By Bill Mefford
For four years, 1990-1994, I was the Youth Pastor at First United Methodist Church in Denver City, Texas. It was my first job out of college and after my time in Denver City I went to seminary. But it was in Denver City that I got the best education. It was in this small town in the middle of nowhere West Texas that I learned almost everything I have needed to know for a lifetime of ministry.
Denver City was a cross-cultural experience for me in many ways as I had lived all of my life in suburbs near large cities. I had never experienced life in a small town and Denver City was certainly a small town! Friday night football games were almost like religious experiences (and I loved it!), almost everyone knew each other (which could be both a good and a bad thing), the schools were the center of life for most families, and the church was not far behind. I remember being baffled for the longest time when I heard the students in my youth group talk about “showing” their animals. I kept wondering who they were “showing” them to and why it took so much time. It literally took me more than a year to understand that “showing” animals like lambs or cows was an essential part of their school work; it was a competition that took them all over the state and required tremendous dedication.
Yep, I was a big city boy and most of the time that only created laughter for them and learning for me. I learned so much about small town life. I never understood the challenges associated with farming and my respect for farmers grew immensely. The farmers I came to know were people who had tremendous love for creation and fiercely dedicated to making something grow from the earth. Farming in West Texas is incredibly difficult and these are tremendous people who do so year after year.
I learned the oil business was both a boon to the economy of West Texas, while also being a curse. A friend who worked in the business told me that far, far more people had been fired by the oil companies in West Texas than by the car companies in Michigan, yet there was no effort to unionize or hold the companies accountable for their treatment of the workers. The oil business had greatly enriched the area and we had tremendous schools with terrific facilities, yet, I knew of so many people who died of various cancers and other illnesses that surely were caused, at least in part, by the oil industry and the lack of regulations.
But more than anything, by far the greatest thing I learned in my time in Denver City was that the greatest source of change is love. Change happens slow and I mean slooooow, in rural contexts. But change did happen. When I arrived in this small town the church was dying (yeah, what a shock: a dying United Methodist Church). For the first two years I worked for a pastor who was far more interested in planning his retirement and nursing his resentment and bitterness for not being moved to bigger churches with bigger paydays. He fought everything I did and his resistance only forced me to do the only thing I could – to love the people I was serving even more.
And though I was then and remain quite progressive in my political engagement, the people in Denver City put up with my liberal political views because they knew something that would not change: my love for them and their love for me. Besides, all that I believed was and is based in Scripture, so they often shook their head at some of the things I did and said, but they knew I was completely committed to them. And them to me. I occasionally speak to pastor groups and every so often I teach seminary courses and one thing I get asked about is how to talk about political issues. I always say the same thing. You can say anything you want so long as you love your people. If you love them, they might agree with you, but they will at least listen. And if you don't love them, then it doesn't matter what you say - political or not. Love is what changes people, not our political statements.
Because I was an outsider to the town, and even to the small town way of life, I was totally dependent on local folks to serve and provide meaningful ways for our youth to grow and experience God’s love. Remarkably, though the Sunday morning worship services were dull and boring, the youth group grew. When we got a new pastor my third year we were ready to take off and not only minister to the youth, but to their families as well. I can honestly say I have never seen a turnaround in a church like I saw in that small church in Denver City. A dying church became a thriving and dreaming church. An insulated church became missional. Yes, the numbers grew, but more importantly, through a succession of really good pastors over the next decade and a half the church did what only local churches can do and do best: they loved the people in their congregation and they were engaged in the transformation of the world. And I got to see it all start.
Since I served as the Youth Pastor in Denver City, I have served in all kinds of capacities both within and outside the church at both the local and national level. But it was my time as a Youth Pastor in that small town in that small church in the middle of nowhere West Texas that I learned the most important lesson of my entire life. Love changes things. Love creates, love overcomes, love withstands, love RESISTS, love holds firm, love transforms. I know it. Love transformed me.
Thanks Denver City.