An unassuming man walked into the tent alone. He asked worker Howard Bridges for a sandwich, maybe two, because he didn’t know if he would be able to make it back later in the day.
He asked Becky Costner, another volunteer, if she could line him up with a Bible.
His Bible had somehow gone missing, and when Costner found him one, he left, disappearing back into the maze of rides, games and exhibits that covered the grounds of the Western North Carolina Agricultural Center in Fletcher.
Some of the faces have changed and others have not, but for 25 years now, that’s the way it has worked at the North Carolina Mountain State Fair. The man with the two sandwiches and new Bible was one of thousands of carnival workers – known as “carnies” – who have been touched by massive ministry efforts coordinated by the Buncombe Baptist Association.
Churches from no less than 11 different Baptist associations in and around Asheville – Buncombe, Green River, Carolina, Polk, Macon, Transylvania, Yancey, Haywood, Mitchell, Truett and French Broad – took part this year.
Name almost any type of ministry, and it likely took place Sept. 5-14 at the Mountain State Fair.
Volunteers discuss plans for the Mountain State Fair ministry. Because of the terrain, volunteers use golf carts to help fairgoers get around the fair.
A break tent served sandwiches, snacks, water and soft drinks, and Bibles were distributed at regular intervals throughout the day. Next to that tent was a smaller one, where a barber set up shop. Eyeglasses were passed out. There were tents for evangelism, tents where workers could pick out new clothing, a missions booth, courtesy carts and a bus where a total of 37 medical and 52 dental patients were seen.
In all, 10 carnival workers and eight fair visitors made professions of faith.
“I’m grateful for all the churches that take ownership in this,” said Perry Brindley, director of missions for the Buncombe Baptist Association. “The participation of individuals represents at least 11 Baptist associations that cooperate together.
“But we hand this ministry to local churches, and local churches take ownership. That’s why we exist, to assist local churches in doing ministry in their communities and the region, to reach people for Christ.”
Many, if not most, carnies go from one fair location to the next. They come together in run-down cars, trucks and vans, and there are some who have recreation vehicles. Some came from area shelters. All carnivals have what are known as “bunkhouses,” which are essentially semi-truck trailers, divided into tiny living quarters.
When the bunkhouse has to pull up stakes early on the last day and head to the next fair location, those left behind to help tear down are essentially homeless.
“(Carnies) have been referred to as a forgotten group of people,” said Norma Melton, Buncombe’s director of church and community ministries. “They’re people who need to be loved. You’re out there, and you’re doing all these things, and you’re loving on them. They’re dirty, and you’re hugging them.
“One of them will get you aside and say, ‘Nobody’s here, now tell me, why do you really do this?’ You have an opportunity to share, ‘We’re doing it because God loves us, and He has allowed us to share that love with you in this way.
“He loves you, too, and we want to tell you about that love He has for you.’ It’s perfect.”
Relationships form over the course of time, and the carnival workers became something very much like family for those involved in the fair ministry. One by one, they come into the break tent, and they’re greeted warmly.
That’s when fellowship begins – by far, one of the most important ministries.
“They sit down at the table, and we say, ‘Hey, what’s going on? Anything you want us to pray about?’” Melton said. “They love to talk. The carnival workers love to share with you. They don’t have anybody to talk to. The interesting thing is that they see us as ‘the church.’
“They don’t see us as many churches and many associations. Isn’t that what it’s supposed to be? They’ll call us, ‘the church tent, the church people.’ They call us all year long, because they don’t have a church to call. They’re here this week. They’re there next week.”
Other churches and associations partake in varying degrees of ministry at other state fairs in North Carolina. Calvary Baptist Church in Winston-Salem plans to cancel its Wednesday night services Oct. 8 in order to allow its members to visit the nearby Dixie Classic Fair and invite fellow attendees to its Festival 31 event on Halloween.
The next week, the Raleigh Baptist Association is coordinating efforts at the North Carolina State Fair. Chaplains will be on site from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. ministering to the needs of the carnival workers and those attending the event. As at the Mountain State Fair, personal hygiene gift bags, clothing and a dental bus will be made available. North Carolina Campers on Mission also plan to feed carnival workers throughout the Oct. 16-26 state fair.
“Our objective, primarily, is to serve the people at the fair in the name of Christ, showing them the love and mercy of Jesus,” said Travis Williams, pastor at Treasuring Christ Church in Raleigh who is helping coordinate ministries at the N.C. State Fair. “Particularly, we focus on the carnival workers. They are usually in a pretty downtrodden state by the time they get to North Carolina.
“They travel 300 days out of the year. They’re away from their families. They’re barely making a decent wage. They don’t get a lot of breaks. They’re on their feet all day.
“This is a group of folks who really need to see the light of Jesus, so we try to serve them.”
Information on how to volunteer as a chaplain or dental bus worker, as well as donating personal hygiene gift bags, food items and baked goods, is available at raleighbaptists.org/ministries.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Rick Houston is a freelance writer living in Yadkinville.)