Posted on Sun, Oct 07,2007
Moving tent revival hopes to reach troubled souls, park by park
by Eric Adler
The Kansas City Star
Onstage, beneath the canopy of a vast, white tent, 44-year-old Vinny Gonzalez--a self-described former "thug" --wails in song to God.
It's a recent Saturday in Concourse Park off Benton Boulevard, and Vinny strums his guitar, his eyes squeezed shut.
Open the eyes of my heart Lord. I wanna see you. I wanna see you, he sings in a high tenor that seems unexpected coming from such a large man on such a large crusade.
Not a priest, not a preacher , Gonzalez is a regular working stiff from Independence. He's built like a refrigerator, with thick arms and a broad chest. He pulls the red-eye shift on the assembly line at Ford.
He's also a guy who, two years ago, had an idea.
"The Lord put it on my heart," he said.
Using all the money he and his wife, Donna, had in saving-about $2,500 - he would buy a white tent, 30 feet by 50 feet. He would get an old truck to haul the tent from park to park. Through a little song and solace, with a free meal, some clothes, a little fun for kids, maybe he could introduce folks to God. Maybe he could help end the kind of bloody violence that he saw as a child and that, to his way of thinking, was consuming the east side of Kansas City.
"Too many people killing each other," he said.
So now, nearly once a month for the last two years, Vinny and Donna Gonzalez --together with an ever-growing cast of volunteers from area ministries--can be seen in the parks. They've been to Blue Valley Park and Oak Park, to Freedom Fountain, Harris, Central, Theis and Swope parks and others.
They ask for no money. They pass no plate.
Instead, under the name ACTS (All Christians Together Serving), they put up their tent and play music.
They give away hot dogs and clothes and set up games for kids, typically spending $400 to $600 of their own money to make it happen.
"Vinny's the one who called us," said pastor John Murillo, who brought a Latino youth band to perform from Gethsemane Assembly of God Church. "He's the one who's behind all of this."
"Vinny called my husband," said Zelma Smith of Englewood Assembly of God Church, which runs the Kansas City Dream Center, a group that gives clothes to the needy.
And, always, there's prayer.
Three large, wooden crosses, donated by Living Water Christian Church, stand in the grass near Gonzalez's tent. A crown of thorns hangs from the top of the post of the center cross. throughout the day, adults and children write their prayers on slips of paper and nail them to the wood.
Forgive me my sins.
Protect my family.
Thank you, Jesus.
"I'm not a preacher. I can't even talk," Gonzalez said. "But I want to see zero crime in Kansas City. I want to see zero murders. I suppose I feel that if people come to know Christ in a personal way, they not only won't want to commit violence, they're not going to want to sin, period."
This is not a great day. The city has multiple festivals going on. In the past, Gonzalez's "events," as he calls them, have drawn hundreds.
One, at 31st Street and Monroe Avenue, drew rival gang members.
"Some had their little kids," Gonzalez said.
Another, in June at Theis Park, attracted one man the Gonzalezes will never forget.
"He was on his bicycle," Donna Gonzalez sad. "He said he had just been at 71 Highway near Brush Creek and was thinking of jumping, of killing himself, when he suddenly felt that he needed to get on his bike and come this way.
"The event, I believe, was meant to be for that one person," she continued. "Even if every event is just for one person, that's OK."
Today, the audience beneath Gonzalez's tent is tiny: 11 people in chairs set for 100.
Gonzalez smiles anyway.
"Lord Jesus," he prays into his microphone, "move upon the highways and byways, upon this park, out onto Independence Avenue and into the hearts of the suffering people."
As he does, a woman ambles over to the prayer tent. Her sons are hooked on meth, she says. They're violent. She's scared.
"God is only a prayer away," Gonzalez says over his speakers. "A simple cry of a broken heart, he'll never turn away from."
The women prays for her boys. Nearby, another mother, Rachel Abernathy, picks up shirts and a stuffed bear for her granddaughter. "I take a blessing where I can get it," she says.
Gonzalez never imagined his life would go this way. He grew up poor and Catholic in Kansas City's projects, the youngest of five kids.
In the neighborhood, Gonzalez would see bad things: beatings and shootings and gangs and murders. From second through seventh grade, he fought his way through school, constantly getting beaten up.
Thirty years later, he reflected on two experiences that altered his life:
One: Murder. It was night. He was in his room, looking out his window. Two gangs battled near his backyard. A young man swung a baseball bat. A boy fell. The next morning, Gonzalez walked outside. Pieces of brain sat in pools of black blood. "Growing up, I seen about 10 murders before I was like 24," he said.
Two: Shortly after the murder, he walked through a park and looked into a trash can. Two images of Jesus Christ, each the size of a poster, were shoved in the trash. One is Christ praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. The other show Christ knocking on a door.
Gonzalez was about 10 years old. He doesn't know why, but the picture of Christ at the door consoled him.
"I framed it and hung it on the wall of my room," he said.
There it stayed for years as Gonzalez grew through high school. As he toughened, hardened. As he got drunk, got high and fought.
"I'm not going to school back then, " he recalled. "I'm having fun with my buddies, getting high and chasing young girls."
After a year of college, he flunked out.
"I was still kind of street thugging, too--breaking and entering," he said.
Then Gonzalez met a nice girl who went to church.
He went with her to the Sheffield Family Life Center, an Assembly of God church with its roots in the Pentecostal revival movement. This is no Catholic Mass. People are praying with abandon. Some, moved by spirit, speak in tongues.
"The preacher starts saying these words, and I'm getting uncomfortable," Gonzalez said. " He's talking about Jesus, He's talking about Jesus, he's talking about him being wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities."
Gonzalez was convinced the preacher was speaking to him. He bolted from the church, fell to his knees and cried.
"I asked for forgiveness," Gonzalez said. "I sensed the spirit of God."
Years passed. As many countless times as Gonzalez adheared to his faith, there were as many times he fell from it-up and down through more drugs, through an early marriage, affairs, through the birth of son Emmanuel, through a divorce and a stint in the U.S. Army Reserves.
But every time Gonzalez fell, someone seemed to be nearby to help him up. His sisters, a brother and mother had all turned to God. For him, there was no miraculous conversion. It just finally seeped in.
"He's right, he was a pretty sucky husband... I think he's a very good man,: said Colleen Hardy, who had married Gonzalez when he was 19 years old. She and her second husband, Lonnie, now run their own ministry, Real Life Worship Center, in Excelsior Springs.
"I think his faith is very strong," Hardy said. "Probably a lot of what motivated him is his own childhood, growing up in that area, being a street kid himself."
About two years ago, Emmanuel graduated from college and became a youth pastor. During his graduation, Gonzalez said, he and Donna stood under a tent where people worshipped with music and games for kids and food and clothes for the needy.
They turned to each other and said, "We can do this."
Who knows if they will have an effect on crime? But they have an effect on people.
On that Saturday, Brandy Borawski was feeling terrible.
A 33-year-old single mom with two daughter, Borawski has no job and no money to pay her $400 rent. But she had plenty of desperate thoughts.
"Robbing a bank. Holding up a convenience store," she said.
Then, on the bus going to the public library, her girls saw the moonwalk and white tent.
"Can we go?" they asked.
They stopped. They listened to the music. The girls played and tacked messages to the cross. Borawski picked up a bag of clothes for her girls, confessed her troubles and shared a prayer.
As she walked outside the white tent, she felt better:
"I needed to come here."
Posted on Sun, Oct 07,2007