My attendance at a writing critique group unexpectedly ended. I awoke the next morning, perplexed. I had attended the group for years and didn’t want to leave, but I knew that it was time to move on. On the heels of leaving the group, a name kept coming to my attention: Linda Rodriguez.
Linda led a Christian writers group. We connected via Facebook. Her writing group had not been meeting, but she wanted to start again. She revived The Holy Scriptors long enough for me to meet her husband, Pastor David. Before the group disbanded again, I asked David if I could write his profile for NOLA’s faith blog.
I tried to find a mutually agreeable date to meet with Linda and David without success. Linda is a gifted writer, so I asked her to write the article. She consented, and that was the last I heard from her until someone called my name as I walked out of a restaurant. I turned around to see Linda’s smiling face. She had been busy and didn’t think she would have time to write the article.
I asked Pastor David, seated beside her, if he still wanted an article written. He did. I made an appointment to meet at his church office. I didn’t need directions to Christian Fellowship Church. I had attended the church on 5049 Ehret Road when I was a teenager, and it was called Marrero Assembly of God. Shortly before and during the two years I attended Marrero Assembly of God, I had spiritual experiences that are as vivid today as they were in 1973. The church holds a significant place in my heart.
David led me to a room he uses for counseling, and we sat at opposite ends of a long table. For the first time since I started writing about local Christians, I would record a story without coffee machines grinding, music blasting, and the neighboring table’s conversation in the background. But a greater gift than that awaited. Before our conversation ended, David solved a thirty-eight-year-old mystery.
David encountered God in an old-fashioned tent revival, complete with sawdust on the ground. The evangelist brought his fiery message to a close and pleaded for willing hearts to come to the altar.
David looked at his friend seated next to him. “Do you want to go?”
“Do you?” his friend replied.
“I’ll go if you go.”
The boys slipped out of their seats and walked the sawdust trail to the altar. The next thing David remembered was lying flat on his back with a feeling of refreshing flowing over him and a foreign language coming from his mouth, which Pentecostals call “tongues.”
“That experience marked my life,” said David. “From that point on, I knew with certainty that I was God’s child. Then I became a teenager, and the hormones from hell kicked in. When I was fourteen, I decided being a Christian was too hard. I knew I would die and go to hell if I turned away from God, but I figured I’d have a lot of fun before I got there.”
Four years later, David’s fun came to an abrupt end when he stole a car with a friend and found himself staring through the bars of a Georgia jail. The small cell aggravated his claustrophobia, magnifying his suffering. He paced the cell, longing to be free, and then he remembered the prayer of Cain and pleaded for mercy. “Lord, my punishment is greater than I can bear” (Genesis 4:13).
The next day, David called home and told his father what happened. His father replied with calm assurance, “David, the Lord spoke to me. You’re coming home tomorrow.”
“But Dad,” David objected, “I’m five hundred miles from home, and I don’t have money to hire an attorney.” His father stood steadfast on God’s promise. David hung up the phone and was escorted to his cell with little hope of being released. The next day, his friend’s father posted bail for both of them, and the judge ordered them to return in August for sentencing.
David returned to New Orleans and met a girl who introduced him to marijuana. He was experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs when he stood before a Georgia judge for sentencing. David knew God had heard his prayer for mercy when the judge gave them probation instead of a jail sentence, but his gratitude for a lighter punishment was short lived.
The guilt of spurning God’s mercy weighed heavily on David. When he partied with his friends, conviction gripped him. While his friends enjoyed the hallucinations, David often spoiled the party by announcing they were all going to hell and preaching to them. When his girlfriend became pregnant, he married her, but the marriage quickly fell apart. His wife left him and then learned she was pregnant with David’s second son. David lay on his bed and cried out in despair, “God, why is this happening to me?”
He reached for the Bible lying beside him and flipped it open. Proverbs chapter 6 glared at him: “A scoundrel and villain, who goes about with a corrupt mouth, who winks with his eye, signals with his feet and motions with his fingers, who plots evil with deceit in his heart—he always stirs up dissension. Therefore disaster will overtake him in an instant; he will suddenly be destroyed—without remedy” (Proverbs 6:12-15).
“I felt I was reading my life story and God was showing me why he was about to throw me into hell” said David. “I remember dropping on my knees, shaking with fear, and saying, ‘God, I am sorry,’ but I didn’t ask God to forgive me. I chose hell when I was fourteen and thought it was too late. When I stood, I felt a hot pressure and heard a mocking echo in my mind: ‘It’s too late. It’s too late.’”
That evening, David’s father visited him. During the course of their conversation, his father said, “The devil will tell you that you are going crazy.” When David heard those words, the oppression choking him with despair lifted.
David smiled. “It’s easier to appreciate God’s grace when you have tasted his justice. I tell people I got saved in 1970, but that’s not entirely accurate. That afternoon, reading Proverbs, I knew I had crossed the line with God, but he spared me. Instead of giving me the hell I chose, he restored me.”
David reconnected with Jeb, a high school friend who had also committed his life to Christ. On weekends, David and Jeb returned to their old haunt, a local Dairy Queen, and told anyone who would listen that they had found something better than drugs. Jeb’s car was often packed to capacity with teenagers desiring to learn more about Jesus the following Sunday. When David wasn’t sharing his faith in Christ, he worked as an assistant manager for Shakey’s Pizza Parlor and fought for custody of his two children.
Several months after David’s restoration, a woman approached him with a prophecy that she believed was for him. She had felt the unction to speak it during the church service, but being a new Christian, she was reluctant to prophesy publically. She told David, “Thus says the Lord, ‘My son, when I set you free, you are free indeed. I have a work for you that you know nothing of.’”
Shortly after the prophecy, an opportunity for David to become general manager of a Shakey’s Pizza Parlor arose, but David had a dilemma. To become general manager of his own store, he had to reveal that he had a felony conviction. The general manager knew David was on probation, but the owner of the Louisiana franchise did not. David told his probation officer about his predicament. His probation officer called the franchise owner to express the dramatic and positive changes he had seen in David since he was placed on probation.
“The next thing I know, I received a letter from the Atlanta judge complimenting me on how well I have handled myself since the conviction. He had terminated my probation and ordered that my judgment be set aside. My record was cleared, as though it never happened. Then my former wife, who was still on drugs, decided our boys would be better off with me and gave me custody. I rented an apartment in New Orleans East, picked up my sons on Valentine’s Day 1971, and started my job as a general manager of my own store the next day. It was like the hand of God wiped everything clean. Then in the spring of 1972, Jeb told me he was starting a ministry called The House of Living Water, and he wanted me to run it.”
At this point in David’s story, I heard him talking, but I wasn’t listening. My mind was flooded with memories. God had revealed himself to me at The House of Living Water in August 1973. I wondered if David was talking about the same place and struggled to concentrate as he continued his story.
“Jeb and another man planned to fix up a building in old Algiers. I would live at The House of Living Water and run the ministry while they went to Bible College. I was in walking distance from the Shakey’s I managed in New Orleans East. Moving to the west bank meant a twenty-six-mile round trip, but I accepted the position and moved into the building with my sons.”
“What year was this?” I asked.
“1972,” he replied.
The year didn’t fit my experience, but the location did. The place I had encountered the living God was on Opelousas Street in old Algiers. I remembered two things about the preacher whose message led me to accept Christ: he was young and had a beard. I studied David’s face, trying to imagine how he would look with a beard, and listened intently as he continued his story.
“The manager of the Shakey’s on Veterans resigned. I was managing the smallest restaurant in the chain and next in line for the bigger store. The Veteran’s Shakey’s was in disrepair, and I felt like I could grow in New Orleans East. I had already made up my mind to turn it down when the owner of the chain came to talk to me. The owner said, ‘The manager of the Veteran’s store has left, and I want you to take over the Gretna Shakey’s.’ He was an older man. I thought he had a senior moment, so I corrected him. ‘You mean the Veteran Shakey’s.’ Then he corrected me. ‘No, the manager of the Gretna Shakey’s has seniority over you. He wants the Veteran Shakey’s.’ The Gretna Shakey’s was the plum in the chain, the biggest and nicest of all the stores and located minutes away from The House of Living Water. God worked everything out, and I stayed at The House of Living Water until late in 1973—”
“I was saved at The House of Living Water in August 1973,” I exclaimed. “I never knew the preacher’s name, but I remember he was young and had a beard.”
“I had a beard,” said David.
David had more than a beard. He kept a small photo album in his office with pictures from that time in his life. I looked at a picture yellowed with age of a young David with a beard and said, “It was you!”
It’s never too late to say thank you, and I thanked David for his obedience to God that led me to salvation.
What are the odds that the man God used to lead me to Christ would now pastor the first church I attended after my salvation—the same church where God unfolded and confirmed his plan for my life? What are the odds that I would return to Ehret Road thirty-eight years later and learn the identity of “the young preacher with a beard”? The odds are slim, but God’s kindness is great. I walked out of Christian Fellowship knowing God had used me to comfort, encourage, and assure a faithful servant that his labor in the Lord is not in vain.
To receive a free digital copy of Finding Faith in the City Care Forgot follow Teena on Twitter and send a private message that says BLOG HOP. Include your email to receive the free book. Offer expires November 30, 2014.
This post is part of the Thankful for God’s Gifts Blog Hop. Please be sure to stop by the other participants listed below.