A few weeks ago, a friend and I drove to the inner city of Pretoria at 21h30 (not a great time) to hand out some blankets we had collected as a home group. I’d met some guys that sleep in this park that surrounds the Pretoria Arts Museum and just wanted to catch up with them. I had this idea in my head of long, quiet conversations, maybe a prayer, a “thank you” and “it’s only a pleasure” and a warm feeling on our way home. It didn’t quite turn out that way.
The park we drove to is surrounded by buildings that are notorious for drugs and prostitution. Still, once we arrived and got out of my car, I was surprised at how quickly we were surrounded by girls (they ran across the road like there was no tomorrow) asking us if we were looking for a good time. As shocked as we were, we just said “no thanks” and turned our attention to the friends we’d come to visit. We found two of them lying next to each other with only a couple of old blankets to keep warm. We started chatting about how they’d been since we’d last spoken etc. But one of the prostitutes wouldn’t go away. She just stood there mumbling nonsense. My friend says he heard her saying “I have to do this.” I didn’t hear it but I felt more than awkward. I think it must have been what Paul felt when the slave girl wouldn’t shut up. She just wouldn’t shut up and made it very difficult to have a meaningful conversation.
We found another young man sleeping beneath two thin blankets and decided so approach him. One of our friends – let’s call him John – warned us to be careful because the sleeping man “wasn’t OK”. We woke him up explaining that we had come to help and needed to convince him that yes, the blanket was his. The wild look in his eyes and prowling Nigerian pimps made for a less than comfortable atmosphere and after we’d made sure that everyone had their designated blankets, John told us “I think you must go now.” I was so out of my depth and my mind started racing through all the things that could possibly happen next: being hijacked once we opened the car, stabbed, mugged… All very possible and after handing over one more bag with warm clothing to a poor man and fending off more prostitutes, we got in the car and drove off… due east away from all the evil and godlessness. Once we got to the off-ramp that would take us home, my friend quietly commented “And… we’re back in the bubble”.
OK, a lot of words for a relatively short experience. But it stuck with me. We went out there with this gung-ho, onwards-we-march-for-Jesus attitude and came back with our tails between our legs…more or less. It didn’t dent my faith in what God can do. At least not what he could do for those we were trying to help. I just felt so vulnerable and helpless. I’d never felt the devil’s presence that strongly before. Not that I think the devil is Nigerian or visa-versa, but the hold he has on people’s lives. It’s tragic! It didn’t haunt me as much as it humbled me. I have so far to go. I want David’s faith, that could stand up to Goliath. I don’t want to be stupid or reckless, but I want it to look like it to others. I’m not saying that driving to the inner city at night should become normal. When I am faced with danger I want my first reaction to be a calm, still with the deep knowledge that God is with me and that he gives me the wisdom to face any situation.
It may take a while and maybe a few more uncomfortable situations, but I have faith that will get there.