It’s that time of year! While most people anticipate Christmases or birthdays, I anticipate the State Fair coming to town.
Growing up, nothing excited a young boy more than a day at the State Fair. I can still remember the first time I ever stepped onto a midway. With the neon lights flashing and rides whirling above my head, I felt a little like Alice in Wonderland. Then came the decision of how to spend the $5 my parents gave me (back then, $5 would go a long way). The choices were mind-boggling. Should I get a giant turkey leg, corn on the cob, cotton candy, caramel apple or saltwater taffy? But all of those came in second to the funnel cakes. Mix in the games and amusement rides, and you have as perfect a day as a young boy could imagine.
Growing up, we didn’t have video games, television or much of anything else to stimulate the senses. (Well, we did have hogs that could overpower the senses, but I’d rather not go there.) So going to the State Fair was about as great an overload as you could get.
This week, I will celebrate my 27th year serving as one of the chaplains for those who work and attend the Tulsa State Fair. I still get excited about the State Fair, but for a far different reason than all those years ago. I get to do Jesus’ ministry, becoming His hands and feet among a group of people so ignored by the world.
What do we do as State Fair chaplains? It would be easier to tell you what we don’t do. We listen to the carnival workers (carnies) tell us about their families. One man was working in a booth, and his wife was in a hospital 705 miles away having a baby. If you leave your booth, you forfeit your pay. Seeing his plight, we got both husband and wife cell phones, and they were able to be together by telephone as their first child was born.
I have performed several weddings. One happened when two carnies who had been living in sin for a number of years (at least that’s how they described it), but had recently come to know the Lord, wanted me to marry them because I was the only minister they knew. Each morning for a week, we had premarital counseling. And after the midway closed down on a Friday night, all their carny friends gathered for a God-honoring wedding.
Every once in a while, though, I do get taken. I met a woman one night who worked at the basketball hoops, where for a dollar, you could win a giant teddy bear if you made a basket. During our conversation, she confided, “Today’s my birthday.” She grew up in foster homes and institutions and never had a birthday party. Moved by her story, I put the wheels in motion for the biggest birthday party anyone had ever seen. When the games closed that night, out came the birthday cakes, the party favors and a few small gifts. Our thoughtfulness moved the surprised birthday girl to tears.
Later, when I told another chaplain about this event, he laughed and laughed. The woman had conned other chaplains with the same story. In fact, she’d already received three birthday celebrations that week. Hey, don’t we all enjoy a good birthday party?
One of these days I need to write about all the other ministry that takes place at the State Fair. But for now, I want to challenge you to do three things when you attend:
• Treat the carnies with respect. They might look different from you, dress differently than you and live a lifestyle completely different from yours, but never forget: they matter to Jesus. If they matter to Him, they should matter to us. When the Bible says, “For God so loved the world” (John 3:16a), it includes those who give you a dart to throw at balloons.
• Speak a blessing over them. These people hear so many negative words from the general public that they are taken aback when you speak words of truth and life. Just say something like, “May the Lord bless you and keep you,” with a smile and loving tone.
• If you get a chance, ask about their families and where they are from. Then offer to say a prayer for them.
In the midst of the sights, sounds and smells of the Fair, don’t forget that these people who matter to God might get more from you than you do from them. Doing Jesus’ ministry is like that. It’s only Fair.