Today while crosswalking, three very different people would cross my path: a nurse, a drunk, and a veteran. All three heard the gospel.
My plan for the afternoon was to spend an hour or so on two or three street corners in town. My first stop was the corner of Locust and Harrison.
I stood holding my “Stop and Talk” cross and waving to passing motorists. A couple of hymns crossed my mind and my lips.
I looked behind me, as I often do, toward the gas station parking lot. The term in law enforcement circles that describes what I was doing is “keeping your head on a swivel.” With traffic noise, it’s very difficult to hear someone walking up behind you. Cops, whether active or retired, don’t like to be startled from behind. It’s what you can’t see that can hurt you.
I saw a gray sedan pull into the parking lot and park in such a way that I was all-but-certain the person stopped to talk to me. Sure enough, a young lady exited the vehicle and walked toward me.
Her name was Erin.
“I’ve seen you out here many times and I’ve thought about stopping. So, when I saw you today, I decided it was time to stop and talk to you,” Erin explained.
“Well, I’m glad you did!” I said with a smile, handing her a gospel tract.
“I appreciate you being out here. Do people often stop to talk?” Erin asked.
“Fairly consistently,” I answered. “Sometimes one person will stop. I can also go a day or two without talking to anyone. And then there are other days when a few people will stop to talk.”
“As I said, I see you out here quite a bit,” Erin said.
“It’s fairly common for people to say that when they stop to talk to me,” I offered. “That’s why I try to be out somewhere, every day, with my cross. The more people see me, the more likely people are to stop and talk.”
“My grandfather was a pastor. I grew up in the church. He just retired recently,” Erin told me.
“Where did he pastor?” I asked.
“In the Chicago area,” Erin said.
“So, how did you come to faith in Christ, Erin?” I asked.
“My grandfather. Like I said, I grew up going to church. But I haven’t been to church in a while,” Erin answered.
“When did your faith become your own? When did it stop being about your grandfather or your parents?” I asked.
“I’m not sure,” Erin answered.
“Would it be all right if I shared my testimony with you?” I asked.
“Sure,” Erin said.
I spent the next several minutes explaining to Erin how the Lord saved me, making sure to clearly communicate the law and the gospel.
“Is that the gospel you believe, Erin?” I asked.
“It is,” she answered.
“You mentioned that you haven’t been to church in a while. Is there a particular reason why?” I asked.
“I work most Sundays, and I’m a single mom of two,” she answered.
“What kind of work do you do?” I asked.
“I’m a CN (certified nurse),” she answered.
I thought to myself. “Yep. She looks like a nurse.”
“How old are your kids?” I asked.
“Ten and Two; two girls,” she replied.
“Well, God’s Word says that Christians shouldn’t forsake gathering together. Christians are part of His Body. Some are hands; some are feet; some are arms and legs. But every Christian is an important part of His Body,” I explained.
Erin smiled and nodded her head.
“Look; no salesman will come to your door, but all the information for my church is on the card I gave you. The door is always open. You’re always welcome,” I offered. “Here’s my card. If you would ever like to have dinner with me and my wife, just give me a call.”
“Thank you,” she said. “And thanks again for being out here. I’m glad I stopped.”
“I’m glad you stopped, too,” I replied.
Erin walked back to her car, and I think I sang hymns a little louder.
While Erin affirmed the gospel I don’t know if she’s saved. I gladly welcome being wrong in that regard. Saved or not, I thank God I had the opportunity to communicate the gospel to her. And I’m thankful for the encouragement I received from her.
I spent a little more time at Locust and Harrison before I decided to head to my next post–the corner of Locust and Marquette.
I started walking to my car when I saw a young man standing at the bus stop a short distance ahead of me. My car was parked behind the gas station convenience store and adjacent to the bus stop. I had to walk past the young man to get to my car.
The young man looked up and saw me walking in his direction. He smiled, waved to me, and started walking toward me. I waved back.
“Hey,” he said. “Thanks for being out here doing what you’re doing.”
I smiled and handed him a gospel tract.
“My name is Tony,” I offered.
“I’m J.R.” was the reply.
“Where ya headin’ J.R.?” I asked.
“To the hospital,” he answered. His countenance fell with his reply.
“Are you not feeling well?” I asked. In the present climate, I couldn’t help but wonder if the young, disheveled man with blonde dreadlocks standing in front of me had the coronavirus.
“Not really. Everything going on right now has me messed up. And I’ve been drinking nonstop. I need to go to the hospital to dry out,” J.R. explained.
Just then the bus pulled up but didn’t come to a complete stop. As the bus continued, I could tell J.R. was wrestling in his mind with either staying to talk to me or trying to get on the bus.
“Go!” I exclaimed. “Get on the bus and go get well! I’ll be praying for you!”
J.R. was running toward the bus before I finished speaking, with his hand waving in the air back toward me. The bus stopped and J.R. climbed aboard.
I was thankful to be able to get a gospel tract in J.R.’s hand. Once again, a paper missionary will be able to go where I can’t go.
I put my cross in the back of my car and headed to my next intersection.
I wasn’t at the corner of Locust and Marquette (home of Whitey’s Ice Cream) for very long before a car pulled into the parking lot and parked next to mine. Whitey’s is presently closed due to the pandemic. So, these days anyone pulling into the parking lot while I’m there is likely stopping to talk to me.
An older black man with gray stubble on his face was behind the wheel of the car. He rolled down his driver’s door window.
“How ya doin’?” I enthusiastically asked as I walked toward the car.
“Terrible,” he replied. “It’s not a good day.”
His name was Arnold.
“Why is today a bad day?” I asked.
“My house burned to the ground just seven hours ago,” He said.
“What?” I asked in disbelief.
“I barely got my wife and four kids out of the house,” he said. “We’ve been waiting for the Red Cross to come and help. I just couldn’t wait there any longer. I had to get out of there.”
“Where’s your family?” I asked.
“They’re at a place on Brady that is a shelter during the day,” he said.
Davenport is a town of about 100,000 people. The Quad Cities area is about 300,000 people. Something like a house burning to the ground certainly would have made the news.
“Where did this happen? Where do you live?” I asked.
“Muscatine,” Arnold said.
Muscatine is about a half-hour southwest of Davenport, along the Mississippi River.
“I saw you standing here, and your cross had the message I needed to see. So, I stopped. I just need some help.” Arnold said.
Arnold told me he served in the Navy, in the early ’70s, at the tail-end of the Vietnam War. He said he couldn’t get any help from the Veterans Administration.
“Were you in the military?” Arnold asked.
“Twenty years of law enforcement, but no military. I retired 13 years ago,” I replied.
“There’s a motel on Brady, the Relaxed Inn. I talked to the guy there and he said I could have two rooms for $41, for two nights. But I lost everything. My wallet. My credit cards. It’s all gone. I don’t even have any shoes,” Arnold explained.
Arnold opened his car door to show me he only had socks on his size-16 feet.
“I just need some help, man,” Arnold said, looking down and shaking his head.
“Do you know the Lord, Arnold?” I asked.
“Oh, yes,” he answered.
“Where do you worship?” I asked.
Arnold hesitated for a moment.
“Um. Third Baptist,” he said. I remember thinking Arnold took too long to answer the question.
“Have you asked your church for help?” I asked.
“I, I haven’t been able to get a hold of my pastor,” he stammered.
I thought for a moment, wondering if I was being played. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time someone tried to take advantage of the “preacher-man” on the street.
Once, a number of years ago, a homeless-looking woman approached me on Hollywood Boulevard and asked for 25 cents so she could pay her rent. She just needed one more quarter to cover next month’s rent. When I told her I didn’t believe a quarter would finish covering her rent and, instead, offered to get her something to eat, she cussed me out and stomped away.
I decided to give Arnold a hand, even if it turned out he wasn’t being honest, and I decided to do it in a way that wouldn’t put cash in his hands.
It’s my personal policy not to give money to strangers, including the homeless. I have no way of knowing how the money might be used. I believe good stewardship and love for my neighbor dictates I avoid giving money to people that might use it to put something up their noses, in their arms, or in their livers. I want to help if I can, but I don’t want to assist people in committing sins if I can help it. If a person needs food, water, gas, or shelter I will do what I can, which will always include giving the gospel.
“Why don’t I follow you to the motel and I’ll pay for the room,” I suggested.
Arnold’s demeanor instantaneously changed.
“Let’s go!” Arnold exclaimed.
Arnold spent the next several minutes trying to get his car out of park. The head and button atop the gear shifter in Arnold’s car were missing. He rummaged through his car until he found something to wedge into the stem of the gear shifter so he could put the car in reverse, and then into drive.
As we headed north on Marquette, I began to review in my head the story Arnold told me. It just wasn’t adding up. So, I put in a call to the Muscatine Fire Department.
I asked the dispatcher who answered the phone if there had been any structure fires in the city, in the last 48 hours. After placing me on hold for a few minutes, the dispatcher returned with the answer I expected. No structures, certainly no homes, had burned to the ground in the last 48 hours.
Arnold lied to me. I wasn’t surprised.
As I continued following Arnold to the motel, I formulated a gospel plan of sorts. Sometimes I role play gospel conversations in my head, answering anticipated objections along the way so that I’m better prepared for conversations that might happen. I determined to ask Arnold a few more questions when we arrived at the motel to make sure I hadn’t misunderstood him. Then I would drop the hammer. I also took a picture of the back of Arnold’s car so that I would have the license, make, and model on my phone, just in case.
The Relaxed Inn is everything one would expect from a seedy “no-tell motel.” My 100,000-mile, hail-damaged Toyota was the fanciest car in the lot. One car parked in front of the hotel caught my eye. It was black and had the words “Davenport Police” painted on the side.
Arnold and I exited our vehicles and met on our way to the front door.
“I can’t believe your house burned down today,” I exclaimed–not in an accusatory, but sympathetic way.
“I know,” Arnold agreed.
“In what part of Muscatine do you live?” I asked.
“The southside,” he answered.
I held the door open for Arnold and we walked into the motel. A lady officer for Davenport PD was standing in the lobby. She looked like she was waiting for someone. Not knowing why she was there and not wanting to be too much of a distraction to her, I quickly handed her a “Police Lives Matter” gospel tract and thanked her for her service. She wasn’t too busy to say “thank you” and smile.
Arnold and I made our way to the front desk. The motel lobby was poorly lit. A few people past by, making their way to and from their rooms. At least one person, a heavily tattooed and scrawny woman, gave me the once-over with eyes that said, “You don’t belong here.”
Since the officer was there, I didn’t give my surroundings too hard a look. However, the overall appearance of the place and the clientele I had seen thus far made me later think the Relaxed Inn would have done well attached to Mos Eisley Cantina on Tatooine. It was also the kind of place I would have sat on as a patrol deputy, hoping to hook people for guns, dope, and warrants.
The man standing behind the front desk appeared to be in his 30’s and of Middle Eastern descent. He gave Arnold a disapproving glare. It was obvious the clerk and Arnold had previously met.
“Do you have your ID?” the clerk asked Arnold.
Arnold handed him the top half of a broken Veterans Administration card.
“I’m already in your system,” Arnold told the clerk. “Do you have some tape?”
Arnold pulled the bottom half of his V.A. identification card and handed it to the clerk. The clerk matched the two halves and held them together with a clear piece of Scotch tape.
“If you live in Muscatine, how is it that you are in the system, here?” I asked.
“Oh, I’ve stayed here before,” was Arnold’s answer.
Time to drop the hammer.
In God’s providence, three more officers entered the lobby. All four officers quickly made their way up a staircase. It was clear to me that they were about to reach out and touch someone. Part of me really wanted to go with them. Oh, how much life has changed.
Arnold saw the officers enter, too. Our reactions were different. I was glad to see them. Arnold…not so much.
I opened my wallet to remove my credit card. Without lifting my eyes, I asked Arnold, “Do you remember what I told you I used to do?”
“You were a cop,” came the quick answer.
“And what do cops do, Arnold?” I asked.
“They investigate,” he answered.
“That’s right,” I agreed. “I put in a call to the Muscatine Fire Department. There have been no recent house fires in the city.”
“I know,” Arnold replied, looking like he wanted to be somewhere else.
“You lied to me, Arnold,” I said.
“Yeah. Look; you don’t have to do this,” he said.
“Yes, I do. Unlike you, I’m a man of my word,” I explained.
The clerk smiled and nodded his head.
Arnold began to mumble. It was as if he was trying to formulate a new story on the fly and his brain and mouth were not in sync. Prosecutors and investigators frequently tell nervous witnesses before they take the stand in court, “Just tell the truth. A lie, you have to work hard to keep straight. The truth is easily remembered.”
“I’m just in a bad situation with a woman…” he mumbled.
“Arnold, I know you’re lying because your lips are moving,” came the rebuke.
I turned my attention to the clerk.
“He told me that it was $41 for two nights,” I explained.
The clerk, with a frown on his face and a disapproving glance at Arnold, shook his head. “No it’s not,” the clerk said.
I handed the clerk my credit card.
“I’ll pay for one night. Under no circumstances are there to be any other charges on this card,” I ordered.
“I understand. There won’t be,” the clerk replied.
“I’m going to pay you back,” Arnold insisted.
Right. Like, I was going to believe that.
“No, you’re not. I don’t want your money,” I replied.
“No, you’re gonna get your money,” he retorted.
“That’s just pride, Arnold,” I explained. “And the Word of God says that pride comes before destruction. Right now, that’s where you’re heading–to destruction. The Bible says that all liars will have their part in the lake of fire.”
I remembered that Arnold said he attended church. I doubted he did. I couldn’t believe anything that came out of his mouth. But…
“Going to church on Sunday makes you no more right with God, Arnold, than going to Sonic makes you a burger. Going to church on Sunday and scamming people Monday through Saturday will never make you right with God. You need Christ. One day you’re going to die and stand before God to give an account for everything you have ever done and for the lies you have told today. He’s going to find you guilty of breaking His law and He’s going to send you to hell for all eternity, as the just punishment for your crimes against Him.
“Your only hope, Arnold, is to repent and receive Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior,” I explained.
“That’s right,” the clerk agreed in a soft voice.
“I just need to get away from this woman…” he insisted.
“You’re not listening to me,” I said.
“Yes, I am,” he answered with an annoyed tone.
“No. You hear me, but you’re not listening,” I said. “Arnold, I’m not angry with you. I fear for your soul. I don’t want you to perish in your sin. You need Christ.”
I turned my attention again to the clerk.
The clerk handed me my credit card and asked me to sign for the room charge.
“I appreciate your patience,” I said.
“No problem. I’m glad someone finally said something to him,” the clerk said.
Arnold and I exited the motel. As we walked out the door, Arnold said, “I just need to get out of a bad situation…”
“Arnold, you have no idea how bad your situation is,” I interrupted. “Turn to Christ and live, while God has given you time.”
With that, we parted company and made our way to our respective cars.
When I sat in my car it dawned on me that the clerk did not give me a receipt for the room rental. So, I walked back into the motel to obtain one.
I asked the clerk for a receipt and he obliged.
As we waited for the receipt to print, the clerk said, “He does this all the time. One time a pastor from a church in Moline called, wanting to charge a room for him. I wouldn’t do it.”
“Well, at least today he didn’t scam a church,” I replied.
The clerk smiled. “That’s right,” he said.
I got in my car and spent a moment or two, debriefing myself–going over the events of the last hour.
I checked my phone and saw that I had received a text from my dear sister, Emily. She is my pastor’s wife. The text read: “Praying for the conversation you’re having right now. Just drove past :-).”
I looked at the time Emily sent the text. It came to my phone while I was talking to Arnold in Whitey’s parking lot. God knows how He used and answered Emily’s prayers, during my encounter with Arnold.
I smiled as I thought of Emily driving by, seeing me engaged in conversation, and going to the Lord in prayer. What a blessing. And what a testimony of the importance of a strong physical and spiritual umbilical cord between the evangelist and his local church.
Join me in praying for Erin, J.R., and Arnold.
Thank you for taking the time to write about your encounters and conversations. They are such an encouragement. I especially liked the part where your pastor’s wife texted that she had prayed for you and the connection you made of how the body of Christ supports each other. I’m praying for you too, and Erin, J.R., and Arnold.
Carmen Mollahan says
God bless you Tony and your Street Evangelism Ministry. In reading the three very different encounters, I’ll keep Erin, J. R. and Arnold in prayer. Seeds were planted, I pray they will grow, flourish and each will lead to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. And, how timely Emily’s prayer was said. The Arnold story kept me in suspense until the very end! 🙏🙏🙏