By ERIN ANDERSEN / Lincoln Journal Star | Posted: Friday, March 30, 2012 11:45 pm
"Fifteen years ago, I felt the Lord say to me, 'You will pass through this church one day as its leader.' ... And I just knew," Connie Dawson says. Back then Dawson wasn't even a minister. She had just been laid off from her job as administrative director of cardiology at St. Elizabeth Regional Medical Center and was about to embark on different call from God: to be a missionary in China's Yunnan Province.
Fast forward to 2012. Dawson is back in Lincoln -- in the very role God promised her in 1997. The only difference: The church she knew as First Assembly of God is now called Radiant Church, a nondenominational pentecostal congregation at 70th and Vine streets.
The church's name has changed four times in the past 15 years; most recently it was known as The Bridge and before that as Gates of Praise. But the church's mission and values remain true to the ideal Dawson held so tightly that Sunday in 1997.
"It's all about love," Dawson says with emotion. "Love of God. Love of people. Loving the lost and bringing them to Jesus," she says. Radiant Church -- the name Dawson gave the church this past November, when she took the pulpit for the first time -- is named for Ephesians 5:25-27: "Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish." And the woman, who 25 years earlier picked up and moved from North Carolina to a state she could not quickly point out on a map, hears God loud and clear and wants to show Lincoln's unchurched the love of the Lord.
"I want to go after those 138,000 people and let them know God loves them. ... Jesus left the 99 to find the one," she says, referring to Matthew 18:12-14. In the five months Dawson has served as lead pastor, the congregation's numbers have more than doubled, from 60 to 150 people, she says. Her goal: to fill the 650-seat sanctuary and balcony. "There is a lot of anticipation and excitement," Dawson says.
***Dawson's story is of a life transformed.
Back in 1987, she was a single mother with a young son. St. Elizabeth Regional Medical Center was about to begin a cardiology program and needed someone to make it happen. That someone was Dawson. She moved to Lincoln and found a church home: First Assembly of God. She met a fellow parishioner, fell in love and got married in the church. Dawson was living the dream. But eight years after moving here, the hospital was in transition. An independent consultant recommended layoffs, and Dawson's position was one of those eliminated.
It was a difficult blow but not devastating, she said. She felt God telling her a new chapter would begin. She felt a burden for China. She told her husband: I think God want us to go to China. "You may be going to China, but I'm not," her husband responded. But six months later, Bruce Dawson's business partners in Taco John's restaurants offered to buy him out.
A sign from God, she says. Bruce took the offer. The Dawsons sold their house, their two cars and all of their possessions and moved to another continent. In China, Bruce Dawson was hired to teach English as a second language at a Chinese university. By all accounts, Connie Dawson was merely the devoted wife of an American teacher -- at least in the eyes of the Chinese government. But covertly she taught the Chinese about Christianity, working in underground Bible schools. Her teaching took her as far north as the Siberian border and as far south as the edge of Vietnam, she says. Her work was considered seditious. If the government found out, she could be imprisoned or killed.
The work was demanding. Challenging. Frightening. And fulfilling. "In the mission field, it was like God stripped the bark off a tree and reconstructed who I was," Dawson said. "He re-programmed me." The Dawsons served five years in China then worked in a seminary in the Philippines for five more years. "God changed me. It was the re-creation of my life," Connie Dawson says. When they returned to the United States, Connie Dawson pursued her master of divinity degree from University of Colorado. On May 5, she will receive her doctorate in renewal history and theology from Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va.
The church has always been her life, Dawson said."I have always had a real burden for the people (of Lincoln). I always wanted to see God move forward within this city," she says. "I have cried, prayed and fasted for this city. ... I know God is about to do something amazing in this city." And Dawson is certain God wants her do much more than pastor the church. "When we, the church, begin to love like Jesus loved, lay down our lives in service like Jesus did -- then the church will be unstoppable," she says. "By God's grace, that is my goal."