How do you show appreciation for first responders? Several churches in New Mexico have found that hosting an event in their honor — Burgers for Badges — is a good way to start!
Recently, pastors David Vistine and Paul Vistine of Las Cruces First, representatives from Landmark Church also of Las Cruces, and pastor Anthony Torres of Mountain View Church in Alamogordo worked together to celebrate, encourage, and bless first responders — including local and state police, sheriffs, EMTs, and firefighters serving the Las Cruces area.
First responders and their families were treated to fresh, gourmet burgers and sides in an outdoor “come and go” lunch on June 5 that included several first responder vehicles on display and a festival atmosphere. In addition to the appreciation meal, dozens of volunteers were joined by the mayor, Ken Miyagishima, in readily expressing their appreciation for the sacrificial service first responders provide to the community.
First responders were also surprised to have their names entered to win appreciation prizes given away that day, such as a large-screen TV, a grill, hand tools, and coupons for oil changes, beauty salons, and even chiropractic visits.
ADOPT AN OUTREACH
“We got the outreach idea from Anthony Torres — he’s done several Burgers for Badges outreaches in Alamogordo,” says David Vistine. “His church is an extension of Runners Refuge which operates food trailers for outreaches as well as for responding to disasters – his trailer can feed up to 3,000 people a day.”
Torres explains that he’s connected with John and Rachel Stout, AG U.S. missionaries serving with Intercultural Ministries, who founded Runners Refuge. He adds that the trailer, which resembles a double race car trailer in size, is no ordinary food truck, but a trailer set up for street ministry. It has eye-catching graphics and a built-in large-screen TV and audio system on the exterior of the trailer in addition to a fully operational professional double-oven kitchen for producing high-quality meals on the inside.
“We served about 250 burgers to first responders and their families,” Paul Vistine says. “Everyone I met was thankful and expressed gratitude to us for doing something like this for them. It was like a breath of fresh air to them — knowing that people in their community still were highly supportive of them and their families.”
A HURTING AUDIENCE
David Vistine notes that the support and appreciation event was important because, as he learned, the police force in Las Cruces has been hit hard by the ongoing negative commentary on police.
“Right now, in Las Cruces, we typically have over 200 officers on patrol — we’re down over 50 officers right now,” he says. “Due to the [negative] climate, discouragement, choosing to retire instead of continue, and just moving on, the police department can’t recruit enough people to fill the slots. Those remaining, I’d say their morale is the lowest it’s been in a long, long time — the negative environment, remarks made, stress, and having to work overtime and double shifts to cover the need all play a part.”
The Vistines and Torres agree that the event was a solid success as words of appreciation and thankfulness flowed freely back and forth between first responders and volunteers, achieving — perhaps even exceeding — the goal of the outreach of showing support to first responders.
MORE TO THE STORY
Torres did not grow up in the church. Drugs, drinking, and a vice-filled lifestyle were more to his taste as a young man. He was arrested multiple times as a result. But through a series of events, he ended up accepting Christ, getting clean and sober, and attending Las Cruces First soon afterward.
“I didn’t even know what Pentecost was, but I liked how I felt after church and hearing pastor Dave speak,” Torres says.
Torres moved to Dallas “to find a fresh start,” and later earned his minister’s license. In 2015 he and his wife, Sasha, took on the revitalization of Mountain View Church (then averaging 15 in attendance; now 250), and reconnected with Las Cruces First. Torres and the Alamogordo church began working with Runners Refuge in 2017, utilizing the food trailer for ministry. In fact, Las Cruces First recently decided to invest in its own food trailer after working with Torres in an earlier outreach.
This would seem to be a full-circle blessing, but the “circle” didn’t fully take place until the June 5 outreach.
COMPLETING A CIRCLE
When Torres was 16, he was pursued and arrested for drunk driving and attempting to flee an officer. That officer attempted to offer Torres advice, trying to help the young man see the benefits of making better decisions in the future. When Torres was 22, having apparently not taken the officer’s words too much to heart, the same officer pulled him over while he was riding his motorcycle, this time drunk and high.
During the outreach, Torres recognized the officer who had arrested and attempted to help him years before.
“I see him, after so many years, and of course, I go up to him, shared my story with him, and what I’m doing now,” Torres says. “He puts his stuff down and gives me a big fatherly hug and tells me how he loves to hear stories like this. I gave him a copy of my book and asked him if he would carry it in his car so if he runs into an Anthony Jr., he can give him the book.”
Paul Vistine adds, “And the officer’s wife, she has started coming to our church — where Anthony first got his feet wet in ministry — and is really enjoying it. Seeing Anthony’s life turned around was a real blessing to that officer.”
LAS CRUCES FIRST
Prior to the Pandemic, Las Cruces First was running about 1,500 in attendance and its extension, Landmark Church, was running 120. Both congregations have seen significant declines in attendance, roughly 33% and 50%, respectively, but that hasn’t stopped the churches’ passion for and commitment to Christ and the gospel message.
The Burgers for Badges event is just one of many outreaches they are working on in order to impact the hurting and needy in their community with expressions of God’s love and compassion. And with the new food trailer within a few weeks of being ready for ministry, Paul Vistine, who will be transitioning into lead pastor position for his father David, is excited to see how God will use them to touch lives and grow God’s kingdom.
“We’ve been called, as believers, to go into all the world and preach the gospel,” Paul Vistine states, “and the gospel is shared in a number of different ways — including championing people, encouraging people, and loving people for the cause of Christ.”