Here along East Colfax, I have three words I use that get a large response. Like magic.
Recently, I used them twice in ten minutes. In the parking lot of a motel I ran into three people—two men, one woman. Thinking I recognize one guy, I stop and ask a question. He is way out of it, higher than a hundred proverbial kites.
The woman beckons me over. I think she is going to tell me the guy is too high to bother with.
Nope. Instead, she slips her arm around my waist, looks seductively at me with big eyes and says, “Is there anything I can do to help you?”
If you are a little slow, that means she is selling sex and wonders if I am buying. Not unusual. Here, I look like a rich white dude and often get propositioned.
I slip my arm around her waist, hers still around mine, look into her big eyes and utter my magic words, “I’m a pastor.”
Like magic, she drops her arm, jumps back, looking horrified—she’d propositioned a pastor! I ask her name and she tells me. We talk briefly but she’s eager to get away. Still, as she walks away, she turns back, despair on her face, eyes fixed on mine, and says simply, “Pray for me!” I promise I will, then ask if she wants it right now; she says no and scurries off, my prayers following her into the night.
I stop to visit my friend Shelly* in her room. Within seconds, there’s pounding at the door—three guys blast into the room—the two from the parking lot and another. The last one goes into the bathroom, screaming at the other two. Shelly doesn’t want those two there, so I convince them to leave.
I ask Shelly if she wants help with the third guy—not fun, as he was big, screaming, seemingly out of control. Turns out he was a protector for Shelly; she was fine with him being there.
Shelly and I talk for a bit. The guy comes out of the bathroom, a bit calmer, and stands across the room. I ask him, “Have we met?” For me, it is a great question. Often, I have met people but don’t remember; if I haven’t, it is a great ice-breaker.
Didn’t break any ice this time! I don’t remember his exact words but the message was clear: He didn’t know me and didn’t want to know me. Hostility poured out of him, ice and fire aimed at me!
There we stood, a big black dude and a big white dude, opposite sides of an East Colfax motel bed, both protective of Shelly. Again, I spoke—“I’m a pastor.” I was going to say more, that I’m in the motels and on the streets and often meet people I might not remember later.
I never got there. Once I said “I’m a pastor,” his hostility disappeared, a smile appeared. Magic! He took a couple steps in my direction, then paused. He said, “I’m a Muslim brother,” wondering if I as a pastor would want to interact.
“That’s fine. I’m a just a brother,” I said. The gap closed and we shook hands, chatting a bit. When I didn’t get the bro handshake right, he coached me up on it. He went back to the other side of the room while I finished with Shelly. Head turned, he said to her, “I like this kind of a pastor!” I asked him his name. He was silent, then said—“You can call me Stone*.” His street name, not yet his real one, but a step towards friendship.
Those three words—“I’m a pastor”—are nearly magical here. With women in the sex trade, being a pastor means they stop propositioning me. I’m seen as a friend and protector, the light of Jesus in their brutal, violent and dark world. Only one girl, only when high, persists in hitting on me. I think she is trying to shock me. Doesn’t work—I’m pretty shock proof by this time!
Same with others—drug dealers, gang bangers, street people. Some start out hostile to this big white dude. A hello gets me daggers and a refusal to shake my hand. But when I say—“I’m a pastor”—all of a sudden we connect. Magic!
Here, in some of the toughest territory in our city, where life is violent, dark and dangerous, there is a core belief about pastors. They expect pastors to be here; they welcome our presence. They recognize that we are here to love them. Even if they aren’t ready to engage us or Jesus deeply, the power of our presence is palpable.
Not just pastors. They also expect the church to be here; they welcome our presence. We have interesting conversations about church. We are regularly asked, “Where is your church?” Our standard answer is “Right here.” We bring church to people who will likely never “go to church”. We say other things—we have a monthly house church, our team comes from multiple churches—but our main messages is this: The church is here, not just in a building somewhere.
A favorite story: One night, at another motel, some team members saw a child from a family we know well. The child ran ahead to the room, shouting, “The church is here!” Four words—“The church is here!” Also powerful, also magical.
There are nuances. Occasionally we face hostility, but not often. People want to know if we as pastors and the church will love and accept them as they are. Are we there to pound them? Are we in for the long haul? Are we doing a spiritual drive-by, dispensing a bit of love that makes us feel better? Once they know we are legit, the door is open to endless ministry.
Here is the simple truth: The church belongs here, among the broken; pastors belong here, leading the charge. Oddly, the poor are theologically clearer about this than the broader church is. In many churches, the idea of being among the broken often exists as no more than a nice idea, something to nod at but not to be deeply pursued.
The need here is endless, the openness hard to describe. Progress is slow and halting, but I have never experienced this level of welcome for Jesus and His people.
Jesus said it this way, at a time when he was looking at folks who were poor, harassed and helpless. “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Pray, therefore, the Lord of harvest to send forth workers into the field.”
“I’m a pastor.” Magic!
“The church is here.” Powerful!
Pray with us for workers for this unique harvest field. And, ask yourself what your role might be.