I woke up on a cot in the gymnasium with butterflies in my stomach. I’d brought a sleeping bag with the intent of sleeping on the hard floor, but after suffering from an awful case of indigestion, I was offered one of the few available cots. I seemed to be feeling back to normal, except for the butterflies.
A group from my university spent our Spring Break on a mission trip in downtown Dallas, partnering with a ministry who served families in need. We had a full day of service planned and I hoped I was up for it.
I also hoped it wouldn’t be too obvious I was out of my comfort zone. I grew up in a small country church where I was related to half of the congregation. I’d never been to Dallas and didn’t know a thing about witnessing to strangers who had nothing in common with me. I rubbed my sweaty palms down the front of my jeans as I walked quietly to the van.
The first stop that morning was the sanctuary of the church where the mission did its work. We worshiped with the people we would minister to that week. Following the service, they’d go downstairs to visit the food pantry and clothing closet before getting a free lunch. The Bread of life served up with a side of our daily bread.
Our group received a commissioning prayer near the end of the service, which helped ease my nerves. Afterward, we mingled in the sanctuary and a few went outside to witness on the street, inviting people to join us for lunch.
That’s when I met Tom. He was by himself and started talking with a group of us. We swapped stories. He was an alcoholic, which cost him a life with his wife and kids. In his drunken state, he’d ended up on the streets of Dallas before sobering up (a year and counting). He was a regular at the soup kitchen, even volunteering when he could.
During the noon hour, with my lunch in hand, I spotted Tom with his bowl of soup and crusty bread, so I sat down beside him. I don’t recall how our conversation took a turn, but I started telling Tom about my own dad.
“My dad has a drinking problem too, among other things. I worry about his life choices. Even more, I’m concerned about his eternal choices because I don’t know if he is a Christian.”
Who tells a stranger these private things…on a mission trip?! Our conversation probably broke some policy: a volunteer dumping her sob story on the one being ministered to, but talking with Tom felt more like talking to a friend. But I needed Tom’s story and he needed mine. Looking back now, I realize it was Tom who ministered to me that day. No one on this trip knew about my family’s complexities. My soup grew cold, as I kept anxiously glanced to the right and left, wondering who was listening. I wasn’t ready to tell my classmates, but Tom felt safe. He’d been there.
Tom caught up with me again the last day of our mission trip. He thanked me for all we’d done and then, out of nowhere, he teared up and said, “Don’t give up on your dad. Keep praying for him and I will too.”
He shared with me the progress he’d made with his own family — the ones he abandoned. His ex-wife still wanted nothing to do with him, for which he couldn’t blame her. He talked with his son occasionally, but his relationship with his daughter had mended the most.
She’d prayed for her dad all these years, the entire decade since he’d left home. She was ecstatic to get reports of his recovery and he hoped to save enough money to go visit her soon. That little piece of hope rooted around in my heart. Some conversations settle in the deepest parts of your soul.
Years later, I sat in Bible study discussing the importance of continuing to pray for a person who isn’t walking with God. One lady spoke with such confidence, “If you keep praying, God will reach that person.”
Immediately, I remembered my encounter with Tom. I knew things weren’t always that easy. I’d taken Tom’s advice. I prayed for my dad for years, until the day he died, yet I don’t know how those prayers were answered. My dad never showed much evidence God had reached him. I rely on hope unseen: it’s what my faith calls me to do.
I remember my time in Dallas vividly, when Tom assured me if he could be saved, there was hope for anyone — including my dad. Hearing Tom’s story, looking into his tear-filled eyes as he begged me to continue praying for my dad; that’s the hope I cling to still. I realized something on that mission trip: the Kingdom of God is a great neutralizer. In Christ, our backgrounds and geography don’t matter all that much. I’ll never forget the time I thought I was the one ministering to people, but it was I who received grace from a recovering alcoholic fresh off the streets of downtown Dallas. That’s the way of God’s kingdom.