Westside Church of Christ in Warner Robins, Georgia
Sharon and Arlene Driedger are adventurers. World travelers, really. It runs in the family. On one little adventure, they, along with their friend, Emma, drove from Pennsylvania to Georgia to spend some time with Christians that included a Bible study at the home of John and Nelda Lawrence. While there, the three adventurers happened to mention they needed to stop by the store later to get food for breakfast, but before they knew it, John was pulling eggs, cheese, bread, and sausage out of the fridge for them to take home.
When they got in the car, food in tow, and the door slammed shut, Emma proclaimed, “Well, WE were just southerned!”. Ha! I guess that’s ONE way to put it. It's not that the South has the market cornered on kindness to strangers and generosity to fellow believers, but let’s just admit something here: there’s a reason, we’ve all heard of “Southern Hospitality”--- for, generally speaking, many Christians from The South are exceptionally thoughtful. This breakfast to go was only the beginning. Sharon told me ”... they have given me so many things that I need. If they see something that they think you could use, they buy it and give it to you. This happened a few times. For example on Wednesday nights I used to forget to bring my pen and would need to borrow one of John’s. The next week, there would be a pack of pens for me to take home sitting in my spot.” See what I mean.
Of course, Southerners can be as sharp as they are thoughtful. Late one Saturday night, Sharon was hit by a drunk driver after leaving the Lawrence’s, and when they came to her rescue, they showed up with not one, but two vehicles--- (Good thinking!) --- one for them to drive home, and another that Sharon could borrow for the next two months that it took her to get a new car.
Where'd this relationship start? Here’s a little history: When Sharon was hired after college for her first job as a dietician, she moved to Macon, Georgia. All she knew was there were some churches in the area, so there’d be brothers and sisters in Christ nearby, but she’d never met a one. Not long after she moved, the pandemic hit and for a while the congregation did not meet. The Lawrences noticed both Sharon and another single member, Michael, who seemed exceptionally isolated, living many miles from their relatives, so they decided to take both Sharon and Michael in for the whole day every Sunday, (and beyond Sunday, as needed), as if they were their own children.
In Matthew 12:48-50, Jesus introduces us to this beautiful benefit of being one of His followers when He extends His hand toward His disciples and says, ‘Behold: My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is My brother, and sister, and mother.’” Our spiritual family can be as bonded, and in some cases even more bonded than physical family. Case in point: Jesus had siblings (Matt. 12:55-56), but it was the disciple whom He loved to whom he entrusted the physical and emotional care of His beloved mother, Mary (Jn. 19:26-27).
Here's the thing. When the Lawrences see a new person who appears to be looking for orientation in their new church setting, they realize in some cases (and we never know which) if they aren't drawn in like family, they may fall away. John Lawrence pointed out to me a key reality on this point: that it takes two parties agreeing for such a relationship to happen. First, of course, is that an invitation must be offered, but in addition, such an invitation must also be accepted. Voluntary interdependence is part of God’s plan for our bonding. It’s often not that one party or another can’t take care of themselves, but rather we voluntarily depend on each other, so that both the giver and the receiver can benefit.
So here’s my favorite part of how the Lawrences ensure the recipients of their parental-style love also get the maximum benefit. I love what I’m about to share because it is also my favorite style of receiving hospitality --- the kind I grew up with when my mother would make her spiritual children (those she “mothered”) feel like family. It’s a style of hospitality that makes me feel like maybe I was not as exhausting to have around as a guest, than I would have been had my hosts knocked themselves out, waiting on me hand and foot. So here’s the thing: rather than being “served” like a celebrity, the Lawrences tell their “children in the Lord” this: “Our home is your home”. If an “adopted child” wants something, they can fend for themselves. They need only ask for something if they don’t see it. Mealtime is a family effort, setting the table, chopping food, and so on. The Lawrences help others with projects at other people’s homes, but because John has also shown young men how he does maintenance projects around his own home, those young men, like good sons, help out at Lawrence's place from time to time. This is as good for those young men, as it is for the Lawrences because they are allowing them to also learn to be the “givers”.
What have been some of the rewards of these warm relationships as a result of the closeness they’ve created? First, are the deep spiritual discussions, and opportunities for advice to be exchanged. The Lawrences enjoy hearing through their house guests, about Christians in far away places and what those Christians are doing to the glory of God, and thus feel more connected to those believers in those other places.
Also, Nelda sees these relationships as opportunities to prepare young women to help their future husbands become qualified to serve effectively as deacons or elders, and to be more skilled at working alongside their husbands in showing hospitality, and so on. Over time, John and Nelda have seen that very thing come to fruition, as they’ve watched "their children” remain faithful and continue to grow as Christians.
Another reward of these warm relationships is, of course, the fun and lively discussions that often happen around the dinner table, wherein the younger generation gets the inside scoop on what really happened in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s in culture, history, politics, music, and the Lawrence's own vast travels and adventure stories (as seen in the snapshots that cover an entire wall). In exchange, the Lawrences are kept abreast of the younger generation’s interesting vernacular, for example, such words as “sketch” (As in, are you okay with going to H & H Soul Food restaurant? The neighborhood is cool, but it's also going to be just a little “sketch”). The Lawrences feel that the benefit their “adopted children” receive is outweighed by the benefit they themselves receive by way of encouragement.
What do the Lawrences hope will be the long term result of opening their hearts and homes to these young souls? Their greatest hope, they said, was that each soul they have tended to will be strong until the end, not wavering or falling away, and that they will learn to do for others the kinds of things John and Nelda have done for them. They hope they will take on leadership roles as they grow older, that they raise faithful children and be examples to others. And since the Lawrences don’t presently need repayment, they encourage the "pay-it-forward" principle, that is, that those they’ve helped will reach out to other young people as they grow older. John and Nelda have been “adopting” young single Christians long enough that they’ve gone to many of the weddings of these young people, and now there’s a new generation that’s come along that call them Aunt Nell and Uncle John.
When I asked Sharon about how her own life had been touched by this relationship, among other things she said, “They are lights. Their self-sacrificial service to others has shown Christ to the world. My coworkers know I’m completely new to the area. It astounds them when they hear about all that the Lawrences do and have done for me [“By this all people will know that you are My disciples: if you have love for one another.” Jn. 13:35 cd] . My coworkers are used to good people but when they hear about the Lawrences and what they do, they are amazed at how much of the extra mile they go. I had an opportunity to discuss the Bible with my one coworker. She asked if I knew of a book that gave an overview of the Bible, to which I asked the Lawrences. The Lawrences proceeded to purchase a book for her. This gift to her from a couple who had never met her before made quite an impact on her.”
Sharon also noted something that I think is at the heart of this story: Both Nelda and John are serious Bible students. That’s how this kind of selflessness is developed. For example, before John retired, he’d wake up at 4am every morning before work, because, Sharon told me, “...it was the best time for him to have some quiet time to spend several hours studying God’s word. He developed the curriculum for a 3-year study on an overview of each book of the Bible and our church has been using this curriculum for the past year.”
We met the Lawrences ourselves when we came through town to visit Sharon (whom we had met a few years back when she came through Oregon a couple times and had sat by our backyard fire, talking deeply with us late into the night). Sharon called the Lawrences to see if they could house us for a few days, since we could not plug in our Airstream at her apartment. As fellow travelers, we have a lot in common and hope to meet up on some of our travels in the future. We were thankful for how warmly they received both us, and even our furry, white beast into their home. In fact, we got the clear impression our cat, Bella, wanted to move in. The Lawrences said that was fine with them (which surprised me, given the trail of white fur she often leaves behind). So I’ll end this little story by saying, “I, Cindy Dunagan, being of relatively sound mind, do hereby, upon any fatal crash of our van (aka “The Fresh Prince”), do hereby bequeath Bella the Wonder Cat, should she survive us, to John and Nelda Lawrence. AKA "Auntie Nelda & Uncle John."
Westside church of Christ
158 Willow Ave
Warner Robins, GA 31093