LEFORS, Texas (BP) – Since coming to First Baptist Church of Lefors in March 2014, pastor Ken Houston has done many things for the first time: shot a buck, responded to EMT calls, fought grass fires, and was elected mayor.
"Preacher," as locals call him in the Texas panhandle town of 500, is making a difference.
Outside Lefors, oil rigs and windmill farms dot the dry, grassy countryside west toward Pampa. First Baptist is the largest church in town, growing from 30 in attendance when Houston arrived to around 60-70 each Sunday.
"We'll pack the place on Easter," Houston told the TEXAN, a Southern Baptist newspaper.
During the interview, staccato bursts from Houston's emergency radio sounded the alert that 40- to 60-mile-per-hour winds threatened the parched countryside.
"Grass fires today," Houston said. Upon arrival at the Lefors firehouse, two of the four fire trucks have rolled out, but a third "won't crank," said another fireman.
"I love being a fireman," Houston said, "standing on the front end of the truck spraying water." He responded to nearly 50 fires last year and has been treated for smoke inhalation. Emergency response provides him "an opportunity to minister to people on probably the worst day they have ever had."
Lefors Independent School District and its 165 students is another avenue of ministry. A $3 million bond has paid to renovate the high school auditorium, but the building dates from 1923. Two-thirds of the students qualify for free lunch.
"Ken doesn't shy away from showing God's love and compassion to anybody," Lefors ISD Superintendent Joe Waldron said. The two worked together during Houston's stint on the school board, a post he resigned when elected mayor.
Born in Chicago, Houston's small-town high school experience in Havana, Ill., prepared him for life in Lefors, as did his upbringing in Southern Baptist churches. His family has settled in nicely as well, with his wife Margo teaching kindergarten.
Houston came to Texas in 1982 with a criminal justice degree from Illinois State, turning to retail and pest control when law enforcement jobs proved elusive. Transferred to Abilene, he and a friend started a pest control business that was later bought by a national firm.
Eventually as a branch manager for that national firm, Houston "had it made," working from 8 to 4 and "talking theology" with his friend and service manager.
His "highest bonus" equaled his "first year's salary at FBC Lefors ... and I was miserable," Houston said with a laugh.
"You are not where God wants you to be," his friend said.
With Margo's encouragement, Houston started online classes through Liberty University.
"I started taking classes, and God started opening doors." Houston supplied pulpits in Amarillo and around the Panhandle until FBC Lefors called.
"We felt so loved," Houston said of the church. "We were surrendered to wherever God wanted to send us." The congregation's vote to call him was unanimous.
Deacons asked if he would be involved in the community.
"Absolutely," Houston answered. Besides volunteering as a fireman and training as an EMT, he attended school events, spoke at baccalaureate services and ate lunch at the senior citizen center. He balked when asked to run for mayor as a write-in, trying unsuccessfully to convince others to run.
He won the election with 79 percent of the vote.
Houston has "been really good" as mayor, city secretary Lindy Forsyth said. "He has grounded everybody. He's had a lot of experience. Going back to him being a preacher, he deals with people very well. I get a lot of angry people in here. He can defuse a situation quickly."
Small town administrators face challenges uncommon to their counterparts in larger municipalities.
"You've dug several ditches," Forsyth reminded Houston. "We put him to work at the wastewater plant cleaning up sludge."
"Christians need to be involved civically," Houston said. "Everybody else has a voice and they are certainly sharing it." His two goals as mayor are to see the outdated wastewater plant modernized and the groundwater storage tank refurbished.
A drive up a gravel road in Houston's pickup leads to the water tank and an overlook. From this vantage point stretches the expanse of Lefors: a collection of brick and frame homes, slag and paved streets. The church's tall white steeple stands visible above the skyline.
Houston said he sometimes drives up here to pray over the town but doesn't "do it near enough."
Another pickup pulls alongside Houston's on the dusty road. "Hey Preacher, why ain't you fightin' the fire?" an elderly man asked with a grin.
"They had enough without me," Houston replied, introducing 83-year-old Floyd Lott, who calls himself the "oldest active firefighter in Texas."
"He is an honest, straightforward young man," Lott said of Houston.
After Lott drove off, Houston pointed to a grassy field where a young man he had baptized threatened suicide one cold evening. Deputies surrounded the area. Houston, sick with the flu, convinced authorities to let him help.
"You know what you're asking?" the sheriff asked. He didn't at first but realized quickly as they fitted him with a bullet proof vest and escorted him into the field behind a shield flanked by armed deputies.
"You've got people who love you. Your family loves you. I love you. Think about your baby," Houston told the man. "It's cold. I'm cold. Come on out, and let's talk about this." The young man finally did and later thanked him.
Houston calls his mother's death in 2012 a "turning point." His "greatest regret" is that she never saw him preach, but the family has brought her legacy to Lefors. A plaque erected at the city cemetery honors Mrs. Houston and marks the new fence donated by the family in her memory.
"We wanted Mom to be part of our life here," Houston said. "God sent us to minister here as long as he wants us here. We are going to make as much difference as we can."
Grassfires engulfed the panhandle within a week of the TEXAN's interview with the preacher, claiming three lives in McLean, five miles from Lefors.
The Lefors volunteer fire department responded; Houston spent two nights fighting the blazes and was called out again the afternoon of March 8. He cancelled that evening's Wednesday night Bible study in favor of a community-wide prayer event at the church.