No one would have guessed when Lon Gregg (ThM, 1978) went to Dartmouth on an academic scholarship that he'd end up at a homeless shelter. But that's exactly what happened.
It was the late 1960s, and Lon had begun an intense search for truth and meaning. His probing led him in scattered directions, both philosophical and religious. "For some reason, it never dawned on me to look in the Bible," he notes with a wry smile. Embracing the "spirit of the age," Lon jumped headlong into existentialism, complete with the trappings of its destructive lifestyle. Abbie Hoffman—the countercultural icon of the '60s—came to Dartmouth, and Lon was drawn to his message of primitive abandonment to social revolution.
Shortly after crossing paths with Hoffman, Lon dropped out of school and embarked on a six-month trek exploring the United States and delving into the drug culture. He ended up in Chicago to see firsthand the media-hyped trial of Hoffman and his cohorts. Yet Lon's search for meaning once again plagued him. "I came off a particularly bad LSD trip and decided to go into the woods alone. And I brought along a Bible to see if it had anything to say."
And it did. Lon made his way, with only ten dollars and a sleeping bag, back into Chicago where the temperature hovered around ten degrees. Roaming the Windy City's streets, he came across the Pacific Garden Mission, where he was offered food and a place to sleep. One of the mission workers, a simple man without much education, continually drew Lon's attention to Jesus' plain offer of grace. Lon couldn't refuse such forgiveness. He was captured by the gospel.
Lon spent the next several years being mentored at the mission. Eventually he became an employee of the ministry. After marrying his wife, Janet, he reapplied for his Dartmouth scholarship, was accepted, and finished off his degree with honors.
Yet his academic path was only beginning. Lon had been exposed to a new world, and he wanted to pursue it further. Christ's message had radically changed him, and he committed his life to sharing with others the grace he had received. After seeing the reality of God in Scripture, he wanted to pursue theological training. And he desired to do so at a school where the faculty believed the "Bible actually had something to say." Dallas Seminary was exactly what he was looking for. His seminary days cemented his ministry direction and encouraged his spiritual formation.
While they made little sense at the time, Lon's varied experiences prepared him with a unique capacity to serve. His knowledge of street culture, combined with his academic and philosophical bent, aided him in forging a path where he connects with both the lifelong indigent and the affluent suburbanite. Further, he has a rare knack for translating this knowledge and exposure to real-life ministry.
Lon's uncommon path prepared him well for the ministry that many would say has been his "perfect fit" for more than thirteen years. He is the spiritual director for the Denver Rescue Mission, a network of compassion ministries in inner-city Denver. His days are spent offering spiritual guidance to those who find shelter inside the ministries' walls—the drug addicts, unwed mothers, and the homeless—as well as to the core of chaplains who serve them. In addition Lon plays a key role in the urban missions program, training those who seek future service in inner-city missions.
Through these roles Lon is making an impact on a generation of servant-leaders. "I hope they come to believe that they can't just participate in cultural Christianity but are compelled to nurture an intense desire to live the gospel authentically," he said. This yearning to stir up an authentic, gritty faith merges with his conviction that Christianity is not a fortress of safety but rather is a movement engaging the sin and pain of the world.
Lon's driving passion is to see the church take the gospel seriously in ways that make people think deeply and live courageously. This is why he thrives in the inner city. It's a place where the hope of Christ and the desperation of our world meet in dramatic fashion. In the context of the street mission a holistic view of ministry is given plenty of space to take root.
His experience has led him to embrace the missiological axiom, "when the gospel is spread most dramatically, it is tied to social ministry." For Lon the gospel is the power of God speaking to the whole person—addicts, single moms, and high-powered executives enslaved to "the American dream." His ministry compels him because he is convinced that the message of Jesus is their only hope—for eternity as well as for today. Lon's deep-seated confidence in this hope moves him to challenge the church, including those under his care, to think deeply about the gospel and its implications in our world.
Allen Tipping, an intern serving with Lon, has been on the receiving end of these challenges. Allen says, "Lon always makes me think. Each time we meet, he will leave me with a question. It usually takes me a week or two to mull it over, but then I always call him up and am ready to talk."
Many speak of Lon in a similar way. Anyone familiar with him knows he can most often be found nursing a cup of coffee, with an individual or small crowd gathered around eager to hear his passion for grace and his sometimes radical challenges to the Christian status quo.
Lon's experiences offer him a unique perspective on the desperate climate of our inner cities and the need for grace to enter that world. He has committed his life to connecting with those who suspect the Bible is inadequate to meet the deepest needs of the soul. Lon's experience lends evidence to the fact that the Bible is far more than adequate.
God graciously brought him full circle—from Dartmouth to a homeless shelter and back by way of Dallas—to prove it.
Winn Collier (ThM, 1997) is a writer and a pastor at Downtown Community Fellowship, a university church in Clemson, SC.
About the Contributors
Winn Collier, a pastor for 26 years, was the founding pastor of All Souls in Charlottesville, Virginia. Winn now serves as Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology & Christian Imagination and director of the Eugene Peterson Center for Christian Imagination at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. Winn has a PhD in religion and fiction from the University of Virginia and is the author of multiple books, including “Love Big, Be Well: Letters to a Smalltown Church” and “A Burning in My Bones,” the biography of Eugene Peterson.