“We lacked a clear language and a clear strategy. We had become a strategic hybrid of every big church out there.”
You speak of your first experience in Haiti as a crossroads, and you’re summarizing these four years as significant and formative. Zoom in. Were there some specific things that happened that helped you solidify your direction?
I was friends with a young man, a Haitian named Sove. I worked with him every day. I trusted him with my life, but he wasn’t a Christ-follower, and I was burdened for him. Here was a real friend of mine who didn’t have Jesus and was headed for hell.
I helped him put a roof on his house, gave him clothes, food, provided for him. But he was resistant to anything related to the gospel.
One day he opened up with me and said, “I don’t come to church because I can’t read.” I said, “Well, I’ll teach you how to read—and you don’t have to know how to read to come to church or even to have friendship with Jesus.”
So we started meeting and I would read through the Gospels out loud and he would sit in a chair next to me and listen. Through that he started processing and asking questions, but then he got really sick. We were nursing him back to health. He would get better, and then he would get worse, up and down over about six months. That’s when we realized something worse was happening.
Like a lot of Haitians, he had AIDS. And once they contract full-blown AIDS, it’s a matter of weeks before they die. So we placed him in this hospital, which was more of a dying room. I would go every day and help clean him up.
I showed up one morning to bring him some food and he was crying. His tongue had swollen up and he was hard to understand. He just said, “I’m ready.”
I said, “Oh, I’m so glad to hear that.” And I asked, “What finally pushed you over the edge to make a decision for Jesus?”
He kind of pointed to the guy lying in the bed next to his. Here’s this guy just covered in sores, and basically incoherent, but Sove said he sang all night and he prayed all night. Sove said, “I don’t have that hope. I need that.”
I had seen other people come to Christ through preaching and other means, but this was a real personal experience for me. In that moment I was like, I want to see thousands of people make this same confession. I want to be a part of that. Whatever I can do, God, I’m available.
After four years, you returned from Haiti and joined the staff at Southland. What’s that bridge?
Mike Breaux was the senior pastor at the time and he wanted to build a teaching staff. He emailed me in 1999 and said, “Your name keeps coming up and I don’t know you.” My wife was from the Southland Church, but Mike and I had never crossed paths. [Jon and Allison had met in Haiti when she was there short-term and subsequently married, after a courtship of letter-writing.] Mike had never heard me preach. In fact, it had been years since I had preached because I was living in Haiti, so I just thought it was really strange that he wanted me to join his staff. We emailed back and forth a few times and I politely said, “I don’t think it’s for me.”
He said, “Why don’t you just come meet with our leaders? Next time you’re in the United States drive into Lexington and we’ll go to lunch and talk.”I thought, No harm in that. So when we were back for Christmas break and went to see Allison’s family here in Lexington, I went to lunch with Mike.
He had his journal with him.
Now, Allison and I were transitioning out of the ministry we were doing in Haiti and we had been praying. We felt like the Haitians were leading the church and no longer needed us. We wanted to get out of their way. We thought maybe we were supposed to duplicate this in another Haitian city or another French-speaking country, maybe in Africa. We had been praying for about six months about five specific things. God, what do you want us to do next? Here are the things we’d love to be a part of and hope to see before we make that next move.
As Mike was talking at lunch it was still not resonating with my heart. I just couldn’t see myself working in a white suburban church. Then he said, “I was in North Carolina on a retreat and I know you think this is strange, but God gave me five things I’m supposed to share with you.”
That got my attention. Allison and I had written our five things out; we had prayed for them consistently. The five things Mike shared from his journal were the same five things Allison and I had identified. In the same order.
What were the five things on your list—and on his?
Healthy leadership was the first thing. A heart for the poor. Evangelism—a desire for the lost. An emphasis on youth—you’ve got to reach them while they’re young. And then sacrificially generous was the only way I knew how to describe the fifth thing—doing whatever it would take to grow the kingdom.
Mike had said, “These are the things that are on my heart, and they’re on the heart of our leadership. I just feel I’m supposed to let you know that.”
I was like, Whoa! I laughed. I didn’t tell Mike in the moment. I just said, “Man, I need to go talk to my wife about this and process it with her.”