By MARILYN TINNIN
“If people got out of their pews, came together, and took the pew to the pavement, how much strength there would be to really make a difference,” Trey Long says with great conviction. He says that because he has experienced what he calls the “power of caring.”
Trey and Enley Long of Meridian did not start out to head a ministry or start a grassroots movement in Meridian. Their plate was full. They had four children and a busy life. Trey is Vice President of Long Wholesale Grocers, a fourth-generation family business that has evolved over its history from a traveling grocery store on horseback to the largest supplier for convenience stores in the Southeastern United States.
Although Trey confesses that during his college career he was not especially concerned with too much other than the next ballgame or the next party, his “Christian” roots were there somewhere, and the minute he and Enley said “I do,” they rediscovered those deeply ingrained values that their parents had spent years instilling in them. The thought of raising a family sent them back to the basics, and they became quite intentional in their walk with the Lord.
They joined First Baptist Church of Meridian and Trey found himself in several leadership roles. When their associate pastor, Matt Snowden, began to challenge the Sunday School classes to “go out and make a difference in the world,” Trey took those words to heart. The “Young Married” class decided to find a project that would take them out of their familiar comfort zone and touch people outside the bricks and mortar of their Baptist church.
The class settled on building a small basketball court at Meridian’s Wesley House, a United Methodist related non-profit agency that helps abused children and also ministers to an impoverished surrounding neighborhood. The area is dominated by a huge housing project where many lack the most basic necessities. Trey’s first glimpse of the neighborhood was an eye opener.
He realized he had been driving past these streets most of his life and had never given a second thought to the people in the apartments that lay beyond the traffic lights he blithely passed every day. When he walked through a too small fenced playground behind the Wesley House, he looked down and saw a spent shotgun shell right there beside the fence. As the father of small children, he was horrified. His tour guide said matter-of-factly, “Safety is always an issue here.” She added that some of the area residents frequently taunted the children through the fence.
“I had never really stepped out in faith where if God didn’t come through, it wasn’t going to happen,” Trey says. The basketball court was going to cost several thousand dollars. When one person volunteered to build the court in exchange for a plaque next to it giving his company credit, Trey was initially thrilled. However, later that very day, he had second thoughts. His dilemma was that if they put up a plaque honoring an individual rather than God, he would miss a major opportunity to demonstrate to the area kids, whom he hoped to introduce to Jesus eventually, that God does answer our prayers in miraculous ways.
Trey barely slept that night. He wasn’t exactly sure what God was up to, but he was sure the basketball court was not to be built by one individual who wanted his name on a plaque. So he told the man the next day, “No thanks. We don’t want anyone but God to get the credit for this.”
One day later the Wesley House received a check in the mail for the exact amount of the basketball court with a note attached: “Must be used for recreation purposes.”
And that was just the beginning of a whole new chapter in Trey Long’s life. The shotgun shell, along with God’s surprise provision for the basketball court, were transformative events for Trey. It was also very clear that this was not going to be a quick project that he could pat himself on the back about while he returned to his comfortable life.
He sensed that God was just getting started, and there was more work to do. That was exciting, and it was also a bit unsettling for this young husband and father.
Playground for Jesus
There was a huge vacant grassy area of about an acre sitting next to the Wesley House. The weeds were waist high and the ground was littered with broken bottles, beer cans, and mattresses. Trey and his church friends made it their mission to clean up the field, hauling off the mattresses and exploring the possibility of building a community playground. When the mattresses had been hauled away for a third time, Trey says his eyes were really opened. Prostitution was going on right there beside the Wesley House. Discarded needles left little to the imagination regarding the seedy activities that were the norm there.
Trey says, “God really placed it on my heart that this needed to be taken away and replaced with something good. It was another challenge to our Sunday School class.” It was going to take a lot of money—at least $45,000. One morning Trey sent out an email to a host of names in his address book and the subject line was “What can you do with ten dollars?”
Go to a movie, put three gallons of gas in your car, buy two Happy Meals at McDonalds…or provide a ‘Playground for Jesus’ to children in a hurting neighborhood…Together we can influence the two little boys who were spray painting their guns to better conceal their weapons, the 10 year old girl who just got pregnant because her cousin was pimping her out, the two men in the van who said they worship Satan, the 80 kids who came to our first movie night, the women prostituting themselves on mattresses in the field, the 15 kids who have been coming to a Bible Study and everyone who sees God at work in our community…We are seeking funds and have a line item in the budget at Wesley House named Playground for Jesus. We feel this will change lives as it already has for five youth who have accepted Christ during the last month…
And so went the email asking for donations. Trey laughs that if he had known how far that email would travel, he would have at least done “spell check!” “It was just my ‘redneck’ way of writing a quick email. But obviously God had something to do with it because it touched people and within 45 days we had money from every state in the union and we had raised more than $50,000 for our $45,000 project! Before it was over we had raised $65,000!”
It wasn’t long before the bulldozers were out there clearing the property; the concrete was being poured; the playground equipment was delivered; and the Playground for Jesus was happening.
The lesson here for Trey was that actions speak louder than words. “We could have knocked on those doors until we were blue in the face telling these people we wanted to love them and tell them about Jesus. They would never have listened until we backed up our words with actions, meeting a real need that proved we care. Their ears were opened; their hearts were softened.”
Every time the Longs went by the construction site or stopped by the Wesley House to check on things, they seemed to attract a whole “flock” of children who came to recognize their vehicles and came running, eager to soak up the affection that Trey and Enley so freely gave.
Trey says, “That whole event seeing what the playground did to open the community to us instilled in me such a new passion for action.” He and Enley, and even their four children, were hyper-tuned now to giving and serving these new friends who had blessed them in ways they had never known would happen.
The 1 John 3:17 Ministry
On the day the Playground for Jesus was ready to receive the neighborhood, the temperatures were almost sub-zero. There was unbridled enthusiasm among the children who had been watching the progress in the vacant lot and counting the days until the playground was theirs. Trey remembers how the kids came out to play basketball on the new court despite the elements. He was right there with them playing as hard as anyone.
Trey looked down and noticed a little boy playing and shivering in his short sleeves, and he asked, “Son, where is your jacket?’ The little boy said, “I don’t have a jacket.” Trey knew immediately that this child was going to have a jacket before that day was over, and he went home to retrieve from his son’s closet one of several jackets.
The interaction with the community around Wesley House was teaching Trey and Enley a side of life they had really never known, but that particular night Trey was more conscious than usual of the needs that were constantly before him and of God’s hand in all that had happened thus far in that community.
God was doing the heavy lifting—all Trey and Enley were doing was paying attention and being obedient. The Longs were attached by their heartstrings to many of these kids who had seemingly “adopted” them.
That evening, after the incident with the child without a coat, Trey sat down to read his Bible and to just think about this “project” that had become a “calling.” He thought about the little boy who was out there on the basketball court, grateful and excited for the new playground and seemingly unaware that it was not normal to not even own a coat when the temperature was freezing.
Trey opened his Bible—the one that was so underlined and highlighted that there were only a few verses in the whole thing that were just there without a mark of any kind. Trey had taught a “Through the Bible in a Year” class at First Baptist several times and in his preparation he had outlined, underlined, cross-referenced, and highlighted Scripture as though he were going to teach in a seminary. He thought he knew his Bible backward and forward.
That evening, however, he came across a verse that was brand new to him. It was totally virgin in that there were NO marks anywhere around it. 1 John 3:17 says, “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God in him?”
To Trey’s mind this meant that if someone is aware of a need and is totally unmoved and has no passion to see the need met, then does the love of Christ really live in his heart? Even when a person lacks the means to provide for the need, he should consider making the need known so that someone who can meet it will.
The very next week Trey went to the staff at the Wesley House and said, “Tell me about your budget.” The answer came back that there were only so many legitimate needs they could fill with their limited resources. Trey said, “Okay. So tell me about a recent need you could not meet even though you really wanted to.”
The wheels in his mind were turning. He had an email list of about 800 names he had put together during the Playground for Jesus drive. The staff shared a need with him concerning an elderly lady who desperately needed help with her utilities. Trey sent out an email. The money came in quickly, and he thought, “We are going to do this again.” From that point he decided to take a need a week, send out an email, and watch the body of Christ mobilize to fill it.
Within a few weeks, the local radio station WMOX called with an offer of a weekly segment to share needs on the air and let people call in their pledges. The community immediately jumped in to support it. Next came a call from the newspaper, The Meridian Star, offering a weekly spot in the Saturday edition to publish the week’s need. All of that began in 2010, and as of October 12, 2015, every weekly need has been met—not by any huge donor but by small contributions that come from a compassionate community of Believers who know that Love is the most potent testimony of faith there is.
Trey says, “It moves me in an indescribable way when I hear the voices of people calling in pledges to help someone they might never meet. The children calling in pledges from their allowances or piggy banks always touch my heart.”
Called Out of the Comfort Zone
What had started as a Sunday School challenge had definitely become a way of life for the Long family. Trey and Enley had been part spectator and part vessel as God continued to touch the hearts of the neighborhood around Wesley House. They had seen what “pew power” looked like. There was a boldness in that realization, but there was a constant surprise factor, too, in just exactly how far God would reach to meet a need.
When the Wesley House applied for a particular $10,000 grant in 2011, they were told they needed to meet a certain level of accreditation to receive the money. They set about jumping through the required hoops until they received word that as long as they had crosses, pictures of Jesus and scriptures on display, they would not be eligible. It was a great disappointment to the Wesley staff. They served not only the surrounding impoverished neighborhood but also took in many abused children from other counties. They relied on donations to keep the doors open.
Trey’s first words to his Wesley friends were, “God can double that amount if we honor him.”
Ginger Grissom Stevens, Executive Director of the Wesley House agreed saying, “We are not going to take the crosses down. That’s not who we are.”
As Trey had learned earlier, talk is cheap. Action is real. The 1 John 3:17 ministry and its army of supporters who had built the playground, started the summer enrichment programs, and spent many an afternoon providing activities for the neighborhood children, came together to plan a community wide fundraising event. Nobody involved had ever done anything of the sort.
They decided to bring in a dynamic speaker, a former mob leader Michael Franzese, a born-again Christian who for years ran the Brooklyn mob. Many churches in Meridian got behind the effort and the event was held at the Evangel Temple where the auditorium was large enough to accommodate a huge crowd. There was no admission, but the plan was to take up an offering with all proceeds pledged to the Wesley House.
As the day drew near, Trey began to get nervous. What if they failed to raise even the $10,000 that was critical? In the beginning, he was so sure God would double that amount, but he admits he had a lot of anxiety in the few days prior to the August 22 event.
It was standing room only that night in the auditorium. Trey was a bundle of nerves. After the offering was received and while the speaker delivered his speech, Trey and a few other leaders were in a room counting the money having promised to report to the audience before a benediction was given.
Trey confesses that he was “maybe a little out of control” when he jumped on the stage waving the letter from the agency that had denied the grant unless all Christian symbols were removed. He shouted like a street evangelist as he tore the letter in half announcing, “God hasn’t just doubled that amount. He doubled the double!” The place erupted as people flooded the aisles celebrating the $40,000 that had been given in that one night.
Sounding more like a little boy on Christmas morning than a forty-year-old father of four, Trey says, “It was better than winning the Super Bowl!”
A Philosophy of Life
When Trey was named by the Meridian Junior Auxiliary as Humanitarian of the Year in 2012, the Meridian Star did an extensive interview with him. One of their questions involved his philosophy of life. I wish space would permit me to quote the entire answer.
“My philosophy of life is based on what was accomplished through people in the Bible. I hope to carry out things through God’s guidance just like they did with the goal of drawing people into a relationship with God…Small armies conquered big armies, diseases disappeared, seas parted to make dry land, shepherd boys became kings,…storms are stilled, the hungry are fed, the blind find sight…I want to be a part of these. God wants to use us. God is calling us…We are facing giants in this world. God needs some people who are willing to fight for His glory…There are people in our backyards if it rains tonight will get wet. There are people in our backyards wondering if they are going to eat today. There are people in our backyards that could die tonight without knowing Jesus. You might say the problem is too big and what difference can I make?”
Trey closed that article with a story you may have heard before. It is too good not to tell again.
“I read in a book a story of a young boy on a beach full of starfish. Each starfish washed up on the beach was dying. The young boy walked down the beach throwing one starfish a time back into the lifesaving water. An elderly gentleman saw the young boy and told him, “young boy what you are doing is noble but you cannot fix this problem. This problem is too big.” The young boy picked up one starfish, threw it in the water, smiled, and told the man, “Well, it mattered to that one.”
The 1 John 3:17 Ministry is five years young. Maybe Trey and his willing and generous warriors haven’t fixed every problem and filled every need among every hurting person in the city of Meridian, but they have certainly made a difference and will continue to make a difference as God calls them to love and help one person at a time. Kind of reminds me of something Jesus might do.
For more information on the 1 John 3:17 Ministry contact Trey@longwholesale.com. You can also mail donations to PO BOX 664, Marion, MS, 39342. Make checks payable to the Wesley House and earmark them for 1 John 3:17.