Thursday, June 20, 2013

Stones of Remembrance: the Mentor

A powerful Stone of Remembrance is created when somebody truly believes in you. I was 20 years old when I first experienced this, when the manager of the grocery store where I worked recommended me to head office as management material.

It was two years later, though, when I first met the man who would qualify as a true “mentor” in my life.

George Mercado believed in me, encouraged me, trusted me, and was an incredible Godly example to me.
Six years of working with George as a volunteer were the just the beginning; he remained an influential voice in my life long afterward. Here are just a few snapshots of the memories and the mentorship:
“Join with others in following my example, and take note of those who live according to the pattern that we gave you.” (Philippians 3:17)

“Even though you have ten thousand guardians (instructors, KJV) in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel.” (1 Corinthians 4:15)
George Mercado is an imposing American born in Puerto Rico but raised in New York City. After a stint with the LA Dodgers and the US Army during the Viet Nam years, he became a pastor in a Spanish-speaking church in New York. At age thirty-five, George felt God calling him to lay down his senior pastorate and become a youth pastor. Providentially, God led him to Burlington, where George became the youth pastor at my home church while I was away at my second year of college.

When I returned that summer, I offered to help out with the youth group, and George, after crushing several of my ribs with a bear hug, knighted me as a youth leader.

“I’ve been praying for workers in the harvest, and here you are!” George exclaimed with his trademark boisterous enthusiasm. “Hey, by any chance, do you play guitar?”

"Uh, yeah," I replied, taking a deep breath to test the structural integrity of my ribcage.
“I love it! You’re the worship leader!” George has never been described as a quiet, non-demonstrative type, and when he was excited, the whole neighborhood knew.

“Uh ... I don’t sing. I just play,” I said in sudden panic, as my worst fear in the world—singing in front of people—loomed menacingly in my dark imagination.

“You’re all I’ve got. No problem!” George had been drafted by the  Dodgers, and later the U.S. army; apparently I had just been drafted into singing publicly.

And we were off. A day or so later, we went out for burgers at (appropriately enough) “George’s Burgers,” and I watched in eager fascination as George wrote out his philosophy of ministry on a napkin, putting into words and strategy the things that had been stirring in my heart. I was hooked.
Pull back to a wide-angle shot, and you’d see George's infamous
“a pile for everything, and everything in a pile” desk/office.

And so began a six year journey of youth ministry and being mentored by George. It was a journey that often resembled the way Jesus mentored His disciples: you worked your butt off alongside George, and learned tons along the way.

And as the youth group grew from 12 to over 100 within the next three years, the team of youth leaders expanded as well.

Wherever possible, George would somehow take a potential problem/issue, and find a way to turn it around into an opportunity for growth, and not just the eye-for-an-eye justice we younger leaders thought was the obvious answer. “Invitation, not confrontation” is a phrase I’ve used to describe it. Jesus called it “winning your brother” (Matthew 18:15). You can sometimes control behavior (on the surface only) through confrontation, but invitation captures you at the heart level—it’s the Spirit’s work.

Youth leaders’ meetings were always spent in the following format: half the meeting was invested in praying for each other, and the other half was for youth ministry business. As was often the case, the whole meeting was spent praying for each other, and the “business” didn’t get done, but the leadership team seemed more effective for it.

During a youth retreat which was blessed with rain all weekend long (cabin fever, anyone?), George challenged everyone to a mud fight in a nearby field. As the “mud” fight intensified, an unmistakable odor began to manifest—seems this empty field had once been a horse paddock. Yes, this was indeed the “manure tour” of youth retreats.
There are a number of future pastors, church leaders,
& missionaries in this excrement-drenched photo.

The dawning realization of the mud-and-manure mixture didn’t slow anybody down. Our cabins were made pungent in the aftermath, and I don’t recall this particular camp ever allowing us back.

Prayer during a typical youth group meeting: George would prostrate himself on the floor. “I’m not super-spiritual,” he’d say. “I’m very proud and stiff-necked—this is necessary for me.”

A college friend from Winnipeg dropped in one time to visit the group, and heard George announce, as he lit a single candle in the middle of the room, that tonight would be a sharing time about what God was doing.
“What else will we be doing tonight?” my friend whispered as the group formed a big (70+ people) circle around the candle.

“Just watch,” I replied.

Two and a half hours later, George was forced to end the sharing time because parents were arriving to take their teenagers home. No games, no announcements, no music, no hype. Just two and a half hours of telling our God-stories and praying for each other.

Drop in on George at the church, and many times, you’d open his office door and think he wasn’t there until you saw his feet sticking out from under his desk. Face down in prayer again.

“You have to face-plant even when you’re by yourself?” I asked.

“I’m still way too proud,” he’d sheepishly admit, from somewhere amid the piles of books, boxes, and stacks of paper which seemed to grow like weeds in his office.
Wendy en route to winning the “ew, gross” award for this skit.

George loved it when people were honest about their struggles and doubts about their faith. He encouraged, and in some cases, even provoked people to get past the “Sunday School Answer Syndrome” and deal with the real questions. “Either we shake them up now, or university will do it later,” he’d say. “At least now, they have us as a support.”

George had an amazing gift for speaking life and encouragement into our lives, helping us discover our gifts and then encouraging us to begin using them. He was also very deliberate about outreach, but not in the way most people would assume.
“We don’t hold a single outreach event until they (the youth) have the vision for it. Otherwise, it’s just us doing it for them, and they won’t develop a Great Commission mindset.”
After building a discipleship foundation for over two years, we finally began doing monthly “outreach events.” After our first event, George led the whole group in a post-outreach evaluation. We were all, youth and leaders alike, bouncing off the walls with excitement at how well the event had gone.

George: “How did the events go? The band? The message?”

Us: “Awesome! It was totally awesome! Everything went great! The whole night was a total success!”

George: “Did anyone bring one of their unbelieving friends?”

Us: “Well, um… no.”

George: “Then was it really an outreach?”
“Feed the lions” was George’s code for: Never confront
someone on an empty stomach—yours or theirs.

As we continued outreaches—and people began bringing their friends—George developed a beautifully maddening habit of giving short messages to the gathered group, but refusing to actually share the Gospel directly. “If you want to know more about what I'm talking about, ask the person you came with.

It was brilliant. Not only were we all forced to participate in the process instead of relying on “the speaker,” but the stage was set for our interaction with our friends outside of the outreaches as well. Speaking about our faith in a relaxed, normal way became more natural.
My cabin group on a retreat (that's me on the right). George
always put the rowdies in my cabin. I have no idea why (haha).

Retreats were always some of the greatest memories for all of us involved in ministry with George. We typically had two per year—fall and spring—and the worship was always intense, no matter how primitive the sound system. This was also the era of the Overhead Projector. These retreats served as more “stones of remembrance” that people could point to as spiritual markers in their journey.

To this day, if you spend any time with former members of “Live Connection,” inevitably somebody finds some old retreat photos, and we laugh at how young and hopelessly 1980s we were.

More significantly, we remember the times when God moved, lives were changed, and how the impact of those wild and crazy weekends is still bearing fruit, over thirty years later.

George was the first person to pray with me over the phone. I’d called to ask him to pray about something on my behalf, and to my surprise, he immediately started praying. I’d assumed he would hang up and then pray later. (That’s what I would have done, unless I forgot ...)

I sat there in my parent’s kitchen, wondering what the proper prayer etiquette was when you were on the phone. Do you bow your head and close your eyes? Folding your hands was out of the question, unless dropping the phone on the floor was acceptable. If you didn’t close your eyes, where should you look? What if somebody walked through the kitchen and overheard me saying “yes, Lord” and wondered if I thought I was getting a phone call from the Almighty?
Our youth group’s vision/motto was: “The gospel of Jesus Christ to Burlington, Hamilton, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, North America, the World …”

After six years with George, in 1990, I was the first youth leader (but not the last) to leave the group to become a full-time youth pastor. George reminded the youth group, during our tearful last meeting with them, that my first pastorate was part of the fulfillment of Live Connection’s vision.

Two years after I began pastoring on the Left West Coast, it was my privilege to invite George to fly out to Victoria and be a guest speaker on one of our youth retreats. Our youth group had heard many, many stories about George, and to meet him in person and have him minister among us was a treat for everybody.

For Wendy and I, as my first pastorate was crumbling around my ears, having George visit was doubly encouraging.
Mmmm ... coffee! My favorite George-ism about
evangelism: “You gotta earn the right to be heard.”

As always, George was the “safe place” where we could honestly and deeply share what we were going through, and receive support, encouragement, and fervent prayer.

George moved back to the United States in 1993, but we kept in contact. Wendy and I have often remarked that there are few sounds as life-giving and reassuring as George’s voice over the phone. In 1999, George and his wife JerriLynn began to envision planting an alternative church community in Cleveland (their new home). They were one week away from launching, in the fall of 2000, when George suffered a massive stroke.

In the summer of 2003, Wendy and I were able to visit the Mercados, seeing George for the first time in over a decade. And, more significantly, it was our first visit since his stroke.

Before this trip, we’d kept in contact via numerous phone and email conversations with Jerrilynn. When George would join in, despite the fact that all he can say is “yes” and “wow,” you could hear his excitement when he recognized our voices.

Even so, we were more than a little nervous about actually seeing him again in person.
Typical wild and woolly time on a retreat. Yes, the seat of my pants
is wet, from a prank pulled on me just before worship began.

As we pulled into the driveway, we heard George’s booming laugh welcoming us. The one-armed bear hug he gave me, while not quite as crushing as that day in the summer of 1984, was still strong and heart-felt. Over the next day and a half, we even managed a beginning towards understanding the gestures George uses to communicate now.
“Fight of the Century.” The weapons: whipped Cream in cans. On the left is Wendy, who has just received a right hook to the jaw with one of said cans.

The thing that bothered me most as we drove back to Canada—aside from the fact George hasn’t been healed after many, many people have prayed for him—is that he can’t speak anymore. There was just so much wisdom and encouragement oozing out of George; to have his voice silenced is a loss to the Body of Christ.

I don’t like to toss the word “mentor” around lightly, but no other word genuinely describes the role George Mercado has had in my life.
George, if you get a chance to read this, know that the respect, admiration, and gratitude Wendy and I feel for you knows no bounds.

And let me say to you, as you have said to me many times (just imagine a New Yawk accent, okay?): “Hey, I love you, man.”