“Grace and Hot Dogs,” by Rollie Barnes

Skinny white kids amused me, and in July 1993 they rarely walked down my block. Yet there he was approaching our stoop, looking like a tourist with a camera around his neck. The fellas and I cracked a few jokes at Jeremy Del Rio’s expense and thought about ways to intimidate him. Then he asked if we were hungry, and invited us to a block party on 6th Street.

We went intending to make mischief. Instead we ate hot dogs and played basketball, and stuck around all afternoon. A year later, I had forgotten about Jeremy, but we reconnected at a neighborhood youth center during the early days of Abounding Grace’s youth ministry. A girl from his church invited me to a Sunday service. She never showed, but I did chasing what I called, “chicken heads.” I met Jesus instead.

Jeremy and I had little in common. I was born in Harlem and raised in the Lower East Side. He was born, as I liked to tease him, with a Bible in His hand. I lived in the “Sixth Boro,” and exuded neighborhood pride despite the violence, prostitution, drugs, and gangs. He had lived in Brooklyn and Staten Island and even New Jersey for a little while, but loved hanging out in my ‘hood. Mine weren’t the safest streets, but they were home and I loved them. He grew up serving in the neighborhood, but hadn’t ever really lived there.

Nevertheless, Jeremy and his brothers were relentless. They had hooked me once before with food, and continued to bait me with free trips, sports, and outings. We developed a friendship, and I found myself immersed in the Abounding Grace family.

By 1996, my faith was struggling, and I wasn’t alone. It seemed like most of the youth group hit the wall at the same time. We were bored and misbehaving, and Jeremy’s confidence was waning. Then he challenged us to start a youth center. Seven months later, we opened a fully furnished space rent-free in the projects, and seven college students paid to work for us as interns. In 1997, when a bureaucrat decided to evict us, we organized a nine-month protest that ultimately got us our space back. We had been told that you can’t fight City Hall, but we did, and we won!

What I loved most about Abounding Grace was how the entire church embraced the youth. We weren’t segregated to the junior congregation with the junior Holy Spirit and left to fend for ourselves. Whatever AGM lacked financially, it made up for in heart and emotional support and the encouragement to pursue our dreams. Adults, teens, and children alike pressed hard into community. Even the senior pastor spent countless hours investing in neighborhood teens like me.

I spent as much time as I could with Pastor Rick, picking his brain, asking tough questions, and allowing him to pour into me a tenacious desire to please God. During those intimate times I learned about manhood and integrity. One of Pastor Rick’s nuggets continues to echo decades later: “God uses us in spite of us, however the reward is much sweeter when we are living right.”

Pastors Rick and Arlene continue to inspire me. I remember when they would allow men to live and work at the church so that they could get on their feet, and when they took in seven children and loved them as their own. Because of their example, I have dedicated my life to mentor, teach and preach, and transform lives for Christ. I now work side by side with my wife and our five children running a ministry called Family Care in North Carolina. I also serve as the marketing director for the Thomasville Prep Academy, and on the board of trustees of the Thomasville Middle School, and produce outreaches and community events throughout the area.

Facing the Future

As I anticipate the next chapter of ministry for my family, I aspire to serve faithfully and honorably as I was taught at Abounding Grace. Let it not be said of me that I was a father to the fatherless but wasn’t a father to my own children. I hope to instill in my children a passion to: “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and everything you need will be given to you in Christ Jesus” (Matthew 6:33).

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