Once In A while, You Can Get Shown The Light

Typical NYC alley. Similar to the one in this story.

I’ve heard God speak to me on a number of occasions. I’m not claiming to be unique in this. In fact, I don’t think anyone can have a genuine relationship with Him without hearing him speak directly.

Now, I’ve never heard Him with my ears, unless it was when He used someone else’s voice. Most times, I didn’t need ears. Ears aren’t the part of us that hear anyway, anymore than eyes are the parts that see.

One such occasion was in New York City in 1995. I was engaged in full-time street ministry in Charlotte. I went to spend a week learning from the best at Times Square Church, the ministry founded by the late David Wilkerson, author of The Cross and The Switchblade. They had a program encouraging visiting clergy to come and learn by participation.

In 1995, TSC was running several food trucks to serve hotdogs, street food, and the gospel to homeless locations throughout the five burrows. It also ran a permanent, physical location off of 5th avenue in what was then known as ”Crack Alley”. This ministry was well known on the NYC ”street-sheet” for homeless and impoverished people. It was housed in a three story building situated in a row house in what was a very, seedy, high crime area at that time. 

I was used to being alone in bad neighborhoods in Charlotte, but I was not used to being in an architectural canyon that felt very much like a one-lane trap. I was told to arrive by 10 am, two hours before the mid-day lunch would be served. Getting there meant my first trip on a train from across the East River in New Jersey, then my first subway trip, and then a stroll down a garbage-strewn block that seemed a mile long. I looked over my shoulder so many times while trying to get to the correct number, it’s a wonder I didn’t have a crick in my neck.

Finally, I reached the address I’d been given. It was unceremoniously identified by a hand-lettered cardboard sign on the outer wall by the heavy steel door, ”Upper Room Ministries”. I rang the buzzer, waited for a long minute, and heard a voice in a Brooklyn-tinged accent over the scratchy intercom, ”Yeah, who are yous?” I gave my name, told them I was a visiting minister from North Carolina, and that I was there to minister for the noon service.

The door gave a heavy clank, unlocked from within and popped open an inch. I pulled it open and stepped inside onto a three square foot landing of chipped black and white tile that looked like a dirty, miniature checkerboard. Directly to my front was a steep stairway covered by gray, industrial, non-slip treads leading straight up from the street. As soon as I cleared the door, it swung shut and locked behind me. Serious security, I thought to myself. 

I had been involved in several outreaches with other ministries in Charlotte that served soup and sandwiches, hotdogs and potato chips to the homeless. But an aroma wafted down to greet me as I traversed the narrow stairway lined with ancient dark-stained bead-board walls. I wasn’t smelling vegetable soup or chili. It smelled like I was climbing up to the dining room of a five-star restaurant!

I got to the top of the stairs to a small vestibule where the door had been propped open. I stepped in to a room with a long hallway to the right, a large room to the left, and a wall of windows on the opposite side from where I stood.  Glancing down the hall to the right,  I could see restroom signs beside some doors. The huge room to the left seemed to take up the whole floor. A couple of people were unfolding metal chairs from stacks along the left-hand wall, dragging them across the linoleum and forming them into rows. They gave me cursory nods without speaking and kept at their task. ”Yankees,” I thought to myself. There was no dais, only a simple wooden lectern at the far end of the main room. On the far wall, behind the lectern, was a large screen for an overhead projector. I could see one set up on a small table in the midst of the chairs. 

The windowed wall across from the entry allowed for some daylight, but only provided a view of the dingy building across the narrow street. Folding tables lined the wall beneath the windows. On the tables were baskets and containers of plasticware, napkins, and straws. To the far right end was a small city scape of stacked plastic and styrofoam cups. I walked in that direction and saw there was a large opening at that end of the room. It was from here that the aroma was coming. That was the kitchen.

I walked into the kitchen where two grandmotherly ladies were bent over their tasks tending to the mouth-watering food that was in the two ovens. I saw no soup pots on the stoves. On the prep tables were baking pans filled with chicken breasts and pineapple rings. There were a couple dozen buttered french loaves sitting on sheets of tinfoil on another table, ready to be wrapped for their turn in the ovens. 

Peering over the shoulder of the nearest lady, I said, ”Hawaiian Chicken?” in a tone of evident delight and surprise. I thought maybe it was being prepared for the ministry team and that was why I had been told to arrive two hours early. I was salivating from my walk up the steps and now seeing the delicious food, I was hoping they were preparing for the team to eat.

She finished fussing over the pans of caramelizing chicken in her oven, stood up to wipe her hands on her apron, and stated matter-of-factly, ”Only the best for souls.”

That was lesson number one. It was a lesson I saw demonstrated many times over in my week there as a visiting minister. Times Square Church, housed in the fabulous old Heller Theatre, former venue of ”Jesus Christ Superstar” at 51st and Broadway, was all about souls. Period. It existed as a way to bring church to the unchurched, to bring salvation to the lost, to bring Jesus to the world.

On this particular day, I had another important lesson to learn. 

As more of the ministry team filed in, after first providing their bonafides into the street level intercom before being buzzed up, I began to wonder when I’d be told how long I would be given to speak to the crowd of homeless and hungry that would soon be arriving. Usually these messages are kept pretty short so the food doesn’t get too cold, but I’d never been at one that served anything but soup or peanut-butter and jelly, so I didn’t know what the format might be. 

I figured I would be told when I’d speak when the time was right, so I pitched in to help with the chairs, and had helped arrange chinet plates on the long tables. The ladies even trusted me enough to cover the chicken with foil and place it into warmers further in back of the kitchen. But I had come to ”minister the Word” and I was getting a bit anxious to know when I’d get to preach. I mean, no one had really even asked my name to that point.

Finally, I got up enough nerve to ask the powerfully built, jean-jacket clad black man who seemed to be in charge if they served the meal before or after the message so I would be ready. He looked at me quizzically, the way I’ve looked at my wayward children, with a look of bemused curiosity. His large brows raised and seemed to pull up the corners of his mouth into a huge grin. ”Oh, pastor Proffit, we thought we’d let you serve today by offering juice or coffee to the people as they come in.”

”Juice or C-coffee?”, I stammered.

”Well, actually, we serve that to them ourselves, what I meant was you’ll offer them juice or coffee and then give them a plastic cup if they want juice or styrofoam if they want coffee.”

He peered at me to make sure I understood, and when I hesitated a moment, he said, ”You can put your bible over on the table next to you. It will be fine. Just stand there next to the stack of cups, ok? When the people enter they will be coming right past you to get to their seats.”

I nodded, tucked my tail, and went to my station. Plastic or styrofoam, I never.

A little before noon, the buzzer from the street started sounding. They sent someone down to stand sentry and to keep the assembling crowd from pushing the button over and over until it was time to come up. By this time there were a couple of musicians tuning guitars at the front, and ”Mr. T” in a jean-jacket was praying, pacing back and forth behind the lectern. 

Finally, he called us all to attention and led us in a prayer that God would use us all for His Glory, that he would speak to the people present for the service, and that people would see and experience a living demonstration of Jesus. We all said ”Amen” and took our places.

I was surprised by the throng of people that burst through the vestibule doors when they were finally allowed upstairs. I kept up pretty well asking each visitor their drink preference as the filed by my station on their way to take a seat. 

It was an orderly, organized process with several people acting as ushers gently, but firmly guiding the comers into the first rows, filling from front to back as they went. Other teams carried pitchers of juice and coffee, serving and pouring as the people found their seats. 

I heard languages of every sort around me and the English I heard was often heavily accented by a foreign flavor, not just the Yankee-fied English of New Yorkers. It was delightful to see such a turnout.

As the chairs were filling, I noticed a black couple come in near the end of the line. A tall and unhealthily thin man wearing dirty jeans and worn out Nikes and a woman almost as vivid as he was gray. His eyes were downcast, the lids drooping. When they got closer I could see that his hair was patchy and I noticed his skin was scaling around his temples. 

”Aids”, I thought to myself, having seen its ravages before. 

He was leaning heavily on his female companion. I could imagine the toll the climb up the stairs must have taken, but he obviously needed the meal. The woman had a bright floral scarf with coral accents tied around her head. I could see rivulets of geri-curled black waves flowing from underneath it. Her dangling gold earrings would have put Dionne Warwick to shame. They nearly touched the shoulders of her lime green summer dress. The combination of colors and jewelry reminded me of the characters you might see on the label of a bottle of rum. 

When they got near enough, I asked, ”Juice or coffee?” as I had for all the others previously.

The woman answered for both, her boyfriend or husband or lover too out of it to acknowledge my question.

”Cawfee”, came the answer in the deepest voice I had heard that afternoon.

I glanced up in alarm, and then noticed the prominent Adam’s apple framed by the lime green V-neck of the cheap polyester dress. My stomach lurched and involuntarily flipped on itself. Gathering my composure, I gingerly pulled two styrofoam cups off the top of the stack and handed them over to ”her”. In my imagination, I was trying to extend my arm as far as I could reach, holding the cups by the very tips of my fingers to avoid any possibility of contact and contamination. She gave a curt, clinking, nod of appreciation and moved on as I let out what felt like was an audible sigh of relief that they had passed.

It was then that I heard God.

”Do you think I love them any less than I love you?”

I stood in stunned silence as the musicians started singing an old hymn. Then the tears started.

”There is fountain filled with blood

Drawn from Immanuel’s veins. 

And sinners plunged beneath that flood,

lose all their guilty stains.”

”Lose all their guilty stains,

Lose all their guilty stains,

 And sinners plunged beneath that flood

Lose all their guilty stains.”

I had come to minister, to preach the Gospel, to bring Jesus to the lost, and hope to the desperate, but I had been deemed qualified for the job of handing out cups. 

And it was there, beside the plastic and styrofoam that God, My Savior, reminded me that His Grace is Sufficient, and taught me afresh of His own confidence in His both His ability and willingness to Love a sinner out of sin by Grace and not by judging them out of it, by law. The way He was continuing to do for me.

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