Today started off with a bang. I was offered a part in a movie, given another fellah’s phone number and serenaded by a third (“When I think of you… it makes me think of all the things I want to… doooo… toooo… you…”). All before lunchtime. And no. I was not wearing pigtails.
The movie director was later escorted out by Eric and his band of thugs-turned-holy men. The not yet discovered academy award winner was aparently attempting to cut someone with a fake knife. Or at least that’s the rumor I heard.
As I watched the four broad shouldered black men walk behind the dilusional filmmaker I somehow felt I was watching four angels in progress. All four of them–two in bomber jackets– walked with a street swagger. They followed up behind him slowly as they deepened their voices and told the man to “move on outta here.” They were like sheepdogs moving a lone sheep into the pen with expert skill.
Once he stepped outside the property, he continued to jeer at Eric from behind the gate. His demeanor begged a beating from a man of lesser self-control. But Eric simply deepened his voice even more and told him to “move on out” as he brushed him away. “I know where you’re at. You know where I been.”
I am genuinely in awe of the staff at the shelter. I feel like I am in the presence of the most wretched sinners turned saints I could ever know. The depths of hell they have survived to tell (or not tell) about makes me shudder. The light in their eyes and the shroud of wisdom mingled with meekness around their shoulders gives me a hope like no other. They have that spark of revolution that only freedom from bondage can give and a genuine brutal honesty that spits in the face of fear. They are set free to live for a purpose higher than themselves with no credit or recognition from anyone. There is One alone who acknowledges their one day at a time surrender.
“The pastor at church pulled me aside to tell me that he wants me ta preach my first sermon in April.” Jim announces to Wendy and I. “I has six months to prepare. I’m gonna give you twelve minutes, he tells me.”
Wendy and I listen with full attention as Jim excitedly tells us more. He begins to sing in the usual inner-city church style: “The same Jesus who was with Paul the apostle is the same Jesus who was with the three Hebrew brothahs, Shadrack, Mishack and A-Baaad-Negro.”
I promise to come hear him preach and bring my children with me. We are all family now, these folks and I.
Later, Paul joins in the conversation and I overhear the three of them talking more about preaching while I’m cleaning the men’s bathroom. I must admit, I’ve grown fond of cleaning the men’s bathroom because it means I get to listen in on some of the best conversations about theology I’ve ever been privy to. And my husband went to seminary. But the classrooms my husband visited were very different. This seminary of the streets has love, life and guts.
“You best repent or God will send yo ass to hell!” says Paul, illustrating how he heard a preacher cuss from the pulpit once.
They begin to discuss how preaching is a high calling that is worthy of a greater judgement. They talk about how easy it is for preachers to prey on the weak and rip off the church.
Jim shows great wisdom here and interjects, “Thas right, but that kinda preacher will be judged by the world if he’s found out and by God who sees everything when it is time that we be goin home ta heaven.”
“Unless he repent!” Interjects Wendy. Jim continues on.
“Ah, yes. But even if he repents, I’m sho for sho that God be takin a big ol rod to his backside when he arrives home. God’ll be like, ‘You, preacher there. C’mon ova here and bend ova!”
Most church goers I have been raised around would brand this kind of talk as “carnal.” But as I leave skid row and drive back to Orange County… as the cars grow bigger and the people grow fatter… as the roads widen and things become shinier. As the materialism begins to fill in around the edges everywhere… I begin to wonder. Perhaps the church untouched by the edges of hell is the one that is more carnal after all.
As Charles Studd once wrote, “Some want to live within the sound of church or chapel bell; I want to run a rescue shop within a yard of hell.”
These unsuspecting heroes live out faith and courage with less than a yard to spare sometimes.