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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...

Prepared to Serve

By John W. Kennedy
April 15, 2012

The day Chuck Lester has prayed about for months finally has arrived.

And what a gorgeous, balmy day it is. Prayers for perfect weather on the last Tuesday in October have been answered. Tonight, at a Chi Alpha-sponsored outdoor event, students at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville will witness a dramatic presentation about the crucifixion of Christ.

Fifteen years ago, Lester pioneered the Chi Alpha ministry on the picturesque campus bordered by the Great Smoky Mountains. Although there are 27 ministries on campus, Chi Alpha — the Assemblies of God outreach to students on 304 nonsectarian campuses — alone emphasizes Spirit-filled living.

Lately, Lester has been concerned with the growing number of university students who call themselves Christians but don’t act as though it makes any difference in their lives. His goal is discipleship, to transform the casual Christian into a serious believer whose life revolves around servanthood.

Lester, an athletically trim and youthful-looking 51, is at ease around young people. Indeed, his countenance brightens when he interacts with students. He has an obvious joy in helping them along on their spiritual journey.

It’s been that way since Lester worked as a barbecue restaurant manager, first in Springfield, Mo., upon graduating from Evangel University (Assemblies of God) with a biblical studies degree, then three years later at the same chain as a general manager in St. Louis. Lester admired students who studied hard, worked long hours to pay tuition, and grappled with the issues of life.

Lester married Laurie after graduating from Evangel. After graduation and a decade of restaurant management, Lester awaited direction from the Lord for full-time ministry. Finally, he heard the assignment: work with Chi Alpha, initially as an intern at Montana State University in Bozeman. By that time, the couple had two daughters and two sons.

“People told us we were crazy because we had four kids,” Lester says. Those four children now are all Christians, in their 20s and married. That leaves both Chuck and Laurie plenty of time to minister.

The main Thursday service attracts about 60 students to the strategically located Catholic Center in the middle of campus, which Chi Alpha is allowed to use at no charge. Every Wednesday night there is a foundations class teaching the 16 Fundamental Truths of the Assemblies of God.

Throughout the week, the kindly and soft-spoken Lester is investing in students’ lives, particularly in first-year students.

“We want to teach our students to disciple other students,” Lester says.

Going back to his restaurant roots, Lester meets with students individually, not in a campus office but at a Panera restaurant on the edge of the campus. Staff and students alike are effusive in their admiration for Lester.

“Chuck has such a heart for students,” says Beth Hall, a staff intern who disciples first-year female students. “He ministers to student needs; he’s like a first responder in the Kingdom.”

Terrence Boone, a sophomore journalism major, says he has learned a lot plugging into Bible studies.

“I now know Christ in a real way,” says the articulate and confident Boone, who is contemplating going to seminary after graduation. “Chuck has invested a lot of time in me.”

Igwe Nwagwa, whose parents immigrated to Nashville from Nigeria, says regularly attending Chi Alpha Bible studies, church services and foundation classes enabled him to become bolder about his faith.

“I can take a stand for morals and principles I know are right,” says Nwagwa, a freshman. “If I go to a party and someone asks me to smoke and drink, I can stand firm.”

Lester befriended Jewon Lyu after she arrived on campus from South Korea in 2006, when she fell into a pattern of drinking alcohol and felt she couldn’t trust anyone else around her.

“Chuck helped me be a true Christian, not one who changed depending on the situation,” says Lyu, who is working on a doctorate in retailing and customer science at UT. “He knew what I was going through; whenever he saw me, he prayed for me.”

Josh Vance, a burly business major in his junior year, has a lifelong Assemblies of God background and says Chi Alpha is the only campus ministry that unabashedly preaches the power of the Holy Spirit. Vance is actively involved in the Thursday night Chi Alpha service singing and playing guitar, Wednesday night men’s Bible study, and a life group on Tuesday night.

“I’ve really learned to give of my time because my life isn’t my own,” Vance says.

The Chi Alpha group members are intentionally more ethnically mixed than the predominantly white student body at UT.

“God sends us to all nations,” Lester says. “We don’t do well when we’re all white.”

When the Lesters served as missionaries in training at Montana State, being discipled by Chi Alpha leaders Dick and Joy Schroeder revolutionized their perspective. The Schroeders’ “Father Heart of God” teachings helped heal the Lesters of past wounds.

“I really wasn’t a good father until God showed me that He was my Father,” Lester says.

That the Lesters have a solid marriage is remarkable, considering Laurie’s trauma with men growing up. She remembers as a preschooler hearing contentious conflicts between her mother and father, before he disappeared from her life forever. The situation grew worse during the rest of her childhood. Today, young women respond when Laurie shares that a minister abused her sexually, physically and emotionally from age 5 to 16.

Laurie leads a life group, sings on the worship team, and teaches a “Father Heart of God” seminar. She also counsels individually many young females who carry great emotional baggage.

“I’m amazed at the number of girls who have been physically, emotionally, mentally and sexually beaten up by family members and made to feel worthless,” the upbeat Laurie says. “God healed me, and He can heal others.”

She says today’s students crave the unconditional love that Chuck effuses because so many have grown up without fathers.

“Chi Alpha has changed my life,” says smiling first-year student Jasmin Ransom, who accepted Jesus as her Savior at a Chi Alpha meeting last fall. “God replaced the hole I had from not having a father in my life.”

“Only Jesus can heal these students and set them free,” Chuck says.

Matt and Jacki Drane have been on the UT Chi Alpha staff for six years, and this month received national appointment. Matt considers Lester a second father.

“Chuck loved on me; he wouldn’t let me go,” says Matt, who became a Chi Alpha Bible study student leader here a decade ago. Jacki coordinates praise and worship, plays guitar, teaches a midday Bible study, and counsels women one-on-one.

“Chuck doesn’t limit God,” says Jacki, who also raises three young children. “He believes God can do anything.”

After dark

While Chi Alpha sponsors a lot of relational gatherings, a one-time outdoor venue called After Dark is a method of presenting the gospel in a dynamic fashion.

Lester poured a great deal of resources into bringing the presentation to UT. The message is the same one that he delivers: Christianity isn’t a casual commitment; Jesus’ sacrificial death should radically transform the lives of His followers.

Lester has been praying and fasting for three weeks before this event, which has been heavily promoted on campus. After Dark takes place in a highly visible park on campus known as Fiji Island, which is surrounded by fraternity houses. Site preparation to erect the stage takes all afternoon. By the time an introductory concert ensues, a crowd of 1,000 students has amassed.

The main feature is a choreographed, 90-minute, high-energy soliloquy by storyteller Joe White, who founded After Dark campus ministry in 2000. The preacher, based in Branson, Mo., skillfully alternates between humor and solemnity. In a physically demanding drama, White portrays a jaundiced Roman woodcutter hewing out a 14-foot-tall cross on which to crucify Jesus.

Although 63, White is buff, handling a log that is difficult for the average man to move, let alone maneuver. White uses a double-bladed ax, sledgehammer and 12-inch spikes in constructing the cross, expressing pessimism about Jesus’ deity claims.

As film clips from The Passion of the Christ play on a screen in the backdrop, White shifts to apologist. He expertly weaves Scripture passages into his text, wrapping up by explaining the gruesome indignities of the Savior’s crucifixion. In a somber tone, White challenges young people to shed their own sins by nailing cards they fill out onto the cross. He invites students to receive God’s grace to be restored to purity, to make a decision to forsake sin for good.

Some students begin to weep as White prays. Students stream to the platform, with cards that detail guilt from abortion or shame from pornography. Students list their desire to return to the Lord after separation because of falling into a pattern of alcoholic binges or struggling with homosexuality.

Later, Lester follows up with dozens of students, assuring them that they can renew their relationship with God, be forgiven, and feel whole again.

JOHN W. KENNEDY is news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.

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