “How can we help?”

But I am assuming you know what I am talking about. Let me bring you up to date.

The Back Story

My wife Renee has a rare heart disease that runs in her family. She’s been on a pacemaker since she was 13. Two of her sisters have had heart transplants. Her mother died at age 45 of this disease. Her grandmother died at 27.

Most of the time, she’s fine, as long as she isn’t trying to majorly exert herself. Walking long distance is hard, as is stairs. But she could sit at the table with you, or next to you on the couch, and you wouldn’t know anything is wrong with her.

But lately, her health markers the cardiologists watch have been getting worse. And it has become more and more obvious that a heart transplant is in our future. And then we got the call that it was time to be evaluated for transplant.

We spent three days at Duke Hospital a few weeks ago, undergoing a battery of tests – physical, psychological, financial – to see if she was fit to be on the list. Honestly, the iffiest one was the financial qualification, as a heart transplant costs north of $750,000, and the Love Wins health insurance plan is pretty nonexistent. However, she’s on Medicare and Medicaid and together, that was enough to piece together a somewhat shaky financial plan for paying for all of this.

Two weeks ago, we received the call that we were approved for transplant – now she is officially on “the list”. This means lots of things for our family – making sure we always have a phone with us, no long-distance trips, and cleaning up healthcare messes now. They want you to have all your other health problems fixed before transplant, as surgery becomes a lot harder after transplant.

Last week, she had gallbladder surgery – which was supposed to be a simple in and out operation, but these days, nothing is easy. She spent 4 days in the hospital.

The Problem

Now, on one hand, it wasn’t a big deal. She was in the hospital just 10 minutes or so away, not the huge hospital 45 minutes away in Durham. But for a few days there, it was pretty scary, and she was pretty drugged up, and I needed to be there to find out things.

So there were lots of meals in the hospital cafeteria. And as I dashed back and forth between work and home and the hospital, there were fast food meals wolfed down in the car. And of course your mind is never on anything other than her being in the hospital, so you let things slide, like getting the car inspected so you can get new tags, or putting that bill in the mail or returning those emails.

The yard is dead and shaggy. The plants all died from neglect in the vegetable garden. I spent the equivalent to a car payment on unexpected expenses in just 4 days.

We don’t have kids, so there is that in our favor. But that also means we don’t have the support network that accompanies kids, and our obligations – cats, chickens, gardens– are less able to tend for themselves.

In the middle of it all, it occurred to me – this is nothing compared to how it is going to be when we get the call.

At least two weeks in the hospital – in Durham, nearly an hour away. Daily commutes as I deal with the house and work back here. I am fortunate to have a lot of flexibility with my job, but that will still be there too. I can’t afford to leave work for a month or two, and work can’t afford my being completely gone.

We have to scrub the house down before she comes home. For at least a month after surgery, Renee will be unable to be alone. She will only be able to drink boiled water.  Germs are the enemy, big time.

And then the trips back to Durham. Weekly checkups. Gas for those trips. Meals while we are there. Someone is going to have to buy those groceries, cut that grass, feed those chickens.


How you can help

Right now, we are doing ok. We took a financial hit last week, but we will survive it. The main thing last week did was show me just how shaky our situation really is.

That said, we are now on “the list”. In theory, we could get the call anytime, and then within a few hours, all of the drama starts. If last week taught me anything, it is that we are sooo not prepared.

When the call happens, we will be living at the hospital, for all intents and purposes, for a couple of weeks. Lots of meals in the cafeteria. Lots of coffee at the Starbucks in the lobby. Variety will come from the Subway sandwich shop in the building next door.

While we don’t “need” these things today, we don’t know when we will, so if we got any of them now, we would put them in the sock drawer for the inevitable call.

Gift cards are amazing, and don’t expire. Subway, Starbucks, McDonalds are all decent options, and easy to access for me while she is in the hospital.  After transplant, Renee will be on a low sodium diet, so at that point, more sit-down restaurant choices would be better.

Gas, with nearly two hours on the road most days, is going to be a huge expense, so gift cards to gas stations would be amazing.

The healthy options at the hospital are the ones you bring with you. Luckily, there are grocery stores nearby – both Harris Teeter and Kroger have stores just up the road from the hospital, as well as near our home for after we get back home.

And while it feels indulgent to mention it, I predict reading dozens of books while sitting on my butt in the hospital room. Amazon gift cards would be nice, because of the Kindle app, so I don’t even have to leave the building to get a book. Also, pretty much anything we might need, we could probably buy it on Amazon.

And speaking of buying – let’s get really uncomfortable for a moment. Some of you have offered to send money. Don’t do that… yet. For one thing, large amounts of cash on hand could hurt us with Medicaid and damage our ability to keep coverage. One day we will need the cash. But not today.

But the biggest fear I have right now? Losing my income. Right now, my income from Love Wins is the shaky center that holds this whole thing together. And every summer, donations dry up. And every summer for the last 8 summers, I have been terrified that this is the summer we won’t make it, that the money will stop, that I will have to lay everyone off, that we will close the doors, that I will have to go to work at Home Depot (which, as I understand it, has a great benefit package). And every year, so far, we have barely scraped by.

So, if you really want to help us economically right now? Donate money to Love Wins.It will keep me employed, it will take huge amounts of stress off of me and, oh, by the way, we will do good things with it. I am serious. This is the number one thing you can do for me right now. You think I am stressing now? Wait till you see an unemployed Hugh.

As far as local support – we are working on meal trains and have a list of people who want to feed the chickens and cats and promise to take care of the tomatoes. We will firm that up more in the coming weeks – but if you want on that list and are local, send me an email ( with the words “Support List” in the subject line. When we start that process, I will let you know what’s going on.

So, that is the big three right now – gift cards for gas, groceries and food; donate money to Love Wins to keep me employed and (financially) stress free; send us an email if you are local and want to be on the support team.

I appreciate all the offers of help – these are the things we need right now. As new things come up, I will post them. Thanks for your help – your love and prayers and kindness mean more than I can say.

Our mailing address is:

Hugh and Renee Hollowell
PO Box 26874
Raleigh, NC 27611

The Yankees, The Children’s Crusade, and Winning Now

by Ross Decker Sr

Sometimes, in sports, management tries to construct a team designed for the future. They stock their roster with young, unproven players and hope for victory down the road. Others, particularly my Yankees, are built to  “win now.”  The American evangelical church today faces that dilemma. Do they build their church for the future or do they build a church to win now?

Today’s church feels it needs to find the magic bullet. We read that young people are not as attracted to the church as they once were. Millennials are fleeing the church. Article after article, blog after blog, moan that the church is not connecting with young people. To combat that, the American Evangelical church has decided, en masse, as though the result of some hastily called secret meeting, to change the way things have been done. Let’s, they say, become more relevant.

It seems to me that, when young preachers come through their seminaries these days, they graduate with an eye as much as for business as for shepherding. The reasons I’ve heard given for this are pretty obvious. The goal is to build a large church. Large churches offer an opportunity to connect with a larger group of people. The visibility of a large church draws in not only the physical congregation but also an ancillary crowd on Vimeo as well as possible speaking engagements. I was told by one pastor that a large church increased the chances that my mother would “get saved.”

One strategy some local churches have embraced is to give young people a chance to “do” ministry. The thought is that, if you give them something significant to do they will come to love their church. This is opposite of what used to happen. It used to be that those who loved their church clamored for the opportunity to pitch in in a significant way.

When I was a Protestant I served as a church deacon with a man even older than I.  He had a doctorate in chemistry. That made him smarter than me as well as wiser. He made a great point about “raising up the next generation” even before it became today’s church mantra. He told me that he wasn’t against training young people. In fact, that was one of the church’s main responsibilities.  He insisted though, that the church trained young people in a way that benefitted the young people, not the church. The church was not to train young people in the hope of getting something back in their service to the congregation. The church was to train young people because it was the duty of the church to shepherd each individual in it, regardless of their age or their skill or their ability to give back. He also pointed out that, were you training people in hopes that they would serve your congregation for a long period of time, youth was exactly the wrong demographic. Young people are apt to go away to college, they marry and move away with their spouse, they get jobs which relocate them, they have tighter schedules with the birth of their children. He pointed out that a person in their forties or fifties, even their sixties, might well be in the congregation long after the current pastor moves on. The church is more likely to benefit from the older person’s stability and get a much longer time of service from them.

But, I think it’s deeper than just hoping you are investing for the future. Today’s Evangelical church is in the “win now” mode. Today, the American church worships youth. Young people in visible roles say that this is a church with a future. The best days are ahead. Marching under the banner of “raising up the next generation”, young people have been recruited to serve in areas where they are not fully skilled. Sometimes, the result is that they are simply in over their heads.

The incessant desire to give youth an opportunity to minister in the local church easily gets dangerous. There are some things youths are simply not capable of doing. They’re young. after all! Some things require not only skill but, also, maturity. When you put anyone in a position they aren’t equipped for, there’s a pretty good chance that disaster may follow.  They do their job poorly. The result there is that the job is a failure and the unequipped person carries his failure with him for a long, long time to come.

I’ve seen where a few churches have begun using young teens as the worship leaders.  As a general rule, I’m against it. However, I think it’s okay in the church where my granddaughter sometimes joins the worship team. I still think it’s wrong. I just don’t object! They look great, they generally perform well and are usually energetic. But those things often have little to do with leading worship well. I’m no singer, but my understanding is that worship comes from a far deeper place than good looks and ability. It isn’t merely hitting the right notes. Worship comes from an intimate relationship with our God which develops over time.  It takes an experience of trial to testify that you trust the Lord. It takes having been heartbroken to sing about being comforted. And it takes a struggle with sin to sing of restoration. I also wonder if today’s worship leaders ought to be modeled on the worship leaders of the Bible. These leaders went before the nation of Israel into the battle. They carried the banner for the community. They were the first to encounter the enemy.  That’s not a fair place to put our children. Worship leaders don’t lead us into battle with warring nations these days. Today the enemy is spiritual. And battling a spiritual foe is not a lesser fight. When children lead worship they are placed in the most dangerous, vulnerable position. They are encountering spiritual weapons against them while leading the army of God into worship. It’s unfair to them and it devalues the true meaning of church worship.

I’ve always viewed worship leaders as on a par, or nearly on a par, with preachers. No one would put a teenager in their pulpit on a regular basis. The teenager is not prepared. He hasn’t encountered life’s blows. He’s not been knocked down. He doesn’t know the depth to his faith that will develop over the years. Young people are sometimes excellent, gifted leaders. That can’t be disputed. However, those young leaders excel at leading because they are specially equipped for leadership – not because they’re young.

Love Wins, Rabbit Holes, and Swimming The Tiber


“I almost wish I hadn’t gone down that rabbit-hole—and yet—and yet—it’s rather curious, you know, this sort of life!”
Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Some time ago, when I first met Hugh Hollowell, he warned me that if I ever saw the poor, if I ever really saw the poor and marginalized, it would be like going down Alice’s rabbit hole. Once I did, he warned, I could never come back.

I had the great good fortune of having coffee with  Hugh while he was in town recently. Hugh is the founder and director for a ministry to the homeless, Love Wins. We spent a good hour together which, for me, seemed like five minutes.

Some years ago he was an anonymous voice on Twitter. A Mennonite pastor to a homeless congregation. I really couldn’t grasp how that worked, at first, and I read his tweets with great interest…

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Love Wins, Rabbit Holes, and Swimming The Tiber

by Ross Decker Sr

“I almost wish I hadn’t gone down that rabbit-hole—and yet—and yet—it’s rather curious, you know, this sort of life!”
Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Some time ago, when I first met Hugh Hollowell, he warned me that if I ever saw the poor, if I ever really saw the poor and marginalized, it would be like going down Alice’s rabbit hole. Once I did, he warned, I could never come back.

I had the great good fortune of having coffee with  Hugh while he was in town recently. Hugh is the founder and director for a ministry to the homeless, Love Wins. We spent a good hour together which, for me, seemed like five minutes.

Some years ago he was an anonymous voice on Twitter. A Mennonite pastor to a homeless congregation. I really couldn’t grasp how that worked, at first, and I read his tweets with great interest. So, when Hugh tweeted that he was coming to New York for a ministry conference and he needed a place to stay, Liz and I were in. We wanted him to stay with us. We made the offer, he strung us along until he realized no one else would offer and a friendship was born.

We were attending a pretty conservative Evangelical church and we met in a “small group” at the time. Small groups were valued in this church because of their obvious ability to provide pastoral care without the pastor having to care. (Just because I’m cynical it doesn’t mean I’m wrong). Not one of our church friends could believe that we would do such a “crazy” thing. But, we knew Hugh was liked by another person we knew only from Twitter, so what could go wrong? It would be like the Book of Acts, where you let people stay with you based solely on the promise they were preachers.

That short visit a few was an eye opener for us. The church we went to had no program for helping the poor. Andrew Olsen, my future son-in law was helping to run a food and clothing ministry with a pair of brothers and their mother and he pretty much funded a good portion of it by himself.  He invited us to come see it once. That was all it took. We were hooked. There was no church funding, no corporate donations. There was no writing a check to someone so that they could help someone you’d never have to see. It was all done person to person. Everything distributed came from pooling as much money as we could and buying what our new friends needed. It was my first sustained direct contact with the needy and marginalized.

This is what Hugh saw as our rabbit hole. One of the first things Hugh told us was that nothing, for us, would be the same again. He told us that regardless of how we tried, we would be unable to share what we saw with that church and small group. Unless they were also given a similar vision for the poor, they just would not be able to understand. And he was right.

Hugh is an advocate of working with his people in a lateral way. He maintains that when you gave food to the hungry there is a way to give food but keep power. He seeks to eat with the hungry, at the same table. It is important to give up power if you really want to serve. He feels that the American church tends to evangelize from an American perspective. It is only a first step to be saved. The full process includes the evangelized becoming more like the evangelist.

So, we looked for a church that cared about the poor in a way similar to how we did. We wanted to find a church that respected the poor for who they are. We wanted to find a church where being American middle class wasn’t the prime goal. And, we wanted to be in a church where serving the poor wasn’t this year’s trendy thing but was an integral part of who the church was. Hugh phrased it this way: “We don’t feed the poor in order to give them the Gospel. We feed the poor because feeding the poor IS the Gospel.”

We found that church in the Catholic Church. Feeding the poor and doing corporeal acts of mercy are a long time practice in the Roman Catholic Church.  The Catholic church gave me focus and purpose. It gave me the sense that God’s saving mercy didn’t end with me. It was extended to me so that I could extend it to others.

The American Catholic webpage tells this story of St. Lawrence of Rome which resonated with me. It takes place after the arrest of  Pope St. Sixtus II.

“As deacon in Rome, Lawrence was charged with the responsibility for the material goods of the Church, and the distribution of alms to the poor. When Lawrence knew he would be arrested like the pope, he sought out the poor, widows and orphans of Rome and gave them all the money he had on hand, selling even the sacred vessels to increase the sum. When the prefect of Rome heard of this, he imagined that the Christians must have considerable treasure. He sent for Lawrence and said, “You Christians say we are cruel to you, but that is not what I have in mind. I am told that your priests offer in gold, that the sacred blood is received in silver cups, that you have golden candlesticks at your evening services. Now, your doctrine says you must render to Caesar what is his. Bring these treasures—the emperor needs them to maintain his forces. God does not cause money to be counted: He brought none of it into the world with him—only words. Give me the money, therefore, and be rich in words.”

Lawrence replied that the Church was indeed rich. “I will show you a valuable part. But give me time to set everything in order and make an inventory.” After three days he gathered a great number of blind, lame, maimed, leprous, orphaned and widowed persons and put them in rows. When the prefect arrived, Lawrence simply said, “These are the treasure of the Church.”’

Since I’ve gone down the rabbit hole that quote has come alive to me. It’s a good thing it has. Because I can never go back.

You can learn more about the work Hugh does with the homeless by visiting the ministry website at 

Bill Nighy, Yellow Boots and About Time

by Ross Decker  Sr 

I’d only give one piece of advice to anyone marrying. We’re all quite similar in the end. We all get old and tell the same tales too many times. But try and marry someone kind.”

Those are the wise words of advice that Bill Nighy’s character offers during a wedding toast in the splendid movie, About Time. About Time is a movie I’ve seen an awfully lot and I always maintain that, if I were to see it every day, I’d be a better person. I’d be a better man because I would appreciate each day for the sheer beauty of it. But more importantly, I’d be kinder.

Being kind is not something that comes naturally to me. Whenever you see kindness in me it’s because I’ve thought about it first and then gone ahead and acted kind. I’m pretty much a mean-spirited jerk otherwise. In my defense, anytime I actually do stop and think about what to do, I always choose kindness. It’s just that I don’t always think before I act. That’s where I benefit from About Time.

The movie tells the story a young man who learns that all the males in his family have the ability to travel backward in time. Throughout the movie, he continually returns to previous events and rights them. Eventually, and here’s the spoiler, he realizes that he can live every day as it occurs and enjoy every moment for the beauty it has.

My family was never kind. My grandmother wrote one of her sons out of her will, writing a cleverly stinging comment into it which was designed to humiliate him during what she thought would be a public reading in her lawyer’s office. One final spanking from the grave. My mother and her sister loved it. They each wanted to do that in their own will. My mother would do it to me, she thought. But my aunt Thelma, having two sons, would have the delicious opportunity to choose which son she would hurt deeply. She chose Gary. The irony of that is that Gary was her favorite during her lifetime and she turned on him to will everything to Joe. I suppose I’d like that to give me a pass on my own behavior but the reality is that I’m the one responsible for it. So, I could have been kinder. I just chose not to. Because I really am a mean-spirited jerk.

My son is kind, though. So, if I can ride his coattails a bit that would be just fine. The defining moment in his life was Superstorm Sandy. That storm tore through our Staten Island on October 29,2012. It was like nothing we’d seen before and like nothing we hope to see again. The damage and devastation it caused is with us today. Nearly three years later many Staten Islanders have not gotten back into their homes.

Ross Jr. was preparing to fly to Houston where he was to speak at a sales conference. With the airports closed because of the storm, that would not happen. We sat together on his living room couch and decided that, since he wasn’t leaving town, we should go to our old neighborhood, Tottenville, which had been hard hit, to see if we could help in any way.

The first person we saw was our Congressman, Michael Grimm. He was there on the first day and he never stopped helping each day that followed. He walked us on a quick tour, giving us an overview of what the needs were and how we could help. He was later to direct Ross Jr. to set up a relief hub in Midland Beach. It was that relief station that set the wheels in motion for what was to follow.

In Tottenville, in Great Kills and in Midland beach Ross brought his wife and children as he mucked out houses, distributed clothing and provided a shoulder to cry on. He started a GoFundMe account where people sent him money because he asked for it and was on the ground providing immediate help. Great people like Sarah and Tony Zolecki, Eric Worre, pitched in with generous donations to get some immediate supplies. The Higginson family from Agel USA flew out from Salt Lake City with a work crew and gave an astoundingly large donation. Many others joined in. It was a tremendous grass roots action built by people who trusted that Ross was the guy who could get money quickly where there was need.

We were naive enough to think the Sandy Crisis would be handled quickly. Ross thought he was in for the short haul, just until the government and Red Cross released the money designated for Sandy relief. As it turned out, he was about to take more than six months off from work and plunge into volunteer relief work full time.

That was when an amazing thing happened. He met two other great men Farid Kader and Mike Hoffman. They were each working to help Sandy survivors and the three of them linked up. The synergy was outstanding. They formed a group called Yellow Boots Long Term Disaster Relief and were able to help rebuild homes to an extent they’d not foreseen. Congressman Grimm’s office was tremendously accessible to them and they got things done.

Three years later, the drive to help continues. This Friday Yellow Boots will host their third annual fundraiser. The money goes to the survivors. The overhead is smaller than minimal. The Yellow Boots board members take no salary. They continue to do great work, stepping into the gap where government red tape causes relief to come slowly.

In the movie About Time, Bill Nighy continues his toast. He says ” I’m not particularly proud of many things in my life, but I am very proud to be the father of my son.”

That’s a quote I can get behind.

If you’d like to know more about the work Yellow Boots does (or perhaps make a tax deductible donation), visit their site at

Pentecost, Bill Gothard, and Raising a Daughter By The Rules

by Ross Decker Sr

It was Pentecost Sunday yesterday. The birthday of the Church. It was also the anniversary of the day when I dedicated my daughter to the Lord.

The church I was attending at the time was a small inter-denominational church. They didn’t believe in infant baptism so they substituted “baby dedications.” The thinking was that, since babies could not assent to Christianity, the weight of the decision would fall upon the parents. While the baby could not desire to live for Jesus, the parents would commit to raising her in such a way that the baby would have no other option. So, the baby dedication had very little to do with the baby and had quite a lot to do with the parents. It was their day. Like everyone else, we invited our closest friends. We invited friends from out of state. They were to be not only spectators but future finger pointers when we went wrong. In fact, part of the service was the pastor charging our friends to keep an eye on us.

Having our baby dedicated on Pentecost Sunday proved to be a mistake. The good part about this mistake was that we were not to blame. Like many independent churches, the pastoral staff was a family. The assistant pastor was the son. The administrative pastor was the brother-in-law. The facilities manager was the son-in-law. The church secretary was the pastor’s daughter. And, it was the pastor’s daughter/secretary through whom we scheduled the dedication.

Unfortunately for her, the Church planned a big day for Pentecost. It was, after all, the birthday of the Church! There were special songs. And more special songs. The service began to drag on. Kevin, one of the assistant pastors (not related) sensed that there was a problem. And, that’s when it got really wild. He whisked my daughter from my arms and held her up like the scene from the Lion King. He wanted to get the pastor’s attention. And, when he did, the problem became evident. The pastor had no idea why my daughter was dangling aloft. He wasn’t forgetting my daughter’s dedication. He hadn’t been informed. He had no idea. His own daughter had forgotten to add the dedication to the calendar.

Kevin acted swiftly. There was only one course of action. He dashed down the side aisle to the second row and spoke directly to the most powerful person in the church. My pastor’s wife! She walked immediately up to the pulpit, interrupting the Scripture reading, whispering into her husband’s ear. The dedication was back on.

Being a parent in that church was often nerve wracking. Being a father in that church was worse. The pastor taught that the full responsibility for child rearing was with the father. He stressed a complete patriarchal system. Bolstering this thought was a name we’ve seen lately in the news – Bill Gothard. Gothard devised a morality system from the patching together of scripture and seduced many conservative christians to follow his teachings. The Duggars did. He was their moral teacher when their son famously got into a bit of trouble. Never mind that rumors of inappropriate behavior dogged Gothard. My pastor followed him, taught from his material and continued until the evidence just overwhelmed. All church activities shut down for a week each summer when the Bill Gothard caravan rolled into Ocean Grove, NJ. The congregation was urged to take their family vacations at that time and go to Ocean grove to be at the “seminar”.  Often, my church congregation filled several Bed and Breakfast style hotels on in that Jersey shore town. We were totally insulated and quite happy about it.

During the year, the men of the church were expected to attend the twice monthly “Men’s Institute.” The pastor facilitated it using Gothard materials. Even older teenage boys and college age single men were expected to attend this teaching in order to learn God’s way for men to lead their families. Often, on Sundays, parents were cautioned to not let their daughters marry a man who had not been a faithful attender of this Men’s Institute.

So, with that responsibility upon my shoulders, there were few things as scary as raising a daughter. The message I absorbed was that it would be my fault if my daughter “slipped.” What if she kissed a boy? What if a boy “touched” her before marriage.  What if they held hands? What  if, what if, what if? It would be on me if she did. Not the boy. Maybe his parents, but not the boy. He could repent and be “restored.” If my daughter slipped she would be “that girl” for the rest of her time in that church.

That whole church identity was built on that. Fathers protected their daughters from the sons of fathers who shirked their duty. Fathers steered their families. Wives humbly obeyed. So, is it any surprise that Bill Gothard, the architect of the pure family, tumbled from his perch amid rumors of his own sexual abuse? Is it shocking that he felt he could counsel young Josh Duggar?

Here comes the spoiler alert. My daughter grew up as a princess. Yes, she made it to the altar pure. She’s a great mom to two children. She picked a fantastic husband. But, the irony of it is that she did it on her own. Turns out that her values were inborn. They were her own, not mine. And she fashioned the life and value system that worked for her.

Looking back, I’d have it no other way.

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