The truth is that I hate driving down 143rd street.
It’s impossible to ignore the white building that still sits on the hill. On the same hill where Jeff kissed me for the very first time eight years ago underneath a sky lit up with Independence day fireworks. The building is vacant; dark and probably silent enough to split eardrums. The doors are surely locked. That massive parking lot cleared out.
I keep reminding myself it’s only a building. Simply brick and mortar. It too will pass away like everything else at the end of the age.
But, for me, it’s so much more than a building. It’s a symbol of something powerful in my life.
I remember the countless times my parents drove down 69 highway while my dad would reach his hand out toward the land he prayed God would one day allow him to build a church on. I remember when the hill was just an empty field; the building just another one of my dad’s dreams. I remember as a teenager, fasting every Thursday so we could pray for God to bless us enough to build a youth building where teenagers could come and not be pressured by temptation.
That church building was my second home growing up. That building holds the majority of my childhood memories.
And I believe those dark, abandoned hallways still whisper the names of people; people who walked in those church doors never to leave the same again. In fact, First Family Church was never about Pastor Jerry or the Johnston family.
First Family is about Stephonn, who begged us to rent a bus big enough to get twenty-seven of his friends to the youth crusade.
First Family is about Susan, who came after an abortion and failed suicide attempt. A woman who met Jesus at our church. She also met her husband and now mothers a beautiful towheaded little girl.
First Family is about a boy who was caught sleeping behind the stage after his parents kicked him out because of his problem with addiction.
First Family is about Sydney, the teenage girl who texted me after a youth bible study asking me how she could “get saved”.
First Family is about Ed, who got sober through a comfort circle held at the church on Monday nights.
First Family is about Marvin, an AIDS patient at Hope Care who attended the bible study led by church attendees on Thursday evenings. He fell in love with God and was baptized in FFC.
First Family is about Chris, who left his days of womanizing and partying behind when he invited Jesus to be his Lord after a Wow bible study.
First Family is about Lauren, a teenage mom who came to the youth group and met Jesus Christ for the very first time.
First Family is about Amber, who after years of abuse came to First Family and discovered that God loves her just as she is.
First Family is about Calyssa, the teenage girl who had tears streaming down her cheeks after we visited an orphanage in South Africa and went on to work with YWAM after graduating.
First Family is about Connor, a teenager boy who got so convicted during a Wednesday night message, he asked a youth leader to destroy the hidden stash of pot in his car.
First Family is about Scott, who felt called to ministry while attending church. He went on to oversee the entire student ministry of a large church in Kansas.
First Family is about the 526 orphaned children in Johannesburg, South Africa who received Christmas presents from the youth group.
First Family is about Jon, who nearly died from Kawasaki disease at 17 years-old. I remember the night our entire church got on our knees to pray for his healing. He’s now in seminary and leading a youth ministry in North Carolina.
First Family is about the tiny kids enrolled in Awana who quoted bible verses like little scholars.
First Family is about Jeff, a senior in high school who stood up at the end of a youth service to accept Christ in his life. He later asked me to be his wife.
Hundreds of names still echo through those hallways; they will forever be a reminder of what God accomplished in that building. They can lock the doors, and even take the cross down, but they can never erase history. Those names won’t be blotted out of the book of Life. The past can’t be rewritten.
Every few days I text my dad, and it’s a version of the same sentence. “Dad, I miss FFC so bad. It hurts.” And he’ll text back, “I know.” Two broken hearts. But, two hearts that have seen enough to know that God is still very much in control.
When my Dad started the church, he prayed that lost people would come and find Jesus Christ. He prayed that through the church his three children would develop a heart from God. My sister, Danielle, loves God and now serves as a worship leader. My brother, Jeremy, loves God and serves as a Pastor. Me? Well even after a heartbreaking divorce, my love for God has not faltered one bit. He means everything to me.
So every few days, I’ll have a good cry. I’ll read a rude comment from some hater. And then I’ll dry my eyes and keep going. And I’ll remember the names.
Because those names are what First Family Church was always about.