The Underground Project

by Andy Wood on September 25, 2009

in Turning Points

PoliceLights2You up for a little side trip?  This one rolls down Memory Lane in a church bus with papered-up windows, wide-eyed teenagers, and me in handcuffs in the back of a police car.  This is the (true) story of what happens when non-planning randomizers like me actually take the time to plan something.  This is the story of The Underground Project.

Once upon a time (hey, I said it was a story), I was a youth pastor in Lumberton, Mississippi.  I was fairly new, and school had just let out for summer.  For the folks at First Baptist Church, that meant one thing:  Vacation Bible School.  And I was expected to have something each night for the youth group.  So I planned to do something unique and special each evening.  Can’t remember which night it was for sure – I think it was Tuesday.  But on the promotional information, I said very little.  I just said come later – at 8:30 – for The Underground Project.

Use your imagination.  Be an energetic teenager in a small, south Mississippi town in the early summer.  You arrive at the church to see a painted sign attached to the chain link fence that says, Closed by Order of the State.  (What’s funny about that is that the old church building actually had a bad flood/mold problem and had been ordered closed within a year or so.)

Ex-pec-tant and excited, you enter the fellowship hall, where you are asked to have a seat and wait for instructions.  Then in groups of 6 or 7, you are invited into a room.  There I explain that I have some important information for you. In just a minute, you will leave through the back door and walk together as a group about half a block to where the church bus was parked.  You will find the windows papered up because it was important for your own protection that you not know where we are going.  We’re going to have a good time, I explain, but for your own safety, you absolutely had to follow instructions and don’t ask questions.  Oh, and between the church and the bus, whatever else happens, don’t say a word.

Clifford Lazenby is your driver, and other than me, he’s the only one who knows where we are going.  Warm and fun on most occasions, on this night, Clifford is pretty quiet.  By the time I arrive at the nearly-full bus, you can cut the tension with a knife.  Something scary-happy-serious-mysterious is about to happen, and you have a front-row seat.

Even though the most aware of the locals could figure out where we are headed, I have Clifford do some random winding through and around town before we set out for our destination – Mr. John Giddens’ farm.  It’s in the perfect location – several miles outside of town, down a long, fairly wide dirt road, amid the tall pines that rule the South.  About a quarter-mile before we get to the house, the bus pulls over and turns out the lights, and I stand up to speak.

“Listen up,” I explain.  “From here on out, until we get where we’re going, nobody says a word.”  Then armed with a couple of flashlights, we exit into the star-filled warm summer night.  Slowly, almost stalk-like, we approach the house.  Lights are on inside, but there are no dogs barking or any other noise.  Well, except maybe for Richard Anderson’s breathing.  Hiding behind the propane tank just to the left of the yard, I gather you and everybody else up close.  “The people inside aren’t supposed to know we are here,” I whisper.  “We’re going to walk around the far side of the yard, and back into that field. Until you get there, be very careful and very quiet.  And follow the flashlight.”

To this point, everything has gone without a hitch.  We get back to the edge of the Giddens’ back yard, and proceed toward the back of the field behind the house, toward a barn that’s on the back side of the field.  I am more relaxed at this point, and so are you.  Together we make our way toward the dark, silent structure.  Of course, you’re still wondering what’s up.  But on a night this starry, with adventure hanging this much in the air, mystery’s a good thing.  A fun thing.

Hesitantly, you enter the barn, where just to the right of the open hallway is an oversized stall.  We gather there, take a seat, and it’s then that I explain to you what an Underground Project is.  It’s designed to simulate a worship service where worshipping Jesus in public is illegal.  I also explain that we should be fine now, but if anybody sees or hears anything, to let me know.  And so we begin to worship.  To sing.  To share.  To try to remember verses in the Bible (since you don’t actually have one) that are meaningful to you.

Everything is going well, until suddenly, somebody hisses, “Cops!”  I walk out to see two police cars, blue lights flashing, bright lights blazing, parked in “We’ve got you surrounded” positions in the middle of the field.  Before I can get “What’s going on?” out of my mouth, one of the officers says, “You’re under arrest.”  When I ask what for, he says, “Trespassing, Breaking and Entering, and Violation of Section 9 of the Mississippi State Penal Code.”  That’s when the panic sets in.  Buddy Ross hollers, “You can’t do this!  We’re a church group!”  The mood is tense, to say the least (and you’re trying to figure out how you’re gonna explain this to your parents).

Maintaining some order, I shout out, “Hey!  I told you that you had no idea where we were going for a reason.  It’s going to be okay.”  The officers order you back to the bus, and you are told you would be taken back to the church, where your parents were waiting to pick you up.  I am placed, handcuffed, in the back of one of the police cars, while a stream of frightened, shocked faces, including yours, passes by the window.

All the way back to the church, it’s a different atmosphere on the bus.  The paper is ripped down.  You’re singing, along with everybody else.  Boldly.  Powerfully. Worshipping Jesus at the top of your heart and lungs.  Willing for the next set of cuffs to be yours, if necessary.  And along the way… taking inventory of your young heart.

Later, back in the fellowship hall, there’s this odd mix of buzz and numb.  What just happened?  Was it real?  And what if it was real?  Would you have gone to the barn to worship in secret if you knew you risked arrest, imprisonment, or worse?  You’re trading stories and barbs and nervous laughter.  But somebody – Somebody – has gotten your attention.  And that’s when I walk in, hands-free, along with my two “arresting” officers, to your relieved applause.  The scene, I explain, was staged.  The seriousness of it, however, was real.  One day, even in the Land of the Free, a scene like that could happen.  And your faith, and faithfulness, will be tested.  It was sobering, and for a few, life-changing.  (And for what it’s worth, that reality is even more evident today.)

Looking back on that night, more than 29 years ago, I am amazed how everything fit together to create an amazing impact.

  • John Giddens had told us he was glad for us to use his barn, though for the life of him, he couldn’t see why we’d want to.
  • One of the guys in the church had a friend and a cousin – one a deputy sheriff, the other a junior law enforcement trainee something-or-other – who were both free that night and glad to help out.
  • Section 9 of the Mississippi State Penal Code?  Bogus.  He just made that up to sound official.
  • And if the Lord will be gracious to me, I pray I never, ever, have to wear handcuffs again.

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