“For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).
The bright glare of the church overhead lights prompted my youth missions’ teammate, Lauren, to slip on her sunglasses once we found our seats before the morning service began. As the worship music reverberated, I questioned if it would have been wiser for us to sleep in after our late night of street ministry on Hollywood Boulevard.
Lauren, pale-faced, was slouched in her seat, trying to get comfortable. A few annoyed glances from the middle-aged, well-dressed women seated one row ahead were cast in our direction. Conscious of Lauren’s and my ragged jeans and wrinkled shirts, I offered a sheepish smile when I caught their gazes. But they didn’t smile back.
Weary from lack of sleep, I felt detached and fuzzy around the edges. I fought to focus on the pastor’s words, but my mind reeled, replaying the events from the night before.
On the street
Lauren and I were students at a Youth with A Mission Discipleship Training School, and we’d recently returned from an outreach to Monterrey, Mexico. As we traveled by bus back to Washington State, we stayed in various towns and used our puppet, drama, and music ministries to reach out to children and seniors. But this was our first night for street ministry, right in the heart of Hollywood.
We’d been dropped off at 11:00 p.m. on Saturday night, across from a movie theater. It was preparing for a midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The long line of flamboyantly dressed punk rockers wrapped around the building like an engorged snake. They writhed with impatience until tempers boiled over and people pushed one another into the oncoming traffic on the busy multi-lane road.
Horrified but transfixed, we prayed for their safety. And for ours. Moments later, over one hundred motorcycle law enforcement officers roared in on motorcycles. An officer spoke through a bullhorn and commanded the crowd to disperse or face arrest. Tense moments followed as we prayed for a peaceful end to what could become a confrontation or riot.
We waited and watched. When the crowd peacefully dispersed, I let out a sigh of relief.
Many punk rockers lingered around the fringe, adding to the nightlife of pimps, prostitutes, and drug dealers, as well as those dressed for a night on the town. The contrasting images of those on the streets reminded us that many were lost, needing a Savior. This visual reinforced our need to pray as we divided into teams of two and were sent out to minister to the broken.
Nervous, excited, and fearful, we asked God to lead us to someone we should speak to. Lauren and I saw a young man named Terry standing away from others, uncomfortable and perhaps lonely. We spoke at length to him and realized he’d been caught up in prostitution.
My heart went out to Terry as he told of moving from New York, hoping for a better life. He hadn’t found it on the streets of Hollywood. Clearly disappointed with his current lifestyle, Terry listened as we shared our stories of how God had transformed our lives through a personal relationship with Jesus. I explained humanity’s fallen state and our need for a Savior. As I told Terry the story of Jesus and how He forgives our sins, his eyes brightened with a glimpse of hope for a different future.
Meanwhile, his friend stood behind him in the shadows, glaring at us. We finished speaking with Terry and handed him a booklet to explain more about sin’s bondage and how he could have a new life in Christ. I prayed that the seeds planted wouldn’t be snatched away by the Evil One, even in the form of his “friend.”
We’d talked a long time with Terry and didn’t have much longer before our 1:00 a.m. meet-up time with the group. We prayed for those we saw and gave a few booklets to others.
As I mulled over these things in church, I glanced at Lauren, only to see she’d lost her struggle to stay awake. She was barely sixteen and a young believer, rescued from prostitution herself only a year earlier. Her personal story of God’s saving grace spoke to many.
The glare of the church ladies targeted us a few more times. Relieved when the service ended, I woke up Lauren, and we gathered our jackets and Bibles. One of the ladies made a point to talk to us. She challenged us to not disgrace God’s house by disregarding His holiness.
I was too shocked to answer her. Again, I thought of my encounter with Terry the night before and wished that this woman cared enough to ask us our story. Did we not feel well, or was our sleepless night because of some problems? How could she and her friends know what we’d been doing half the night? Perhaps if they’d taken the time to ask, we could have instead blessed one another as we shared about our evening.
Through this experience, I didn’t just learn about effective outreach. I learned about judging others. Though it made me sad, the ladies’ judgment of us reaffirmed in me the need to hear others’ life stories, inside and outside the church, with a heart of compassion. Listening and sharing the gospel with Terry and others had removed my fear, replacing it with God’s love for hurting individuals. If only these ladies had done the same for us.
We often don’t know the truth of a situation or a person’s heart. But God does. With caring hearts, we can share not only the story of God transforming our lives but God’s story of His Son, forgiveness, and the new life He offers freely to all.
Our “God stories” are miracles. And even when misunderstood, my desire is to keep following Jesus, love others, and bring many more lost souls into His kingdom.