Lawrenceville is the kind of place a man might go to feel a million miles away from his past.
It's a place where there are few people, and fewer questions. Most occupy themselves with surviving seemingly endless upper New York winters and higher-than-average unemployment. It's a place where one of the bigger buildings' sole purpose is to house road salt. A county clerk's office, some houses, and a bridge over the meandering Deer River are about it. Population 1,200, so says the census. Good luck finding that many.
Yep, Lawrenceville is exactly the kind of place a man could go to get lost. Especially if you're a man like Don Baxter.*
Baxter, 52, grew up downstate in South Albany, a rough kid in the roughest neighborhood. Multiple run-ins with the law had him on the verge of jail time by age 18. A judge's ultimatum—jail or military—soon led Baxter to join the Army. It was a short-lived reprieve. He was in prison by age 30, serving fifteen years for conviction on three felony charges.
Once out, Baxter, his wife, and stepson scratched around trying to survive. His first real break came when a brother offered him a rugged piece of property near Lawrenceville with a promise of a free title transfer. The family loaded up what possessions it had and slogged cross-country heading for a new beginning; but backbreaking work to survive awaited them in New York.
They pitched a tent and began clearing the property. Winter hit and they rode out sub-zero temperatures in that tent. Spring came and they scraped together money for a ramshackle trailer. The ground thawed and Baxter and his son dug a 512 cubic foot hole for a septic system. Then they dug down twelve feet for a well. They got a few chickens, pigs, and some cows. It wasn't paradise, but it was a start, and as soon as Baxter's brother handed over the deed, it would be theirs. Or so they thought.
Baxter's brother arrived New Year's Eve 2011 and told him he was selling the land. He had a couple months to vacate. It was a devastating blow. "The ground was frozen solid," Baxter recalled. "We couldn't have dug up anything that belonged to us—not the pole barn, or the septic system, or anything. That ground wasn't going to thaw for months. Plus, we had nowhere to go."
Turns out, being lost in upstate New York wasn't any better than being known somewhere else.
Love Thy Neighbor
Bill Ramsdell is a simple man. At 70, supposedly he's retired. But do farmers really ever retire? Ramsdell lives three miles from where he was born. In his younger years he worked a stint at an aluminum plant, but mostly it's been farming. It is what he's wanted to do since he was three years old, and today he still makes some of the sweetest maple syrup tree sap ever produced.
With a second winter coming, and shortly before Baxter got the notice from his brother, he realized he needed hay for insulation around his trailer. Ramsdell had already thought the same thing and stopped by with his old red truck loaded with hay. Baxter got more than hay; he got friendship too. He also heard a lot about Jesus.
"Bill was just a good friend," Baxter said. "He and [wife] Erma watched out for us and helped us so much. I don't know what we woulda done without them. He'd share with me out of the Bible about Jesus. The more he shared, the angrier I got because it started changing the way I was thinking about things, but [I and my
family] started going to church."
Ramsdell knew Baxter had a past but never asked about it. He was just looking to love his neighbor.
A Shepherd's Heart
In one sense, Micah Carr couldn't seem more out of place. Eighteen miles from the Canadian border is a long way north for a 35-year-old Macon, Georgia, boy. As a teenager, Carr had his own trouble with drugs and alcohol and cried out to God in desperation, "God, if You can save me from this, I'll give my life to serving You." God did, and Micah has. He did construction and sheet metal work, but went to Luther Rice University (and recently graduated from Luther Rice Seminary). His original encounter with Lawrenceville was several years ago on a Builders for Christ mission trip.
"They needed somebody to preach at a little Baptist church," he said. "It turned out to be Lawrenceville Baptist Chapel. Wasn't that long after that [my wife and I] wound up coming back here to pastor."
As Baxter's family started going to church, Carr started meeting with them in their home to walk with them through the Bible and to share the significance of who Jesus is. Baxter says he "didn't have much use for God" growing up. Now God squarely confronted him through Scripture.
"He told me he just couldn't believe God would forgive him for what he'd done," Carr said. "But Bill just kept faithfully praying for him and his family, and I kept praying with him and sharing what the Bible said."
Carr encouraged Baxter to share his past with Ramsdell, but Baxter couldn't. He was afraid he'd lose the only friend he had. But within four days, Baxter told Ramsdell about his past. He then called Carr to say he was ready to accept Christ.
"I got to his house and he was literally trembling," Carr said. "He told me that if Bill could forgive and accept him, then he was now sure Jesus could. I don't know that I've ever seen a person more ready to ask Jesus into his life. The change was immediate and dramatic."
It was providential timing. Within just a few weeks, Baxter would need God's help in ways he could not have imagined—beginning with his brother's eviction notice.
From Lost to Found
Baptism followed, but it was not simple. First, the Deer River, the church's baptistry, had to thaw. Next, Baxter has a deep-seated fear of water and literally prayed his way down the river bank and up again. His wife was baptized the same day.
Baxter had the land eviction to deal with. The stress caused a stroke. He nearly died and was paralyzed on the entire left side of his body. After reading about Jesus healing the man's withered hand (Mark 3:1-6), Baxter asked Jesus to heal him; and He did. Although no longer an invalid, Baxter had little strength, no stamina, an impending eviction deadline, no place to go, and no money to get there. He collapsed before God and cried out.
"I just told Him I couldn't take anymore," he said. "I was crying like a baby. I was desperate."
Again, God responded, restoring his strength. The Lord led Baxter to a piece of property so inexpensive even he could afford it—and it was near Ramsdell's home. Baxter says life is still a struggle, but God is faithful.
"Jesus has done so much for me," Baxter said. "He forgave me and saved me. He took away my guilt. He gave me a life. My heart was so calloused that the only thing that came out was hate. Since I have Jesus, I care about people. I don't think about doing bad things any more, I think about doing good things. I want to show other people what it's like to feel God's love."
Yes, Lawrenceville is the kind of place a man might go to get lost and try to get a million miles away from his past. But turns out Lawrenceville is also the kind of place a lost man might go to be found by Jesus and, in turn, find his eternal future instead.
Like a Good Neighbor
Evangelism is pretty simple for Bill Ramsdell (see adjacent story): "Just be the best neighbor I can be to people and look for ways to point them to Christ; to let them know what Jesus has done for me."
It was that simple approach that led to Don Baxter's eventual salvation, and it is a key to evangelism in places like New York (or anywhere else) says Micah Carr, pastor of Lawrenceville Baptist Chapel.
"There is a cold spiritual climate here in the North Country," said Carr. "People aren't real open. The thing I love about Bill and his approach to evangelism is that he doesn't make assumptions about people. He does what he can to turn conversations in a direction that point people to Christ."
Carr said he believes there are three basic elements to effective evangelism:
1. Be a good neighbor.
Look for ways to get involved in people's lives and to build meaningful relationships with them.
2. Be interested in people.
Carr said that means being concerned for people's spiritual condition as well as other aspects of their lives.
Pray strategically and specifically for opportunities to connect with people and for people's salvation.
* Name changed to respect the person's privacy due to the sensitivity of his court case.
Chris Turner is a freelance journalist living in Brentwood, Tennessee, and a member of Grace Community Church in Nashville, Tennessee.