I have just finished my 16th year as a chaplain at the Tulsa State Fair. There is just something about the State Fair and me. Using some self-analysis, I have tried to figure out exactly what it is. It may be in my blood. My grandmother was a “carny.” The word “carny” (plural, “carnies”) came about in the 1930s to describe one who works at a carnival or circus. Maybe I love the State Fair because as a 4-H lad, I used to show prize-winning potatoes at the fair in Missouri. Maybe it is the food, the sound and the mass of people laughing and having fun-an annual ritual for young and old alike.
Whatever the reason, I love being involved in the lives of these carnies and of those who attend the State Fair. One of these days, I would like to write a book about my experiences as a “minister to the carnies.” I have performed a carny wedding on the midway at the Old Time Photography booth. I have walked with carnies through the death of a loved one and the birth of their first child. When it comes down to it, we all have the same needs, wants and desires. Some of us have been placed in circumstances that fulfill those areas without much difficulty, and others . . . need someone to come alongside and help bridge the gap.
The people who travel with the carnivals and state fairs have become a part of my extended family. The one I have known the best and longest is “Gatorman.” This guy travels around in a trailer with a 12-foot alligator that is 50 years old. The alligator was 50 years old when I met him 16 years ago, he is 50 years old today and he will be 50 years old when he returns next year. Little children pay Gatorman $1 to climb some steps and look through a metal fence. About three feet below them lies the alligator. Of course, some of the kids think the alligator is either dead or artificial, so Gatorman gets a shovel and throws some water on its snout. The alligator opens its mouth wide, causing the kids to run back down the steps in fear.
Every year, as Gatorman rolls into town, I make my way out to see him. As I approach, the smile breaks across his face. I am greeted with a hug, and we begin to inquire about how we have been doing since we last saw each other. This year, he told me, “I have been here two days, and you haven’t come to see me. I thought something had happened to you!”
I have prayed with him, cried with him, given him a Bible and a blanket to keep him warm on a cold fair night. We have talked about family, friends, our health and a lot about God. This year, Gatorman invited me to come and see him in Nachadoges, Texas, where he and the alligator spend their winters.
I belong to many families. I’m blessed with my biological family, which includes my wife, two sons, one daughter-in-love, aunts, uncles and cousins. The group of wonderful people I work with are a part of my family, too. Each morning before we begin our workday, we take a few minutes and share personal prayer requests. I also have my church family who encourages me, prays for me and holds me accountable. I have the thousands of students I’ve taken to the mission field through the years-my Awe Star family.
Finally, I have my mission family from the years I have spent working in many different countries. This family extends from Mimo and Gabby and their three children in Guadalajara, Mexico all the way to Christian and Dori in Budapest, Hungary. If any of these family members heard today that I was coming to see them, I would have a place to stay and a meal on the table, all prepared with love and joy.
No matter where I go or what I am doing, I am surrounded by one family or another. Each one is unique; each one has its own challenges and benefits. Most of all, each one is a place where I am affirmed as an individual who provides worth and value to the group. Families validate our existence. Families let us know we’re . . . important.
Maybe that is why when God sent His only Son, He sent Him to be a part of a family so that one day, whether we are a carny, an employee, or someone who lives on the other side of this planet, we can become a part of . . . His family.