ASHEVILLE, N.C. (BP)–In a former drive-in theater, shoppers look for a deal among other people’s cast-off treasures. The abandoned movie screen and crumbling cement speaker poles stand silent as dealers watch over their displays of jewelry, clothing, plants and knickknacks at Dreamland Flea Market, Asheville, N.C.
Volunteer chaplain Russell Hilliard and his wife, Patsy, stand in front of a small chapel squeezed between booths. “People slow down out here,” Russell says. “They’re willing to talk to you.”
A cup of cold water and some conversation nearly always gets the attention of passers-by. “If I get eye contact about 20 feet away, I can give them water,” Hilliard says. “They’ll also take a pamphlet.”
The retired foreign missionaries to Spain start a conversation in Spanish with a family walking in front of Dreamland Chapel. While their parents talk, children fill cone-shaped cups with water from the cooler.
The Hilliards invite the family to the Spanish-language service held in the afternoon. Sabas Amador, an associate chaplain, preaches the service that attracts from 12 to 25 people each Sunday.
At Dreamland Chapel, there’s a service to fit almost everyone at the flea market — an early morning service for dealers, an 11 a.m. service for shoppers and a Spanish-language service at 12:30 p.m.
When the flea market ministry started, volunteers from Buncombe County Baptist churches took turns handing out Christian literature and cups of water. The chairman of the flea market committee remembers when he first gave out water five years ago. “A guy asked us, ‘What are you doing that for?’ He looked up at the sign and said, ‘I understand. You’re Christians.'”
In addition to the water booth, the Buncombe Baptist association sponsored a service for dealers on Easter 1991. “We had services for a little over two years in my space,” says Peggy Miller, standing behind tables filled with brightly colored ribbons and bows she sells. During the winter, worshipers gathered in her booth when the wind-chill factor was 15 below zero. “It was so cold, I’d say, ‘Surely nobody will come around,'” recalls Lee Reedy who helped lead the services with fellow layman Dan Nichols.
Buncombe’s director of church and community ministries secured materials and donations for a chapel built by volunteers from area churches. Now dealers talk with pride about the chapel they consider their own.
The chapel was an answer to Gertrude and Gary Israel’s prayers. The couple was unemployed when they started selling video games on weekends at the flea market. “We had always gone to church on Sunday, so we prayed for God’s help and guidance,” Gertrude recalls. The second Sunday they were at the flea market, Gertrude walked by the chapel as the last prayer was being said. She asked about the service, and the next Sunday she was there. “Our church is a blessing and an outreach,” she says.
Ed Robertson, one of the chapel’s associate chaplains, leads the 11 a.m. chapel service for shoppers. His goal is to make visitors feel comfortable and accepted.
“A great deal of them feel like they’re being frowned at or looked down on by the organized church,” he says, leaning against the corner of his booth where he sells framed pictures and figurines.
Hilliard agrees with Robertson and stresses “we major in mercy if we walk with Jesus in the marketplace.”
Some customers may have an intimidating, tough exterior, but “you never know what their heart is like,” Robertson says.
Some people don’t see the need for a flea market ministry there, Dan Nichols admits. But Nichols knows if people are at the flea market on Sunday morning, they’re probably not involved in a church. “Either they’re away from the Lord or never met him,” he says.
Waldo Woodcock, a lifelong friend of the Hilliards, knows marketplace ministries experience growing pains and need the support of the Christian community.
As a Southern Baptist Mission Service Corps volunteer who serves as a marketplace specialist, he lends his professional and personal support. “One reason I drop in is to be an encouragement,” Woodcock says.
Margie Nixon’s booth looks like a small store complete with a carpeted floor and fabric-covered tables. Miniature tea sets, figurines and lamps line shelves and sit on tables. She attends the early morning dealers service and then returns for the 11 a.m. service.
The chapel was a source of strength for Nixon’s family when her son, also a dealer, was killed in an automobile accident two years ago.
Although her son had struggled with alcoholism, he had stopped drinking and started attending chapel services about seven months before his death. “He was so excited about his new life,” Nixon says.
Nixon knew her son would have wanted his funeral services at the flea market. “It’s where I worship,” she says. “It made all the difference in the world,” having the funeral there.
On Sunday, dealers gather for worship in the early morning hours before the flea market opens. As the service ends, the congregation joins hands and forms a prayer circle. After prayer, dealers head to their booths prepared for a day’s work.
Flea market dealer Bob Apt has traveled throughout the country cutting gemstones and making jewelry. He settled in Asheville three years ago and started attending chapel services.
“The name of the flea market is Dreamland,” he says, placing a silver necklace in a plastic bag, “and it has been a dream land for me.”