Reflecting on Working with the Homeless at National Community Church in Washington, D.C. Plus Remembering Vondell Bethune Who Passed Away Recently

Tonight while eating dinner I learned that a well known homeless individual of Mark Batterson’s National Community Church has died. This is my recollection of the homeless ministry at National Community Church and my some of my experiences if I remember correctly with Vondell Bethune. 

“Let us always meet each other with smile, for the smile is the beginning of love.”

Mother Theresa

“Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend.”

Martin Luther King

“Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.”

Maya Angelou

Because we have these promises, dear friends, let us cleanse ourselves from everything that can defile our body or spirit. And let us work toward complete holiness because we fear God.

2 Corinthians 7:1 NLT 

Union Station in Washington, D.C. NCC used to meet in the movie theaters in the basement. 

Washington, D.C  is a challenging place to live and its a unique mix of people of all ages, backgrounds that are often put in a mixing bowl. One of the churches that I was involved with here in the D.C. area is that of Mark Batterson’s National Community Church (NCC). I got involved in NCC when I was invited by James Crestwood (pseudonym) in late 2006. We spoke by phone for the first time after Thanksgiving. In early 2007 I became involved and went frequently. James and his wife eventually went to Kenya for a year and then later returned back to Washington, D.C. Before he left originally I would start to experience a pro-longed and painful faith crisis that eventually consumed me for five years. You can read about James heading off to Kenya in, ” Growing Doubt, a Foreshadow of what is to come for 5 years, and James and Gina Head to Kenya.” 

Before James left I worked with him briefly in the homeless ministry. The homeless ministry was quite active at Union Station. This was when NCC had a location in the movie theaters in the basement. After the service if I remember correctly we passed out food and hung out with the homeless who gathered around the station. Seeing people lay on the gates or encountering people with mental illness or addiction was hard. I recall working with one person who was an alcoholic. Pat, who died a couple of years ago,  drank herself out of a job, a marriage and turned her family away due to the illness that she had. After James and his wife left for Kenya I worked with the homeless ministry full time. Handing out food weekly and helping out was a lot of work. I learned a lot of about mental illness as I worked with people who had schizophrenia, bi-polar and other issues. Michael Florence was the point man for the this ministry as he led it and I got to know him well. From 2009 until 2013  I descended into a deep faith crisis and pushed back from NCC and Christianity. In the time-frame of 2011 to 2013 I was unsuccessfully recruited to Redeemer Arlington. Redeemer was a part of the controversial Sovereign Grace Ministries as led by C.J. Mahaney. It was controversial because of the cult-like authoritarianism and child sex abuse that was allegedly covered up by the organization.  When I didn’t go to Sovereign Grace eventually I faced a false accusation and was thrust into the darkest season of my life. I tried to put my life together after the abuse by seeking forgiveness for the pain that my faith crisis caused. That included a large number of people from NCC, and that was how NCC re-entered my life. Out of about 140 one of the few that was unsuccessful was someone from the homeless ministry at the time. I wrote her an open letter in, “An Open Letter to Susan (Last Name Unknown…)” and my approaching Mark Batterson for forgiveness in, “In a Pit with a Lion, Mark Batterson and National Community Church; A Personal Reflection

 

My Recollection of Vondell Bethune if My Memory is Correct

I was involved in NCC from 2007 until 2009. As I worked with the homeless there was one gentleman who I interacted with who was always smiling and loved hugging people. His smile was contagious and something that stood out to me. If my memory serves me correctly I think this was Vondell. He struck me as being kind. He was homeless and but that made no difference in his outlook. He always seemed to be cheerful and wanted to speak about faith and God. I saw him at Ebeneezers where he also used to hang out. If my memory serves me correct he overcome an addiction and used that experience to help others dealing with like minded issues. But my most memorable recollection with Vondell happened not in that 2007 to 2009 time frame but several years later. I popped up at NCC when James and his wife were in town. At this time NCC’s main location was at the 8th and I near the USMC Barracks. In 2013 I went to NCC for the first time in maybe about five years. And what should happen? Vondell saw me and came over and hugged me and the first words he said were, “Brother where have you been?” This was after five years. It stunned me..the kindness, love, and being remembered amazed me. That experience with Vondell was one of the most touching moments I ever had in a church. After that Vondell moved to North Carolina. And then I never heard of him, until tonight. While eating dinner I read on social media that he passed away. I was shocked. Usually I am good with names but sometimes I struggle and I tried to remember if the person who hugged me frequently and more was Vondell, and I believe it was. 

 

Others Remembering Vandell Bethune and Some Closing Thoughts

Its been moving to see the reaction to Vondell Bethune online. From both people I know and those that I don’t know. It is yet another reminder that the world is much smaller then we think it is. One of NCC’s pastors Joel Schmidgall wrote the following which I found to be touching. 

Vondell was a good friend. It wasn’t long ago that Ernest Clover III and I prayed over him at Ebenezers to commission him to care for the down & out as a deacon at his church in North Carolina. He had come full circle. Here’s a write-up for his obituary (and an old video below). We’ll miss you friend…

Vondell Bethune was a meaningful and integral part of National Community Church for the better part of a decade. He first became a part of our church family when he was living on the DC streets, where he resided for 18 years. Vondell, through God’s grace, had left behind a life of addiction to find redemption in Christ. He was hired as an employee of Ebenezers Coffeehouse and was known and loved within the neighborhood for his beautification of the corner of 2nd & F street NE. Having no home and no money, he found himself full of faith in one our services, and felt God call him to go with us on our Jamaica missions trip. He then proceeded to raise money quicker than any member of any one of our mission teams. While on the trip, he found a calling in ministering to those coming out of life controlling addictions. Upon return to DC, within two days he had found housing. And he began to step further into places of ministry, including serving in the Living Room Ministry for friends experiencing homelessness.

Eventually he moved to North Carolina to be near family and became a Deacon at White Oak Hill Missionary Baptist Church, where he was officially commissioned to continue his calling, to serve those who had found themselves in tough circumstances. He passed away, doing exactly that. Loving someone who was down and out. We mourn the loss of our brother in Christ. And we celebrate his life, that was redeemed and a beautiful testimony of the power and love and presence of Jesus. Rest in peace.

This blog deals with some dark topics inside evangelicalism. It writes frequently on the problems of Calvinism inside the Evangelical Free Church of America. Here in D.C. it documented and covered the theological coup that took place at McLean Bible and the purging of over 150 staff to replace many with Neo-Calvinists and how this happened with the assistance of Mark Dever of Capitol Hill Baptist Church. Down in Tennessee this blog covered the story of an Acts 29 church in Memphis that allegedly covered a worship pastors’ voyeurism and manufacturing of child pornography inside a church. He was quietly let go and duplicated his behavior in another church. You can read about Fellowship Memphis in the blog’s table of contents. Time and time again I hear dark stories frequently. From my perspective that is what makes Vondell Bethune stand out. He got it, and he understood much more than many. He kept it simple and he gave so much. I don’t go to church anymore because of the corruption and problems of evangelicalism, and yet the homeless ministry at NCC was a gem. It tapped into something that many churches ignore. Many ignore the least of these or the broken. Its their loss that happens. If more churches had a Vondell Bethunes then I wouldn’t write some of the stories that I do here at The Wondering Eagle. I honestly hope that NCC will have a memorial service for Vondell. And while many are experiencing grief in the pain we can also be grateful that such a man lived. How broken and lost would many be if he didn’t exist. Just sitting in here in my kitchen floods me with memories of how he enriched so many. Vondell will be missed by many. 

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