There are times when Doug Stringer – US-based evangelist, author, preacher and founder of Christian outreach organization Somebody Cares – says he can relate to Forrest Gump, the unlikely hero of the 1994 film of the same name.

“He’d always end up in these photographs with all these famous people…he just showed up in the picture,” he explains.  “I’m like Forrest Gump, I just show up in the picture and I make myself available and God seems to use that,” says Doug Stringer.

“I realize, with me, from one moment I can be in a garbage dump in Surabaya with thousands of homeless people and an hour or so later I can be in the presidential palace praying with the president. I’ve been with some of the most famous and wealthiest people from different arenas – from sports through to politics – and I think to myself ‘What am I doing here? I don’t have a clue what I’m doing’. But I’m like Forrest Gump, I just show up in the picture and I make myself available and God seems to use that.”

The 49-year-old – who recently made the latest of his many trips to Australia where he spoke to churches and pastors in Victoria – has spent the past 25 years working among and for those who society shuns, sowing God’s word and life into their lives, initially in Houston, Texas, and, more recently, all around the globe.

Born in Japan to a Japanese mother and an American navy frogman who was in Japan during the Korean War, Stringer went to the US at an early age where he lived in most of his younger years in the west coast city of San Diego.

After his parents divorced and his mother remarried, at the age of 15 he went back to live in Japan when his stepfather, also in the US navy, was stationed there. There he took up baseball, playing for the US, and wrestling, becoming first in his weight class for Japan.

Stringer returned to the US at the age of 18. After dropping out of school, he spent some time living rough, riding goods trains up and down the west coast of the country before, at the age of 21, he tracked down and met up with his biological father in Houston, Texas.

“Though it was great to see my father, there was something missing – I knew that wasn’t all I was looking for,” he says. “And in was in that next three year journey – from ‘78 to ‘81 – that the Lord had to take me through a whole chain of events before finally bringing me to Himself.”

Stringer was running his own fitness center in Houston when he finally “began a relationship” with Christ. Amazingly, he recalls that he started ministering to people virtually from the day he decided to “sell out for the Lord”.

“The Lord began to set things in order immediately in me. Every time I read the Scriptures at night it became alive to me. The very next day I’d share it with people at my exercise studio and people I’d come across and that one verse I’d read the night before became life to someone else,” he recalls.

“I began to move in words of knowledge for people, I began to pray for people and they’d just look at me with tears in their eyes. I didn’t know what an evangelist was at the time but people would come to Christ everyday. After I would close my business at 9 o’clock at night, people would start showing up – 20, 30, 50, 150, 200, 250 – on any given night we would have functions; (my exercise centre) became a Christian activities centre. And this was me as a brand new Christian just making myself available. The Lord used that – in fact that was one of my prayers – ‘Lord, if you can use anyone like me, who’s broken your heart and brought shame to your name, I make myself available to you’. And that’s what He did, He took me at my word.”

“Soon I began to see hitch-hikers and runaways and drug addicts and prostitutes and people who were in desperate need. I tried to call places but I couldn’t find anywhere or they had waiting lists, so I just put them in my apartment. One day I had 17 people from the streets, just before Christmas one year, living in my apartment. A businessman gave me a two bedroom apartment if I would teach a Bible study and an exercise class once a week in the new apartment complex he developed…well, I put six more people there. Then another group of Christian businessmen had a three-bedroom house that they didn’t know what to do with so they gave it to me and I put 12 more people there. So that’s the humble beginnings – I was thrown into ministry, literally.”

It wasn’t until several years later in the mid-Eighties that Stringer says he even recognised that he was a minister.

“I thought that’s what all Christians were supposed to do – to make themselves available,” he says. “(The recognition came) only after a group of pastors and other ministers said ‘Doug don’t you realise God has ordained you? You can’t run from something God has placed in you’.”

The origin of the outreach ministry, Somebody Cares, dates back to that time.

“Working with runaways and drug addicts and prostitutes and gang members, I would pass out tracts or Christian literature, but I noticed that a lot of them would throw those away,” says Stringer.

“But I started giving them a business card that said – ‘Somebody Cares. Call 24 Hours a Day’ and gave them a hotline pager number and a phone number. I found there were kids that for some reason, because of that term, would not throw those cards away; they’d hang on to them just as a last semblance of hope. So anywhere from a few months to years later, people would call from those business cards.”

He began to notice a group of like-minded people – those who had a “heart of compassion for the lost” – doing similar work to himself. So he started a network called Somebody Cares with the aim of linking together those who were reaching out to others.

By the early Nineties, the Somebody Cares network had grown to include 300 pastors and ministers from across denominations and ethnicities within the Houston area who joined together in signing a covenant of unity. In 1996 those involved with Somebody Cares joined together in what become known as ‘Houston Prayer Mountain’, praying and fasting together for 40 days as they lifted up their city and nations over the world to God. More than 25,000 people showed up.

“We had very notable miracles,” recalls Stringer. “Gang members would walk in and take off their colors and give their lives to Christ; we had people from various denominations who normally wouldn’t even work together come and leave their labels outside as they came to pray together.”

These days Somebody Cares continues to bring together Christians of various backgrounds to pray together for common purposes, such as ‘Adopt-A-Gang’ initiatives in which people pray for the members of particular gangs or prayer walks which focus on prayer for particular neighbourhoods.

It’s also involved in “compassion coalition” initiatives which bring together Christians, churches and organisations who are already helping to address the unique humanitarian or other needs of a community in some way to better coordinate their efforts.

“Rather than creating something, you identify what already exists in a community and bring those organisations together to be more impacting…” explains Stringer. “What that does, it tends to open the hearts of the unchurched to see the relevancy of Christ being tangible through the church – not the institutional church so much as through the church of a community. It also provokes the church of a community to realise that ‘You know, we are part of something bigger than ourselves; that is not just about my stewardship of one congregation, this is about me co-pastoring or co-facilitating the church of a greater region’.”

While Somebody Cares started out as the Houston-based outreach arm of Stringer’s other ministry, Turning Point International (an organisation which now has missionaries on almost every continent), the model on which it’s based began to catch the attention of others.

“We found that there were…cities around the country and around the world who said ‘We want to do the same thing’,” says Stringer.

As a result, the Somebody Cares ‘model’ has since been exported to a number of other cities and regions around the US – including in Texas, Florida, California and Massachusetts – as well as to cities and even whole nations overseas, such as in Fiji and the Scottish city of Aberdeen.

“The Somebody Cares ‘model’ has since been exported to a number of other cities and regions around the US – including in Texas, Florida, California and Massachusetts – as well as to cities and even whole nations overseas, such as in Fiji and the Scottish city of Aberdeen.”

Such has been the success of the model that on several occasions when a natural disaster has hit a region – such as when Hurricane Ivan stormed across the south-eastern United States in 2004 or when the worst floods in 70 years recently affected parts of New England in the country’s north – authorities turned to the local Somebody Cares networks for help.

“So what’s happening is in all these communities (is that)…when something happens, they immediately go to and call or email Somebody Cares to see how they can help or get help,” explains Stringer. “It’s become a localised network of churches and ministries who are becoming very tangible expressions of Christ’s love for the community.”

In part two, Doug Stringer talks about Somebody Cares’ role in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, revivals taking place around the world and his ‘Australian connection’…