by Elizabeth Stephens
As we became more and more grounded in the word of God, we pondered what we should do with our lives and continued to ask God for direction. At the time, James was reading Worship the Ultimate Priority by John MacArthur and had an insatiable desire for deeper teaching on the Word of God. He called Dan Robinson, an Amway Diamond who had mentored Craig and asked if he knew of a Church which might fit the bill. He suggested two churches in the San Fernando Valley which were about a half an hour drive from our apartment in Santa Monica. One was Church on the Way pastored by Jack Hayford and the other was Grace Community Church pastored by John MacArthur.
Since James was reading one of MacArthur’s books, he thought it might be a good idea to check out one of their evening services since our Church in Santa Monica only met in the morning. James found the expository preaching exhilarating and Grace’s programs seemed perfect for our young family.
It was difficult leaving the loving little Church that had been our spiritual nursery, but we felt the strong leading of the Holy Spirit and broke the news to Clarence. It was time for us to move on. Circumstances aligned themselves providentially for a move after James was offered a job not far from Church and a member of Grace asked if we might be interested in managing an apartment about five minutes from Grace. After prayerful consideration, we thought, why not? So we moved to Panorama City and became the resident managers of an apartment building in an area we discovered many years later had been nicknamed by the LA Police Department “the Witch’s Hat.”
At the time, we had little idea what we were in for as apartment managers, but as former radical Buddhists we were up for the challenge. There were 28 apartments exhibiting an eclectic array of residents who hailed from Russia, Iran, Poland, Hawaii, Mexico, Germany, an African American family who had previously worked for the local General Motors plant on Van Nuys Boulevard which had closed down, Master’s Seminary students, drug pushers, drug addicts, a porn star, deaf residents, blended families, single mothers, Ba’Hai followers, Muslims, Orthodox Christians and more.
James had landed a job for Western Union selling Electronic Mail back in 1985 if you can believe it. After he’d get home, he’d change light bulbs, take care of minor repairs, and collect the rent. Our weekly routine involved removing graffiti off the front mailboxes and the laundry room. We quickly learned that if we were to get any sleep at night we would have to turn on the local classical station in order to mask out the sound of police helicopters and gunshots which plagued the area on a nightly basis. We soon discovered that we had moved into a dangerous drug war zone. Apartments in the area actually had drive up windows where drugs and money were literally exchanged like a McDonald’s.
During the day, it was fairly quiet for the most part. The evenings were a different matter when everyone arrived home from work. I recall one evening, James during his normal routine, stopped by to collect rent from a single mother who was on SSI (Government assistance) and the resident’s visiting boyfriend who was a professional boxer, became so angry that he threatened James and followed him outside and taunted him over our apartment patio fence frightening the children and I. As we sat down for dinner that evening and after we prayed, James said, “We’re outta here! I can’t take these threats against our family.”
All of the sudden there was a knock at the door and we all feared the worst. James carefully peered through the keyhole and with much relief saw saw that it was just two of the resident’s children who were from Iran and Russia. James opened the door and the young boy politely asked, “Mr. Stephens, my Mother is wondering if we could start coming to church with you?” What could James say, but “Sure.” And so our adventure continued as word spread throughout the apartment complex.
On a weekly average, we would take over 22 children to Church in our VW Van. That was before the seat belt laws. We were only about five minutes away. It was packed every Sunday morning and evening service and Wednesday evening. We were able to share the word and our lives with others. It was quite an experience as children piled into the van and were so excited to go to church. After we arrived at church, we’d drop them off at their individual classes on Sunday and Awana’s on Wednesday, a children’s program where they would learn their Bible Verses, sing songs, and play games with their peers. The parents were not simply looking for babysitters, but sincerely desired that their children would grow up in a more moral environment.
Several of the children gave their lives to Christ and were proud to earn their badges for memorizing Scripture and doing various tasks. Two of the boys, Justin and Jordan became Eric and Sheila’s good friends and playmates.
Other families had fled from Iran who had been persecuted for their Christian faith as well as for being Ba’Hai.
We created activities to encourage community among the children. One time, James had met Merrill Dyck a missionary who was attending the Shepherd’s Conference for pastors and missionaries and was moved by his story. He and his wife were Bible translators among the Pume Indians in Venezuela and James asked, “Could you speak at our apartment?” Merrill said, “Certainly.” So we invited our community in and over 40 people crowded into our little two bedroom apartment and listened in rapt attention to the Dyck’s amazing stories about how they learned the language of the Pume Indians and translated the Bible into their language. It was a memorable evening for all those attending.
James spent time in the parking lot with the children. He taught Eric how to ride a bike and helped other children learn as well.
The parking lot was the resident’s take-off and landing pad, and their children’s playground.
It was also the site where James had a difficult talk with a young African American resident who drove an expensive BMW and was pushing drugs. James kindly gave him the option of staying if he stopped selling drugs or to leave. James shared the message of redemption with him and asked if he had heard the story of Jesus and the redeeming power of His death. The young man sadly said, “Yes. My grandmother has told me the story many times. I love her and would stop, but the money is too good. I have no other way to make a living. You can see I drive a very nice car and have nice clothes.” The young man made a decision to leave that day and caused no problem. He knew the truth, but the economic bondage of the drug trade is a hard barrier to overcome as is greed. It was hard to watch.
The parking lot was the site for innovative games where kids would run relay races and would perform routine tasks such as picking up crumpled paper throw it into a waste bin, run to the next station, pick up laundry, throw it into a laundry basket. The kids loved it. Well, some of them. For others it was a learning experience.
They were characters and enjoyed clowning around.
Many were new immigrants from Russia, Poland, Germany and Iran. It was quite an amazing little international community.
We hosted a harvest party during Halloween for the kids. James and I wanted them to feel welcome and worked hard at establishing a sense of community as each holiday came around. The kids were quite creative with their costumes.
When Christmas arrived our little apartment became a welcoming crossroads for residents as many attended the annual Christmas concert which they thoroughly enjoyed. I remember Karen and Vernon, Talbot Seminary students attending Grace spent the night as well. People were always camping out. The more the merrier.
Pablo, one of the other residents, a Master’s Seminary student and James along with another friend Joe, took Perspectives on the World Christian Movement together and had a prayer meeting once a week at our apartment. It was a busy time.
Here we are getting ready to go to the annual Christmas concert at Grace. One Christmas concert, over 40 people attended the concert. The elderly couple from Russia were so thrilled afterwards and said it reminded them of the great concerts they used to attend in Moscow many years ago. It was wonderful evening for everyone who attended.
In 1978, we bought a green Volkswagen Westfalia, the one with the pop top. At the writing of this story, our son Eric has it and is doing an excellent job of restoration. It certainly needed it after all the wear and tear over the years of ministry and family trips. We were going to give it up to the Salvation Army, but James and Eric, while sitting in it and discussing the future of the van became fairly emotional as they reminisced over all the good times and memories we all had over the years and could not bear to part with it. We used to joke that we had 460 air-conditioning. You know, 4 windows down at 60 miles per hour. We had water spray bottles and would douse each other as needed.
Speaking of water. One evening we were getting ready to take the group to church and there was a problem that James had to address with another Church member. It was a Wednesday evening and it was Awana time. I was pregnant and my water broke about 8 o’clock. I would have to wait as it would be too much to get all 18 rounded up fast from different locations on the church grounds. As 9 o’clock approached I hurried to the car. James and young man from the apartments, Guy, were talking about this meeting and how it did not go well. I did not say anything. Finally the car pulled up to the apartments and the door opened and all the children ran out into the narrow courtyard as usual. As we walked up to our apartment door James said he was glad this day was over as he was about to put the key into the door. I said not so fast, my water broke. We did a 180 and turned around and walked back to the car. As everyone was still in the courtyard and wished us well as we were off to the hospital. The next morning, our second daughter Taylor was born.
What a blessing as she was born while we were Christians. We did break the Buddhist vows over our first two children before.
Our lives would soon change again sooner than we would imagine. We had rented an apartment to a deaf couple that had two children that could hear. One evening the oldest child knocked on our door. “Call the police; he is beating up my mother!”
Shortly afterwards the police came out and took the man away. His stepdaughter came over and relayed a message to us. “My stepfather said he will kill you when he gets out in the morning.” The policeman said the man was on PCP or Angel Dust and they would lock him up for the night, but he would be out in the morning. Oh great. Well, the next morning at 7:30 am there was a loud pounding on the door and there he was with a baseball bat ready to kill us.
James called on a neighbor that we had got to know quite well as we had taken his children to church. He was a mercenary, (of course you should always have such friends) and came over with his assault rifle and motioned to the deaf man at our door to go slowly back into his own apartment. The man complied. Our friend came in and we called the police. James asked our friend to make sure he put the gun in the closet before the police came. When the police arrived they said all that we can do is to talk to the deaf man through the interpreter, since he had to pay rent and we were the apartment managers. There was no way the police could tell him he could not come near us.
As it happened, James made a decision that it was time to leave. The same day a family at Grace Community Church graciously opened their home to us as we looked for a new apartment and James and some of the men packed us up. Within a week, we had found an apartment in Canyon Country and moved some thirty miles away. Our new three bedroom apartment was located in a residential community with a pool and a tennis court. After living in the “Witch’s Hat”, it was like moving into a vacation community and yet it was bittersweet as we missed all the friends we had made and ministered to.
Within a month, James received an unexpected telephone call in the middle of the night at our new home from our former apartment residents crying, “Can you come over immediately? The next door apartment building is on fire!” So James drove down and comforted many of the residents and their children who were outside in the back parking lot in their pajamas covered up in blankets watching the three alarm fire as the new apartment construction next door ferociously went up in flame. Later we were told that the windows of the apartment we had lived in were melted by the intense flames.