I was somewhere this past weekend where the song, “Heaven is a Wonderful Place” was sung, hummed, or at least had the music for it playing for the better part of 7 hours. A group of 5 of us went up to Cleveland, Ohio to experience the inner-city bus ministry and food distribution of Heaventrain.
What this entailed was a big blue bus, with an artists painted rendering of heaven described in the Bible, making 5 stops in the projects of the near East side of Cleveland. This has been the case for over 30 years as Phil Batten started this as an outreach of Willow-lake Church of the Nazarene, as his heart had been burdened for the poor of the Central neighborhood. It used to be the “Church on Wheels” but it has become something so much larger than that. This neighborhood has felt the impact of someone who has their heart burdened by what burdens Gods. With food, clothing, tutoring, mentoring, etc. Heaventrain now has a parent non-profit company, Lighthouse, LLC. which reaches beyond the Saturday impact of Heaventrain into the everyday lives of the families in this part of the city.
So the above pictured bus shows up with a caravan of cars, vans, shuttles, and a food truck to a stop. Everyone pulls over at the designated stop and the bus circles the neighborhood block about 4 to 5 times, playing the music to “Heaven is a Wonderful Place” like an icecream truck, and blowing a 3-foot train whistle every few seconds. This is something to witness as kids from all over the area begin running to the place where the bus will stop. They run up and give hugs, high fives, and the purest smiles to the volunteers and then proceed to line-up for the bus. Once the bus arrives, the children and some parents, fill the bus to hear Pastor Phil (or the guest speaker). This is kicked off with them singing “Heaven is a Wonderful Place” fast and loudly, with the exuberance often only displayed for Barney, sports teams, or concerts. What a true joy it was to see Pastor Phil lead them in this song, sharing the microphone with the kids, and them laughing and singing like they were what they were; kids.
After the lesson on the bus (it was from Hebrews on the Superiority of the New Covenant this week), the kids file off and go to get their food. Lighthouse has partnered with the state of Ohio as a summer feeding program so they got some milk, celery, a pita sandwich, an apple, and a dessert of some kind. (There may have been some things I missed). The kids usually sat there to eat and volunteers were happy to sit and talk to them or help them open up any of the packages. Over 750 children were fed this past Saturday!!
Because of the bus size there were at least 2 services at each stop. One stop had 4 services I believe, as there were many kids. While waiting to get on the bus, the kids are entertained with music, footballs, frisbees, hula-hoops, sidewalk chalk, bubbles, and face painting. A couple of the people from our group were happy to interact with the swarms of kids that were loving every minute of the face painting.
What’s amazing is just the different world you step into. In some ways your heart breaks for these kids who were born into this situation. At the same time, your heart overflows with the love you see the Heaventrain team, Pastor Phil, and all the volunteers have for this neighborhood. You also can’t help but be amazed that amongst all these circumstances, that most of us can’t imagine living in, these kids are laughing, playing, and being kids despite their tough surroundings.
One man from Coshocton Church of the Nazarene (who were also there with a group) told me of how they had come last year at the end of November when it was already bitterly cold. He talked about how they were amazed to see the kids running up to wait for the bus in t-shirts and jeans. How the windchill had every group-member bundled up but these kids had nothing more than a cotton shirt.
Pastor Andy Batten, Phil’s son and Executive Director of Lighthouse, tells a story of the Cleveland Browns working with them to hand out winter clothes. How kids showed up in similar conditions or worse, without proper shoes, and how Josh Cribbs of the Browns picked up one of the young kids and wept as he warmed his hands and placed them on this child’s feet.
I could go on and on about how this multi-decade ministry has touched the lives and hearts of this neighborhood, how it has greatly impacted everyone who has ever made a trip to volunteer on a Saturday (seriously, do if you haven’t), but it is the song that really underlines what is going on here.
You see, Lighthouse has taken Luke 14:21b to heart, when the servant is told, “Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.” Heaven will be a wonderful place because there won’t be any poor, crippled, blind, or lame. There won’t be any fear of violence for a child. There won’t be drugs, money, projects, or racial lines separating the most from the least. There will be no barriers to the love of Christ flowing to these that rarely see it. There will be people from every language, culture, race, and people-group worshipping together because what they are worshipping is of the top importance; much more than any external differences between the people. Shouldn’t that be how we that are Christians live here on Earth? Where we’re so focused on Christ that we don’t recognize the norms of society as the Spirit moves us into the nitty-gritty of everyone’s every day lives? Where we’re so filled with the love of God that it spills out uncontrollably and uninterrupted to everyone no matter their neighborhood?
Heaven will be a wonderful place and nothing we can do on earth will ever completely encapsulate that. But we don’t have to wait until we die to experience and share the presence, nature, and love of Jesus. We have to be open to the leading of the Holy Spirit in these areas, outside of where we’re comfortable, and not just be glad there the Pastor Phil’s of the world to do it for us. How are you responding in service to those who can’t repay you? How are you allowing “Heaven is a Wonderful Place” to be seen here and now in a glimpse caught by others? Sure, not everyone is called to urban ministry, but everyone is called to spread the Gospel and so the question has to be asked, how is that call manifesting itself in your life and relationship with Christ?