From convert to minister: Stafford uses past life to teach God’s power
Stafford, 57, sports white hair and a short, white beard, both of which highlight his kind, sparkling eyes. He looks a lot like country music singer Kenny Rogers, the early 1990s version, pre-plastic surgery.
That was about the time, Stafford said, he and his wife, Cynthia, 51, were divorcing after five years of marriage. Until, that is, he realized he wasn’t happy about the end of his second marriage or his partying lifestyle. And neither was God. “It was a perfectly good morning,” he said of that sunny day in 1991, “just me driving along in my pickup, going to pick up a check for some landscaping work I’d done.”
The next moment, without knowing exactly why, he turned right, pulled off the road and cut the engine. He didn’t know much about God, admittedly, but Stafford was certain God was saying something to him. Not speaking necessarily, but communicating nonetheless.
“There was no big, baritone voice,” Stafford said. “It was just that in one moment to the next, I had a full and complete knowledge that everything I had done to that point was wrong and I had to make it right.”
He called Cynthia at work. She secretly thought her soon-to-be ex-husband was drunk, what with all this sudden talk about stopping the divorce, praying about their lives and attending church somewhere — something they had never done. But she agreed to talk about it.
“We had never prayed together, never talked about God even,” she said. “I had no idea where this was coming from.”
Still, she sensed hope in her husband’s once gruff voice, and she heard an urgency to try and salvage their unhappy marriage. They began talking, then went for counseling. A few Sundays later, the couple and their 5-year-old son, Larry Jr., drove to the Cordova Church of Christ, a little over a mile from their home.
The Staffords had noticed the church when it was built a few years before. They had seen its colorful signs and watched children play inside the gate.
‘THE CHURCH BECAME OUR LIFE’
The Cordova church had not experienced anything quite like Larry Stafford before. Here was a visitor who quietly slipped in one Sunday, then announced the next that he wanted to know why the Lord’s Supper was so important that it needed to be eaten weekly.
He asked questions, observed, reasoned and kept coming back from more. Here was a man so hungry to be fed, so eager to become involved, that he consumed church life as if it were his last meal. That’s not to say the Staffords — or some of the church members — weren’t cautious. Conspicuous, too, Cynthia Stafford remembered.
“I wore short dresses, too short,” she said. “But I didn’t know any better. The longer we went, the longer my dresses got, but no one ever made me feel badly for that. There was that much love for us, even then.”
Having never been part of a church family, Larry Staffford kept one hand on his wallet, he said, when folks tried to hug him. Yet in spite of himself, he was increasingly drawn in.
Before long, he was racing to Wednesday night Bible classes after work in his dirt-stained clothes, smelling like cut grass and manure fertilizer.smelling like cut grass and manure fertilizer. Showering, he said, might have made him late.
“He was pretty rough around the edges,” said Sandy Donald, a member at Cordova. “He didn’t talk like a lot of us were used to hearing men at church talk. He had long hair. But he had the most genuine heart.”
After a few months, he and Cynthia were baptized.
The family began going to every possible church activity, even cleaning the building together.
“The church became our life,” Larry Stafford said. “Coming from our backgrounds — the destructive party life — and then finding God, we felt very strongly called to help other people.”
Though he wasn’t sure he knew enough to teach others, Larry Stafford said he couldn’t stop himself from trying. “I felt this overflow of grace and acceptance that had to come out. I had to share it.”
Larry and Cynthia began studying the Bible with anyone they could persuade to sit down with them for a lunch break, a cup of coffee or an evening at home. Because of their personal experience, they could relate to anyone. People felt safe with the Staffords.
“I can’t tell you how many people have said, ‘My problems are huge, there’s no help for me, no love,’” Larry Stafford said. “And we say to them, ‘We’ve been there. Let us help you get to where we are now.’”
He baptized so many new members — up to 20 a year and as many as six in one day — that the congregation never suffered a decline, even during a yearlong search for a pulpit minister.
And he got a new nickname in the process, one he could repeat in polite company.
Baptizing Larry, they call him.
SOMETHING HAD TO GIVE
Larry Stafford longed to spend his days planting spiritual seeds, not the other kind. A few years passed, and he found himself pushing back landscaping appointments so he could schedule Bible studies. He postponed customer consultations to follow up with those who had visited his congregation the previous Sunday.
Something had to give, he reasoned.
So in January 1998, Larry made — and actually kept — an appointment with the Cordova elders, asking to join the church staff. If they’d allow him to reach out to the community, he’d earn back his salary by adding new members, he said.
Eight years later, looking out over the church’s playground he helped design, past the pecan tree groves and neatly manicured grass, Larry remembers the elders’ positive response.
And the outreach and involvement minister can’t help but smile.
“Because of where I’ve been, I feel like I’m in a good place to help this church go where God wants us to be,” he said. “We’ve got 70,000 people living around here who need us. I can teach anyone who wants to learn how to approach them, because I was one of those neighbors.”
To prove that point, the Staffords and other Cordova members spent hours praying recently over a list of addresses — thousands of them. They asked God to bring them the families who lived around their building.
One recent Sunday morning, after he read a list of announcements and prayer concerns, Larry placed his hands on each side of the pulpit, leaned forward and looked out over the auditorium.
“If you’re a visitor, and you’re here today, it’s no accident,” he said. “We knew you would be here, because we prayed for you to come.”
Baptizing Larry, they call him.