It all started out with my wife going to a women’s Bible study at Dix Hill Evangelical Free Church on Long Island. She told me that she wanted to start going to church regularly on Sunday morning, so I’m like “Alright, whatever, we’ll go to church.” I wasn’t saved at the time. I knew who God was, but Him and I weren’t on talking terms at that point. Then she tells me, “Hey there’s a Christian Service Brigade group that I would like you to take your son to.” I responded with something about a lack of time. She says, “OK, don’t worry, we’ll just let some other guys raise your son.” So of course, when she puts it that way, you gotta do it.
My situation was a room full of men who weren’t talking and a bunch of kids that were hanging from the ceiling.
I walked into the Dix Hill Tree Climbers group for the first time and it was a room full of men. They were standing there, on their phones, with nobody talking to each other. There was one leader, his name was Kurt. He was a nice guy, but there were 30 Tadpoles and Tree Climbers running amuck. The boys were literally hanging from the rafters in the church basement. This certainly wasn’t for me and so I decided to try a Bible study meeting that was upstairs at the same time.
Jesus didn’t take long to begin talking to me (during this time I began following Christ). It was probably 4-5 weeks into the Bible Study and I realized that Jesus wanted me back down in the basement to help those boys and to be there for my son. It turns out that Kurt needed the help. I began assisting him with Tree Climbers and it was only like 2 weeks later that I got a phone call from him saying, “Hey, uh, I got some work in California that I gotta go do, can you do this?” I assured him that I could fill in as the group leader while he was away. Well… Kurt never came back.
My situation was a room full of men who weren’t talking and a bunch of kids that were hanging from the ceiling. I prayed: “God, what should I do?” His answer was to ask the other men for help. I created a cell phone free zone and required all of them to participate in games. They had to watch their sons and be involved with the father-son tasks. As we kept going, I realized that a lot of the dads weren’t saved—just like me a few months earlier. These guys were just going through the motions.
But as time went on, you started to hear the gospel coming through in our Tree Climber meetings and more of the guys were listening. The kids started gaining order. They didn’t hang from the ceiling quite as much. We started getting them together. There was less crying as they learned how to lose gracefully during the games. The boys started learning how to be boys—which is a crucial step if you want to eventually show them how to be men. It was just awesome to start seeing that.
And then I went to a leader training with CSB Regional Director Ron Rynd. This was one of my aha moments. He recited John 3:16 to me, “For God so loved the world he gave his one and only son…” But instead of saying world, he said “For God so loved Michael, that he gave his one and only son…” And he told me that if the rest of the world were not here, God would still have given his Son just for me. That really opened my eyes: Jesus did all this for me. I went back and explained John 3:16 to my Tree Climber fathers and boys.
It turned out that the men were growing in their own faith through all of this!
The dads became more involved with our group. I asked them to start reading stories to the Tree Climbers and the key scriptures started to reach some of the dads! And so, we started memorizing verses—nobody could believe how fast these boys were progressing! They were soaking it all up like a sponge. I had printed up the verses on a sheet every week and gave away cookies if the boys were able to recite a verse. As far as boys go, cookies are a great incentive. The boys started learning the verses and then the dads started learning the verses. And just more and more dads started coming.
Every week we had to be prepared to teach and lead the boys. At first we struggled, only being a few hours ahead of the boys. I would go over the verses and try to prepare for the stories. The stories were good, but they don’t work if you just read them to the kids. If you could tell the story from memory, it went a lot better. So, we helped the dads to prepare for teaching the boys. it turned out that the men were growing in their own faith through all of this! We saw such a difference in each man’s eagerness to serve. It was no longer a burden but something that each of us wanted to do. We had so many dads who wanted to become leaders. I actually had to step out of my leadership role to let somebody else benefit from the opportunity—we had more men than leadership positions available!
Looking back, it was funny because we couldn’t believe all these dads who got involved. They became active in Tree Climbers and then became members of the church. We had Brigade on Tuesday, but the men would gather together on Thursday for fellowship and Bible Study. It was amazing to watch. And the numbers of men kept growing. When we started, it was 5 men for 20 boys. When we finished, it was a 2:1 ratio—a dad for every two boys—and this included a lot of fatherless boys who joined the group. It seemed like a natural progression until we took a step back. And you were just like, “Wow, how did all this happen?”
Three stories really stand out from my years as a Tree Climber leader. I remember one dad in particular who I asked to pray. He declined, which was alright because I understood. But then, six weeks later, he comes and tells me that he had to pray for the group… that he wanted to pray for the group. This father told me that he had been listening to the Bible at work, like I suggested. He was a construction guy and he started listening every day, all day long (with his buddies), instead of music. He told me how his faith was really growing and that it had started by just hearing the Bible verses that the boys were reciting. And it was because of this, the dad thinks, that he was now saved and walking with God. Unfortunately, several months later, his long-standing marriage problems came to a head and his wife left. He strongly believes that his heart was put in that place because God knew what was coming up in his life. God used the Tree Climber men around him to sharpen him like iron for the upcoming trial.
Then there was the time when one of our other leaders had a stroke. Everybody came together. They went to him, they visited him, they prayed with him. And this was a guy who wasn’t too sure of his faith to begin with. He attributed much of his faith to his Brigade brothers who were there next to him. His story became an inspiration to everyone, as a living miracle. Everything that occurred around his stroke was perfectly arranged by God. There was little to no permanent damage, God is good! This man’s passion for Brigade grew as he became my replacement when I changed into a different ministry role.
Third, we had an autistic boy and his autistic father in the group. The boy became violent and we didn’t know how to deal with it. We weren’t trained to deal with a situation like this and the father was sometimes worse. I went to the leaders to ask for help and we prayed about it. We weren’t sure if the boy could stay. He was doing things he shouldn’t be doing—things that weren’t appropriate for any boy. I went to his grandparents and explained the situation. They understood, and the grandfather began attending Tree Climbers with son and grandson. It made a world of difference. The boy had trouble with group games, so we helped him learn Bible verses one-on-one instead. He was really good at memorizing verses. His dad would sit with him and we would just talk and let him be involved.
At the end of the year, his grandmother wrote me a letter. He went to a school where all the other kids were autistic, and he really didn’t have any exposure to kids outside of the school, except for Brigade. His development had changed so much. She attributed it to all the men who loved on him in Brigade. We didn’t know how much of a difference it had made until we received the letter. When you get a note like that, you know that all your efforts were worth it.
To wrap this up, I saw a lot of dads who first came because their wives made them. But once they became involved, it wasn’t that the men were forced into service, their hearts were fully in it. And as they became more and more involved, they became leaders. And a lot of the Tree Climbers boys stepped up as they grew into young men. These guys are still leaders in the church.
There’s one last lesson I’d like to share with you: every church needs a Tree Climber ministry. Look at it this way: you are not just building a Brigade, you’re building the core men of your church. Start early to build this foundation because without a foundation, your church’s ministry is going to crumble.