I first walked through the doors at South Main 29 years ago this fall. 18 years old, just a few weeks into my freshman year at Rice, I walked up to the third floor of the Loessner building, where the church offices are now - then education space: painted concrete block walls, tile floors - and into Toni Richerson's Sunday freshman-sophomore Sunday School class.
I was plenty naÔve then, and this is one sign: I plugged into another church during my Rice years. But South Main's presence in college ministry in Houston ensured that folks like Toni and Betty Moss and others were frequent encouragers along the way. And South Main's support of Texas Baptist Student Ministry was instrumental in my working for a summer at an inner-city mission in Savannah, Georgia and another summer serving on a mission team in central Asia.
After graduating and spending a year teaching English at a medical school in Russia, I returned to Houston to start medical school down the street at Baylor. It won't surprise you that Houston felt different. But mostly, I?m sure - I had changed. And somewhere in the midst of Bill Turner's probing and thoughtful sermons, the invitation to ?come as you are?, and South Main's meaningful commitment to mission and ministry, I finally found my way to South Main as my church home.
Very soon after, Thomas Coker came up to me on Colquitt Street - and despite my crazy med school schedule, he found ways to include me. I played one Sunday, and John McCoy came up to me with a big smile and a hug too. Toni was right there as well - inviting me to teach college Sunday School, which I figured out later meant something more like, ?why don't you let me mentor you and help you become a better teacher?? Ray and Jane Verm created spaces for meals and conversations and time away at their home out in Sealy. There were mission trips to the valley, and South Main was there, partnering and supporting and sending.
During my third year of medical school, one of my college roommates introduced me to Melissa, and before I knew it, she was moving to Houston (no pressure there!), and she became a part of the South Main family too. We were married here by Bill Turner in June of 1999.
We moved away for a few years while I was completing residency training and Melissa did her Master's in choral conducting at the University of Washington in Seattle. We seriously considered staying in the Northwest, but Baylor's offer to join the faculty here proved too good to turn down.
Just before moving back, I was in town looking for a place to live. It happened to be Holy Week, and over in the courtyard by the Westmoreland chapel, just after the Maundy Thursday service had concluded, Toni (her again!) introduced me to this energetic guy named Steve Wells.
Audrey was born the day before residency ended, and so we came back as new parents. Changed, yet again. But South Main's welcome hadn't changed.
As all who have come here with children know, there is nothing quite like South Main's nursery and children's ministry. I?m pretty sure Ms. Ramona was personally responsible for activating some sort of ?you?re going to turn out alright? gene in both of our daughters, Audrey and Ava. And Susan Moore was there to hold our hand when our no-longer-infants needed to move out of the nursery and into many other loving hands.
One little example: I could often make it to church on Wednesday nights - it helped I had teaching (and no clinic) that afternoon - and when Audrey, and then Ava, were little, as I came into the fellowship hall, they would come running across to me, and I would scoop them up in my arms for a hug. I had no sense at all that this moment was more than just something between us until Dorothy Daniels came up to me one day and said, ?I just love the way you greet your daughters.? More encouragement. And a reminder of grace in such a busy season of life.
I won't even try to recount all of the ways you all have loved on our kids. You have, in abundance, and we are forever grateful.
It also seems impossible to say what could be said about the music here, and to get to be a part of making some of it along the way. We will have to let it speak for itself - which it does, gloriously, in this place.
Most of you know that in the fall of 2009, I took a job at Cornell's newly developing medical school in Doha, Qatar. It was a three-year commitment?which extended to eight. Like family, you gave us your blessing, and you took us in whenever we could be here. When the time came, Audrey and Ava both chose to be baptized here. And Steve Wells skyped with each of them as we anticipated those moments.
(And here I want to give a big shout out to David Johnson and the entire broadcast ministry, who made it possible to join you virtually from half way around the world. Thank you!)
Returning to Houston this past fall, our plan was to be here. Instead, the timeline changed and we had some waiting to do. And you have been there to check on us, pray for us, and encourage us. And can I say some more about the staff again? For the past 9 months, Cecil (and sometimes Henry) have happily greeted me and facilitated my practicing here at the church while our things, including my piano, have remained packed and in storage.
So here we are: In one of those left turns it's hard to understand in the moment, I was invited to help with another newly developing medical school in Fort Worth, this time a partnership between TCU and the University of North Texas Health Science Center. I started in January, and when the girls finish school in June, we plan to move to our new home there. We aren't sure what it all means, but we are trusting that God has opened this door and that we will be good stewards of the blessings to come.
As we go, I think what I most what to say to you through these stories is this: You are our family. And this place is as much home to me as any place I have ever known. You have invited, included, listened, and given me - and us - lots of room to grow. You have loved us with a love that surpasses understanding.
We hope you will let us continue to be your family in Fort Worth, and we look forward to your visits, as well as ours to Houston. And given our history, we cannot imagine ever being very long away from you and this place.