Church refurbishes vintage bus to continue youth ministry's legacy
Ron Wheeler remembers riding a church bus in the 1940s, singing a children’s Bible song with as much gusto as his preteen voice could muster.
“I will make you fishers of men, fishers of men, fishers of men. I will make you fishers of men, if you follow Me.”
It was the sort of gospel ride that the Straight-Shooters youth ministry was known for — a mix of faith and fun.
Such trips are on the horizon again.
One of the youth ministry's buses was recently refurbished by Oklahoma City First Church of the Nazarene and Wheeler had an opportunity to see the vintage vehicle hit the road once more. Leigh Nichols, another Straight-Shooters alum, actually got to ride in the antiquated bus.
It was like reuniting with an old friend.
"It's pretty unbelievable," Nichols said.
"For so many years, it was sitting in someone's backyard. For those of us who rode in it, we never thought we would see it run again."
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After a successful fundraising campaign to get the bus rolling again, the church had the engine rebuilt along with other work.
The bus will now be used for similar youth outreach ministry at the church, 4400 Northwest Expressway, though the Rev. Jon Middendorf said it won’t make trips quite as far as it probably did in the Straight-Shooters' heyday.
"We are very excited to have the big bus back in commission. We’re trying to find a good balance between making great use of it and not pushing it beyond its boundaries,” said Middendorf, the church’s senior pastor. "I have asked the ministry team to help me thread that needle. What does it look like for the bus to be in use in some of the same ways it was in yesteryear, doing neighborhood ministry almost every day?"
Middendorf invited longtime church members Wheeler, 87, and Nichols, 78, to join him on March 26 when he picked the bus up from a local auto mechanic's shop. Vintage car buff Ed Neuenschwander, another church member, met the trio there because he was was placed in charge of the project to bring the old bus back to life.
The eyes of the Straight-Shooters alumni lit up when they saw the turquoise and white bus driven from the mechanic's garage.
Wheeler said the bus brought back great memories of how the Straight-Shooters' ministry program changed his life and the lives of numerous people in Oklahoma City.
Started by a kindhearted, Bible-believing church member named Clifford Ray, Straight-Shooters was an outreach from the 1930s to the 1960s. Ray's daughter Doris Blankenship said her dad owned a sign shop where he hand painted signs. She said he grew up with little money and had a heart to help young people in similar circumstances.
Ray started Straight-Shooters when he befriended boys who lived around the city, conducted a Sunday school program and invited them to church. He initially picked them up in his old work truck but the ministry grew so large that several buses were purchased to help cart the boys to church and various activities like picnics, fishing, swimming and camping. They traveled to all sorts of places, from local fishing holes to locales farther away like Carlsbad Caverns, Turner Falls and even the Grand Canyon. Livewires, a similar program for girls, was created later.
Wheeler, whose family owned grocery stores, said his grandmother attended the church and asked him and his brother Lawrence to visit one Sunday. He said he was 12 years old and immediately joined the Straight-Shooters ministry which led to his baptism and a lifelong love of the Lord.
He said he was one of the youths who rode to church in Ray's truck but fell in love with the buses that replaced it and the religious education and fellowship that took place on ministry trips.
Wheeler and Blankenship said Ray would give the youths Scripture to memorize while they were on the bus trips. Wheeler said the youths also sang songs and they loved it all. After all, Oklahoma City First Church of the Nazarene was known as "The Singing Church" with the Rev. R.T. Williams the "Singing Pastor" leading the way from the mid-1940s to the late 1950s.
Wheeler said the buses gathered youths from places like Skid Row, Walnut Groves, Gander Flats, Mulligan Flats, Sand Town and a "community camp" where people lived in about 100 small shacks with dirt floors. He said many of the youths who joined Straight-Shooters were from disadvantaged and single-parent homes where no one attended church.
Ray and the youth ministry intervened and brought the light of the gospel into their lives, he said.
"Most of them had a lot of respect for C-Ray," Wheeler said.
"Straight-Shooters changed the lives of a lot of young people."
Legacy lives on
Nichols said he enjoyed riding on the old bus and the somewhat bumpy ride brought back some funny memories.
He said the youth group was returning from a weekend trip to Robbers Cave one day when he looked out the window of the bus and saw a tire roll by.
"We had thrown a tire and it was passing us by. The Lord was taking care of us because we never had anyone seriously hurt," Nichols said, laughing.