“The city has been trying to shut us down” -Pastor Serenity Domenico
. . . .
We are in Oklahoma visiting my sister’s family.
A few years back, I was speaking at John Brown University. It was there that we met Serenity, at the time just a struggling student, not struggling so much with school, but struggling spiritually, struggling with the loneliness of her call.
I have checked in with Serenity a few times since. I have always been intrigued by the coffeehouse ministry she shares in Oklahoma City. I didn’t know the half of it. I am so glad that I called her and asked if I could visit.
I arrived yesterday (Sunday) morning. Serenity met me at the door of Joe’s Addiction coffeehouse. She could barely wait to show me around. I wanted to hear about how she was doing. All she wanted to show me was the dilapidated strip mall where Joe’s resides, along that most depressing industrial road just outside the city.
The coffeehouse and church were not in OKC. They were in an adjacent principality only .3 miles wide called Valleybrook that had never been incorporated into any of the larger surrounding towns. Why? Sex industry.
“Valleybrook exists for its strip clubs. They specialize in young dancers and backroom services,” Serenity explained. The laws in this town are lenient and that sets it apart. The sex industry inhabits all strata of the small town. Even the mayor has a checkered business history with the clubs. More on that later.
The strip mall could not have been more forgettable. It was in disrepair. But just like a first century Middle Eastern peasant man, externals can be deceiving. Serenity started on the western end. “This is our free store. All the neighbors, even those that complain about our presence, come to get clothes and other needs.”
It took months of advocacy and phone calls to get a Narcotics Anonamous in this community. Now a full functioning and locally led NA facility abides as the mall’s center tenant.
Serenity, the consummate local leader and storyteller, peppered all of her descriptions with the names of personal friends and beloved neighbors that had joined the interrelated movements of that forgotten strip of storefronts.
“The church is technically called Valleybrook Vineyard, but no body knows it as that. We all just call it ‘Joe’s Addiction’.”
I took a seat by the west wall and I was immediately lost, enraptured really, in the beauty all around. The church is populated by addicts, dancers, friends from the street. Jamie (founding pastor and owner of Joe’s Addiction) and Eric led spirited and passionate worship. Wet faces lifted lyrics to the sky.
Pastor Serenity took the stage. There were 50 or so in the tight space. Her twenty-two year old eyes surveyed the room. It was clear that there was not a story in the room that she did not personally know and experience.
Her message was from Luke 7, but every word was tied to the community’s shared life in Valleybrook.
“This week, I saw an African-American woman’s car broken down in the middle of the road.” She later explained to me that driving black in Valleybrook was an immediate ticket. “I watched a police car drive up, the officer jumped out and ran to her stalled out car. He immediately pushed the car to safety and made sure the woman was okay. No ticket. I couldn’t help but cheer out the window to the officer. A glimpse of the kingdom.”
Her sermon was possibly the most encouraging and inspiring I have heard in years. Serenity continued on that kingdom theme. “We live as if we are from the future.” Jesus is going to make everything right. God is bringing justice and peace. We are bringing glimpses of this promised future reality into our world everyday. That is life with Jesus.
Later, harkening to Matthew 25 and Jesus words, “As much as you have done it to the least, you have done it unto me: the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, the prisoner, the stranger/immigrant and… the naked,” Serenity called her friends to “Adopt a Jesus.”
One wall was sacredly reserved for the pictures of dead family members. The community bulletin board held fliers of basic human services.
At the table of God, we need to hear, “I saved a seat for you.”
. . . .
After the service, Serenity explained to me that the town was constantly trying to shut their community and services down. She told me a story of supernatural happenstance that kept the city council from voting them out.
Why is the small government so adamant and caustic toward this small and struggling movement of goodness and justice? I can only guess. Here is what I know: Joe’s Addiction attracts the homeless. They provide a home and healing services to addicts… chemical addicts… sex addicts. They invite dancers into family and healing… and another way. I imagine only one interpretation: Joe’s Addiction’s life together is a threat to this town… and its favorite business industry.
I am sad to tell you that their community may be coming to an end and least in its current form. With the failure of the city to remove them through legislation, the local government has taken a path of power and money. The city recently bought the strip mall. Pastor Jamie and the rest of the community is anticipating the removal of everything: The coffeehouse, the free store, the NA facility, the church.
They are praying and searching for any path to keep loving and serving Valleybrook.
In the short-term and the (prayerfully) long-term, there is only one plan:
“Live like you are from the future.”
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done in Valleybrook as it is in heaven.