INTO THE PUBLIC EYE
M. G. RICKARD
When a congregation first begins to grow, most of the awareness of this fact is contained within the local church and the churches with which it shares fellowship. But as a church grows larger than a community expects it to, it becomes an object of half-veiled concern. What it does may be newsworthy. What its pastor says or writes may be newsworthy also.
If I might speculate a little on this phenomena, the cause of the secular concern may well be fear. They understand and accept the fact that politicians will speak out. Leading citizens in the community may say something or take some stand which catches the attention of the media. Sports figures, educators, and heads of organizations are not likely to surprise anyone. But when a church leader emerges from the usual church-world obscurity to stand for something, there is a tendency by the media to report it tongue-in-cheek or to oppose it or to knock the church person back into the fringes where he is supposed to mind his own business.
I learned much from my first experience with the press. Before our relocation the church had grown steadily and this growth continued. For several years Audrey Mieir conducted “Sing-alongs” in our building which were open to all churches. We featured singers, choirs, instrumentalists, and just enjoyed gospel music together. These monthly events drew large crowds. Our traffic and the sound of music from open windows in the summer let the neighborhood know we were in business. Then too, the public hearings for permission to build on our land brought us into rather unfriendly conflict with many, including nearly all of the elected and salaried officials. None of the hearings made the TV news, however.
Having attended eight sessions of what was called “The Valley Forum,” my wife and I were taught the basics of the Communist conspiracy and design for world control. I wasn’t a “right wing extremist;” I was just a preacher. But when I saw in the papers that a certain known communist was scheduled to give a series of lectures at San Jose State University, I was unhappy enough to run a little article about it in our church paper, The Newsette. Our total circulation was two hundred, the minimum needed to qualify for third class mail. Somehow a local TV station read it and called for an “interview.” All I had said was something to the effect that our tax dollars to provide students with a state university were now being used to teach a totalitarian view which was directly against our national interests. In a small way I was protesting.
The reporter came to my office, and his TV cameraman stood on a chair to aim down at me. The effect was a little like I was under interrogation by the authorities for doing something wrong. I defended my position, reaffirming my dismay that a communist was lecturing on a state college campus. On the six o’clock news segments of my remarks were presented with the newsman’s final word, “In our opinion we conclude that ministers such as the Reverend Rickard are far more dangerous to society than the communist lecturer.” And thus I learned the lesson that the secular press is basically antagonistic to the message of the cross and seldom will fairly represent it.
This was to be a valuable lesson. I had to learn to make every word count when being interviewed by the news media and to select my own camera angles and even my own questions at times. I learned that healthy caution was always in order, no matter how disarming the interviewer seemed to be. And I learned that a grim-faced minister looks terrible on TV and that it is possible to smile even when very serious.
When a church grows larger than average, unusual opportunities often come about such as in the following account.
When Saigon fell at the close of our nation’s involvement in Vietnam, little could we dream that our church would be called upon to help.
At 4:OO A.M. on April 22, 1975, five big buses rolled up the church roadway. One by one they pulled into place and their passengers alighted, carrying little bags and suitcases of their belongings. They had been traveling for twenty-nine hours, leaving the steamy confusion of Saigon and finally arriving at Los Gatos Christian Church, California, in the wee hours of a cooler than normal day. We welcomed them with hot tea and other refreshments, but most were too tired and numb to really care.
How did 156 Vietnamese refugees happen to spend a week at our church and become close friends with many of our people? When orphans were being evacuated to the Army Presidio in San Francisco, many of the women from the church drove up to help as it was about one hour’s drive and calls had been publicized for volunteers. The nursery director at the church was among those who helped. She quickly observed that our own church facilities would easily handle up to one hundred babies. After receiving a word of approval and encouragement she began to mobilize our doctors, nurses, and other workers, as well as assembling any equipment we might need. A returned missionary from Vietnam made himself available as an interpreter. We were ready, but no babies were sent to us. Needless to say, our people were a little disappointed.
One week later the call came, “Could you house and care for a plane load of refugees immediately!” Our elders were meeting when the call came and prayerfully responded according to Matthew 25:35, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in” (NIV). People worked all night to get ready, bringing mattresses, sleeping bags, foam pads, blankets, and pillows. We were ready by 3:00 A.M. and met for a time of prayer, asking the Lord to use us for His glory and to give us agape love equal to the hours ahead.
Security was required as these adults, youth, children, and a few older folks were the first contingency of adult Vietnamese and family groups to arrive. Their privacy and safety had to be protected. A number of police officers who are members of our church organized this important detail. This was staffed for twenty-four hours a day. Several carloads of curiosity seekers were turned away during the week.
A dispensary was set up, also staffed constantly by doctors and nurses. Two children had fevers which went away without incident, and no adults were sick at all. We treated some skinned knees and elbows and dispensed a few aspirins, sleeping pills, and other items.
Few slept much the first night as dawn was breaking by the time they got settled into their quarters. Since ours is a large facility, we housed the little families in a youth area, a carpeted, attractive place. With partitions, tables, chairs, radio and TV, magazines, and books (for those who understood or read English), it was made quite comfortable.
Our restrooms and other areas had new signs taped on the doors in Vietnamese. The Vietnamese women soon made themselves available to help cook. We bought food according to their requests (rice, ham, pork, fish sauce, tea, bananas, oranges), and they and our church women prepared lovely, tasty menus.
Many of our people took vacation time or leaves of absence from their jobs to be on hand and were of tremendous help in the whole project. Quite a number of our high school and college students took time off from school to help and in the process made lasting friendships with the Vietnamese youth. Children of our workers enjoyed playing with their little children and found ways to communicate. An inner courtyard allowed our guests to be outdoors, yet maintain their privacy, and gave the children a place to play.
We quickly became acquainted by name and began to share our faith in Christ with those who would listen. Sixteen responded, inviting by faith the Lord into their hearts and lives. In the next day or two they were baptized in the outdoor fountain in the courtyard.
A number of professional people were among those we helped, including a doctor, lawyer, banker, druggist, businessmen, and a tailor shop owner. Most were Catholic, Buddhist, or had no religion. When Sunday came we provided transportation to take those who wished to go to a nearby Catholic Church, at their request. This seemed a little uncomfortable to us, but had the situation been reversed, we would have asked to find a place of worship to our liking. Since we have three morning preaching services, about forty Vietnamese, including some who were Catholics and some who were Buddhists, came to our early service. They were very attentive and were warmly welcomed by our people.
During that week our choirs rehearsed on Tuesday, so we invited our guests to join us in the auditorium where we presented a special program. They were very appreciative and invited us to join them for a Vietnamese musical program the next night. What an enjoyable experience it was. Children sang, a number of their youth sang several songs in Vietnamese, and a top popular singer in their group sang in French, English, and Vietnamese. Most moving was their national song, “Vietnam, Vietnam. ” As they sang, my wife nudged me and whispered, “Look at Mr. Bach.” We could see him in the back row, his head bowed, tears streaming down his face, unable to join the others in singing. It struck me then, if it had somehow failed to before, the awful tragedy of our times, the evil of Communism, and the plight of the refugees of the world. More than ever I determined to serve Christ with greater dedication, to somehow get His message to our nation and to the world, to pray for revival, and to realize that it is first of all our love which must be extended before our message can be heard-in any culture.
Since the war in Vietnam was not a popular war, to say the least, the involvement of our church with the first contingency of adult and family refugees, drew the media like flies. And they were about as pesky. They had no respect for the privacy of our guests and demanded interviews with them.
Those Vietnamese who spoke English let us know that if they identified themselves or allowed pictures to be taken, relatives at home might be endangered. We believed them and, under great stress, protected them from the press.
When our friends left on a Sunday evening between our two evening services, tears of parting flowed and many a warm handclasp or hug of affection was exchanged. As their buses pulled out, they sang a Vietnamese rendition of “Auld Lang Syne.” What a rich blessing that week had been!
It was during this time and a little before that we as a church had to go through a trial of a different nature. The public hearings in Monte Sereno were only a prelude to many more, few of them easy. Assured by an official in the town of Los Gatos that he saw no reason why we shouldn’t purchase the Western Microwave property and begin to use it after some remodeling, we bought it and intended to develop it. Unfortunately, the official moved on to another community before we could finish our master plan and present it.
We were operating without a valid use permit, although officials had assured us that it would be granted. Unknown to us neighbors within a two-mile radius had been circulating petitions, counting cars, and watching us carefully. The facility had been built there with little or no opposition. Had the business been successful, its plan was to run three eight-hour shifts of workers every twenty four hours! It would have been a beehive of cars, delivery trucks, and traffic. Los Gatos Christian Church made it the beehive of activity it had been designed to be, although we weren’t having classes or services twenty-four hours a day.
Some in opposition wanted us to be a quiet little neighborhood church. They did not realize that a quiet little church could never have bought the property in the first place! Others longed for the tranquility of years past when the area was meadows and vineyards. We sympathized but defended ourselves. The buildings were there and were for sale, and we bought them with assurances of a use permit. Work on expanding parking was stopped. For months the people parked on dirt and gravel.
On the first Sunday, attendance increased by several hundred. One of our members bulldozed parking spaces as the cars were overflowing the paved areas. Now all progress came to a halt while we battled for out very existence and future. Sessions were often noisy and heated, lasting until close to midnight. Well-financed and organized, the neighborhood people issued bumper stickers: “SUPPORT A.M.E.N.” A.M.E.N. was defined in smaller letters to mean “Against Massive Environmental Nuisance.” That was us! They wanted to prove that we, with our youth work, our help to Vietnamese, our stand for the principles of scripture were actually a public nuisance, detrimental to the health, welfare, and safety of the citizens of Los Gatos. The public hearings of the past were children’s games compared to this. On and on they went, twenty seven of them, with fees and studies required of us that amounted to over $100,000. Meanwhile, we couldn’t finish the parking nor do other work which was needed.
The newspapers reported on the conflict, not quite sure what to think of our church. Interviews were granted to TV reporters. By then we had learned to keep our comments short and to say whatever would honor Christ on TV. Surprisingly, the church seemed to flourish better when under attack than it had done with smooth sailing. People actually came “to see the church that had aroused such opposition,” filling each service and all the classes until we were forced to hold four services each Sunday morning with two each Sunday evening.
Eventually, permits were granted, with heavy requirements for landscaping and architectural beauty. As attendances climbed to 3000 each week, we were no Longer the little neighborhood chapel. One vehement woman shouted, “You are a regional church!” She was accurate. We were becoming a church known in the whole region and deeply concerned for the regions beyond.
Someone has said, “You can tell how hard you are hitting Satan by the force of the blow you receive in return.” Church growth is an intrusion into territory formally held by the enemy. It need not be a surprise to church leaders when opposition comes. If a church fails to grow, it will blend into the community like a public Library, where silent people come and go but never in large numbers.
It is vital that when their churches begin to grow church leaders and pastors be prepared for similar experiences to the three I have related in this chapter. Suddenly the local church is in the news. What its pastor says is being noted. It is an opportunity to lift up Christ.
Jesus said that we are to be like a city set on a hill or a lamp on a stand. We must not be surprised at the results when this happens.
PRINCIPLES TO PONDER
1. Church growth brings opposition.
2. Church growth brings unique opportunities.
3. Opposition from outside brings church growth.