Upside Down Kingdom
My name is Dave Larlee. I am a Canadian who got to Texas as fast as I could via England. I’m married to Rachel. I have three boys, Ethan, Thomas, and Tobias, and I help lead a church here in East Dallas called St. Bartholomew’s Anglican Church. We love Dallas and couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. But how I got here, I think is an interesting story, which is…
I grew up in Atlantic Canada. Mom, until recently, was a federal court judge, one of the first women appointed to the federal court in our province. Dad was a lawyer, and there was a lot of expectation that I would do law because my parents had a great gift of recognizing the giftedness of their children. So they recognized in me that I was good with people. My parents just wanted to encourage me to do law and then maybe go into politics. And I just didn’t, for whatever reason I knew that wasn’t for me. So they sat me down and “recommanded” to me, you know, a recommendation and command, to go to lunch with the Bishop.
[The Bishop] asked me what I thought of the Church, the state of the church where we were. And for the first time in my life, I think I told someone what I really thought instead of what they thought they wanted to hear. I wasn’t very kind, and I’ve apologized since, copious amounts of times. But I said things like, “I don’t know how you sleep at night. You’re closing churches, you need to be opening them.” I’m 23 years of age at that time and at this point, I’d never really, I had a sense of the awesomeness of God, but I certainly didn’t really have an understanding of who the Holy Spirit was, you know. I was always taught not to play with fire, so that Holy Spirit was an all consuming fire, I was like oh, whatever, I don’t know what that means. And Jesus, I understood He died for me sort of, but that was kind of a mystery.
So I didn’t really have a framework for what happened next.
And what happened next is [the Bishop] asked me if I’d ever thought about training for the ministry. I had my club sandwich in my left hand, it was coming in and everything slowed down and sped up at the same time. I heard this thought that sounded like my own but I knew it wasn’t my own thought, just kind of traced through my imagination and said, study theology in Oxford, England. And what happened next, I don’t even know what I was thinking, I wasn’t thinking is the problem. I put my sandwich down and I said, “Bishop, funny should mention that, but I’ve been considering studying theology in Oxford, England.” and that surprised him as it equally surprised me. And he said, “Well, if you study in Toronto, we’ll help cover all the costs. But if you go to England, it’ll be on your own dime.” And I said, “Bishop, I’m new at all this, so forgive me, but I think if this is a God deal, then money shouldn’t be the main obstacle. So let’s see.” He said, “All right. Well, there’s a place, a college, Wickliffe Hall, you can apply there; we’ve had a student go through there.”
I left there and I walked to my mother’s office. I thought I’d tell her first and she was thrilled because her father had been a priest. I told my dad and my dad said, “Well, an Oxford degree is almost as good as a law degree. You can always study law later.” So that summer, I think I worked three jobs, gave away, sold whatever I could, and was packing up. It was an odd moment, because as I was packing the Twin Towers happened. As a result, the world changed. And the immediate implication to me was, I just was on a flight to England four days later. –The first flight out. – It was me and six air marshals, and we were the only ones on the plane, which was so bizarre.
I arrived in England, and I don’t know what I was expecting. But I guess I had this weird concept that England would still be in Elizabethan times, and that would be very much Pride and Prejudice. And it wasn’t. I got to the seminary, the theological college, and it was full of charismatic evangelical Anglicans. I had never met a charismatic, and I’d never met an evangelical, and I was really confused.
The part of the backstory was, my father had, before my leaving, been diagnosed with cancer. I had gone to him and said, “Dad, I’m willing to go to Toronto because you know, if I go to England then there’s time that we will not get together.” He amazingly said, “Don’t put your life on hold for me. Pursue the dream.”
So I get there, it’s full of these students that have, I don’t have a frame of reference for them. I was used to organ music and there were guitars and drums in church. And I was just like, What is this? They started coming up to me, some of the students said, “Have you been filled with the power of the Holy Spirit?” And I said to one of them at first I said, “Look, I’m full of something, but I don’t think it’s what you’re talking about.” It was really disorientating. But as they talked about the gifts of the Spirit, something in me, out of really a love for my father and care for him, leapt at hearing about the gift of healing. I thought if there is something here that I could get, then I could take it home, and pray for my dad to be healed. Hurray for everything.
So there I was, like that, surrounded with a desire for something I couldn’t understand. What really kind of offended me at first is all of these students knew Jesus. They talked to me and prayed with me. I had never prayed out loud before and they were talking to Him as if they would talk to a friend. And I was really angry because I had spent a lot of my life kind of trying to explore that. I had been a member of the choir, gone to church every Sunday, trained as an organist, all that kind of stuff. So really into sacred music, and then all of a sudden, I’m meeting people who hadn’t done any of that. I guess, you know, I was a Pharisee, without even knowing what that was, thinking, How dare they have something that I’ve worked for!
Anyway, so I’m learning, going to these prayer meetings, and then someone said, “Look, you need to be filled with the power of the Spirit.” And I was like, “Absolutely, I’d love to feel powerful.” So I started going to this church in the center of Oxford, St. Aldate’s, and they had a morning and evening service. It was like full throttle charismania meets liturgical, and it was awesome. I went morning and evening and every time I went, I went forward for prayer ministry. One of the funniest moments, friends of mine that I saw recently still laugh, there was a word of knowledge given one Sunday and it was, “There’s a woman here who is really crippled by pain caused by menstrual cramps. If that’s you, we’d love to pray for you.” And only one person responded to that word and it was me. I was so desperate to get something from God that I just ran forward. But I was just absolutely like, This is it. I want, I want this!
So this goes on for, I guess we get to March, so September to March, and March 7th there is this really awkward group, in my opinion, came to the college. They called themselves “traveling prophets.” And by then I knew enough about the New Testament and the role of prophecy in the Old versus the New to know that nobody really calls themselves traveling prophets. So I went there really to debunk them and show that they were, you know, false prophets. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
I go there, to the room, and they’re praying for people. We were going on a mission trip, so they called us all up, asked us to put our hands out, they’re gonna pray for us and anoint our hands. I was the last in line and as they get to me, I really was unprepared for what happened. But I suddenly had this sensation in my hands of fire. And because I was unprepared for that, I thought, Oh, wow, this is God telling me I’m going to hell. Like, there’s no saving me. So I’m like, sullen. I was like, Okay, well, I guess I’ll try to be the best version of myself I can and then I’ll just take what’s coming.
I go down to supper afterwards, the meal hall, and there’s nowhere to sit. I sit on my own at the table, so I’m like, Oh, so it begins now. Then the prayer team, who I had such problems with because they’re so eccentric, they had banners and a musician to play the keyboard, who had nature sound effects to go along with the music, and it was just not my deal. But bless them, they sat around me and they said, “We noticed that when we prayed for you, you kind of had a reaction.” I said, “Yeah.” I said, “Yeah, when you prayed for me, God showed me that I’m destined for hell.” And they said, “Oh, that’s interesting, because that’s not something He would do.” I said, “How do you know this isn’t something He would do?” They said, “Well, we know Him.” I said, “Well, what do you mean you know Him?” He says, “Well, we know who Jesus is and that’s not what He’s like.”
They kind of explained it in such a way that I was like, This is what I’ve been missing. And so they said just what Jesus had done for me and that I was not going to be brought up on charges for my previous sins, that it was wiped clean. And they said, “We need to pray for you.” So they pray and the keyboard player, who is, in some ways, the most offensive to me and the greatest blessing to me, he came up and he said, “I need to pray for you.” I said, “Great, go for it.” And all he said was, “David, Jesus loves you.” That was it. And somehow I was standing up and then I was horizontal on the floor. Somewhere between hitting the ground, I discovered the unbridled affection of God and I knew that I was loved.
When I got up off the floor, I was like, Lord, I will do…I don’t know how long I was there, but I got up off the floor and I thought, I will give my life to sharing this. And the change was pretty instant because my tutors noticed that I had been in the back of the class, was really cynical, was a bit of a jackass, asking all these questions that were divisive, and just being a hard person in the classroom, to all of a sudden was in the front. I just suddenly had all this passion, this zeal, all this energy, and they really didn’t know what to do with me, because I think they’re more accustomed to people losing their faith than gaining it.
So I come home that summer, to Canada, and my sisters take me aside, and they’re like, “What happened?” I hadn’t told them anything. I said, “What do you mean?” They said, “You’re different. You’re caring, you’re interested in our lives, something has changed. What is that?” I just began to share with them and it was pretty amazing.
So I go back to finish out my second year. I meet my wife, Rachel. We’re married in our third year, and then we moved to London, to southwest London, where I took on a job there as an associate training, the title is Training Curate, and it was just incredible. So in the city of London, where we were, we were in the borough of Battersea, and it was subdivided into different parishes. So it was a community church, a church that, and I guess we had maybe six city blocks, maybe seven, that were people in our parish. For example, in England, if someone died in that area, and the family needed a funeral, they would come to their parish church, they would come to us. And because you don’t have the division of church and state, it’s all one, we were expected that we would do weddings for people who lived in our area, and funerals, and just a huge opportunity because you had this sense that people would come to the church who didn’t know the Lord.
We had a prison in the parish and so as priests, we can go into the prison as much as we wanted. We had started doing the Alpha course there and guys were getting saved and were asking to be resettled in our parish to live alongside the people that introduced them to Jesus. And so the most incredible thing happened, the prison service sort of recommended the families to come to our church, because they knew they would be cared for. And so we suddenly had these moms coming whose sons were in jail because of gang involvement. And they were such a blessing because they didn’t need convincing of their need for the Lord. Then the police started coming, because they noticed that crime was starting to go down in the area, because the homeless and the drug dealers were starting to be cared for in a way that they didn’t expect.
One guy was this lovely guy, Liam Gillespie. Liam snuck into our Christmas Eve service and without telling anyone said to God – A Northern Irish guy, I wish I could do the accent. – he said, “Jesus, if You’re real, and if You’ll get me off the booze, I’ll give my life to You and to getting other people off the booze.” He started bringing people into his house, letting them live with him, and he would take them to AA and bring them to church, to us. So he starts bringing his friend Neil, the local heroin dealer. And I think Neil gave his life to Christ, with me there, about eight times. He just wanted to be thorough. And what was incredible is, he came right off the heroin, because he was dealing and using, but the challenge was, once he got off the heroin, his memory returned, and he realized who owed him money. So he would go to collect on his debts and then all of his clients started coming to church because they wanted Neil to go back on the drugs so that the debts wouldn’t have to be paid. And I’d say, “I don’t think it works that way. But I’m sure we could work something out.”
[Neil] became a real person of peace for us because all of a sudden the patriarch of the street culture in our parish had gotten saved. So walking to the train station usually meant I had to give it an extra 15 minutes because he would stop me and gather all the crowd, you know, the beggars and all that stuff, the dealers and everyone who’s around and say, “Now you’re all gonna be quiet because the preacher’s got a word for you.” The first time it caught me off guard and then you just kind of realize, Oh! It kind of was really helpful because I really had to read the Bible. I really had to have stuff going. And, it was just an incredible thing.
We had this incredible moment when a new store opened across from the church. I was standing there watching, wondering what it could be, and they started painting it electric pink. Electric pink, so it really stood out. l wonder what it’s going to be. We’re just kind of walking by going, Maybe it’s gonna be a cupcake stand, wouldn’t that’d be great? But they start with the letters at the top. And the first one was K. I. N. We’re watching all this, King, Kin, Kin. It was Kinky Ink, and it was the first tattoo parlor in the area. And you know, some of the ladies at church were really alarmed. Anyway, as you do, I was going about life and I’d walk by it twice on the way to work and on the way back, it was a five minute walk to the church. There was a steady week where every day morning and evening, this thought just came through my mind, Go in and tell them I love them. And I thought, Oh that can’t be God, that must just be me. And then I suddenly realize, okay there’s something going on here. I just need to go in, just in case this is God.
So I’m walking into the tattoo parlor, and I just hate needles, right? So that’s the only, I have nothing against tattoos, I just if I can get a tattoo without a needle, you know, I might be interested, but I’m not. So I go in and this guy there who’s from California, of all places, boasting the name of Yogi. And I say, “Hey.” and he says, “You’re not from around here.” We start talking and he pulls out his catalog, “What kind of tattoo do you want?” I said, “I don’t want a tattoo.” He says, “Well, why are you here?” I just pointed across the road to the church and I said, “See that church? I’m one of the pastors there and I just wanted to come in and say, ‘Welcome to the neighborhood.’” And I’m trying to figure out how do I tell Yogi Bear, who’s a tattoo artist, that God loves him. So I just said, I tried to fudge it and I say, “We’re just wishing you that you’ll find real fulfillment here, as you can tell you’re the only tattoo place.” And again that thought comes, Tell him I love him. So I say, “And Yogi, really, I’m here to tell you that Jesus loves you.” And he says, “Right on, let me show you my Jesus.” And he turns to this tattoo of like the craziest demon Jesus ever. And I’m like, “Yeah, I think we know a different Jesus.”
But you know what was great about Yogi? He had the most comfortable sofa in southwest London and he made the best coffee. So I kind of befriended him and I would just stop in at the tattoo parlor on the way to work, sit down and have a coffee and just kind of chat and go. Then all of a sudden, as time went on, he disappeared for two weeks. Nobody, nobody knew what had happened to him. Anyway, we’re a few weeks in, we’re starting up Wednesday, and who comes to the door, but Yogi! And I’m like, “Yogi, what are you doing here?” And his eyes looked like they were just full of light. He said, “It’s a funny story. Immigration detained me for two weeks.” I said, “I’m so sorry.” He says, “No, no, that’s all good.” So what happened? He said, “Well, this Chaplain came by my cell, twice a day and he was the most annoying guy ever, and finally, I said to him, “If I give my life to Jesus, will you leave me alone? And the guy said, ‘Sure.’ He said, “So I got saved and I’ve been trying to find a church that I could go to, but this is the only church I found that says tattoo artists are loved.” So we have this tattoo artist who starts coming to everything, I mean, even tried to come to the women’s Bible study, because he’s just so hungry and no one had ever told him that Jesus loved him as he was. So his clients start coming and it just suddenly, the church gets turned inside out and in the most wonderful way.
We had this one time with this lovely guy, David Potter, who had for years, because of stuff that happened to him through the foster care system, lived on the streets and would sit outside a Victoria train station, you know, just panhandling for money. And he tells it that a woman came by and said, “Would you like to meet the God who is love?” And he said, “Oh, I’ve got nothing better to do. Sure.” And so long story short, he gets saved and starts coming to church on Wednesday. Then when the police start coming, one of them walks in and recognizes Dave because he’d been the beat cop in that area, and he thought Dave died. And it was incredible, because David says, “Well, I’m not dead. Thank you very much. But let me tell you what’s happened.” And to see David tell this police officer what God had done in his life, I mean, the police officer just completely melted and gave his life to Jesus.
We saw very clearly the topsy-turvy nature of the Kingdom that everything kind of inverts at some point, where the powerless suddenly argues so mightily and so powerfully in the lives of people who appear to have everything. If God did something I didn’t want them to think it was because I was white, I had a degree, and I was ordained. So I wouldn’t pray for anything. But we said to them, “If you come long enough, you’ll get a PhD.” And what we meant by that is that, you’ll be able to Prophesy, Heal the sick, and Drive out demons. And so as we taught them to pray for each other and we just began to see the most incredible things happen.
I think that’s one of the big things that Urban Ministry taught me is that we would have people come and say, I really want to see God do great things, and to minister to people on the margins of society is really the answer. Because when you serve the poor, we have an opportunity to help them meet their needs, and bring them into community, and what they give us in return is so rich, because they give us their faith and their experience of God.
Two weeks ago, I was in the church in my mother in law’s hometown, which is just outside of the city of Exeter. The church was, you know, it’s beautiful, and there was like 130 people there, and the worship was starting. Then 10 minutes in, these four people come in and sit at the very front. You could tell, they just had an Eastern European look about them. They just began to worship with everything they have. [It was] the most incredible moving thing. And as I talked afterwards to the pastor of the church, I said, “Who are those four?” And he said, “They are God’s gift to us in this time.” He said, “COVID has been hard on us because we had three lock downs and not long ago, these four Ukrainians came and their zeal and their heart for Jesus is powerful. It’s helping us.” And so they are actively trying to get as many Ukrainians to move to their town because they say, “We need their help and what we give them in return, lodging, clothes, pales in comparison to what they’re giving us.”
All he said was, “David, Jesus loves you.” That was it. And somehow I was standing up and then I was horizontal on the floor. Somewhere before hitting the ground, I discovered the unbridled affection of God and I knew that I was loved.
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I was recently given the title of “Priest Pitboss” by a friend of mine.
As we moved from England to Dallas, and we moved from that church St Mark’s Battersea Rise to All Saints Dallas in Oaklawn, it was a very different shift, because I was daily meeting with people who had very little and having prayer meetings with them, and just seeing God move, and all of a sudden, we’re in Highland Park, you know, or just on the edge of Highland Park. So it took us a while to get adjusted. But then we began to see, equally, I just began to see that the poor and the rich have something very much in common. They both want to be treated normally, but because of the circumstances, they can’t.
I was told by a friend who’d done a lot of international missions that when you get to Texas, find something of the culture that you can adopt right away. So the first thing I did when we moved here is I bought a pair of cowboy boots, the kind that aren’t designed like tennis shoes, right?. They broke my feet for the first week. But then, you know, they’re the most comfortable boots I wore. I would wear the boots under robes every Sunday and the Texans loved it. They’re like, “one of our own,” you know, “welcome home” kind of thing. So then I was looking for a hobby.
I was on a really long drive with a friend of mine from Nashville, a great guy named Daniel Bell, who seemed to know everyone connected in the food world in Nashville. On the way back, we had this five hour drive and I said, “Daniel, I’ve been given a bit of birthday money, and I’m thinking that everyone seems to smoke barbecue. If you had $500, and you were gonna get into the smoking world, what would you do?” And he knew everything. So he talked me through all the different systems from pellet grills to the Big Green Egg and he said, “I would try the pit barrel cooker. It’s a vertical barrel. It’s a unique system.” And on that basis, I came home, ordered a barrel, and when it arrived I started smoking meat. We’re always having groups around, you know, for church and other stuff. So it became really affordable and easy and fun to smoke some pulled pork or something to feed a crowd. They loved it and I loved it. It kind of worked.
Then we had a friend who was having a birthday party for his wife who needed a caterer. He said, “Would you cater? We’ll have 50 people at the party, it’ll be down in South Dallas.” I said, “Sure.” and then two weeks beforehand, he said, “It’s not gonna be 50. It’s gonna be 250. Is that a problem?” I quickly did the math and I realized if I’ve got a second smoker, the amount that they were going to pay me would cover the expense, and it’d be able to do both and suddenly have two smokers. So I did that and what was amazing is, we did ribs – You know, Jesus was so smart when He did everything framed around a meal. Because when you share food together, you connect on a level that you wouldn’t if you’re just otherwise. – They loved the barbecue. I’ve never seen a grumpy person eat ribs and so the baseline is joy and happiness. I’m talking to people in the black community, the Latino community, and they’re loving the food, and I’m loving learning from them. It’s great. And many of them didn’t go to church, so I’m also able to talk to them about Jesus. And I thought, oh, there might be something here.
Shortly after, there was a friend that I knew from [my] boys’ school who was having an SMU basketball watch party, and he said, “Hey, we were going to order in some barbecue, but what do you think about setting up a barbecue pit in our backyard? That’d be really cool.” So we do the event and it’s great. Then I’m all of a sudden talking to people I would never have talked to before. But these are venture capitalists. They’re the best and brightest of the SMU business school and they’re talking to me about their problems as I’m slicing jalapeno cheese sausage and slicing brisket. And then they realize I’m also a pastor. And they’re like, “You know, I’ve never really talked to a pastor before. How does this work?” And I said, “Well, tell me what’s going on, eat some sausage, and we can pray afterwards.” So the whole night is huge.
Then all of a sudden, I’m trying to settle up and the couple who had hired us were so generous and they say, “You’re not charging enough. You’ve been here all day so you need to add a destination fee.” She’d had a background in Events. “Add a destination fee, up these prices for their equivalent to market, and there you go.” And so I saw, Oh, wow. Okay, so there is margin here. There actually is a business to be had in this. So from that, we decided to form an LLC, get all the certification we needed, the insurance we needed, and start a pop up BBQ catering business, which is really just a hook to engage with people with the gospel.
So we’re doing that and we’re doing these events and COVID hits. Before we knew really much about COVID-19, we started giving barbecue away to frontline workers, which I know now is a brilliant marketing plan. Because the more you give away, you know, your name gets out. We would feed health care workers, janitors, all people on the front lines. And then George Floyd happened, which was devastating, and particularly devastating at All Saints. I was talking to our off duty police officers, who were the exact kind of police we want and we need right, good hearts, just trying to do the right thing. They were all talking about quitting just because of just how hard it was to be a police officer in Dallas, among it all. And I said, “Well, hey, what are you doing Friday night?” They said, “Well, we’re working the night shift.” I said, “I’ll make you a deal.” And this is what, I guess it’s early 2020, I guess, summer of 2020. I said, “If you come by the house at the start of your shift in a squad car, put the lights on, my boys will love it, and in turn, I’ll give you 100 pounds of ribs. I will feed the night shift.” And they’re like, “Deal.”
They show up, lights go on, the neighbors all come out thinking I’m about to get arrested, I guess, and they pull up the alley and the boys all come running out and then we serve them the barbecue. I suddenly realized that I had a problem, which was that I had to work hard not to become a chaplain to the police because I already had a job. Then through contacts I have through a nonprofit – I am on the board with Behind Every Door. – I was able to then turn around and give 200 pounds of ribs to activists in the black community.
So then what happened is, there’s a great nonprofit in South Dallas called The Well. They’re in Oak Cliff and they serve people with mental health issues who are indigent. And they had obviously hit a crisis because they couldn’t gather anymore, but they’re still trying to provide food. And for this we decided, well, can we take you lunch? They said sure. And so we were given the number; we had to feed, I think it was, 120 people. Barbecue, which I didn’t realize, is all math based. So we did the math and did it pretty accurately and smoked, golly, I think it was close to 120 pounds of ribs.
I took it to them and that next day, I got a call from the director who said, “Wow, that was really, really incredible.” I said, “Yeah, it was just a joy.” And she said, “Well, we’d asked you for food for lunch.” I said, “Yeah, yeah. Well, you know, that’s…were the numbers wrong?” She says, “No, no, we had enough for lunch.” I said, “Great.” She said, “But I don’t know what happened.” I said, “What do you mean?” She says, “Well, the ribs kept coming out of the coolers you sent them in. We had enough for three days.” I said, “Wow. Well that’s impossible. I didn’t give you enough for three days.” She said, “Yes you did.” I said, “No, no, no, I didn’t. I really didn’t. Because I counted it out and I had two people with me.” and I said, “So what do you make of that?” She went quiet.
Then I said, “You know, I was reading this morning about Jesus feeding the 5,000. And I just you know, I’ve never seen anything like that in my life and I prayed and said, “Lord, it would be amazing to see you do something like this.” She said, “Well, I guess that’s the answer and the Lord just gave you that sign that you’re doing the right thing.” And I said, “Well, what’s more amazing is that for three days these people who don’t have much in life, have been able to feast like royalty. And I said, Well, that’s that’s the aim.
You know, what COVID did to the church is it stripped the church of its two great gifts, which is hospitality and a ministry of presence. But using barbecue, we could reclaim some of that. It’s kind of a way to rally people under a kingdom cause without it being overtly, without falling into the trap of church politics, or the culture wars. And really, the idea is to be a blessing and really to pour in encouragement so that the people who are facing incredible challenges are able to bring the very best that they have to those challenges. I don’t have a science background. I don’t know anything about viruses and how they transmit. But I did realize that I had barbecue, and maybe by giving barbecue to someone, it might encourage them enough to keep going.
I don’t understand how race relations work. The history of race relations in the US is very new to me. I understand a little bit in Canada and the UK. So I don’t know how to even begin to solve that problem. But I have barbecue and maybe by giving what I have, they can bring their very best to that. And I think that’s what we can offer at this time. It’s just, you know, people have had to make a lot of tough decisions, whether they’re right or wrong, I don’t know. We certainly sometimes don’t always have the benefit of knowing that answer when the tough decisions have to be made. But I think encouraging, this is the time to encourage, and often the source of encouragement that we have is already in our hands. We just have to, instead of trying to think well, I don’t have the answer to this so there’s nothing I can do and step back into that feeling of powerlessness – which I certainly have done – we actually can lean into and say I don’t have the answer to this, but I do have this. And maybe there’s a way that God could take what’s in my hands and bless it. So that I might be able to offer it to the world around me in the hope that it would do a very small part in blessing the community I’m in.