His name is Jim.
I first met him two months ago at our annual Men’s Advance. The camp site is located in the lush Grass Valley area of Northern California, just a short distance from Lake Tahoe and Reno.
During a break in the weekend events, I decided to clean my car. I had my spray cleaner and rags and attacked with a vengeance the wheels on my PT Cruiser. Being a Chrysler product, the front wheels always get dirtier quicker. Why? I’m not sure. I’ve been told it has something to do with the brakes.
While I was crouching down vigorously scrubbing the wheels, I became aware of someone approaching. I glanced up and saw one of the men I’d seen in our meetings. He seemed to want to talk, so I introduced myself and gave him the floor. He said his name was Jim. He stated that he was nervous because he’d never been to a church camp before. In addition, his pastor, Paul Koval, had brought Jim to the camp because he wanted him to share his recent encounter with God. Would these men from our various churches accept him? He was feeling very out of place. I assured him that he would be pleasantly surprised by their response. I know some of these men. I also know Pastor Paul Koval. If ever there was a man who knows what it’s like to live on the wrong side of society, he’s the man.
That evening, Pastor Paul introduced Jim to us and then stayed by his side while he nervously shared with us how he had lived his life hustling people, dealing in drugs and being a heroin addict. He admitted that he was still on drugs, and that he had been homeless for some time. But, he saw something in Pastor Paul and his church. Whatever these men had in their lives, he wanted it. When he was done speaking, all seventy of us gathered around him for a time of prayer, laying our hands on him, and sharing words of encouragement. You could see the surprise reaction in his face. He was probably hugged more times at that moment then he had been his entire life.
Now let me bring you to this past weekend. Every year we have our Annual Conference. This is when all the pastors, missionaries, and ministers who are part of our conference assemble to take care of business. We also have all our church delegates in attendance. These are the lay representatives in equal number to the ministers. This assures an equal balance in all matters requiring a vote. Conference is also a time for sharing – particularly what God is doing in the life of each church. Throughout the two days we have together, different pastors will introduce someone from their congregation who will then share their testimony of what God has done in their lives. I enjoy these moments the best!
Sure enough, the final morning of the conference Pastor Paul comes forward with Jim in tow. Unlike two months ago, this time Jim was fairly anxious to get his hands on the microphone. He spoke in a clear voice; didn’t stumble over words; looked out at this assembly of religious leaders; and shared the unvarnished truth of his life in drugs and hustling on the streets.
How did Jim come to be involved in Pastor Paul’s church? Well, a friend of his was attending the church, so Jim thought he’d go along – only it wasn’t to seek God. He admitted he came to hustle the church. One thing he hadn’t figured: God knew exactly what he needed.
Jim is now off of heroin and attending church every week, learning how to walk with Jesus. He is loved and accepted in this congregation in Stockton. He even brings his grandkids to church with him. He admits he can’t do much for his own children, one son currently in prison, but he can make a positive difference in the lives of these precious grandkids.
As Jim was finishing, he related how he had been a racist. “If you weren’t white like me, I didn’t even see you.” he said. But, he declared, God has changed all that. When did he know this? At the Men’s Advance! It was there that we had prayed for him, and where he had been hugged by so many of the men. The racist part, at that time, was known only to Jim, Pastor Paul and God. So after our prayer for him, who’s the first person in line to hug him? Pastor Henry Raven, our Oakdale pastor. Henry is a big guy. He’s also black, from Louisiana. He grew up on the streets. Pastor Paul said his first thoughts were, “Oh Lord, I know you’ve done a work in this brother’s life, but don’t test him too much!”
So, at the end of his comments to us at the conference, he shared how God had delivered him from his racism. All the ministers and delegates came to the front to lay hands on him and pray for him. I can’t say with certainty, but I’m pretty sure that every minister and delegate of color (and we have a lot of them) made sure they hugged ole’ Jim.
That’s the difference Jesus makes.
Jim? He was lovin’ it!