East Hill Church of Christ in Pensacola

I laugh a lot. It’s usually not a problem, except when it’s a problem. Do you remember as a kid being in a serious situation where it was inappropriate to laugh, but everything seemed to be suddenly hysterical? Well, things suddenly got funny for a while as we interacted for the first time with some of the pleasant church family in Pensacola, that had me riding that same “struggle bus” of trying to hold it together.  

It all started as Mark drove toward the East Hill church building the Wednesday night of our first visit, and I was in the back of the van bouncing off the potholes in the dark as if on a trampoline, scrambling on my laptop to finish typing as quickly as I could a One Hundred Churches entry, and because we were already running a little late when we pulled into the parking lot, I had no time left to change out of the navy blue T-shirt I’d purchased at a shop in Fredrick, Maryland, that had a yellow screen printed picture of a wild-eyed screaming cat, standing on its back two legs playing the electric guitar. I threw my black coat over it, lest someone think I come from the “Keep It Weird” Portland, Oregon area (which I do), and zipped it up all the way, so I could keep said cat on the down-low. Except that halfway through our Bible class, I started to sweat. And then I started to sweat some more, so, as discreetly as I could, I removed my coat, planning to put it back on after class. However, I never cooled down enough to stop sweating bullets, so I decided rather than trying to fit in, I’d just have to hope I’d be given a little grace, and of course, I was. 

After class, we met another married couple who were about our age, also named Mark and Cindy, who (as perhaps most “Cindys” would) suggested a picture of the four of us together (five including the cat on the T-shirt I planned no one would see) and we started laughing about starting an exclusive “Mark and Cindy” club (which a later Google search revealed has A LOT of interesting pairings). When I looked at the picture of the four of us on our phone, I had no idea what was going through Mark's mind, but his face looked like he was either watching aliens walk out of a spaceship, or, more likely, he had the look of a man who’d just lost his one chance to put his best foot forward during this visit because his wife was wearing a T-shirt with a screaming cat playing an electric guitar.

When I went to show Mark the picture to ask him what he was thinking, we met Ian Rice and his wife Keri. After Mark and I suggested that an easy way to remember our names is to think of “Mork and Mindy” since it rhymes with “Mark and Cindy”, Ian replied that an easy way to remember his name is what a new coworker, decades ago, thought his boss had said when he introduced Ian for the first time to the other guys also working at the tire store. “He’s called Eatin’ Rice?!” his new coworker asked, in confusion.  The name stuck at the tire shop and it’s going to stick in my head and heart as well! 

On a more serious note, it was great to see Dale and Terry Freich at East Hill congregation. They were the  couple that had told us about this congregation when we’d met them in Monticello, Florida the year before. I learned then that Dale loves to share God at every opportunity with the people she meets, so I’d gifted her a stack of my books to hand out as opportunities surfaced. It just so happened that when I introduced myself to one of the new members at East Hill, she recognized my name as being the author of the copy of Your Fresh Start that Dale had gifted her, and requested a stack as well, so that she also could disperse copies to the weary souls she encounters. 

Sometimes when we first walk into a congregation, as I look around at all the new faces, I’ll notice someone who, for one reason or another, seems to me could perhaps use my prayers, and will silently ask God in that moment a specific and special request on behalf of that unknown soul. I’ll not say more about the specifics in this case, but just know you never know who might be praying for you. As it turned out, we ended up returning Sunday morning and again Sunday evening to enjoy some meals and deeper conversations with these kind and hospitable brethren, and in the course of doing so, learned of other answered prayers a few months back in what had looked like a hopeless situation but because of God mercy, ended in the healing of a beloved, baby granddaughter.  These souls believe in the power of prayer and that God can change for the better the things that we cannot. 

One thing the East Hill congregation had been especially prayerful about the month before our visit, was Ian’s trip to Kenya with his brother-in-law in an effort to reach open hearts with the transforming power of the word of God. This trip was one of the reasons we also wanted to return on Sunday to worship with this congregation, because Ian was planning both morning and evening, to present a PowerPoint presentation, explaining many of the details of the Bible studies he’d taught in Kenya. 

As this presentation commenced, Ian told us how his journey unfolded day by day. I was especially inspired by the beauty in the character of the people that Ian described meeting in Kenya and the virtues he witnessed in not only their work ethic but also their remarkably high level of contentment, despite their humble means, especially in comparison with the discontent often witnessed in our own nation. Especially admirable was the seriousness with which these souls approached their relationship with God, and a beautiful eagerness to investigate spiritual matters and to get their Bible questions answered, even if it meant dropping everything they were doing in the moment to take whatever time was necessary to hear the truth.  

It was evident that the local preacher in Kenya, as well as some of the Christians in the congregation, had prepared for their arrival by setting up an ambitious schedule of going house to house. Upon their arrival, in Acts 10 fashion, many of the houses they entered were filled with friends and family of the homeowners. 

I’ve always wondered when I’ve heard about this kind of work, what kinds of topics are selected with such limited time. In many of the Bible studies, they would simply begin with whatever challenges were on the minds of the various individuals they encountered, with a focus on what God says in the scriptures around those specific challenges. Once souls begin to realize how relevant and practical the answers in the Bible are for whatever they are facing, then these hearts often begin to open up to God with a greater appreciation for His wisdom and His overall plan for mankind.  

The topics Ian said they often discussed included what God says one must do to be saved, what Christ said His desire is for all believers, the need for unity of faith and understanding, and using the Bible as the standard of that unity in the Kingdom of God. The titles of some of the sermons preached said a lot about the beautiful foundations that were being laid for the souls in Kenya: “The Truth Shall Make You Free”, “Survey the Wondrous Cross”, “Raised to Walk in Newness of Life” “What is So Special About the Church?”, “According To The Pattern”, “Lord I Believe, Help My Unbelief”. 

At one study with a woman and her adult daughter, the mother felt she’d heard enough and dismissed the men. Before the men left, one of the preachers reminded the mother that although she felt like she was finished learning, salvation is an individual matter for every soul, and her daughter was accountable to God for her own response to the gospel, so they wanted to check with her first to see if there was anything else they could do to help her spiritually. In the end, because they asked, she was among those who ended up being baptized into Christ. 

This was not the only case in which, as conversations took place, the ones who sometimes benefitted most were those on the sidelines listening in on someone else’s questions being answered. One key element of their success was thoughtfully observing the body language both of those they were teaching, as well as those who were listening in. In some cases, this even served to calm down any negative emotions that would surface from time to time. That being said, the preachers involved in this effort were assertive when working through any initial excuses. They often followed up and double-checked when an opportunity appeared to have perhaps evaporated. For example, one man initially dismissed them because he said that too much of his mind at present was under the strain of oppressive monetary debt. But instead of immediately leaving, they reminded him of how his greatest debt was, in fact, sin, but that Jesus had paid that debt in full for all those who obey the gospel. This man not only was baptized but, for the remainder of the week, joined the teachers as they went house to house, sometimes even leading the way on the dirt paths the group of preachers hiked to take the truth to others. This new convert to Christ was manifesting the kind of boldness that often comes along when there’s an acute awareness that “we're not just selling encyclopedias here”, as one of the men on this trip announced.  They interacted with the souls around them with respect, yet with perhaps a little less fear of running people off than we are accustomed to in the West, and as a result, more souls were baptized into Christ — six during the time Ian was there, as well as the renewed commitment of a sister who had drifted away from the Lord — a spiritual return that resulted in even more Bible studies with the souls she knew.  

Several times during Ian’s presentation, there were moments when he was obviously moved by what he had witnessed, which in turn moved us. He was deeply grateful both to those in Kenya who had, for example, worked all day to put a meal on the table for him, as well as those at home in Pensacola who had contributed the means that allowed him to be a part of such a fulfilling quest. 

Can you imagine what it would feel like to watch precious lives touched and transformed one by one before your eyes — there’s just no short way to explain everything that just happened. You had to be there. When you’ve poured yourself into such an overwhelming pursuit that was composed of so many moments that filled your senses and then your heart, any attempt to describe it always feels somehow cursory and superficial, even still, Ian did a great job, and I hope that others reading this may be inspired to follow his example in taking this leap of faith.  

East Hill church of Christ
2078 East Nine Mile Road
Pensacola, FL 32514
(850) 479-2130