A conversation with Charlie Middlebrook
“Our regular ministries are done in the context of the chaos of the inner city where people feel a sense of desperation and where unemployment and displacement are the norm,” said Charlie Middlebrook, Impact Houston minister/elder.
Middlebrook and two other preachers, Ron Sellers and Doug Williams, started Impact Houston in 1987, with a goal of reaching out to the poor, racially diverse heart of the city.
November 1, 2005
When HurricaneKatrina — and later, its younger sister, Hurricane Rita — forced hundreds ofthousands from their homes, countless churches rushed to help. But few were asprepared to serve the influx of evacuees as the Impact Houston congregation in Texas.
“Our regularministries are done in the context of the chaos of the inner city where peoplefeel a sense of desperation and where unemployment and displacement are thenorm,” said Charlie Middlebrook, Impact Houston minister/elder.
Middlebrook and twoother preachers, Ron Sellers and Doug Williams, started Impact Houston in 1987,with a goal of reaching out to the poor, racially diverse heart of the city.
The first service —on the second Sunday of 1987 — came after a core group of about 20 people spentsix months planning and praying about planting the church.
Middlebrook, an urbanmissions consultant to Abilene Christian University,Abilene, Texas,since 1992, has written three books and served as a mediator in hundreds of Houston court cases.
He describes himselfas a “very bad but highly enthusiastic Galvestonsurf fisherman.”
He and Mollie, hiswife of 35 years, have a daughter, Jenny McLeod; two sons, Daniel and Sam; andseven grandchildren.
Impact Houston’s work withKatrina victims drew national attention, including a front-page mention in theWall Street Journal. What role did Impact Houston play after Katrina?
Much of the attentionduring that time was focused on Impact, but that was unfortunate in that wewere simply among the many who rallied to meet the need created when hundredsof thousands of displaced people came to our city. In fact, many of the peoplewho volunteered at our campus during that time were members of other churchesof Christ and even other denominations. … We served approximately 2,500refugees. We are maintaining a good relationship with many whom we helped tofind employment and places to live.
After all thesepeople evacuated to Houstonafter Katrina, they were forced to leave again by Rita. How did that affectImpact Houston?
Many, many members ofthe church, including some of our staff who had small children and elderlypeople in their families, evacuated Houstonas Rita approached. Others of us stayed in our homes. Still others stayed atour main building. Those who were already refugees from New Orleans also fled. A large part of the“effect” of the entire sequence was psychological.
We all saw, and manyexperienced, the astonishing gridlock on our freeways. Rich and poor alike weretrapped in hopeless traffic jams. One of our families traveled just over 100miles in 36 hours in 100-degree heat. Their puppy died on the journey. Andtheirs wasn’t an unusual story. We all have a greater sense of vulnerabilitythat won’t soon leave. The good news is feeling vulnerable will make us moreaware of our complete dependence on God.
Some have talkedabout “compassion fatigue” in the wake of Katrina and Rita. Do you ever dealwith that, and how do you overcome it?
It is a danger.People do get weary. This is surely part of what Isaiah was talking about whenhe said even the very strongest sometimes “fall exhausted.”
After dealing withmostly other people’s crises for almost a month, often intensely and for 12 to14 hours per day, the excitement and adrenaline flow begin to ebb. I have theamazing good fortune of being surrounded by people who aren’t driven by emotionor adrenaline who just never stop. They do refuel, I think, by “waiting on theLord.” I’m sure they have wonderful devotional lives and that they occasionallygo away to quiet places where they are renewed.
Most of them arehumble people whose names are never spoken in public, but who are heroicexamples of faithfulness over time.
What lessons do youthink the hurricanes and Christians’ response teach us about how to servepeople even when there’s not a disaster?
If we ever neededproof that it is more blessed to give than to receive, we’ve seen it in theevents of the past month in Houston.To the last person, those whom I’ve seen exhausted from serving others say overand over again how greatly blessed they are to be able to help, truly help,someone else. Some of the lessons life teaches us have to be practicedintentionally. I believe that about this experience. Maybe it will teach us thevalue of humble service.
It would be wonderfulif we would learn the lesson so well and practice it so fully that others wouldbegin to say of churches of Christ, “They’re the people who love others, thoseto whom you go when you’re in trouble.”
Changing subjects,you wrote a book with 92-year-old Texas Dabney titled Good Morning Charlie,This is Texas. How did that come about?
Texas was 91 when I met her. When she died at 92 she had becomeone of my most cherished friends. The book is a reproduction of daily telephonecalls she made to me during the last year of her life. They are remarkablemessages because she had a clear mind, a big heart and an inimitable way ofexpressing herself, and she knew she was dying. Some days she’d be joyous andothers she’d be very sad. But she was always gracious. I’d like to take fullcredit for the book, but the truth is that the principle author is TexasDabney. You can order the book online on our website, Impacthouston.org. Allthe proceeds go to Impact.
For a number of yearsyou have celebrated your birthday by riding your bicycle 380 miles from Houston to Abilene.What’s the story there?
I started making theride when I was 40, as a celebration. When I was 50, a group of friends joinedme and we did it as a fundraiser. Now, 11 years later, I’m joined by 40 to 50others and a host of support people. It takes us 31?2 days. This year’s ridewas one of the best. The high temperatures, even though it was August, were inthe 80s. And we raised over $100,000 for the Impact Youth Development Center,our world-class after-school program for urban children.
How did you become aChristian, and when?
I became a Christianat age 17 in my hometown, Anson, Texas. I was profoundlyinfluenced by Curtis Ramey, a former attorney and judge in Alabama,who was the local church of Christ preacher. Hewas an emotional man who was unashamed of his love for Christ. I was one of many teenagers who becameChristians under his tutelage.
How do you feel aboutthe church today? Optimistic? Pessimistic?
Thank you for askinghow I feel about the church today. It’s a question I take very seriously. Thereis so much about which I feel optimistic. We have largely escaped the legalismthat I think defined us for a very long time.
Our congregations arefilled with young adult Christians who are focused on the great mysteries ofour faith — love, hope, grace, truth, etc. In so many important ways I feellike I’m being led by people 30 years younger than me.
And when there is acrisis like the current one, the church responds beautifully. These thingsinspire me.
What concerns do youhave?
One is that we,including (maybe especially) the young adults just mentioned, are often fullparticipants in today’s declining secular culture. It’s difficult to attainbalance between the legalism I’ve already mentioned, with its clearly definedrules, and an emphasis on grace that seems to have no rules. (I find comfort indealing with this issue in knowing that the Apostle Paul, who spoke as muchabout grace as any other subject, was quick to say that grace is not a licenseto sin.)
A second, relatedconcern I have is that we are becoming less and less biblically literate. I seeit, or think I do, in much contemporary preaching. … Taking a phrase from aBible text and preaching a simple sermon that entertains … is easy andpopular. But I’m not sure it will prove adequate in the long term in maturingChristians.