Remember the time I almost got shot

After completing my first year of college, I moved to Leeds, England, to start a youth ministry in a church near the city center (or centre according to them). The church had recently acquired a storefront coffee shop in a rough area and begun opening it one night a week as a place for local youth to hang out. I was excited to dive in, and I knew that young folks from the inner city in England could never be as rough as those in America.

I soon learned otherwise.

My first week in the country I joined two other volunteers from the church at the coffee shop for the “youth night.” As we prepared tea and squash (an odd British fruit drink), they warned me that the youth could get out of hand at times – especially if they came in numbers – and if so, we’d need to promptly shoo them out and close the shop. I rolled my eyes as I smugly said to myself, “They just don’t know how the streets are. I’m a different story, though.”

The first wave of young people arrived. They were coarse, rowdy, and loud; but nothing that I, the (20-year-old) inner-city-ministry pro, couldn’t handle. We drank hot tea (how thuggish can you be with that in your hand?) and talked about sports, music, and American culture. If I remember right, they thought Eminem was a good spokesman for our country.

A couple of times in our conversation they asked one another if Glen would be coming by the coffee shop, each time with a certain trepidation in their voices. I finally asked who exactly this “Glen” bloke was (and yes, I was already saying ‘bloke’ my first week). Their description of and stories about Glen made him out to be an almost larger-than-life street criminal. He had been in countless fist fights and bar brawls, owned guns (highly unusual and illegal in Britain), pretty much stayed drunk or high all the time, and had even killed a person. Surely their tales were a bit embellished, but there was no doubt they feared him. “And by the way,” they added, “he just got out of prison for beating up a cop, so he’ll probably come by tonight.”

It had been forty-five minutes since the first group had arrived when a few more youth began trickling in. Sure enough, Glen walked through the door, and sure enough, he appeared to be every bit as tough and crass as they had made him out to be. Twenty-eight years old at the time, he had a shaved head, multiple scars across his face, and a distinct zigzag in his nose (the result of many punches landed there, I later learned). The other youth introduced me and I shook his thick, calloused hand. He sat down without a drink, apparently eager to know (or size up) this new American who was in his neighborhood.

I found it difficult to understand Glen when he spoke; he used mostly slang words strung together in choppy sentences and covered in a thick Yorkshire accent. It sounded almost like a different dialect, not all that different from Ozzie Osbourne.

We had only spoken for ten minutes before the conversation shifted to the topic of God. I honestly cannot remember how this came about, but it wouldn’t have taken much considering my simple answer to “What are you doing in England?” was “Working at a church” (a wildly unpopular answer in Britain, mind you). Discovering I was a Christian, Glen’s eyes lit up and his voice quickened. He looked me sternly in the face and said angrily, “Well, I had six-month-old baby girl who died – you tell me why God let her die!”

The atmosphere of the coffee shop immediately changed. The room became tense and even those engaged in other conversations had heard the tone in his voice and were now listening in. I remained silent for a moment. Glen’s face told me he was waiting for an answer. I finally spoke up: “I’m sorry to hear that, Glen. I have no idea why that happened to your daughter. But I do believe she’s in a better place now.”

If there was an answer that could have appeased Glen, it wasn’t this one. My words set something off inside of him. His face flared with red and for a moment I thought he’d punch me. He uttered, “Don’t you ever f—king say that again,” then informed me, as he rushed out the door, that he would be back in five minutes…with a pistol. This is what I wrote in my journal that night:

“I felt a strange emotion of fear at that time so I went into the bathroom, locked the door, splashed water on my face, then looked at myself in the mirror.”

Everything happened so fast. Staring into the mirror, I went over what had just transpired and began to pray. Unaware of how much time had gone by, I snapped back when someone knocked on the door saying, “Glen is out here and wants to see you.”
I glanced once more in the mirror and concluded my prayer: “I’m not going to be afraid. I’ll go out on a limb for you.” With that, I opened the door and walked out, not knowing if I would be met with a fist or a bullet. Glen was standing there. He immediately walked up, put his hand on my shoulder, and lowered his head. He then began apologizing to me. What?! Nearly in tears, he asked me to forgive him for getting so angry and being so rude in our first meeting. Though I was shocked (and quite relieved!), I managed to say a few words to let him know his apology was accepted and everything was cool. He wanted to continue the conversation, so we sat down where we had been sitting before.

The other youth were astonished by what had just transpired. They couldn’t believe Glen had been pacified. They watched and took in as much as they could, but didn’t get to listen in this time since Glen sat closer to me and spoke in a much softer voice. Whereas before his intention was to spill his loudness into other conversations and demand the attention of the youth, he now appeared oblivious to everything except the conversation we were having.

We visited for a good remainder of the night. He shared stories from his past and described what his life was like in the present. Raised in a broken home himself, he now mirrored that same relational dissonance with his girlfriend and young daughter. His days were filled mostly with drunkenness and bar fights; the stories I had been told about him were not exaggerated.

Before I left that evening, Glen gave me his phone number and promised to meet up for a drink. We got together two weeks later and a unique friendship began to develop. Other than a three-month stint when he was locked up in jail, we met up every two to three weeks. Glen opened up with me in ways he hadn’t even with his immediate family. When I asked him, he would talk about his spiritual life and attempt to describe what emotions he felt. He met my friends from church and came over for dinner a few times. (I even asked the church if he could stay with me for a while to get sobered up, but this wasn’t allowed since I lived in the parsonage and had a steady flow of young people visiting me.) Glen and I continued to meet and get together right up until I moved back to the U.S.

Making sense of a miracle 10 yrs later

Ten years later, how do I make sense of what went down that night in the coffee shop? Well, something happened while I was in the bathroom praying and Glen was en route to get a gun. His heart was softened while mine was emboldened. After I told this story to a friend not long ago, he asked me to explain in greater detail what I thought had taken place, citing Friedrich Schleiermacher’s belief that such miracles have specific psychological explanations (and don’t worry if you’re unfamiliar with that long German name).

Perhaps God whispered something to Glen – such as “Your anger at me has nothing to do with this guy” or “Keas’ response was one of kindness” – that allowed him to see the situation in a different light. Or this might have been the first time a person had stood up and spoken a word of grace to Glen concerning his daughter, so perhaps it simply took a few minutes for the compassionate word to burrow itself, by the grace and aid of God, through to his heart. Whether or not these explanations would suffice for Schleiermacher, they do for me. And I prefer not to use the language of “God intervened” since it presupposes God was uninvolved until Glen had left the coffee shop.

As I mentioned earlier, I was shocked, yet I should add that I wasn’t surprised. These words are synonymous, but they also have nuanced meanings. I prayed in the bathroom expecting God to change the situation. When a remorseful Glen returned, I wasn’t surprised that God had changed the situation but shocked by how God had done so. All sorts of smaller, less dramatic miracles could have taken place – a youth could have chased after Glen to persuade him otherwise, the cops could have shown up unexpectedly without being called, or he could have simply not returned for one reason or another.

Yet God worked the more radical (and I would contend, more loving) miracle that ultimately gave birth to an ongoing friendship between Glen and me.

What would I do differently now? In all honesty, I hope nothing. That’s not to say I haven’t learned from the years of ministry since that experience in England or from my time in seminary. There are plenty of lessons I know now that I would take with me into this situation. For example, I would have a greater concern for the safety of the other youth and youth workers, more respect for what might be the protocol response to receiving a threat, and a better understanding of how to navigate through this “violent” conversation by asking questions, rather than giving an answer, that get at the emotions behind Glen’s highly charged question (props to Marshall Rosenberg’s book Nonviolent Communication). And, I should add, I would want to carry myself with greater humility. But in the end, I hope the ministry exposure and seminary studies I’ve had since this incident in the coffee shop wouldn’t prevent me from taking the same risk for Jesus that I did that evening in England.

I also don’t think I’d change my response to Glen about his daughter. I’ve thought a lot about my comment (which one of my friends called a “cliché platitude”), especially while writing this piece. I still believe it. And I hope I’d still have the boldness to speak it if I was in the same situation. My response to Glen communicated compassion (“I’m sorry to hear that”) while admitting that I didn’t have an explanation for his tragedy (“I have no idea why that happened to your daughter”). Yet it didn’t stop there – it also communicated my core convictions of a loving God and the hope of the gospel (“I do believe she’s in a better place now”).

What advice would I give to others when facing a similar situation? First, we should meet people where they’re at. The question isn’t why is it dark in the darkness, but why isn’t the light shining into the darkness. Second, we should be both loving and wise (the two are more interrelated than separate). Third, we should take risks for God, and do so in faith that God can change the human heart.

In 2 Timothy 1:7, Paul tells the younger disciple that God has given him not a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power and love and self-discipline. This Pauline exhortation actually combines my second and third points above: we have been given a spirit of love and wisdom, and also of boldness.
We don’t have all the answers, but we do have truth to tell. Yes, something could have gone terribly wrong in the coffee shop, but in the words of Desmond Tutu, “Well, so what? For goodness’ sake, this is God’s world! We live in a moral universe.” Guns are dangerous and evil is real – but God is more real, let us not forget that! Perhaps there’s a cocktail of bravery and a bit of naïveté that’s actually a spiritual gift the young in faith often possess.

While I was staying with Jim Yost, the renowned missionary of Papua, Indonesia, he once told me that he had made it his practice to send young people to the mission field right after they became Christians. His reasoning? They’re bold, daring, and will take risks for the gospel because other “more mature” Christians haven’t rubbed off on them yet.

Just think of all that wouldn’t have happened in the church’s history had Christians sat down and really thought about the risks that were involved! I admit I’m probably putting this charge too strongly. Praxis alone, empty of theological reflection and study, is inadequate and bound to fizzle out. I still make the charge, however, since Christian scholarship and the Church need a good shot of it in the arm from time to time.

Blakely Dadson is a Portland-based artist whose unique style and unconventional imagery I’ve grown to appreciate. I’ve chosen his painting “The fall of Babylon” to accompany this post because I feel it offers a creative interpretation of my encounter with Glen ten years ago. That’s not to say that I think God Almighty looks like Stevie Wonder. (Neither do I think God looks like an old white man with a beard – any depiction of the first member of the Trinity in human form is problematic). Rather, I think the image of a joyful and soulful Stevie Wonder pushing back the darkness to create new possibilities correlates with my experience of God bursting onto the scene and changing a dark and dreary situation when it appeared all hope was lost.
We live in a world riddled with uncertainty, threat, and hostility. Yet the church mustn’t sit idly on the sidelines as others grope in darkness and confusion. Of course it’s scary to leave the safety of our shores and set sail into the unknown – but we were never meant to play it safe! We’ve been summoned to shine light into the darkness and take hope where there is despair. So let us sail into the murky waters of a world at odds with itself, facing whatever monstrous situations might arise, knowing that our loving heavenly Father has the power to change any situation (and any human heart).