When you walk down the street with eyes peeled for someone who is hurting and in need of God's loving touch, it is amazing how clearly they stand out. As I was waiting for the "walk" light at the intersection of Main and Roxboro, I spotted a young man half a block away on Main. My attention was so strongly drawn to him that I waited for him to reach the corner on the other side. I introduced myself to him and asked how his day was going. I got the standard "pretty good" but I knew better. I said, "No, you can tell me. How's it going?"
Then I got a very honest, "Not worth a ****."
"That's more like it," I said. "Do you have a minute to talk?"
Ernest said, "Of course I do." So we took our seat on a nearby bench as he began to lay out the story of his life. He is from Lumberton, NC, where he grew in a less-than-perfect home. He injured his back in a basketball mishap when he was a teenager and has lived with chronic pain since that day. Ernest became addicted to alcohol and various other substances years ago and found himself wandering across the country looking for he doesn't know what.
I asked Ernest if he had ever called on the Lord for help. He assured me that he had, but it didn't seem that God had done much to turn the tide in his life. "I guess this is just my life," Ernest told me, "Maybe things are just the way they're supposed to be." I asked where he lived and he told me that he and his wife were living in "tent city" which is a place in the woods near "the Bridge" a few blocks away. His wife, Sharon, is an alcoholic as well, Ernest told me, and just can't seem to go a day without drinking.
"God can help you, Ernest!" I assured him. "Your problems–the whole pile of them–are no problem to God. He made the universe and everything in it. He made you. He made Sharon. And he made you both for an incredibly wonderful purpose."
"That's what the preacher-man in Texas told us," Earnest said, "but I don't have any idea what that might be. What could I ever do that would make any difference?"
"Would you like to live a life that counts? Would you like to know that your being on this earth is having a good impact day after day?"
"Well, of course I would!" Ernest said this as though it had never occurred to him that there was any value or potentiality in his life. "Of course I would. I would love to be able to help somebody. If I could just help my wife overcome her alcohol addiction, I would be a happy man. We have our problems, but I love that woman," Ernest continued. "I don't believe in divorce. I don't care how bad things get, I would never leave her. My mother was married three times and my fathert two times. It was hell on all us kids and I'm never going to give up on this marriage."
I said, "Earnest, you have to fall in love with Jesus so strongly that you would feel the same way about him–that no matter what happens, you are going to walk with Jesus for the rest of our life. And, if you'll do that, there is nothing you can go through that He will not help you with." Then I asked him, "Are you willing to do that?"
And he answered, "Absolutely!" I knew the Holy Spirit was at work and right there on the bench on the sidewalk of Main Street, Ernest asked Jesus to take charge of his life.
He had told me earlier that the reason he was walking the street was to try and find something for his wife to eat. He was going to a soup kitchen to try to talk them into allowing him to take a plate to his wife. He said if he had to, he would get the plate as though it was for himself, then he would slip out and take it to her.
I said, "Ernest, would you like for me to go home with you. I'll buy lunch."
He said, "Would you do that?"
"I would be honored to do that," I assured him. So we walked a few blocks to my car, drove to McDonald's for a bag of burgers and headed for tent city. I had been wanting to visit this place, but never had an entree before. Now, Ernest was ushering me into a veritable jungle. It reminded me of places I have visited in Africa or India.
I asked Ernest to go ahead of me and announce that I was coming so I didn't startle anybody. "Honey, we've got company," he called out, and I followed him to their little hideaway. There I met Sharon, a gentle, soft-spoken woman, who immediately began to apologize for her appearance, her condition, and the surroundings. There was an old mattress they had dragged from the dump, several well-worn blankets, a few ragged clothes, and quite a few empty cans.
"I'm happy to be here, Sharon. Don't worry, you look fine and besides that I'm here because God sent me here with good news for you." She told me of her life-much of which I had already heard from Ernest-and added that she had been beaten, robbed, and even raped in these woods. "It's a tough world out here," she said, "so what's the good news?"
I opened my cell phone Bible to Jeremiah 29:11 "For I know the plans I have for you," says the Lord. "They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope."
"How could any of that ever happen in my life?" Sharon asked.
"It's in the very next verse and the following verses. 'In those days when you pray, I will listen. If you seek for me with all your heart, you will find me. I will be found by you,' says the Lord. 'I will end your captivity and restore what you have lost.'" By this time, Sharon is beginning to cry. Earnest reached over and put his arm around her and I began to pray for both of them. I asked God to heal and restore them. I prayed that he would guide them and show them His wonderful plan for their lives. I prayed for the day that they would find themselves in His perfect will-being richly blessed and blessing everyone who came into their lives. What a meeting with God right there in "tent city" in the middle of the woods!
Sharon asked to borrow my cell phone to call her daughter and tell her what was happening. She called--no answer--so she left a voice mail telling her that she and Earnest had “found God.” Half-hour later, her daughter called me to ask, "Is this for real?" I assured it that it was and she replied, “If it is, it’s the greatest miracle I have seen so far!”
Earnest and Sharon came to our outreach meeting at the Bridge the following Saturday and came forward with a few dozen other people to publically confess their faith in Christ. From that point on, they came regularly to each outreach event and to the Bible studies on Wednesdays. They had a few back-sets, but continued to grow in the love for Christ.
Within a few weeks, a small apartment became available and, with the help us several members of our team, Earnest and Sharon moved in to their own place, complete with furniture, linens, and even curtains on the windows. They couldn’t have been happier had it been a million-dollar mansion!
Earnest and Sharon become very special members of our own spiritual family in Durham and when family members in Texas began to urge them to come back home, they would say, “We love you, but we have found a home and a family here in Durham and it’s just hard to leave."
A few months later, Ernest was diagnosed with hepatitis c, an infectious and potentially deadly disease and likely a result of his years of drug abuse. Their family in Texas again urged them to come home so they could support them through this crisis and we encouraged them to go. They are there now, in the care of their natural family but also with the assurance that they have a spiritual family who will always love them and stand in faith with them as God works in their lives.
I know that God is able to heal him, or to give him grace and make him strong in his weakness–His call. To see one couple like Earnest and Sharon transformed by God's unconditional love make it all worth it. Keep this precious couple in your prayers.