Recently, I had the great privilege of creating a photo timeline for Fortress Church. I started it with the earliest photos I could find of the building that we occupy. This structure, built in 1905, first housed a boarding house for railroad workers. In the following years, it served as a hotel, an appliance store and repair shop, and an antique store. Fortress acquired the building in 1995, and it's now listed as a Cultural and Historical Landmark here in Fort Worth. It was the neatest thing learning about the building's history while I did this project.
But even neater was learning more about the history of Fortress's early years. When they bought the building, it was in such disrepair that it couldn't be occupied. So for 8 months, the church met out in "The Barn", a creaky old building that was once used for antique auctions. So bad was the roof that one Sunday when it snowed outside, it snowed inside as well. When it rained, the churchgoers knew where to sit to avoid the drops and where to place buckets to catch them. It was cold and drafty in the winter, and hot and stifling in the summer. And still, the people came. From the nearby neighborhoods and homeless shelters, the people came for food, comfort, and acceptance. From the outlying neighborhoods and suburbs, the people came to love, to serve, and to be blessed.
Today, every nook and cranny of the building has been cleaned, remodeled, repainted, reappointed. Every square inch is put to use. The barn is still standing (barely), and is used for storage. Last spring, Ms. D was storing some cases of juice boxes out there. One night, the alarm sounded, and Michael responded in the middle of the night to discover a man running from the barn carrying a case of juice. It's pathetic, isn't it? Stealing juice from a church. It gets worse. Also last spring, Michael planted flowers only to have them stolen right out of the ground.
Inner city ministry isn't glamourous. In the beginning, very few people thought that Fortress Church could survive. But survive it did, and not only survive, it thrived. It grew. It dreamed. It persevered. People come and go; after all, inner city ministry is a dirty, sometimes ugly, sometimes thankless job. There's a high rate of burnout. There's a lot of hopelessness. There've been times when our numbers of regular volunteers have dwindled to so few that we wonder, "Is God trying to tell us something? Should we just shut down and go to a megachurch somewhere?" But those questions are just lies that Satan feeds us. That became evident to me (again) on Saturday night.
As people streamed through the doors to celebrate our 10th Anniversary, I was struck by the diversity. We had an older couple from a suburban church who'd never been to Fortress before. It was entertaining watching their reactions to people and activities. There was a family who is near and dear to all of our hearts, who sort of ebb and flow from the Fortress family. It was so good seeing them all there again, together with each other, and together with us. I had to wipe tears when Mr. Clark refused my handshake and insisted on a hug instead. The teen girls who I love so much - all sisters - came with their Mom. Volunteers from affluent suburbia sat among families from the projects. We ate together, we worshipped together, and we reminisced together as we watched an amazing video that chronicled the last decade.
Fortress is so much more than a church. It's a home, it's a safe haven, it's a place to rely on, it's a positive force, it's a light in a dark world, it's an after school program, it's a hot lunch, it's a lesson in manners, it's a cheerleader and a believer in bigger things, it's a reminder of hope, it's a computer lab, it's an advice column, it's a soft place to fall, it's a scrapbooking center, it's a homework help room....
but mostly, it's a family. That's the word that kept singing to me as I watched the video. "It's like a family," Lety said. "It's family. It's always there when we need it," said Mr. Clark. It IS a family. It doesn't matter if we meet in the barn, or in the park down the street, or in my house, the church is wherever the family - the people- go. People who've been there in the past, and people who are here in the present - we're all family through Fortress. Saturday night, I was thrilled to meet two past ministers. I told them both that it was almost like meeting a celebrity, so high are the pedestals that they've been placed upon by the Fortress folks. They both just laughed it off. But as much as I joked about meeting Fortress celebrities, it was really more like reuniting with long-lost brothers. Truly, Fortress wouldn't be what it is today without the people who've given their blood, sweat and tears over the last ten years. It wouldn't be what it is without the people who love the ministry here and dedicate their lives to being in the thick of it.
Fortress blesses me. Every day. I prayed for best friends several years ago, and they came to me via Fortress. As I said on the video, I never in a million years dreamed I'd work in inner city ministry. It's embarrassing to me now to admit that I didn't even realize that Fort Worth HAD and "inner city", so comfortable in suburbia was I. But when we happened on a worship service at Fortress, we knew we were home. We never looked back. We've been richly blessed because of the ministry there, and by the people we've come to know through it.
God smiled on Fortress Saturday night, I know he did. How could He not have, when His greatest command was being fulfilled over and over by people of all different races and backgrounds and economic status? "Love your neighbor as yourself."
That's what Fortress does.
Thank you God, for leading me to this place.
View photos here.