Melvern Terry Bullock wanted to get back to being a pastor and heeding Christ's call to be a fisher of men. He's getting to do just that — in a converted bait shop near Melvern Lake.
His TrueGrace Community Church meets in what used to be the Dam Store on Kansas 31, just east of the lake and U.S. 75, about 30 miles south of Topeka. Members have spruced the place up, making curtains with cross designs and putting up wall hangings, including one that depicts the Last Supper.
Outside, though, the west wall still has the bait shop's mural of a fisherman nailing a gigantic large-mouth bass.
"We're keeping this," Bullock told The Topeka Capital-Journal. "But we're going to have someone paint the words 'You shall become fishers of men' over here."
People have heard about the church through word of mouth, Bullock said. The smallest crowd to date has been 16, the largest 51. Average Sunday service attendance is in the 20s.
"There's probably quite a few people here who wouldn't go to church anyplace else," said Larry Burnett, a 61-year-old church deacon. "He accepts you the way you are."
Bullock, a 50-year-old U.S. Navy veteran born and raised near Hattiesburg, Miss., is a former truck driver who works as a full-time nurse at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Topeka.
He'd served as a pastor of the Richter United Methodist Church, just east of the Franklin County town of Pomona, for about five years when health issues led him to step down in 2008.
He said he was trying to preserve his energy, but leaving the ministry left him depressed. He said people "put a foot in my backside" by asking him whether he was planning to start a church. He said the name for a new church came to him in a dream, from God.
Bullock originally thought his church would be a street-corner ministry for people who weren't in a church and who may have felt like they didn't fit in an established congregation. Bullock said he believed the ministry could nurture people in the Christian faith, then send them along to a church where they would feel at home.
But Bullock said he soon realized that he wasn't supposed to be sending people elsewhere.
He said early this year, he'd had dinner with his wife and poured out his heart about wanting to return to the ministry. On their way home, they ran into a woman they'd not seen for several years at a grocery store. The woman called across the store to Bullock's wife: "When's Bull going to start a church?"
Bullock and his wife started crying.
"It was like, OK, God, you don't have to hit me over the head with a skillet," Bullock said later, describing how he felt.
TrueGrace began meeting in a community center in Melvern in May. By July 4, it was worshipping at the former bait shop.
"We had to clear out a lot of lures," Bullock said before a recent Sunday morning service. "There was pegboard all over the walls and lots of hooks on it."
Bullock's down-to-earth style attracts people to the church, Burnett said.
Bullock said he struggled with drugs and alcohol when he was younger. And — not that it matters, he said — he has eight tattoos.
"I said in my first sermon that the only people who won't feel comfortable here are those that are self-righteous," he said. "The Lord accepted me, and that's what I want these people to feel like."
One church member made what Bullock calls "the old rugged cross" out of pieces of wood salvaged from an old barn on the property. It stands at the front of the church.
"When we started this church, we wanted it to be a place for broken people," Bullock said. "That cross up there is made of old wood that was broken and had been discarded."