While reading from Ruben Shelly’s I Knew Jesus Before he Was A Christian…And I Liked Him Better Then, I came across this touching story he quoted from Tony Campolo’s The Kingdom of God is a Party. I had forgotten I read that book years ago until his excerpt in the tenth chapter reminded me of one of our highest purposes for being on planet earth.
It’s a shame that I almost did not share this for fear of what some might think: you quoted from Campolo? Isn’t he a heretic?
Think what you will (and I admit to some of my own concerns…but might the issues be mostly my own?), but I could sit across a table at Starbucks with this guy. Especially when he shares stories like this:
Why is it that people turn away from what God wills for them? Turn away from the life that God wants them to live? Turn away from doing what Jesus wants them to do to share the salvation story and to bring joy into the lives of those who don’t have much to be joyful about?
I had to go to speak in Honolulu. Well, sometimes you get L.A. and sometimes you get Honolulu. If you go to Honolulu, because of the distance from the east coast where I live, there’s a six‐hour time difference. And I woke up at about three o’clock in the morning and I was hungry and I wanted to get something to eat. But, in a hustling city like Honolulu at three o’clock in the morning, it’s hard to find anything that’s open. Up a side street, I spotted this greasy spoon, and I went in. It was one of these dirty places and they didn’t have any booths, just row of stools at the counter. I sat down a bit uneasy and I didn’t touch the menu. It was one of those plastic menus and grease had piled up on it. I knew that if I opened it, something extraterrestrial would have crawled out.
All of the sudden, this very heavy‐set, unshaved man with a cigar came out of the back room, put down his cigar, and said, “What do you want?”
I said, “I’d like a cup of coffee and a donut.”
He poured the coffee and then he scratched himself and, with the same hand, picked up the donut. I hate that. So, there I am, three‐thirty in the morning, drinking my coffee, and eating this dirty donut. And into the place comes about eight or nine prostitutes. It’s a small place, they sit on either side of me, and I tried to disappear. The woman on my immediate right was very boisterous and she said to her friend, “Tomorrow’s my birthday. I’m going to be thirty‐nine.”
Her friend said, “So what do you want me to do? Do you want me to sing happy birthday? Should we have a cake a party? It’s your birthday.”
The first woman said, “Look, why do you have to put me down? I’ve never had a birthday party in my whole life. I don’t expect to have one now.”
That’s all I needed. I waited until they left and I called Harry over and I asked, “Do they come in here every night?”
He said, “Yes.”
I said, “The one right next to me…”
“Tomorrow is her birthday. What do you think about decorating the place? When she comes in tomorrow night, we’ll throw a birthday party for her. What do you think?”
He said, “Mister, that is brilliant. That is brilliant!” He called his wife out of the back room. “Jan, come out here. I want you to meet this guy. He wants to throw a birthday party for Agnes.”
She came out and took my hand and squeezed it tightly, and said, “You wouldn’t understand this, mister, but Agnes is one of the good people, one of the kind people in this town. And nobody ever does anything for her, and this is a good thing.
I said, “Can I decorate the place?”
She said, “To your heart’s content.”
I said, “I’m going to bring a birthday cake…
Harry said, “Oh no! The cake’s my thing!”
So, I got there the next morning at about two‐thirty. I had bought the streamers at the K‐mart, strung them about the place. I had made a big poster – “”Happy Birthday Agnes” ‐ and put it behind the counter. I had the place spruced up. Everything was set. Everything was ready. Jan, who does the cooking, she had gotten the word out on the street. By three‐fifteen, every prostitute was squeezed into this diner. People, it was wall‐to‐wall prostitutes and me!
Three‐thirty in the morning, in come Agnes and her friends. I’ve got everybody set, everybody ready.
As they come through the door, we all yell, “Happy birthday Agnes!” In addition, we start cheering like mad. I’ve never seen anybody so stunned. Her knees buckled. They steadied her and sat her down on the stool. We all started singing, “Happy birthday, happy birthday, happy birthday to you!”
When they brought out the cake, she lost it and started to cry.
Harry just stood there with the cake and said, “All right, knock it off Agnes. Blow out the candles. Come on, blow out the candles.”
She tried, but she couldn’t, so he blew out the candles, gave her the knife, and said, “Cut the cake, Agnes.”
She sat there for a long moment and then she said to me, “Mister, is it okay if I don’t cut the cake? What I’d like to do, mister, is take the cake home and show it to my mother. Could I do that?”
I said, “It’s your cake.”
She stood up, and I said, “Do you have to do it now?”
She said, “I live two doors down. Let me take the cake home and show it to my mother. I promise you I’ll bring it right back.” And she moved toward the door carrying the cake as though it was the Holy Grail.
As she pushed through the crowd and out the door, the door swung slowly shut and there was stunned silence. You talk about an awkward moment. Everyone was motionless. Everyone was still I didn’t know what to say.
So, I finally said, “What do you say, we pray?” It’s weird looking back on it now. You know a sociologist leading a prayer meeting with a bunch of prostitutes at three‐thirty in the morning in a diner. But, it was the right thing to do. I prayed that God would deliver her from what dirty filthy men had done to her. You know how these things start ‐ some ten, eleven, or twelve‐year‐old girl gets messed over and destroyed by some filthy man and then she goes downhill from there. And men use her and abuse her.
I said, “God, deliver her and make her into a new creation because I’ve got a God who can make us new no matter where we’ve been or what we’ve been through.” And I prayed that God would make her new.
When I finished my prayer, Harry leaned over the counter and he said, “Campolo, you told me you were a sociologist. You’re no sociologist, you’re a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to?”
In one of those moments when you come up with just the right words, I said, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for whores at three‐thirty in the morning.”
I’ll never forget his response. He looked back at me and he said, “No you don’t, no you don’t. I would join a church like that!”