Not only were we on our way to Florida to see our daughter, son-in-law, and grandbabies, but together, we were going on outreach to one of the projects in Palm Beach.
Rachel and Joey had recently become involved with Urban Youth Impact and they were very excited about us joining with them for a day of ministry. So were we.
Most people hear the name, West Palm Beach, and think of luxury, and rightly so. But that is only half the story.
The projects are famous for one reason, they are to be avoided. Fortunately, the One born in the manger set His sight towards them.
On this Saturday before Christmas, His eye was on one named Stony Brook.
“Most people give this place a bad rap,” Andre told me as we sat on the curb watching the boys play basketball.
“But we watch out for each other. We are a family – one big dysfunctional family!”
The statistics don’t quite agree. According to records, in the 400 units in the project, there are only three registered fathers. That leaves room for a lot of dysfunction and not much room for what most would call family.
As the day drew on, that became very evident. It was no accident that Urban Youth Impact landed here. The need loomed large. They had already begun to build relations here with some of the mothers in the last few months. It was quite impressive to see how well they could organize serious Believers and gather resources to generously provide food, fun, and many gifts of clothing and toys to mothers and children who would otherwise have little or nothing for Christmas.
At first, I joined my wife, Marla, in the prayer tent. This was the last stop on the line for the registered mothers. Here, they would receive a Bible and a couple of other books before they picked up a bag of canned goods. They were also invited to have prayer. Marla said all but one woman readily received. However, I sensed my place was amongst the young men and kids, so I made my way into the square where they hung out. And that’s where I met Andre.
‘Most people think I’m a gangster’
I noticed him sitting alone on the edge of the parking lot where the basketball hoop was set up. It was obvious that everyone knew him. As I entered his world through small talk, I made sure he didn’t mind me sitting next to him. He said not at all.
“Most people think I’m a gangster or something cause I wear all black and have a black skully,” he said.
“I didn’t think that at all. I just noticed that you seem to be very watchful of the younger boys. I can tell you care about them.” I told him.
It didn’t take long for Andre to open up to me. He is married and a father of a 6 month old boy. They live in Atlanta. They were recently evicted because he could not pay his rent. He moved from the project in Florida to work in his grandmother’s rescue mission in Georgia, where he met his wife. The mission is for sexually abused kids. He became their activities director. He thought that meant playing ball and having fun with the kids. But the kids wanted to talk.
Without his asking, many of them would tell him their stories. Some were abused by their own mothers, fathers, and uncles, people they should have been able to trust. He said he could no longer take it because it made him angry. He just wanted to hurt the adults for what they did to their own. It was the only job Andre could get, but it paid too little.
He came back to Florida to get a birth certificate and a social security number, leaving his wife and son behind. I asked him about his education. Even though he communicated well, he had little schooling. He was in juvenile detention from the age of 13 to 18 due to his problem with anger and violence. At age 20, he tried dealing pot, but was busted and jailed.
He said the rule of the street is if you get caught in your first year of business, you’ll never make it. So, he quit, moved to Atlanta and got married to a woman ten years older than him.
“What about your son? Doesn’t he need his father? And how about your wife?”
I pressed him about responsible choices. He assured me that he loved his son and his wife. If he could get a job and a small apartment they would come down to live with him.
“What do you think of Jesus?” I asked.
He didn’t hesitate to tell me that he loves Him, and Jesus and is the only reason he has any hope. Andre said Jesus has trained him to see life differently and given him power to live by. He had no reason to convince me of anything, but I was. He displayed a genuine faith and a heart for the people around him. He knew he went wrong and wanted to be one who lived right. His teaching was from above and I was drawn to help him.
Here is where the connections come in. My daughter had already introduced me to Bill Hobbs, the founder of UYI. Twenty five years ago, he was a successful businessman and golf pro. Then, he met Jesus and began seeing the needs of the have-nots. His heart was broken and it took him to the most vulnerable, in the worst neighborhoods of southern Florida. We made a quick connection.
By the time I met Andre, I had already met Bill. He had to leave soon after we met. I also have a close friend from NY who has had a heart for the downcast for decades. A few years ago, his daughter, Nicole, began a ministry in Tamarind, the worst neighborhood in Palm Beach. As the pastor of the Calvary Chapel of Long Island, it was a natural fit to support the work and soon “G-fifty:twenty” (from Genesis 50:20) became viable.
One of the first leaders to be identified was a man named Proverb. Kevin scheduled frequent trips to Florida to further disciple him. Back to Andre. I told him that I wanted to help him. “I don’t know how I can, but I believe God wants to enable you to make it,” I went on. “When Jesus sent His disciples out in the towns and villages, He told them to look for a man of peace. ‘If he receives you continue with him,'” Jesus instructed. “You are the man of peace whom Jesus wanted me to identify, Andre. You have the concerns of the people here in your heart.”
I told him I would make some calls. He needed a man of God to come alongside. He also needed a job. I gave him my card.
“I don’t know how this will happen, but I am trusting Jesus. Would you like to pray with me and commit it to God?”
He was eager. As we prayed, he kept his eyes open. So did I. In places like that you “watch and pray.” Before I got up I handed him a twenty as a token of my trust. He looked at it and said, “Man you’re making me want to cry,” and then he did.
I said my goodbye to Andre, but it was only temporary. As I was walking back to the main building where the events centered, I was introduced to a young man named Ricky by my son-in-law, Joey. He was scheduled to deliver a message before the last gift giveaway took place. Many were awaiting that moment which made way for a captive audience. Joey told me this young man had an incredible background surrounded by drugs, violence, and abuse. He grew up in the Tamarind section. Through positive godly influence, a deep conviction came upon him and Jesus saved him. He grew steadily and mightily and became a voice of hope to these torn communities.
I looked around for Andre. He would have been easy to spot because there were so few men. He was not around. I hustled back to the corner where we met and found a friend of his. I told him to find Andre and tell him I needed to see him and where I would be. Then, I hustled back just in time to hear Ricky speak. He gave a short, but gripping intro to his history and then went right to the message of hope, the gift of God in Jesus, the Messiah. I was fully engaged and so was the crowd.
When he finished I turned to see Andre. I asked him what he thought and if he would like to meet Ricky. He readily agreed. Ricky actually came over to politely finish our earlier conversation. I asked him to tell me more of his testimony as Andre listened. Then, I asked him if he ever heard of a man named Proverb. Immediately he said yes. So, I tried Pam and Nicole, he said yes. Then I asked if he knew Kevin and his eyes lit up.
“Sure, I know Kevin. He became my mentor,” he went on. “Kevin is a great guy and I love his church. I’ve preached there. Kevin took me with him last year to Uganda to speak in a Pastor’s conference.”
Now my eyes were alight. I introduced Ricky to Andre. But before I did, we went aside and I told him what I knew about Andre and that we had just met.
“Ricky, Andre needs a mentor and he needs a job. I believe he is for real and ready to be serious about growing in faith. He also has a lot of influence in this project. He is well respected. What do you think?” I asked.
“That is the kind of guy we look for. We are a well equipped ministry for discipleship and leadership training.” His eyes lit up again. So, he met Andre. They talked while I listened and watched. Now, all our eyes were lit. How amazing is our God! They agreed to begin meeting. We exchanged meaningful hugs and parted company.
‘Somebody’s gonna have a Merry Christmas’
It was time to go. Rachel and I stayed to clean up while the rest of the family headed home. On the way back, we stopped to pick up some food for dinner. While we were driving, I noticed a text from my friend Kevin. He wanted to know how much longer we would be in Florida. He asked if I could visit a young man who was in the hospital. He had suffered brain trauma and had little or no visitors. Kevin was in the process of trying to get him up to NY to stay with them, but there was a process that was delaying it. I told him I would try. Kevin is a hard guy to say no to because he is such a servant to the least of these. He is one of the few that I know that is so wrapped up in the will of God, that he has no time for applause.
So, we ordered the food. I told Rachel that I would pay for it and she reluctantly allowed me. I never dreamed of the day when our children would resist my financial help. When it came time to pay, I reached into my pocket only to discover that the hundred dollar bill I had stuffed in it was gone. Now, usually a moment like this would illicit a response that I would prefer not to admit, but it didn’t. Because I was at peace, I knew God was up to something. So, I pulled out my credit card. Then, I sat down across from Rachel to wait.
“Somebody’s gonna have a Merry Christmas,” I said.
“Why is that?” she asked.
“Well, at some point I must have pulled my phone out to take a photo and freed my money with it,” I replied.
Her face lit up. “O my God!” she exclaimed. “Chelsea (the event coordinator) told me that one of the mothers who stopped for prayer in the tent told the volunteer that she was having serious financial needs and requested prayer. As soon as they finished praying, she got up to leave and spotted a hundred dollar bill on the ground. She gasped and turned to the counselor and showed her. The volunteer was amazed as well and said, ‘Praise God! I didn’t expect Him to answer so quickly, but He did!'”
When I later shared this with Marla, she was overjoyed and thought it was hilarious. She said that many of the women spoke of their need of finances. I suppose God singled out this one as a symbol of hope to show that He is listening.
Play your part in Jesus’ solution
A few days later, Marla and I went to the hospital to visit Pastor Kevin’s friend, Walter. He was in a room by himself. There were warning signs posted near his bed for those on staff to exercise extreme caution to prevent a fall. His forehead was caved in on one side and he had a sutured scar that formed a semi-circle from the front of his head to the back.
We introduced ourselves as Kevin’s friends, but he seemed puzzled.
“Kevin was concerned you were losing weight, so we brought you some food,” I said. “He spoke very highly of you and wishes he could see you. We are here in his place.”
He didn’t seem to understand, but began to speak while he unwrapped his food. As our conversation developed, we got the sense that he understood us, but had difficulty in moving his words from his brain to his lips. We told him that we were there because Jesus loved him and wanted to assure him of that. He was happy to hear that. He wanted to talk, so we encouraged him as we labored to follow his train of thought.
Before we left, we prayed for him and blessed him. He seemed thankful and encouraged. On the way out, we stopped by the nurses’ station. The physician on duty asked if she could help us. She was glad that we visited Walter and was willing to answer our questions. He had been in the hospital for 185 days. He was brought into the ER for severe brain trauma. He was assaulted. His skull was split open and he suffered severe bleeding in his brain. He is a miracle. The problem now is that he has no family and only occasional visitation from a scattered few.
Now, for the final connection: it’s you, the reader. The only reason you have gotten this far is because you care. Please pray for this young man. I don’t know what he was once like, but he is now an humble, gentle, and thankful man who spends his days alone.
God plans on making a difference in Walter, as well as Andre, and many other broken lives. Play your part in Jesus’ solution.