LONGVIEW, Texas — Gerome Woods shuffled onto a broken parking lot on East Marshall Avenue, the place that had, moments earlier, been described as “holy ground.”
He was wearing a pink women’s tennis shoe on his right foot and a black men’s sneaker on his left, though both were far too small and would only hold the front part of his feet. His heels rested on the outside of the shoes.
With temperatures near 100 degrees, having bad shoes on the scorching pavement was better than no shoes at all.
Dan Doktor, who had been busy all morning cooking “Jesus Dogs,” saw Woods and called him over.
“What size shoes do you wear?” Doktor asked.
Woods told him.
Without hesitation, Doktor sat down, took off his shoes and gave them to Woods.
“Are you sure?” Woods asked. Doktor was certain.
Later, Doktor, who spent the next several hours working in stocking feet, didn’t want to talk about his gift.
“I have lots of shoes,” he told the Longview News-Journal (http://bit.ly/1oUhIlx).
Just how often scenes like this have been repeated at the Shade Tree Fellowship in its three years of existence is anyone’s guess. No one is keeping count.
The Shade Tree Fellowship was spawned from the mind of a man who carried a cross.
It was the evening of Easter 2011 when Gary Don Holley and Alan Johnson were dragging crosses up and down Marshall Avenue witnessing to the homeless and disenfranchised in the area.
As Johnson tells it, at one point Holley said, “These people need someone to love them.” A moment later he said, “These people need Jesus.” A few beats passed and he said, “These people need a church.”
Johnson agreed, but the conversation didn’t go much further that night. Over the next few days, however, Holley began building a food truck that could be used to help feed those who would come.
“He didn’t ask me,” Johnson said. “He just started doing it.”
Deciding not to go forward was not an option, but how to accomplish the task was not so easily determined. Their first idea was to build the food truck and take it to each of the motels along Marshall Avenue, feeding people and sharing the Christian message.
That plan had to be discarded when every motel owner along the strip turned Holley down.
“They didn’t want Jesus there. No Jesus,” Johnson said.
That is, every motel but one — the American Dream Inn — where they met owners who identified themselves as “Pete and Olive” and who told them that they had been waiting for them for three years.
The motel is adjacent to the old Elks’ Club parking lot where the Shade Tree Fellowship now sits. The owner of the lot gave them permission to meet there, and a location was secured.
A huge old oak tree stands in the parking lot, its branches used to form the sanctuary of the new church.
That’s how it is today. And after more than 80 meetings in the spot — once every two weeks in the beginning and every week now — the worship service has never once been rained out.
“That’s one of the many miracles we’ve seen here,” Johnson said. “It has been raining two blocks away but never here, and it’s never been too cold to meet.”
That first meeting, about 20 people came to hear the message and eat a “Jesus Burger,” and some of those were not from the streets. From that tiny beginning, now between 200 and 400 people attend each week, some walking from one of the motels along Marshall Avenue, others being brought by buses furnished by Woodland Hills Baptist Church.
Setting up and feeding the 200 to 400 people who might attend is a major operation that involves dozens. It can be difficult at times to know who is shepherd-servant, as they call themselves, and who is being served. A number have transformed from one to another over the years.
The food is normally a Jesus Burger, but on this third anniversary day, the Jesus Dog meal was served — a generously sized chili dog — chips, beans and a large piece of cake. If there is food left over, those who are still hungry can have another meal.
David Nelson, who has been a street evangelist for 16 years and has helped at most of the meetings, said new helpers come frequently, hooked by seeing what is happening here.
“I came out the first time, and I felt it,” he said. “This is something special. People are coming here from the streets and are being changed and going back to the streets to make a difference.”
Nelson is not the only one who got hooked on the environment. He pointed out two teachers from Hallsville who happened upon the Shade Tree Fellowship one day and have been helping out ever since.
The group of shepherd-servants came together about 10 a.m. for a prayer meeting before the “gatherers” left to go up Marshall Avenue to encourage people to come to the service, which was scheduled to start about 11 a.m.
The pre-meeting was no less intense than the service held later. Johnson encouraged them in much the same way that he would talk to those who came for a Jesus Dog.
“We’re not rocks,” he told them in a rising voice. “Sometimes we hurt more than other people hurt, and sometimes we get happier, too, praise the Lord.”
Johnson, as with others connected to the Shade Tree Fellowship, hesitated to talk about his own story.
“This is not about me,” he said.
But Johnson’s own life story certainly provides an easy entry point for those who have struggled.
When he says “we” to the congregation, it isn’t just a figure of speech. He has been down the same path as many in the crowd, though he grew up with a close relationship with the church. His father, Laney Johnson, was pastor of Mobberly Baptist Church for 38 years.
But away from Longview in Dallas, Johnson turned to alcohol first, then cocaine. He eventually was arrested and sent to prison for a two-year term.
In prison, he met Walter Daniels, who by chance was in Longview to speak at the service at the third anniversary. Daniels had been a standout schoolboy athlete in Oklahoma, got a scholarship to Southeastern Oklahoma as a wide receiver, then signed on with the Denver Broncos as a free agent.
Daniels would bounce from Denver to a tryout with the Houston Oilers and eventually to the New Jersey Generals of the USFL. Eventually, though, his football dream would fade away with nothing readily available to replace it.
Like Johnson, Walters became a drug user and, as he would say later, “involved in unlawful activity.” That landed him in the same unit as Johnson, and the two became friends and helped each other grow spiritually.
“He picked two convicts to help spread the word,” Johnson said.
All the shepherd-servants move with ease through the crowd before the service begins. Hugs and spontaneous prayers with individuals are common, so are smiles and laughter, though the outsider might look at the crowd and wonder just what these people have to be happy about.
Longtime volunteers will tell you that over three years, the entire atmosphere of the Shade Tree Fellowship has changed.
Maria Veramuntes, a member of Mobberly Baptist Church who works sorting and handing out free clothes to those in need, called the fellowship a “blessing.”
“People were changed from being loud and sort of mean,” she said. “Now they are much quieter and under control. They are more polite, too.”
Separately, the street evangelist Nelson agreed.
“This used to be a pretty rowdy bunch,” he said. “Now, not so much.”
Ralph Bush has been attending the fellowship since March 2013 and said it has helped turn his life around.
“I was homeless. I didn’t know God; all I knew was the streets,” he said. “When I walk on this parking lot, I get a sense of serenity. I just feel very calm and peaceful. Out on the streets there is a lot of strife, but not here.”
Today marks Bush’s first year anniversary of being baptized. The fellowship uses a converted livestock watering trough as a baptismal, and it stands ready at each service to be used if anyone comes forward.
Alan and Shirley Eubank were at the first service of the fellowship and continue to come regularly.
The couple have lived through difficult times, including months of homelessness before they were able to find another place to live.
“We’re not going to lose it ever again,” Eubank said. He credits the church with helping him stay on course during the rough spots.
It was clear Eubank, as well as most of the others, felt as if they had a home here.
Nelson said this is the only kind of church most of them would attend.
“They don’t want to go to a regular church,” he said, “and the regular churches don’t want them there, either.”
Here, there are no rules, no liturgy, no denominational path to follow. Volunteers come from all types of Christian backgrounds, and no one cares which is which.
Johnson doesn’t care, even a little, if people come to the fellowship with the idea that they will swallow the food but not the message.
And it is clear that some, though a small minority, do just that. It is easy to spot the people who walk around aimlessly during the short sermon, or those who never turn their attention to the speaker.
Johnson said those people are only fooling themselves.
“They think they are only coming for the Jesus Burger, but God has a different plan for them,” Johnson said. “God is working His way into their heart. This is not just about feeding their physical body, but their spiritual one, too.”
He has seen the transformation work time and again. He has no doubt that it will continue to do so.
Even serving inexpensive meals such as hamburgers and hot dogs, the cost for feeding 200 to 400 people each week must be substantial. When asked how the fellowship is supported, Johnson only says, “by a bunch of God-followers,” and offers no details about how contributions to the cause can be made.
Yet a visitor to the Shade Tree Fellowship would have little doubt that this is just the beginning. More projects are going on beneath the surface than meet the eye. The feeling of giving permeates every inch of the grounds.
In one instance, a regular pointed out a group sitting beneath an awning by the old Elks’ Lodge as the “Freedom Team,” designed to support those struggling with addiction.
A visitor approached the woman who led the group and said, “I’m told you’re in charge,”
She threw back her head and gave a throaty laugh.
“In charge?” she asked, still chuckling. “Not me. God’s in charge here.”