Last week, I participated in my 33rd year as one of the Tulsa State Fair chaplains. All the chaplains are volunteers. We don’t get paid; many take time out of their jobs to serve in this capacity.
I look forward to this type of ministry. I sometimes find myself stuck every day going to a “Christian” building, working with Christian people and teaching the Bible to Christian people. I often feel I work, live and play inside a Christian bubble. Serving at the state fair gets me out of that bubble. Foul language surrounds me as I try to help someone who has had too much to drink. I minister to a young couple while sitting with them inside a beer tent. I get to be Jesus to the world.
The No. 1 question I get asked about this ministry is “What does a state fair chaplain do?” The easy answer is “Just about everything.” Let me walk you through a typical day. We usually have six to eight chaplains working at all times. The Tulsa State Fair provides us a trailer that we share with the Lost Children area.
9:30 a.m.—The chaplains gather together. We pray and go over our morning assignment.
10 a.m.—We begin before the rides or exhibits open. Some of the chaplains will take the Made in Oklahoma building; a set will go to the livestock barn; another set will take the midway; and others will take the Expo building. We walk up to every worker, introduce ourselves and ask, “Where are you from?” “How long have you been working with the company?”—beginning a dialogue that we build on throughout the day. Before we leave, we want them to know our sole reason for us being at the fair is that we are here to serve.
10:30 a.m.—As some are setting up rides, others are preparing their displays, and food vendors are turning on the stoves and deep fryers. (Everything at the state fair is deep-fried: tacos, Oreos, ice cream, meatballs and anything that will fit into a fryer appears on the menu.) We are now asking all these workers if we can pray for them and their booth or ride, and whether they have anything else we can pray for them about. What has surprised me so many times is that men and women covered in tattoos who have lived a hard life on the road will open up and ask us to pray for them. Some have children they haven’t seen in years. Some might have a mother or other family member who needs prayer, but in every case, we are here to serve.
11 a.m.—The rides and booths are open, and people are gathering around our newfound friends. They can’t talk to us, but many times I hear, “Hey, chaplain!” I look over, and the lady who is managing the Fun House is waving at us. She knows we are here to serve.
11:15 a.m.—One of the workers tells us that they have run out of some personal items. They need a pair of socks and some toiletries, and they know we have a trailer stocked with all kinds of things. They tell us they get a break in 15 minutes, and we tell them we will be waiting for them. They come to the chaplain’s trailer and pick up whatever they need, but they don’t leave in a hurry. They sit down, and often tears come running down their face as they share their story. Doors open for us to share the love of Christ, and they will leave the trailer different than when they came in. This happens because we are here to serve.
Noon—One of the vendors is running a both by himself; he needs to go to the bathroom and get something to eat. He can’t leave his booth unattended. We offer to protect his booth while he takes care of his needs. He is grateful that we are here to serve.
1 p.m.—It starts raining, and the midway workers are standing in the rain. They can’t leave their rides. Our trailer is stocked with ponchos. Walking in the torrential downpour, the chaplains deliver ponchos to every worker who needs one. We are soaking wet, and our shoes are squeaking as we walk around, but we know we are here to serve.
1:30 p.m.—One of the ladies who has been traveling with the rides for a month has some female issues and needs medical attention. Calling some doctor friends, we get her into a women’s clinic to receive treatment at no cost. God used this woman to remind us we are here to serve.
2:30 p.m.—A single father has a heart attack in the petting zoo area and dies. With him is his 13-year-old daughter who is visiting from another state. My wife and I take her and follow the ambulance to the hospital; we call her mom and arrange for her needs to be met, sitting with her at the hospital until late in the night. The first group of chaplains leaves the fair at 5 p.m., but another team comes in to take over and continues to serve until the state fair closes for the night. We do all this because we are here to serve.
The next day, it starts all over again, until a million-plus people have passed through our doors. We never know what is going to happen or how will be needed, but we stand ready to “through love serve one another” (Gal. 5:13b, ESV).