Saturday, 21 July 2018

PRAYnksters Group Brings Giving Twist to 'Flash Mobs"

Jan/ Feb 2018

 


 

 

By Gaye Bunderson

Jeff Agosta, left, and Jesse Fadel, right, dressed up like Donkey Kong and Mario and hit the Capital City Public Market in downtown Boise one Saturday. The co­founders of PRAYnksters wanted to try being “courageous and adventurous”together. (Courtesy photo)

Jeff Agosta loves pranks so much his youngest foster daughter's first word was “Boo!”

The 34­-year-­old said he'll go wherever God takes him and use whatever talent he has for Him, even if it's a passion for playing pranks.

“I want to show God's love without shoving it down people's throats. People already see the negative in church and Christians,” he said.

PRAYnksters got off the ground three years ago. It was in an experimental phase, and it needed some tweaking. One day, while Agosta and his wife Tia were out walking in their neighborhood, they ran into Jesse Fadel, associate pastor at Eastwind Community Church in Boise. It was an accidental but pivotal meeting for PRAYnksters. The threesome started talking, and before you know it, they were all fired up about PRAYnksters and the ways it could go and grow.

“PRAYnksters was in a rough form at that point. Jesse was instrumental in helping form PRAYnksters as it is today,” Agosta said.

“Jeff and I discovered we both had an interest in video production, an interest in helping to reshape people's perceptions about Christians, and a desire to make an impact for God in our community,” Fadel said. “I came up with the cheesy but appropriate PRAYnksters name after we did a test­run video together, running around downtown at the Saturday market dressed as Mario and Donkey Kong. We wanted to make sure we could have fun together and do some courageous and adventurous things before jumping into a partnership.”

Agosta and Fadel's complementary personalities intertwine in a way that benefits the group. “He's grounded. I'm eccentric,” said Agosta, who feels he brings talent, passion for God, and a sense of humor to PRAYnksters. He likes goofy videos and having fun.

Fadel said, “I bring my connections as a pastor, my heart for people, and my desire to tell compelling stories to the team. Jeff has marketing genius, an insatiable drive for craziness and an audience, and a similar love for helping people.”

There are other members of PRAYnksters who help comprise “the team,” and more information about them may be found at www.praynksters.com.

Something PRAYnksters is uniquely known for is its “giving mobs,” a term Agosta coined and which is a play on the term “flash mob,” a popular modern phenomenon where people gather to perform what seems like a spontaneous event, but which is usually planned ahead of time.

PRAYnksters members learn of a person in need, then set about raising funds and working out a way to give the money to the individual without his or her knowing and in a surprising and fun way — similar to a flash mob but with a Christian twist. Families can be unsuspecting giving mob recipients also.

One of their most famous giving mob moments was the time PRAYnksters gave $13,000 to aNampa mother diagnosed with cancer. Though mobs are generally thought of as unruly and bent on destruction, the mob that gave money to Amanda Kofoed of Nampa in 2016 surrounded her with support and encouragement. She didn't know almost 200 people were coming to give her a surprise display of love and generosity.

PRAYnksters creates a video each time it holds a giving mob, and posts it online. Some of the videos have gone viral, being viewed in places as far away as China and Ukraine. They've also gotten the attention of local and national news outlets.

“My favorite part of all this is when people replicate what we've done,” said Agosta. In otherwords, people see the video and perform their own giving mob to fill needs. They then post their videos online and the process repeats itself until more and more people are performing acts of kindness.

“This is one idea I wanted to do, and we've done it,” Agosta said. “It's giving in a fun and creative way. Find someone with a tangible need, create an inspirational video that's shareable, and make it something that affects the people that are part of it.”

He said people who've participated in his giving mobs include every walk of life, from believers to atheists. PRAYnksters precedes its mob moments with a prayer; no one is forced toparticipate, but Agosta's hope is that they enjoyed doing good for someone else and can take something from that.

PRAYnksters holds a giving mob about every other month and generally gets help from someone on the inside of a situation — someone who knows the individual or family in need and who can help set up a time and place for the giving mob to show up. It's the element of surprise that is essential to the impact of the event.

“You want that big reaction,” Agosta said.

PRAYnksters uses as its defining scripture Philippians 4:6 — “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” — and boils it down to “Fear Nothing, Pray About Everything.”

Agosta said he isn't a particularly fearful person, but there's always been something about that scripture that spoke to him.

“In my mind,” he said, “we've already won, so we shouldn't have that stress of life,” he said, explaining Christ gained the victory for all of us through His sacrifice on the cross and freely allows everyone to partake in the victorious life through grace.

Agosta has a day job working in the marketing department for Friends of Zoo Boise. He loves that his job allows him to express care for the planet and its animal inhabitants.

“I get to help people and God's green earth,” he said.

He wants to be a filmmaker and, along with his human resources degree from Idaho State University in Pocatello, he earned a digital media certificate from Boise State. Original funding for PRAYnksters came from his video collection, which he sold on eBay. He now buys and re­sells other videos in a program he calls Games 4 God, to get continued funding, and said people also make cash donations to PRAYnksters.

Agosta is sometimes restless about the growth of PRAYnksters, which has gone through growth spurts followed by lulls. He's always raring to go.

“I'm like, 'I want this!' But I always need to ask, 'But what does God want?' I have to wait on His timing,” he said.

“We serve a fun and creative God,” said Fadel. “I think we reflect Him well when we serve others in fun and creative ways. Following Jesus is exciting, and we want people to experience that joy and fulfillment.”

Peter Vasquez Making the best of his second chance

May/ June 2018

 


 

 



Peter  Vasquez  built  a  replica  of  the  high  security,  solitary  confinement  prison  cell  he  once  spent  4½  years  in.  Today,  as  founder  of  Second  Chance  Grace,he  takes  the  cell  around  to  show  others  what  life  in  prison  is  like.  (Courtesy  photo)

By Gaye Bunderson

 “ I  thank  Christ  Jesus  our  Lord,  who  has  given  me  strength,  that  he  considered  me  trustworthy,  appointing  me  to  his  service.  Even  though  I  was  once  a  blasphemer  and  a  persecutor  and  a  violent  man,  I  was  shown  mercy  because  I  acted  in  ignorance  and  unbelief.  The  grace  of  our  Lord  was  poured  out  on  me  abundantly...”  —  1  Timothy  1:12-14

Peter  Vasquez  has  undergone  a  full-scale  life  remodel,  with  help  from  the  ultimate  Carpenter.  A  hard-core  gang  member  in  his  youth,  Vasquez  spent  time  in  California's  San  Quentin  State  Prison  and  4½  years  in  solitary  confinement  in  the  California  State  Prison-Corcoran  SHU  or  Security  Housing  Units.  The  units  are  “the  most  high  security,  restricted  cells in  California's  prison  system.”*  

To  make  it  into  the  SHU,  an  inmate  has  to  be  part  of  a  dangerous  prison  gang  and  a  high  threat  to  other  prisoners.  Peter  Vasquez  fit  the  profile.  Look  at  some  of  the  photos  taken  of  him  during  those  years  and  you  see  a  tough  guy,  a  violent  guy.  But  ask  Vasquez  to  describe  himself  now,  years  later  at  age  47,  and  he  says,  “I'm  the  little  ladybug  from  California.”

He's  been  rebuilt  from  the  ground  up  by  his  Savior,  and  he  lives  every  minute  of  his  life  now  to  tell  his  story  to  others.

“I  got  saved  in  a  prison  cell,”  he  said,  “in  the  same  place  where  they'd  send  Charles  Manson.”  

Sirhan-Sirhan,  Robert  F.  Kennedy  assassin,  also  spent  time  at  Corcoran.

Vasquez  said  no  one  was  allowed  to  visit  residents  of  the  SHU;  it  was  a  cold  existence.  His  feelings  toward  God  were  very  negative.  His  earthly  father  had  been  a  prisoner  —  Vasquez  only  saw  him  once  in  his  life.  A  stepfather  had  been  an  abuser.  Vasquez  grew  angrier  and  angrier  over  what  he  calls  “the  heartache”  of  his  life.

“My  dad  was  the  founder  of  a  notorious  gang.  I  had  love  for  the  father  I  never  knew,  but  I  hated  God.  I  flipped  off  the  sky  in  anger  toward  God,”  Vasquez  said.

But  the  Holy  Spirit  is  able  to  penetrate  prison  walls  and  prisoner  hearts.  A  friend  of  his  father's  managed  to  get  a  prison  Bible  to  Vasquez,  a  special  edition  written  specifically  for  inmates  and  titled,  “Free  on  the  Inside.”  The  friend,  named  Julio,  wrote  in  the  Bible,  “I  hope  you  find  the  peace  I  have  found  in  Christ  Jesus.”

Vasquez  didn't  read  the  Bible  right  off.  “I  hated  myself,”  he  said.  “I  thought,  'Who  am  I?  What  am  I  here  for?'  My  nickname  was  Sniper.  Here  I  was  in  a  wicked,  evil  place.  You  could  feel  the  evil.”

But  one  day,  out  of  the  blue  a  fellow  inmate  at  the  SHU  yelled,  “John  14:6!”  Just  like  that.  No  other  words.  “Jesus  answered,  'I  am  the  way  and  the  truth  and  the  life.  No  one  comes  to  theFather  except  through  me.'”

Vasquez  picked  up  his  Bible  and  found  the  verse,  and  after  reading  it,  he  said  he  fell  to  his knees,  verbally  spewed  out  his  sins  and  asked  God  for  forgiveness.  It  was  a  deeply  spiritual moment  of  grace  and  salvation,  as  well  as  the  beginning  of  the  softening  of  a  very  hardened  man.

“When  I  met  God,  He  became  the  most  beautiful  thing  in  my  life,”  said  Vasquez.  “I'm  still  on  fire  now,  just  as  I  was  then.”

Vasquez  came  to  Idaho  in  2004  to  attend  a  school  operated  by  the  Idaho  Commission  for  the  Blind  and  Visually  Impaired.  He  suffers  from  retinitis  pigmentosa  and  is  legally  blind.  He  cannot  drive,  and  yet  he  travels  frequently.  At  one  point  in  his  life,  he  prayed  to  God  for  a  wife,even  giving  Him  specifications  for  the  kind  of  wife  he  needed.  That  included  someone  to  join  him  in  his  work  —  not  just  to  drive  him  around  but  to  be  a  full-time  partner  in  his  ministry.

Amazingly,  God  chose  for  him  a  woman  who,  at  the  time  of  the  couple's  first  meeting,  was  not  even  saved.  But  Christine  is  everything  Vasquez  prayed  for.  In  a  story  full  of  incredible  twists  and  turns,  Mrs.  Vasquez  became  a  strong  believer  —  in  both  God  and  the  work  of  the  man  she  married.

“I'm  not  with  him  just  as  a  wife  but  as  a  supporter,”  she  said.

Looking  proudly  at  his  co-partner  in  life  and  ministry,  Vasquez  said,  “That's  my  prayer  warrior.”

At  present,  it's  a  powerful  but  small  ministry,  which  they  named  Second  Chance  Grace.

“The  ministry  is  just  me  and  my  wife,”  Vasquez  said.  

But  the  strength  of  their  mutual  commitment  to  each  other  and  to  the  Lord  cannot  be  understated.  Vasquez  frequently  speaks  for  free  whenever  he's  asked  because  the  work  is  so  important  to  him.

“It  hurts;  I've  got  to  support  my  family.  But  I  still  do  it.  I  do  it  because  it's  my  heart,”  he  said.“We  don't  have  any  money,  but  when  I  speak  for  free,  I  speak  like  I'm  getting  paid.  It's  a  hard  way  to  live,  but  we  trust  the  Lord.”

He  has  some  donors  who  support  him  and  an  occasional  job  speaking  in  schools.  He  isn't  allowed  to  say  “Jesus”  in  secular  schools,  but  he  instructs  the  students  on  “what  to  say  'yes'  to  and  what  to  say  'no'  to.”  

He  said  it's  challenging  because  “what  works  for  me  is  Christ  —  but  I  can't  say  'Christ'.”

So  he  stands  as  an  example  of  what  can  be  overcome  in  life  and  how  a  person  can  be  transformed  to  contribute  to  the  betterment  of  society.

He  speaks  once  a  month  at  church  services  at  Idaho  Juvenile  Corrections,  the  Idaho  State  Correctional  Institution,  and  the  Idaho  State  Correctional  Center.  He  also  holds  a  church  service  for  women  on  work  release.

“I  want  them  to  parole  with  a  Bible  in  their  hands,  to  parole  with  faith,”  he  said.  “Helping  people  parole  that  way  is  better  for  the  community  and  better  for  the  ex-prisoner.”

When  he  speaks  one-on-one  with  prisoners  or  parolees,  he  gives  them  his  full  attention.  He'll stay  as  long  as  they  need  him.  An  example  of  Christine's  commitment  is  that  she  frequently  waits  for  him  outside  in  their  vehicle,  for  as  long  as  it  takes,  so  she  can  drive  him  home.  And  she  usually  waits  with  the  couple's  daughter,  a  toddler  named  Danisia  Agape.

Vasquez  has  been  asked  by  professors  at  both  Treasure  Valley  Community  College  in  Ontario  and  the  College  of  Idaho  in  Caldwell  to  speak  to  students  whose  career  paths  will  lead  them  to  places  where  they  will  encounter  people  turned  bitter  by  their  experiences.  He  speaks  about  the  difficulty  of  growing  up  with  an  absent  parent  who's  incarcerated,  and  living  in  a  household  with  an  abuser.

“It  gives  them  an  understanding  of  dysfunction  and  how  it  affects  you,”  Vasquez  said.

He  built  an  exact  replica  of  the  cell  he  lived  in  at  Corcoran,  and  he  takes  it  around  for  young  people  to  look  at  as  an  object  lesson  of  what  to  avoid.  “Kids  are  very  visual,”  he  said,  explaining  his  motivation  for  building  the  cell  —  it's  a  warning  of  what  a  miscreant  life  can  lead  to.

The  ministry  also  includes  tattoo  removal.  The  Vasquezes  work  with  board-certified  family  nurse  practitioner  Gia  Swope,  or  Dr.  Ink-Off,  and  ERMA  (Eagle  River  Medical  Aesthetics).  Vasquez  still  wears  the  tattoos  of  his  past  life  because,  he  said,  board  members  of  his  nonprofit, Second Chance  Grace Inc.,  told  him  to  leave  them  on  for  credibility  with  convicts.

“They  all  open  up  to  him,”  Christine  said.

The  couple  feels  the  Lord  has  even  bigger  plans  for  the  ministry,  possibly  taking  it  national  and  allowing  Vasquez  to  speak  throughout  the  country.  He  likes  to  use  colorful  phrases  in  his  presentations,  such  as:  “Try  Jesus  for  a  week  or  a  month,  and  if  it  doesn't  work,  Satan  will  give  you  back  your  misery.”

He  seeks  to  comfort,  strengthen,  encourage,  and  leave  people  with  a  sense  of  hope,  he  said.  He's  done  the  work  for  12  years  and  has  spoken  to  thousands  already.  One  of  his  favorite  scriptures  is  1  Timothy  1:12-14  about  a  violent  man  saved  by  God's  love.  He's  not  only  read  it.  He's  lived  it.

For  more  information,  go  to www.2ndchancegrace.org.

*https://www.scpr.org/news/2013/10/08/39613/inside-corcoran-state-prisons-security-housing-uni/ 

Equines plus kids equals Blazing Hope

Mar/Apr 2018


 

 

 

Mike Howard has a lengthy history of ministry in the Treasure Valley. Now 70, he's serving others through Blazing Hope Youth Family Ranch in Caldwell.

By Gaye Bunderson

Michael Oris Howard has been known during his adult life as Pastor Howard, church leader; Michael Howard, newspaper columnist; and Mike Howard, director of the God and Country Rally in Nampa for 10­12 years. But now, he has a nickname and a ministry he never imagined he'd have: “Mr. Mike” runs the Blazing Hope Youth Family Ranch in Caldwell.

Put him in a corral with a group of horse riding youngsters and despite all the other hats he's worn, Howard looks happy and right at home in his cowboy hat and dusty boots.

As he takes a short break from watching youngsters get on and off gentle horses, he walks up to the corral fence, peers over it, and both asks and answers his own question. “You want to know how did the ranch get started? God did it,” he said.

He explained he went through a personal crisis and found himself starting over financially. For a short time, he left the ministry and started selling cars. At the same time, he took up an interest in horses; he wanted to board horses on a piece of rented property. In about 2004, he got a couple of horses and a couple of volunteer helpers — a Nampa Christian Schools student named Megan and a disabled veteran and close friend, Bob Simmons, both of whom mucked stalls and helped Howard learn all he could about caring for horses.

Word got around about his new endeavor, and before he knew it, he was back in ministry — this time, not behind a pulpit but on a ranch.

“In 2005, a Christian family gave us this property we're on now and invested $275,000,” he said. “They wish to remain anonymous.”

The location of Blazing Hope Youth Family Ranch is 26512 Farmway Road. A small sign hangs near a barn, telling visitors they've arrived, but the sounds of horses and happy young people really announce the spot.

“Pretty much everything is donated. That grass that came today was donated,” Howard said.

All the children ride for free, but donations are accepted.

“I teach the kids how to ride horses, and I teach them the good old American work ethic. They all work,” said Howard, now 70.

Every child who comes out to Blazing Hope is expected to pitch in with chores, from shoveling manure to feeding the horses. One mother put it best. “You wanna ride, you gotta work,” Tanya Nakamura, mother of 9­-year­-old Emily, said.

Nakamura said her daughter feels energized after coming out to Blazing Hope. Both the work and the horseback riding benefit her.

“Emily loves horses, and it steadies her and calms her,” Nakamura said.

Another mom, Julie Hamilton, said her 15-­year­-old daughter Brooke is also blessed by her experiences at Blazing Hope.

“She gets to spend time with the horses, learn how to work hard, and learn how to work with horses and other people,” Hamilton said. “Mike has been a blessing in our life. My daughter has always loved horses. Out here, they not only get to share their love for Christ, but they learn how to care for horses and get riding lessons. It gives them confidence.”

Howard offers a devotion and praise prior to the riding sessions, but the horse riding is open to all children, regardless of religious affiliation.

The roughly 30 horses at Blazing Hope give rides to 3,500 to 4,000 kids a year. The horses are a mix of donated and rescued horses.

Howard tells a story about an appaloosa named Freckles whose owner in Twin Falls wanted to sell her just to get rid of her. One of the members on Blazing Hope's 501(c)(3) nonprofit board, Lauri Simmons (Bob's wife), called the man who bought Freckles — referred to as the “kill man” for taking horses and selling them to animal factories — and asked if she could buy back the appaloosa. He said yes. He paid $200 for Freckles, but offered to sell her to Simmons for $500.

Simmons took the offer and now Freckles is a regular sight in the Blazing Hope corral.

“I had to see if she was a good children's horse, and she's one of the BEST children's horses,”Howard said.

He works with a new horse for 30 days to determine if it will be kid­-friendly.

Howard is originally from Oklahoma, where he did some horse riding, but he got back up to speed on equestrian skills more recently when a friend, Colleen Bennett, a former high school rodeo barrel racer, “refreshed” him on horsemanship skills.

Howard, who was a pastor for 35 years, including a youth pastor, loves what he does and makes sure the volunteers who assist him feel the same passion for the work.

“We love kids,” he said. Some of the volunteers are actually kids themselves who are proficient in equestrian skills, but most of the volunteers are caring adults.

Children who come out to Blazing Hope include homeschooled kids, kids from the Idaho Learning Center that is affiliated with Cole Valley Christian Schools, teens from Boise Rescue Mission, and many others.

Howard gives thanks and credit to everyone involved in making Blazing Hope Youth FamilyRanch the success it is. “I have amazing volunteers. They make it so I can keep doing this,” he said.

Said Hamilton: “He has a passion for it, that's for sure.”

Blazing Hope Youth Family Ranch is open all year long for kids to come ride horses (unless the weather is unusually  severe). For more information, find Blazing Hope on Facebook or join the closed group at https://www.facebook.com/groups/BlazingHopeYouthFamilyRanch/.

 

Christian Living Magazine

Email:

boisechristianliving@gmail.com

Phone: 208-703-7860