Wednesday, May 24, 2017

We Drive to Church (but we could have gotten a ride)

Bethesda Churches in Fresno, California
The Bethesda Churches, Fresno, California
If there is one word I’d use to describe Bev, the woman who greeted us at Bethesda Church, it would be “Wow.” Or “W.O.W.” since at Bethesda, the word is used as an acronym for “Welcoming Others Willingly” (a greeting ministry of the church), and she did do that, hugging both Mindy and me as we entered Bethesda Apostolic Church -- but her husband, Brother Stafford, had greeted us first. We were outside taking pictures of the church buildings and he came out to chat with us.

The church takes greeting visitors seriously. I appreciated the world “willingly” in their acronym, since there are times when the greetings of ushers in church can be rather rote and a matter of duty. The greetings from Bev and Stafford were anything but that. Bev also spoke of The Net, a ministry that tries to insure that visitors won’t fall through the cracks.

We had time to chat with the couple in the lobby while we waited for the sanctuary to open (a minister’s training meeting was in progress when we arrives). I asked Bev what drew her to the church. She had gone to the church when she was young, but had moved away and met her husband. When they moved back to the area, they attended another church where she said she was “slowly dying, not getting the power of the Holy Ghost.” So her husband agreed to attend Bethesda “one time.” And they never left.

Bev went on to praise their pastor, Tobaise Brookins, “his teaching is awesome!” She appreciated that he’s “very visual,” using props and media to reinforce his messages. She also mentioned his great sense of humor.

As we entered the sanctuary, we were greeted by a number of people, including an usher who noting my notebook said, “You won’t be able to write!” I assume he believed he thought we would be too caught up in the service to be able to take notes. It was a good service, but we’ve had a lot of practice. We’re disciplined note takers, even when hand-raising is involved.

Pastor Brookins wasn’t preaching that evening, though he’d led the pastors' training class before the service. The Bethesda Churches are celebrating their 60th anniversary right now, and as part of that celebration they’ve brought back various ministers who were raised or trained in the church before going out to other ministries. That night Pastor O.C. Harris from San Diego was speaking, introduced as “a son of this church.”

After Pastor Harris stood at the pulpit, he recognized people from his days at Bethesda. So he left the stage and walked down to hug old friends. After several minutes of circulating in the congregation, he returned to the pulpit promising to get on with the message. But a time or two more during the sermon, he spotted someone else in the crowd and left the stage to give a quick hug. It was endearing. He said, “I was born in this church, at the age of 14.”

Pastor Harris spoke on the same theme given to all five guest speakers of this month, “Momentum: Moving Forward.” He said, “I’m going  to be with you the length of time it takes to tell you the thing God has for you to hear.” He used as his texts Exodus 9: 27 - 28 and Deuteronomy 2:3, jamming the first part of one verse to the last of the other. He spoke of the importance of momentum, “If you aren’t moving, you don’t matter,” though he amended that a bit when he said, “God is the only one to tell you to stand still, and when He tells you to stand still, you’re still moving forward.”

He spoke much about the importance of being obedient to the pastor of the church. He talked of Bishop Johnson, the founder of Bethesda, and its one  pastor prior to Pastor Brookins. “The only place you get direction is through the man of God.” He argued that our blessing is tied to the pastor of a church and we must support him to obtain blessing.

After the sermon, there was a time of prayer. Two men and a woman stood in the front of the stage with oil at the ready to anoint any who came forward for prayer. After a few minutes of prayer, ushers received people’s offering near the back doors as people were dismissed. =

Bev caught up with us again as we were heading out the back door and encouraged us to go to meet with Pastor Tobiase Brookins, who makes it a regular practice to meet with visitors after services. Bev asked if we wanted snacks or something to drink and we opted for water.

Pastor Brookins, along with his wife Antoinette, greeted us in a room behind the sanctuary.  We asked how he came to serve at Bethesda. He told us he’d been ministering as an evangelist, traveling from place to place, but he felt called to pastoral ministry. Bishop Johnson at Bethesda offered to mentor him. “There are so many young pastors these days who just concentrate on writing their sermons. But Bishop Johnson took me to hospitals to visit the sick and pray for people.”  Pastor Brookins was living in Southern California, but for six months he came every weekend to learn from Bishop Johnson.

At the end of those six months, Bishop Johnson asked Brookins if he would consider pastoring Bethesda (In the Apostolic tradition, the pastor makes such major decisions, including succession). Brookins accepted the offer, not fully understanding all the political ramifications the decision would have in the congregation. Some men who had been discipled in the church for a much longer time than Brookins felt “sideswiped” by the choice, and Pastor Brookins felt “sideswiped” by the reaction of many in the congregation to his coming.

But that was seven years ago, and Pastor Brookins’ ministry in the church seems to be prospering. Bethesda has two other Fresno campuses for ministry along with the Central location (at Dakota and Milbrook) we attended; the Southeast campus and the Riverpark campus. There are other pastors on the other campuses, and the musical and worship styles differ at each place, but they all share the same message.

I mentioned that we were regularly attending the Bridge Church in Fresno, and Pastor Brookins said how much he appreciated the friendship of a recently departed pastor of our church. He told us that historically Apostolic Pentecostal churches tended to be more isolationist, but that was changing.

We talked about our adventures visiting churches, including our trip to churches to every state last year. As we walked to the parking lot, we showed him the back of our van covered with bumper stickers from the trip, and he pulled out his phone to take a picture of it.

Pastor and First Lady Brookins were so warm and gracious, we could certainly understand the abundant praise that Bev had lavished on them earlier. And before we left, Bev gave another hug and Brother Stafford gave another handshake.

The central campus of Bethesda is near us, and we’ve passed it many times on walks and drives. (The sign encourages those who need a ride to church to give them a call.) It was wonderful to find that not only was the church near our home, it was a place we were made to feel at home.

Service Length: 1 hour 47 minutes
Sermon Length: 1 hour 16 minutes
Visitor Treatment: The church not only has a visitor greeting ministry with designated parking spots for guests, they also have a special entrance for visitors. Bev asked us to fill out a visitor card when we first came into the sanctuary, and everyone was encouraged to greet those around them
Followup by Tuesday Morning: none
Our Rough Count: 75
Probable Ushers’ Count: 100
Snacks: We didn’t see any, but there may have been some in the fellowship hall, where guests generally meet Pastor and First Lady Brookins
Musicians: keyboard (man)
Songs: “Chasing after You”
Distance to Church: 1 mile
Open WiFi: no
Tie/Suit Count: too many to count (plus a bow tie)

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