My forehead was hot and a little scratchy. But, that's what normally happens when I wear a Santa Claus hat. I took it off and threw it on the dash of the church minivan as I motioned for two of the teenage guys that I disciple to hop in. We were just leaving our church's Christmas party; it was dark, and they both needed a ride home. As we headed down Cranston Street, the guys talked about the food we’d eaten and the games we’d played. We came to a stoplight. That's when I saw them and knew what I had to do.
Praying for an “Ethiopian”
About two weeks earlier I had preached on the story of Philip and the Ethiopian, explaining to the church that God directed Philip in sharing the Good News and, if we let Him, He will do the same for us. I also encouraged my people to trust that God would lead them to someone and when He does, it is important to tell someone about it so that they can hold you accountable to be obedient in sharing the Gospel.
As with all of my sermons, the message was for me, too, a reality that led me to pray for God to give me an “Ethiopian” of my own to share with in the West End of Providence. Well, as it turns out, God did in fact give me an Ethiopian. Actually, He gave me two of them.
Jackie and Antonio (not their real names) were always in the West End. I saw them often and was aware of what they did on Cranston Street. Simply put and sparing the details, Jackie is trapped in a life of selling herself for money, and Antonio is her pimp. With every time that I saw them, my heart broke – but on that night, as I sat at that stoplight, God said, Go to them!
The light turned green and I drove up towards to Antonio and Jackie were standing. As I got closer, I started to question whether or not I should stop, and instead of pulling over, I allowed my car to roll right past them.
Immediately, I shook my head in refusal and said inwardly, “No! I am going to do this. I'm sorry God. I am yours, I will do it!”
I looked in my mirrors, checked for cops, and then, as they like to say in New England, "I banged a uweey” and pulled up 25 feet from Jackie and Antonio.
I turned to the guys in the van and told them, "Hey guys, there's something God wants me to do."
A teen named Rey jumped in, as if he knew what I was about to say next, and said, "You're going to share Jesus with them?"
I nodded my head and asked, "Are you guys going to be okay for a few minutes, if I do that?"
They both said yes, so I got out and started walking toward Jackie and Antonio.
Breaking the Ice
They were walking in the opposite direction so I tapped Antonio on the shoulder. I suddenly realized that up to that point, I had never actually learned their names. They both turned. I had my church jacket on, which, on that night, I was grateful for. Antonio's face told me that they both knew me from seeing me at and around the church.
He looked shocked to see me, and Jackie seemed nervous, glancing around as if I was part of some police sting or something.
I offered my hand and said, "I'm Pastor John from a church in the community."
Antonio shook my hand and introduced himself. I then offered my hand to Jackie. She shook my hand and gave me her name but wouldn't look me in the eye. She was wearing a silky red dress and high heels and had a white fur wrap over her shoulders. It was eight o'clock and dark outside, and due to the cold, I’m sure she was freezing.
"I know this sounds crazy, but I was praying and asking God who He wanted me to share His Good News with and He was really clear, He wanted me to share it with you," I started.
Antonio looked stunned. Jackie turned towards me and said, "that's really sweet, but –"
Antonio interrupted, "She's got an atheist thing going on right now.”
As he said it, Antonio almost seemed entertained by what was actually taking place, like he was ready to kick back and watch the show. As my eyes caught Jackie's, I saw a completely different attitude then Antonio’s. Jackie seemed to be feeling a mixture of sadness and anger. I had hit a nerve.
A Past Full of Hurt
Unsure of what to say, and not wanting to get into an apologetics debate, I started in with the steps to peace with God.
"Jackie, I'm sorry that you feel like God doesn't exist, but I believe that He does and that He made you and loves you and that He wants to be in relationsh–"
Jackie interrupted. "Yeah, I've heard this before, and I just don't believe it.”
She was firm in her statement and yet still looking away. Her response showed that she appeared to be completely sober, or at least mostly. This was a moment of clarity for her, which made me hopeful.
I smiled and tried to move the position of my head to make eye contact with her. "Why not, Jackie?" I asked.
She turned to look at me and responded, "Pastor, I grew up in Malden (Massachusetts), and I used to go to a Nazarene church up there when I was a kid. So I heard about God."
She took a deep emotional breath and continued, "But, if God is real, then where was He when I was raped as a kid?"
I didn't know what to say.
She kept talking, "And where was God when my own mother was pimping me out to have sex with strange men?"
The anger and the sadness in her voice were thick now. My heart dropped like a crashing elevator. I stole a glance at Antonio, to see his response. Frankly, I was shocked that she was saying this in front of her pimp – the one who was doing the same thing to her! I hoped to see some emotion from him, but all I saw as a numb stare. Antonio's stare showed that he was listening – almost as if he was trying to understand, but his pride wouldn’t let him.
I looked back quickly at Jackie and said, "Jackie, what happened to you is terrible, but God never promises us that we won't be faced with darkness in this world. What God does promise us, is that He will walk through it with us and that He is here for you."
Still hurt, she quipped back, "Sure didn't feel like He was there, back then."
"I hear you, Jackie, but the truth is that God wants to rescue all of us from this darkness. As long as we have breath in our lungs, He will keep reaching out to us, which I believe is what He is doing to you right now. He loves you both," I answered.
Back to Business
Just then, a short middle-aged man walked past us and smiled up at Jackie as if to entice her. I'll be honest, I wanted to put my fist through his face! Instead, I glared at him, all the while screaming on the inside for him to move away from Jackie.
After that, the conversation turned to, "Thank you, Pastor, for caring. You are a good man."
I knew that was the end of night's dialogue because business awaited, so I smiled and pointed across the street.
"Antonio and Jackie that's my office right there with the blue windows,” I told them. “You should see me coming in and out of there a lot. If you ever see me on the street, please say 'hi.' And if you ever need prayer, please don't hesitate to ask me. And every Sunday at 3 p.m. we always have church across from the Armory. You both are always welcome."
Jackie smiled for the first time as she reached out and hugged me. Antonio shook my hand. They thanked me again and told me that I was good guy. We all turned and left the corner.
As I got in the car, Rey and his brother were quiet. We turned down a side street so that I could block around. I glanced in my rear view and took one more look at Antonio and Jackie. That final glimpse moved me to call out to God. I asked the guys if they would pray with me as we drove.
When we finished I said, "I really hope they come to church sometime."
They both immediately agreed. Their response was genuine and compassionate, and I was proud of them for that.
Not the End
After dropping the guys off at their house, the rest of my ride turned into a prayer session. I cried out to God, overwhelmed by what I had just heard. I got angry and through tears asked God, how He could allow something like that to happen to another human – to be pimped out by her own mother! I lamented over the condition of humanity and how we have gone so far away from God. I felt powerless and broken.
Since then, I've seen Jackie and Antonio several times, and we've exchanged waves. Each time I've prayed quietly for their salvation.
I've also asked myself and God why He sent me to Jackie and Antonio if they weren't going to accept Jesus in that moment. I had dreamed of walking up to them and discovering that they already had a Gospel of John or scroll of Isaiah in a bag and that they wanted me to explain it. Maybe it's silly, but leading up to that interaction I was full of faith for a carbon-copy of what Philip experienced with the Ethiopian.
I've come to realize that God sent me in that moment to break the ice and to show both of them that regardless of their mistakes, God loves them and is still reaching out them. This was Act One, and I must trust Him for Act Two and Act Three.
Maybe I will play a role in those parts of the story, too. Maybe I won’t. However, despite not knowing what is to come for Antonio and Jackie, I can hold onto the fact that I was obedient and rest in the fact that the remainder of the story is up to God.
John M. Ames is the church planting pastor of Faith Community Church in Providence, RI.