I had been invited to a Teen Challenge graduation ceremony for men trying to break serious drug habits when I found myself standing next to a dude named Robert, who was still in the program. He was a short, thick, powerful-looking guy from the gangs and heroin scene of Santa Ana. He had cropped black hair and tattoos that climbed out from under his shirt to cover his neck and reached up to his face. But he wore a smile that was so broad, and so filled with the joy of Christ, I couldn’t help but be taken by him. His smile was like a banner over his head that said, Miraculously Changed Life.
It was impossible not to take a liking to him. I knew that the requirement to graduate from the program was for these guys to find employment, and it occurred to me that I could remedy that for Robert. So I offered him a job at my caulking company.
When Robert arrived on the job site, it was an exciting time because shortly after, guys started coming to Christ, lives were transformed and, I have to believe, entire families were too. No one could look and listen to Robert and not feel like they had been hit by a tidal wave of love. After getting out of the program, he even starting going back to the streets where he used to run, bringing guys out of the gang life. In Robert, the gospel came alive.
One day, I noticed something different about him. He had large purple spots underneath his skin and protruding bumps that appeared to be tumors. Later he confided in me that he had contracted AIDS from sharing needles during his gang days. At the time, in the late 80s, the only thing any of us knew about AIDS was that it was a death sentence. If you had it, you died. Period.
I looked at Robert’s beautiful wife and kids. He had come so far and made such a difference in so many people’s lives, introducing them to their eternity with Jesus. It was absolutely heartbreaking that it would all end so quickly. And yet, Robert’s smile would not leave his face. Amazingly, Robert, instead of wondering, Why me, wondered, Who else can I tell about Jesus while I still have time?
And yet, Robert’s smile would not leave his face. Amazingly, Robert, instead of wondering, Why me, wondered, Who else can I tell about Jesus while I still have time?
Then it hit me. I was a part of a Bible study where we all took turns leading. I thought, Wouldn’t it be great to invite Robert to speak? With all these stiff-collared guys, accountants, lawyers, and executives, wouldn’t Robert, with his appearance and enthusiasm, blow them away?
The day I showed up for the study with Robert at my side, I was feeling a little uneasy. What would God do with this moment? Would the guys be a little repelled by him? I introduced Robert to the group of about 17, and with his cholo vibe, intimidating tattoos, cropped hair, purple legions, and protruding tumors, he stood, smiled broadly, and spoke about drugs, gang and street life, hate and self-destruction in a way that, I’m willing to bet, none of the guys thought was possible outside of the movies. But then he talked about the saving grace of Jesus, joy and, even though he would be dying soon, excitement for each day. They sat there with their eyes peeled as if blown open by a stiff wind. They were not just listening to a guy talking, they were watching a walking, living embodiment of the miracle of Christ’s blood that, though he was perishing before their eyes, was also giving life to his soul. They didn’t know what hit them.
A rather quiet real estate agent named Wes, who usually sat alone in the back of the room and kept to himself, began to have a physical reaction to what Robert was saying. It was the beginning to a journey that, over a period of weeks, ultimately led him to a place of brokenness and desperation for everything Robert had.
In the moment that Wes asked Jesus into his heart, he was also suddenly a man on a mission. He began leading people to Christ by the droves.
In the moment that Wes asked Jesus into his heart, he was also suddenly a man on a mission. He began leading people to Christ by the droves. Friends, family, and even his clients were coming to know Christ through Wes. He soon left his job and took a leadership role within the Men’s Ministry at a church. It expanded exponentially. The ministry was sweeping guys out of the neighborhoods and into the church in great waves with activities and outings and golf tournaments and more. The number of lives changed by Wes’ actions is, I am willing to bet, incalculable.
It was a golden period in my life, to see what God put in motion on the day that I accepted an invitation to a Teen Challenge graduation ceremony, and to see the ripple effect of stepping out in faith. My friend who invited me, to Robert, to Wes to hundreds, maybe thousands of Christians.
Wes is still touching lives for Christ today. And Robert, as he breathed his last breath, knew that he was able to live his final days knowing that his son and daughter got to see their dad live for Jesus, and that he was going to be welcomed into the arms of his Heavenly Father, who eagerly awaited him on just the other side of his momentarily dimmed smile.
Robert was a good and faithful servant if ever there was one.
Don't miss the Hand-Off Part II next week!