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Conroe church's transitional program restores furniture, restores lives

CONROE—Todd Howard hardly can believe his eyes. No one wanted the dresser before him. It was dilapidated and dirty, worn and worthless. Even when it arrived at a warehouse stacked full of items people were discarding, it sat near the bottom of the pile.

Todd Howard works on a refinishing project for All Things New, part of the transitional work program at Under Over Fellowship in Conroe. (PHOTO/BGCT)
Until, that is, Howard says he received a vision for it. Little by little, he sanded on the piece. Day after day, he honed it, rebuilt it and restored it. In the process, he became one with it.

Now it glistens on the showroom floor of All Things New, part of the transitional work program of Under Over Fellowship, which offers homeless men and women the opportunity to work restoring unwanted furniture and hope in their lives.

"We take this old, trashed up, junky furniture and make it something beautiful," said Howard, one of more than 10 people who work in the program. "Just like the Lord takes guys like me who are ugly inside, pretty filthy on the outside and turn us into a prize. I like that, man."

Howard's restoration has taken longer than the dresser and in many ways still continues. Tattoos—including a pentagram on one of his elbows and horns above his forehead—dot Howard's body, visible reminders of a prior life as a self-described "adversary to God."

"I was a pretty bad guy out there, man," he said. "I didn't care about anybody but myself. And I was trying to drag as many people down with me as possible."

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Bored while staying at the local Salvation Army shelter, Howard made his way to a Bible study led by Jerry Vineyard, pastor of Under Over Fellowship, a church start facilitated by the Baptist General Convention of Texas, Tryon Evergreen Baptist Association and Conroe Community Church.

Vineyard's teachings were practical and needed to be applied to his life, Howard said. Coming back again and again, he discovered a congregation that meets in a park full of people with backgrounds similar to his.

"I have a tendency to be judged by certain people or be looked at strangely by people," Howard said. "Jerry didn't do that. This is a church where a lot of people come from the same backgrounds. Nobody here's to judge anybody because we're all floating in the same boat, brother."

Using the same mixture of direct accountability and compassion that helped spark 25 professions of faith in Christ and 28 baptisms in the church during the past nine months, Vineyard bonded with Howard.

Howard started in the church's transitional work program, a micro-enterprise effort that empowers homeless individuals to become business people. Their restored furniture is sold through All Things New, a store owned by the church. The cost of the supplies needed to restore the furniture is subtracted from the sale price, and 10 percent of the total income is invested back into the work program. The craftsman keeps the rest of the revenue, laying the groundwork for him to move out of the program as he improves financially and spiritually.

"We go and find a piece of furniture that is unwanted," Vineyard said. "A lot of times it's on the side of the road. It's beat up and broken. We see value in that so we scoop it up and put it in the hands of a capable craftsman and they turn it into something beautiful. People want it then.

"In the same sense, we see that in the gospel. Christ is that master craftsman who takes our lives and reworks it and gives us hope. I see the gospel in what we do with the furniture, but also through that with the men and women we work with as well."

Howard recently told a youth group his testimony of returning to God. His former pastor also asked him to speak at a church in Houston where he'll have the opportunity to minister to the same people with whom used to get high and drunk. Vineyard believes this is only the beginning for Howard, whom the pastor believes is called to preach.

"I believe God has a plan for him," Vineyard said. "Our whole process is to raise leaders to continue spreading the gospel, and I believe that Todd is one of those leaders. It has been a blessing to be part of his story."

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Vineyard thanks Texas Baptists for their role in helping people like Todd experience restoration. The convention is taking a chance on a church with a unique vision for a church without walls that primarily ministers to those who are struggling in society, he said. The church is supported in part by gifts to missions through the Texas Baptist Cooperative Program, as well as donations to the Mary Hill Davis Offering for Texas Missions.

"I see the BGCT as a partner," Vineyard said. "Every single person who gives through the Cooperative Program gives to our ministry and our church and what we're doing here. They're no different from a person who comes and brings a table to drop off at the warehouse or drops a $50 check in the mail to help buy shoes for a homeless guy. It's no different. It's all the same. We see the church coming together to use its resources for the kingdom and for God's purpose."

Howard embraces Vineyard's belief in him, believing God led him away from his addictions for a purpose. He saw how young people listened to what he shared and hopes to help other young people avoid the pitfalls he encountered.

That's simply the latest layer of beauty God's revealed in Howard, he said. It's like those layers that shine so clearly on the dresser in front of him.

"A lot of this stuff comes in pretty trashed," Howard said. "If you can look at this and see the potential in that, why can't we look at ourselves and see the potential in ourselves?"
       
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