TENNESSEE OR BUST
By Pastor Laura Rizzo
One of the worst and yet rather humorous times of our Christian training began in 1986 in Florida and took us on a journey to Greeneville, Tennessee. Amazingly we saw the mighty, miraculous and sovereign hand of God intervene in our lives repeatedly and learned some incredible lessons along the way.
We had met and married in 1985 in Fort Myers, Florida and at the end of our first year an offer came our way to live rent free, work at and be the Chaplains of a campground in Naples, Florida. To us this would be a very easy way to save money and I was always open for a change in scenery. Thinking we had nothing to lose, we had an interview with the park managers which proved to be very pleasant as the meeting was held in their lovely, double-wide mobile home. They seemed so nice and reasonable and discussing our future positions seemed like such an effortless, natural choice and something we were meant to do all along.
Upon returning home after much deliberation we decided to vacate our lovely, brand new apartment in Fort Myers to pursue this opportunity and were excited about embarking on this new adventure.
A Revelation that really Stinketh
Our first day there was like a slap in the face. First off, we didn’t pay much attention to the camper that the managers had planned for us to reside in which was a gross oversight on our part. The interview was so “deceiving” that we just expected their camper to be as nice as their home. Wrong!! Upon exploring this tiny, filthy, horrifying mess, I immediately burst into tears at the sight and smell of it. By now it was too late to do anything about it as we had already given up our apartment, put all our furniture in storage and had made the commitment to take these positions.
The next day we started our jobs. My position at the campground was an office check-in clerk for the campers and Vince’s job was grounds maintenance and getting the campers settled onto their sites. Our next problem was that we naively believed the managers would uphold the terms for the positions we agreed to. As it turned out, completely contrary to our agreement, we worked every weekend, every Sunday and every holiday so in comparison to that, the filthy, small camper was soon insignificant. As time went on we just became more miserable and were certain that we’d made a grave mistake in our choice to go there. We then began fervently praying that God would do something—quick!!!
Customarily God rarely, if EVER, moves quickly and even if He does, it is usually never within our time frame so while we were waiting for God to answer our prayers Vince happened to notice a forty-five foot, 1961 International school bus that was for sale in the back of the campground. Upon seeing it he sensed that God wanted us to have it so he actually just went and laid hands on it and asked the Lord for it. Within a few days he saw the man who owned it, spoke with him and we got a tour of it. The owner had been converting it to a camper and had installed bunk beds for their kids, a customized kitchen table restaurant-style booth, a mid-sized refrigerator, a small kitchen sink, a small porta potty, (funny I never noticed it didn’t have a shower!!) and at this point I was open to WHATEVER would take us away from this cursed campground.
OUR BLESSING WAS MEANT FOR HIM ALL ALONG
As we began to discuss the deal, we offered the man my car for an even-trade deal as it was a rather nice car, but he really wanted the Volkswagen camper we had. It was only three years old and a dear lady in our church, by direction of the Lord, had packed every conceivable piece of camping equipment into the thing and then had given it to us free and clear several months ago. When he suggested that, an absolute thrill came into my soul at the thought of blessing this man as he had a wife and kids and only had a moped (a tiny motor bike) to go to work, do errands, go grocery shopping and he owned nothing he could use to take his whole family anywhere.
Apparently God had intended all along for this man to have that camper van and everything in it as once we completed the deal, he radiated with joy and was praising God for this wonderful transaction. We too, were exceedingly happy and joyful, especially since we could move out of the manager’s stinky camper!!
As it was now June of 1987, we spent several weeks working on the bus to complete the conversion and it took much longer than we expected because the intense and overpowering heat and humidity were over 95 sweltering degrees each day. With sweat profusely pouring off us we both were completely exhausted by noon each day. Our upgrade included installing a window air conditioner unit in the back door window, hanging curtains around all those windows, removing the bunk beds to make a closet and some engine work. The worst part was getting a king sized bed in the tiny, back door of the bus and that was a task I never again want to do as it was more like watching the three stooges in a three-ring circus!!
A BAR-B-QUED BUS AND LOSING YOUR LUNCH
Finally finishing the conversion, it was now time to take her out and see what she could do!! Upon our first jaunt with the bus one Sunday afternoon we were traveling towards the Everglades on a two-lane road, and had only gone a few miles when smoke began pouring out from under the hood. I pulled over onto an almost non-existent shoulder that almost dumped us into a canal and Vince leaped out, opened the hood and as he did the engine burst into flames!!!
In panic, he ran back into the bus and grabbed the fire extinguisher which he had just installed the day before, but he couldn’t get it to work!! Then I panicked, ran out and grabbed the extinguisher and began frantically reading the directions to operate it. At that point, Vince’s stress level went into overload and he promptly began losing his lunch on the side of the road in the canal as I finally managed to put out the fire!!
Thinking back, it must have been quite a quandary for the passers-by as they were probably quite confused as to which to respond to – the fire or Vince’s performance so no one stopped at all to help us!!!
After putting the fire out we were completely exhausted but relieved we crawled back into the bus and just sat there getting our breath when a kind, Florida Highway Patrolman traveling in the opposite direction did and u-turn and stopped to help us. He used his radio to call headquarters to get in touch with the seller who paid for the miraculous, minimal damage and we were on our way in no time!! (The miracles were starting already!)
At least now we knew the bus was roadworthy but we still needed to hear from God what to do about leaving the campground. About a week or two later one Sunday after one of our church services, a little lady told us about a place called Horse Creek in upper East Tennessee that was run by the U. S. Department of Forestry and she said we could possibly be campground hosts there and have a similar living situation there.
Well, that was music to my ears as we couldn’t wait to leave this campground and the annoying managers who had lied to us about everything. We immediately began praying about this and on Monday we called the Dept. of Forestry. They said they would love to have us come right away and informed us that their campground was in the Appalachian Mountains and that they had three huge swimming pools!!!—Imagine that!! Not having been to Tennessee before, I immediately had visions of the kind of scenery of Oregon or Washington State and of the Florida style of three lovely concrete swimming pools – how elegant and dreamy!!!
Finally, we were ready to make the trip and we had both quit our jobs and had purchased walkie-talkies to communicate to each other on the trip. (This was long before cell phones!) Vince drove my car and I drove the bus as I had had extensive experience driving trucks and had my Chauffeur’s license for five years as I had worked outside construction related jobs before I met him.
TENNESSEE OR BUST
Once we left Fort Myers I was as happy as a lark. The trek to Horse Creek was fairly uneventful until we were about six hours south of Atlanta when I heard a big Bang from the engine. I radioed Vince and we both pulled over to check it out. As he walked up to the bus, he noticed that there was oil all down the outside of it. He opened the hood, looked around the engine, and not being a mechanic, he closed it, wiped off all the oil, placed his hands on it and prayed that God would heal it – and God did just that!! (Acts 28:8). We never had a bit of trouble with it from that time on and we arrived at our destination safe and sound six hours later.
However, by the time we reached our destination MY stress level had gone into overload. Each time I called the Dept. of Forestry they could not give me exact directions to the campground!!! Each time I hung up the pay phone I was scratching my head in unbelief asking myself why couldn’t they just tell me where their campground was?? – After all they lived in Tennessee and they should know where their own campground was!!!
Unbeknownst to us many of the roads in Tennessee seem to have been designed and constructed by persons under the influence of alcoholic substances or if you prefer, moonshine!! The roads continue endlessly curling and winding for miles and miles. It turned out that Horse Creek was at the furthest end of one of these roads and was a place less than your average “Mayberry” with the nearest town being 18 miles away!!!
TENNESSEE TORMENT – BATHING IN MOUNTAIN STREAMS
The campground itself was at the base of a huge mountain with ten tent campsites and we soon learned there were NO showers, one OUTHOUSE and NO lights within 500 feet anywhere. And as for the “three swimming pools”? These were nothing more than holes in the ground about 8 to 10 feet deep with freezing, ice cold, mountain stream water running through them and…where we would have to bathe for the next three months!!!!!!!!! We realized we were totally unprepared for camping up north and my dreamy visions of Oregon and elegant swimming pools turned into nightmares of “WHAT’S NEXT?”
After coming all this way, this was our future. I really remember quoting that line that has the fire and the frying pan in it and the phrase, “What were we thinking?” Here we were again faced with inconceivable, uncontrollable living conditions which we had to accept. I could handle the pitch black darkness outside as we did have power to our site and we were still in contact with the civilized world because the rangers installed a phone for us but I didn’t handle the outhouse issue well. And as for bathing in water day in and day out that wasn’t frozen just because it was running downhill?? That was another issue altogether!!!!
Needless to say, we didn’t bathe TOO much and fortunately there weren’t too many campers downwind of us. And using the small porta potty we had meant Vince had to dump it in the outhouse every few days – that was another nightmare I totally chose to ignore. When we did have to bathe, our normal bath time schedule in 30 degree weather was:
1. Put our bathing suits on under our clothes and jackets.
2. Wait till it was so dark you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face.
3. Take a large towel and bar of soap and your flip flops or sandals.
4. Use a large flashlight to run to the creek.
5. Strip down to the bathing suits and jump in while screaming at the top of your lungs to dull the shock.
6. Jump out to lather up.
7. Jump in again while screaming even louder to rinse off.
8. Jump back out and hold the flashlight so the other person could do the same thing.
9. Run like crazy back to the bus without falling and freezing!!
10. Pile tons of blankets on us to keep from hypothermia!!
The upside was that bathing outside at night, makes one very glad that there are no lights within 500 feet!!!
We spent our days praying and worshiping God and studying and job hunting. We found that the norm for Tennessee is to hire and lay off all the same people year after year at all the factories because most of these folks are very clannish. That means if you weren’t born there they didn’t give outsiders a second thought. So here we were in another impossible situation where we had to pray and wait on God –again!!
One thing we really learned was how to trust God and trust that He could take care of us regardless of the situation. We still had some bills from Florida but being caretakers of this campground meant we had no overhead except for food and gas but we were learning that if God could take care of the birds of the air like He said in Matthew 6:25-34, that He could take care of us. And God was there to meet us many, many times.
To most people no jobs mean no money for food, gas or bills, but to us, this is God’s perfect recipe for a miracle. To us this is a time of sheer excitement as we wait to see God open His miraculous hand and make a way where there seems to be no way.
That may sound like that was an easy formula to receiving from God but it was incredible training for us which I called the “fumes of faith” because there were times that I thought WE WOULD PERISH!! And, when it comes to perishing I always think of Queen Esther in the Bible when she was positioned to intercede for the lives of the entire Jewish nation. The risk she took to go to the king with her petition to repeal a law to annihilate her people was a life and death decision she had to make whether she died doing it or not. She trusted God to see her through this and so did we. He delivered her and the Jewish nation and He was faithful to deliver us too!
THE VEGETABLE MIRACLE
Sometimes when we thought all was lost and that we would perish, we would come home from job hunting and find another miracle had taken place such as the day we came home and found the entire one side of our entire bus was lined with huge grocery bags full of fresh vegetables of all kinds that came from the park rangers. There were about 20 bags in all. We were totally in awe of what God was doing as we told no one but God of our needs. We had been at the end again with no money for food at all. We later learned that all the park rangers owned and ran farms while working at several different parks part time. In our greatest hour of need God had orchestrated these people to bless us during our times of despair.
As Day Light Savings Time was ended, it was getting darker sooner so we mentioned to the Dept. of Forestry just how dark the park was and they placed a large light fixture behind our bus which was just outside our bedroom air conditioner. This was rather comforting to us as the woods at the base of this huge mountain in the park rendered everything pitch black once the sun set.
However, we really hadn’t thought far enough ahead on this because being that this light was THE ONLY LIGHT at our end of the park, we were awakened in the middle of the night to find whole families of crickets leaping through the air conditioner vent onto our king size bed!!
Half asleep, half laughing, swatting and beating the sheets we attempted to rid ourselves of over fifty of the noisy creatures who were having a grand time invading our nocturnal bliss!! I finally yelled for Vince to go outside and shut off the light to keep the rest of the cricket population from coming in. Getting back to sleep many hours later I recall even laughing in my sleep after this crazy episode. We saw this as God bringing us moments of laughter from the smallest things to keep us from discouragement and from giving up.
THE NEXT MIRACLE PROVISION
One day in November we discovered a local tent revival. The 30 degree weather rendered very small crowds and we noticed they were getting very small offerings as well. This made it easy for us to get acquainted with the lady preacher and we found that she too was living by faith. She then invited Vince to preach the last night of the revival.
Before we left that evening during the revival Vince sensed that the Lord wanted him to pledge to give her and her team $50.00. We didn’t have $5.00 let alone $50.00, but we knew that we served a faithful God and that He would provide. When the last night of the revival came, we still didn’t have the pledge money but Vince went and preached till they were cheering and receiving from God. In fact, the lady preacher was so kind that she had all the attendees come forward and give us an offering as they left and not having ever experienced that type of offering before we just stuffed the money into our pockets.
Later when it was all over, Vince pulled $50.00 out of his pockets for her and we discovered that between the two of us we still had $290.00 left over which to us was a gold mine!! This was a lot of money in 1987 and was just enough for us to pay our few bills, get food and gas, go out to dinner and wait on God again for the next provision. Our hearts were overflowing with joy and excitement that God had met our needs– again!!
LIVING ON $40.00 A WEEK FOR 3 MONTHS
Our job hunting finally proved successful when I was hired as a secretary at a local church. The pastor could only pay me $4.00 per hour and I could only afford to work part time three days a week because each round trip was 36 miles so it was rather costly. For three months we lived on about $40.00 per week!!!!
On some of those pay days I remember walking up and down the grocery aisles tears streaming down my face wondering how we could conceivably survive and trying to reason how we would ever have enough money for gas and food, the bills and incidentals. The impossibility of it all was overwhelming and each week I would VERY carefully choose what we could afford and of course we always tithed $4.00 per week to the church as well. Trust me when I say that it is terribly hard on your flesh to tithe $4.00 per week when you are only making $40.00 per week but we found joy in giving to God as we saw Him lovingly provide for us time and time again.
Many times we would have to concentrate on the miracles of Jesus and that if Jesus could feed 5,000 from one loaf of bread and two little fish that he could care for us just fine on $40.00 per week!!! And He was faithful to multiply our loaves and fishes each and every week!!!! God would even put us before people who were making much more money per week than us but would be in terrible financial situations. One such family attended our church and were living in fear as they did not have enough money to feed their kids. This was a family of five who were living on nothing but ice milk as the father worked at a dairy.
God then opened a door of opportunity for us to be able to witness to them and testify how powerfully and faithfully God had provided for us and taken care of us when we put Him first in every area our lives. These same people then financially blessed us out of their extreme need and the next time we saw them, they had a testimony to tell of the goodness of God in His care and provision for them as well!!! In fact the next week the husband got a promotion and a raise!! When we honor God in all we do, He will honor us.
Now as it turned out, Vince could not find a job so he had the privilege of staying home and praying and seeking the Lord. God would then give Vince that wonderful peace and be so real to Vince that he was incredibly encouraged and would then encourage me through the rough times.
Periodically we would get invitations to preach at local churches, which was the result of Vince’s time spent in prayer. The opportunities helped us form local friendships and provided some funding as the churches responded with some support.
By now winter was fast approaching and the situation was getting steadily MORE uncomfortable and annoying. The November-December temperatures were so cold that the mountain stream we bathed in felt like needles piercing your skin. By the time we would run back to the bus, we were so frozen that we had to stack layers of blankets on both of us to be able to stand it. The water actually felt so cold that one time Vince had a terrible headache and when he dove in he practically flew out of the water and then realized his headache was completely gone!! (Either that or he was so cold he couldn’t feel it any longer!!)
By this time the campground we were in was now closing and we had to relocate to another park. In fact, it was so late in the season that when we moved to this new park we were the ONLY ones there and it was scheduled to close within two weeks. The hand of the Lord also gave us favor there as the park managers allowed us to stay free of charge!
ATTACK OF THE SPIDERS
We set up camp as usual but at least this place had hot showers – what a wonderful luxury!!!! But then the trials and challenges began again. This time we faced black spiders with fuzzy white hair on their backs that seemed to be everywhere. One day while doing the dishes I was rinsing a dish when I looked up and here was one of these spiders dangling from the shelving unit above the sink just inches from my nose!! I gasped in sheer horror and it was just enough to get him to drop down in the dishwater right where I wanted him. I thank my God that I didn’t inhale any harder or that thing would have gone right down my throat, hair and all!!
ITS THE 4TH OF JULY AT CHRISTMAS
As the days passed it even got colder and we had to run two space heaters all night long because school buses have no insulation. If it was 20 degrees outside it was just about that cold inside and you could see your breath if you sat up in bed.
One night it was just too much for our generator and we woke up to the sounds of explosions and flashing lights on the left side of the bus. Afraid to look but praying it just may be something else besides our bus exploding, we dared to peek outside the curtains to realize that the power box under the bus was self-destructing right before our very eyes at 3:00 a.m. in the morning!!
Yes, it was July in Christmas – the 4th of July!! Streams of objects were shooting into the night air with great beams of light that were projecting into the pitch blackness at accelerating speeds. Booms of bangs were piercing the silence of the night as we watched our only source of heat go up in a blaze of glory. I remember just rolling my eyes back, looking over at Vince and pulling the covers over my head and saying, “We’ll just deal with it in the morning!” It was just easier to forget it all and sleep in denial for the rest of the night.
In the morning after investigating everything, we discovered that besides the power box meltdown that all the water pipes had frozen and burst. At this point we were at our wits end. We again were at the place of no money at all. We managed to temporarily fix things but our attitudes were really beginning to lean towards the disgusted side.
A BIG BLESSING IN DISGUISE
At around 11:00 p.m. the very last night the campground was open, we got a knock on our door and were very surprised to see a couple from the tent revival who had come to see us for prayer. (We didn’t remember mentioning it, but we must have told the lady preacher from the tent revival where we were going to move to so she must have told them where we were.)
We were really not much in the mood to pray for anyone but when we did, I was trying to be sensitive to God to see what He would have me bless them with because they were the poorest people at the revival. They had put coins into our hands when the lady preacher told everyone to give us an offering as they left the revival!!)
As it happened, God did not tell me to give them anything. After we prayed we shared some refreshments and then we said our goodbyes. Once they left Vince went back to being disgusted. Two minutes later I heard another knock at the door and it was the wife of the couple and she shoved something in my hand and I just said “Thank you” to her as I thought it was probably a one dollar bill. We again said goodbye, I shut the door and Vince came out to see who it was just as I opened my hand to see a $100.00 bill!!! Again, this was a lot of money in 1987 and we both were just completely stunned. I think I muttered “The wife just gave me this.” I think we just stood there about five minutes just starring at it not believing that this poor little lady had given us that much money. Then we both did the dance of joy!!! We were just beside ourselves and thanked God and rejoiced all over the place and we slept very well that night as I recall.
The next day all of a sudden Vince wondered whether the couple had mistakenly given us their rent money in the dark!! We had no idea where they lived or worked and looked for them for a while as Greeneville was a rather small town. Not finding them we went ahead and purchased food and gas and ran into a couple of women who were in the praise and worship team from the church where we had been attending and where I had been working. They inquired how we were doing and in our conversation we found they just happened to be the managers of an apartment complex just outside of town. By that night we had put a deposit on an apartment, had moved in and had traded the bus for a nice car at a used car lot in town.
THE WHITE DOVE
Interestingly enough, the next time we saw the couple that had given us the $100.00, Vince immediately asked them if they had mistakenly given us their rent money. The husband spoke up and said that when they walked outside of our camper and were getting ready to leave, they were in their car figuring out how much money to give us when they looked out toward the woods and saw a pure, white dove fly out of the woods and land on the top of our bus. As soon as they saw that, the wife ran to give us the $100.00!!
In a tiny moment of time, through the most unexpected servants of God, He had provided all we needed. I couldn’t have been more surprised. When you are determined to submit yourself to God, He will shock you with His love at times. More and more He was showing us His compassion, absolute faithfulness and loving hand of provision. More and more we were learning to behave during the hard times by maintaining a good attitude and learning to control our emotions and feelings because we were learning that we could count on God. When we were upset or angry with God and He would answer our prayers, we would feel so ashamed that we didn’t believe and have the faith that He would take care of us.
We were learning not to get upset but to worship and love Him with a joyful spirit continually regardless of what we were going through because we knew that if we didn’t have a good attitude that we weren’t being faithful to Him. If we praise Him before He answers, it proves that we really trust Him and have faith that He is able to deliver us and keep us because He is our portion, our strength, our deliverer, our provider, the rock of our salvation in whom we can trust completely!!!
It is a wondrous thing to fall in love with the one I call Daddy God. Growing up, my brother and I never had a father image in our family – my mom brought us up all alone and Vince also had a very difficult youth as well. Father is a name neither of us could relate to but God cared for us so deeply that He revealed Himself in ways of love we never expected. Getting to know God as a real father is an incredible journey, privilege and honor. We found the heart of God in the midst of desperation. Looking back I know it was worth every moment of that desperation because it revealed to us that it wasn’t about the money, it wasn’t about jobs or preaching engagements, it was about falling in love with a God who not only gave His own Son but continued to give and give and give.
This whole journey was meant to pull us much deeper than survival or supply. It all was meant to create deep within us an unrelenting passion and devotion to the One and Only God who is alive forevermore and who loves us beyond all intellect, all knowledge, all circumstance and all there is.
This is known in the scriptures as “the chastening of the Lord” and when we surrender to go through this and learn to control all our actions when the heat is on, to glorify Him, that is where spiritual maturity comes from. When outside circumstances or anything in your life can not cause you to turn your back on God and you remain faithful, loyal and dedicated to Him through ANYTHING life has to throw at you and you remain in complete peace,THAT is spiritual maturity.
May all your experiences cause you to press towards the mark of the High Call of God in Christ Jesus.
Pastor Laura Rizzo