Recently, I received notice after 30-plus years that the State Fair of Tulsa has discontinued its chaplaincy ministry. Those of you who have been longtime readers of mine know that at least once a year, I write about my journey as a minister to those who serve the transient world of the midway.
I became interested in this work when Tom Branch invited me to meet and explore how we could minister to those who travel from city to city. While they stopped for a moment in our town, couldn’t we show them the love of Christ? For 32 years, I walked the midways and buildings of the Tulsa State Fair, memorizing names, asking where the workers came from and learning about their families. The more I listened, the more I fell in love with them.
I had a head start in this because my grandmother worked in carnivals. She traveled up and down the state of California until her husband got appendicitis and died at a young age, leaving her with a young child. She moved to Missouri, where she met my grandfather, remarried and had my mom. I guess this carny blood travels through mine.
As I sit today and reflect on the last 32 years, I first want to thank The Tulsa State Fair Board for the support and opportunity you have given us. You have been kind and encouraging all these years, and we are grateful. You gave us a trailer in a prime location. Yes, our first office was also the nursing mothers’ room, but you quickly moved us up. The trailer you provided allowed us to pass out thousands of necessities, not only to those who were working but also to those who were visiting our fair.
We heard over and over that no one came close to taking care of the workers like the Tulsa State Fair did. Many of them couldn’t wait to come back, so they could update us about their lives. We saw pure joy on their faces when someone remembered their name.
I have so many memories: The young man who was working in his booth while his wife was back in Wisconsin having their first child. We got him a cell phone and arranged for his wife to have one, so he could encourage her during the labor process—and hear his daughter’s first cries. The joy on his face was enough to propel us to continue to serve.
I also remember the weddings we did at the Tulsa State Fair on the midway. I remember when a young couple came and wanted to get married; they had been traveling for months. They didn’t have a pastor or church home, but they understood that God ordained marriage. We met every day for premarital counseling, and they did their homework.
On Friday night as the midway closed, she, dressed in a white wedding dress, and he, dressed in a suit—both provided by the Ole Time Photo Store—pledged their lives, one to another, surrounded by their friends. The joy on their faces made it all worthwhile.
I need to write a book one day of all the things I encountered over these 32 years, from the carnies teaching me how to beat their games to hearing a worker yell, “HEY CHAPLAIN, we just got the ride fixed. Do you want to be the first one to test it?” Of course I couldn’t resist.
You see, I am not upset about not having a trailer or wearing a shirt with “TULSA STATE FAIR CHAPLAIN” emblazed across the front. Kingdom work doesn’t come out of a trailer but out of the hearts that hold the name of Jesus. I have something that can’t be taken away from me: the relationships I have built over the years. These will go on even without a trailer or a chaplain’s shirt.
Many of you will attend a state fair this year. Keep your eyes open for a way to speak a word of encouragement into someone. Remind yourself that these people matter to God, and they should matter to you. Ask them, “What place do you call home? How long have you been on the road?”
As of today, I commission everyone who holds the name of Jesus Christ who walks on the Tulsa state fairgrounds or any other fairgrounds in any state: You are the chaplains, the missionaries, the ambassadors of the King of kings. Don’t just shop, serve. Don’t just ride, make a relationship. Don’t just walk, witness. Don’t leave without loving.
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’” (Matt. 25:40).