Church outside the walls
By: Marc D. Greenwood
Date: October 23, 2002
A harried and splintered Duane Crabbs found himself torn; two adamant calls vied for his allegiance. One call involved his vocation as a firefighter with the Akron Fire Department. The second call required him to abandon his thirteen-year career as a firefighter and head the fledgling South Street Ministries; a work headquartered in the impoverished Summit Lake area in Akron, Ohio. The position lacked a salary or medical benefits—imperatives for a husband and father with four children. Yet, Duane Crabbs believed that God was choreographing his affairs. But how would he know his were truly blessed by God?
Crabbs apprenticed with P&S Ambulance, and was appointed to the Cuyahoga Falls Fire Department in April 1986. He reveled in the job: wielding a hose at a scorching, working fire, rendering treatment to trauma victims, and engaging in the ubiquitous gallows humor at the fire station. Notable evangelicals: Richard Foster, Anthony Campolo, Rich Sider, and especially John Perkins inspired Duane to develop a comprehensive and integrated faith. Perkins, from Mendenhall, Mississippi, leads a grassroots ministry that has spawned models nationwide. Perkins advocates the three R’s: Reconciliation to God and man, Relocation, and Redistribution of skills, knowledge, and abilities to empower the poor. The three R’s resonated with Duane, "It gave me a framework for what I was doing," said Crabbs. In Duane’s words, "Good theology is a right way of living out the gospel."
By 1987, the Crabbs had outgrown their home. Duane and Lisa developed a triple tier criteria system to streamline the purchase. The home had to be located in west Akron near their church, the home had to be roomy and affordable on one income—Lisa didn’t work outside the home. For some inexplicable reason, their Realtor steered them toward Cuyahoga Falls, a largely white community. The Crabbs prevailed and found a home that met their criteria. The home sat in a picturesque neighborhood surrounded by friendly neighbors. The purchase incited a firestorm from friends, family members, and co-workers. This foray, living in a culturally diverse area gave them a taste of what Duane described as, "Resisting the cultural current."
Many constituents couched their true feelings by voicing words of concern. They reminded Duane of his work schedule, as if he had forgotten. "You’re gone for 24 hours a day, what will happen to your family?" In this case what was unsaid revealed more than what was spoken. Duane noted, "Whites have a much more perceived fear of blacks than vice-versa." Some friends set forth theologically skewed questions, "Aren’t there enough blacks to evangelize the blacks?" They forgot the record of the Christian Church, which reveals numerous examples of cross-cultural evangelizing. Crabbs wryly notes, "Reconciliation is often perceived as a black issue, instead of a Christian issue."
"I felt a growing tension, receiving the material blessings of the Cuyahoga Falls Fire Department, and chafing at the galling lack of diversity," said Duane. He began to think in earnest about working in a diverse community. Emboldened, Crabbs tested for the Akron Fire Department. He relished the idea of rendering care in his own community, working among people he loved and respected. Crabbs, an erudite man, failed the personality portion of the exam. His Falls Fire co-workers hazed him. "It is obvious that God doesn’t want you working there," Duane’s mother said. Lisa’s concerns were more pragmatic. "I was concerned about the increased work load, including more structure fires, increased exposure to trauma patients gushing deadly blood products, and the walloping pay cut," she said.
In 1992 Duane retested for the Akron Fire Department, landing high on the eligible list, a virtual shoe-in, provided he passed the vision test. Duane surmised that his deplorable, uncorrected vision would disqualify him; devised a scam, he memorized the eye chart. Awash with guilt, Crabbs confessed his duplicity to the nurse. She was incredulous, but noted he failed the test. He received his rejection letter by mail. Per Civil Service Rules candidates are entitled to appeal their disqualification. Duane amassed a mountain of supporting data to buttress his appeal hearing. The vision test presented an impregnable barrier, having withstood 70 challenges between 1988 and 1990. A forlorn Crabbs lost.
His mother appeared to be a prophetess. Suddenly help emerged from an unexpected benefactor. Uncle Sam. The ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) parted the fierce, bureaucratic waters, Duane strode to appointment with the Akron Fire Department in October 1992.
Duane completed the requisite training period, and began working at fire station Number Six; the experience was exhilarating. "I was constantly connecting with the people," he said. He experienced the grace of God, he willingly submitted to strong, black leadership. Doctrinal propositions received an infusion of life, forged in the crucible of daily tensions. "My ideas incarnated into life experiences," Crabbs said. “I was relating cross-culturally in reciprocal relationships." But all was not well. Duane befriended impoverished children, and brought them to church; the one place where they should be welcomed. His evangelizing hit a wall, a racial caste system. A church leader explained, "My children’s only respite from their blackness is church—no ruffians will wreck their youth group." Soon the Crabbs sought a new fellowship.
A seven-year-old asked Duane, "Who’s that?" referring to Lisa. "Is that your old lady?" Duane composed himself and informed the lad that Lisa was his wife. Prompting the inevitable follow-up, "What’s a wife?" The incident seared and goaded Duane to think, plan, and act. After much discussion, Duane concluded, "This is a values issue. The only way we can make a difference is by becoming a part of the community." There were 14 churches within a narrow geographic area, but they didn’t impact the area. "Churches no longer connect to a geographic area; we are a commuter society, a virtual society,” Crabbs said.
Lisa remembers, "Duane’s growing convictions were causing some difficulties." Duane was contemplating the unthinkable: moving to the grimy, blighted, Summit Lake area. The very notion of relocating was repugnant to Lisa. Duane suggested they pray about the matter. Distraught, Lisa countered, "I pray that we won’t ever live there." Lisa remembers the arguments and crying, as she grappled with the call, experiencing abject fear of the unknown. Duane refused to manipulate his wife by twisting the Scripture teaching on submission and demonstrated servant leadership. "When we are on the same page, we will move," Duane said. Liberated, Lisa got in touch with her feelings and the will of God. "I prayed without resentment or hurt feelings," Lisa said. It still took a couple of years of praying, talking, and meditating on the Scriptures for the couple to get on one accord.
On Christmas eve of 1995, Duane drove Lisa to the site of their future home. A cavernous structure, occupying an acre of land. The price was affordable—cheap even, but the house had been condemned by the Health Department. The motivated seller desired to dump the property. Negotiations began, and a deal was struck. Christians who believed in the work contributed the down payment. Now the Herculean task of renovation began. It took a year to bring the home into compliance with the building codes. Workers on the project soon became acquainted with the more stringent "Lisa Standard."
"I refused to move my family into a shoddy home," Lisa said. Friends and volunteers convened each weekend to work. Neighbors marveled as the project gained steam. "We were becoming a part of the neighborhood," Duane said. Dave Baker contracted pro bono during the project, as did Ron Burney, who painstakingly labored on the project as a gift of love. In the midst of the excitement, nagging doubts besieged Duane. "I feared that my faith was presumption." In those lonely moments Duane received solace from a quote by George MacDonald: "The true disciple shall thus always know what he ought to do, and never what another ought to do." God confirmed His leading, "Time and again people with the right gifts came alongside and bolstered the project." Believers helped complete the massive amounts of paperwork. In March 1997 the Crabbs moved to 130 W. South Street.
By late 1998 Duane was experiencing what he called, "The push-pull factor." The ministry work energized him yet it also taxed him. He was taking more leave from the fire department. "I was standing in two worlds," he said. He relished his work at the fire department, but believed, "ministering in the city was the ultimate privilege." Duane was seriously considering leaving the fire department, but Lisa voiced grave concerns. "How are we going to eat. I have four children," was her sobering question. Duane believed God was directing him to minister full-time. "Faith is not substantiated until you’re at a place of no return," is how Duane remembers that period. Lisa felt vulnerable. "We would have got more support to go overseas (as missionaries)," she said. She learned to trust God in order to trust Duane.
In February of 1999 Duane left the Akron Fire Department to lead South Street Ministries. "I’ve been faulty but never false,” Duane said. He’s erred, but he admits the wrong and seeks to live a righteous life. A blessed normalcy pervades the Crabbs’s home. Telephone exchanges are interrupted in mid-sentence as Duane or Lisa prepare lunch, or tend in other ways to the energetic brood of four children namely: Joshua 15, Bethany 13, Hannah 9, and Jonathon 7. The children are healthy, happy, and well adjusted. Duane and Lisa are gentle dogmatics, lacking the work-performance grimness of the ascetic, or the censorious self-righteousness of the legalist.
"Our purpose is to extend God’s kingdom and righteousness in South Akron. South Street Ministries works at being a hospital for sinners rather than a hotel for saints. We are a bridge to connect struggling people with one another and the Great Physician so He can heal us to live and love, laugh and cry in the midst of our often messy lives," writes Duane in a newsletter: a church without walls. Sunday mornings find them conducting service at the Crosier Street correctional facility. Sunday evenings are reserved for youth services at the Interval Brotherhood Home. IBH provides comprehensive residential alcohol/drug treatment for its patients. Thursday evening fellowships convene at the home of South Street Ministries. The Ministry helped neighborhood youths restore 150 bicycles.
"And whosoever shall give to drink unto one of these little ones a cup of cold water only in the name of a disciple, verily I say unto you, he shall in no wise lose his reward." Matthew 10:42
Contact Marc at MARCD1110@aol.com
Marc D. Greenwood, Lieutenant/Paramedic, has served with the Akron, Ohio Fire Department for 22 years, currently assigned as Fire Supervisor at Safety Communications Center. My work has been published in the Akron Beacon Journal, Around The House, The Heart Behind the Hero, The Voice, EMS, Nursing Spectrum, Fire Rescue, and Fire Engineering. I am married and have four sons. I am a minister affiliated with The House of the Lord in Akron, Ohio, and write articles focusing on men’s ministries for Around the House.