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Ministry beyond the midway’s sparkle

By Barbara Denman

June 27, 2013


Just beyond the kaleidoscopic lights of the midway, tucked snuggly behind the Ferris wheel, Magnum and Enterprise rides and other attractions at the South Florida Fair lies a church.

There is no steeple, no pews or even walls. And it exists for only three weeks a year. But to the carnival workers at the West Palm Beach fair, the “Church at Gate 5” offers grace, redemption and an outpouring of love as physical and spiritual needs are met.

“Without them, a lot of people would go hungry; a lot of people would have no clothes to wear,” said carnival worker Ivy Banks.

“If you don’t believe in God, when you meet these people, I guarantee you will when you leave,” said worker Don Brown. “They are very beautiful people.”

“I came here with no money,” said carnie Jimmie Thompson, “and needed food and clothing. They gave it all to me. This is the best I’ve seen. They pray for you every time you come back here, they are really, loving people who will get a blessing one day in their life.”

For 25 years, Florida Baptist churches in the Palm Beach area have partnered together to be the Light of Christ to the carnival workers at the South Florida fair. The event is held annually for three weeks in January and February.

From one truck initially providing coffee and muffins, the Church at Gate 5 has grown to a contingent of vehicles parked at one of the entrances leading into the fairgrounds. From that location, the Baptist volunteers offer snacks, drinks and baked goods throughout the day in the “Grace Wagon,” as well as clothes, birthday celebrations, blankets, personal hygiene items, haircuts and countless pairs of black jeans and tennis shoes, a dress requirement for fair employees.

Volunteers also lead Bible studies, “popcorn” prayers and times of discipleship and mentoring. A huge barrel sits in the middle of the church with a sign beckoning believers to express their salvation. Last year, the waters of this baptismal pool were stirred three times.

Each year Campers on Missions park their recreational vehicles on the property of the makeshift church for the three weeks, meeting unexpected needs, making emergency hospital visits and responding to family crises.

Routinely called “carnies,” the fair workers endure a life “one step a little above the homeless,” contends Ann Lemos. For the past 19 years Lemos, a member of Grace Fellowship in West Palm Beach, has coordinated the ministry that involves 28 Florida Baptist churches, Campers on Missions and the Florida Baptist mobile dental unit.

The fair season in Florida begins each year in January and continues through mid-November. Because the South Florida fair is the first of the season, many workers arrive having spent that little nest egg they saved from the year before and often find their personal longings have been stolen or lost. So they begin the season in a deficit with little money or means until their first paycheck arrives.

They sleep in one of three locations—under 18 wheelers, in the back of trucks or in bunk houses about as “big as a closet,” said Lemos. All rent—as well as food and drinks consumed by workers on the fairgrounds—are deducted from their accrued wages, she explained.

Not only are they victims of questionable payroll deductions by their employers, but often find other carnival workers and even friends will steal from them, Lemos said.

She tells the story of Jill, one of the carnies Lemos befriended in the past, who crushed her ankle in an accident. While in the hospital, Lemos was asked to gather the young woman’s belongings. Agreeing to the request, the Lemos asked where to find the clothes. “They were located under an 18-wheeler. This young woman was sleeping under an 18-wheeler,” she said in disbelief. Throughout Jill’s six month stay in rehab, Lemos remained by the young woman’s side, continually ministering to her. 

“They are a cross section of people,” said Lemos. “Some are very educated, some are not. Some just can’t get that traditional job so they are here. Some truly love what they do making kids laugh.”

Gerald Teague is one of those. Every morning he comes to the Church at Gate 5 for morning coffee and to be around fellow Christians. He admits working as a carnie “is a hard life. Living conditions are about the worse,” he said. But working the “Hanky Panky” game from 1 p.m.-11 p.m. and until midnight on the weekend, “making kids smile and making them happy” makes his job worthwhile.

He has been to other fairs that have similar ministries, but said the Palm Beach Network’s effort is the best by far. At the Plant City Strawberry Festival, he has dental work done by the dentists staffing the Convention’s Mobile Dental Unit, relieving him from long time of pain.

Since 1991 volunteer Jamie Gregory has parked her recreational vehicle on the grounds of Church at Gate 5, living there “24/7 in case Jesus happens to knock at any time day or night. We never know when we might have to do a hospital run or run to the Greyhound station or airport,” she said.

One night, a man began throwing rocks at the window because “he was so thirsty. We gave him a drink of water. That’s why we are here 24/7,” Gregory recalled.

She coordinates the delivery of hot meals from local churches to feed workers each night. Youth groups prepare sack lunches and distribute them to the carnival workers while they are staffing the games and rides on the midway. Each of the bags contains a Bible verse and reminder that God loves them, she said.

This year, Gregory and members from her church, First Baptist in Royal Palm, conducted one-on-one discipleship meeting with workers. Another church member took another worker to an Alcoholic Anonymous meeting. The Royal Palm congregation is actively involved in the fair ministry, sending many volunteers and resources.

“When I go into my camper at night, I cry because my heart is broken,” Gregory shared. “You can never meet every single one of their needs. You can’t make enough sandwiches, you can’t make enough meals, you can’t get enough clothing, you can’t always be there for every one of them.”

“But you can make a difference. You can touch one, you can change one life, and you can encourage one.”

By the end of the third week, many of the volunteers have developed relationships with the carnival workers.

“We build up their confidence,” recalls Gregory. “We call them by name and tell them that they are a child of the King and He knows their name. . .and He will never forsake them.”

Despite all the illuminations radiating from the attractions on the midway, for three weeks in West Palm Beach none shine brighter than the Light guiding the Church at Gate 5.

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