A Chance Meeting
About the Guest
How long had it been since he had a friend? That's what Chris Plekenpol thought when he first saw the homeless man shuffling out the church door. Chris tells what happened when he and others in his Bible study befriended James, a down-and-out Katrina survivor looking for work and a free meal.
How long had it been since he had a friend?
A Chance Meeting
Bob: Chris Plekenpol, a young single guy, was headed out to lunch with a group of friends after church one Sunday when he thought about the man he’d seen at church, a man who appeared to be homeless.
Chris: I’d seen homeless guys tons of times all over the place, but something told me I should go after this guy. I said, “Hey, buddy. Do you want to go to lunch?” He looks back like I’m wearing almost what I’m wearing now, you know. Pinstripe pants with a dress shirt and you know, bringing a homeless man into that kind of environment will change just the dynamics of the entire group, but once the invite is tossed out there you can’t go “Just kidding.” So we go with it. He says, “Yeah, I’d like that.” .
Bob: This is FamilyLifeToday for Monday, December 20th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. We’ll hear today what happened when the ex-Army Captain and the homeless guy went out to lunch together after church.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. Do you remember a little while ago when your wife, Barbara, was with us and we were talking about the devotional that she had put together for families around the subject of courage?
Bob: Which, by the way, we’ve had a lot of folks who have contacted us to get copies of that, and we still have copies available. If folks are interested they can go to FamilyLifeToday.com.
Dennis: It’s a seven-day devotional where a couple can go through it together, or for that matter, parents can sit down with their kids and read it aloud, probably in less than ten minutes.
Bob: Well, I thought to myself as I was thinking about our guest today, he didn’t read that devotional before he wrote the book that he wrote, but his story is a courage story.
Dennis: And he is a courageous man. Chris Plekenpol joins us on FamilyLife Today. Chris, welcome to the broadcast.
Chris: Dennis, Bob, great to be here.
Dennis: I’m glad I got your last name right. You know, that’s a bit of a challenge here.
Chris is a courageous man. He is a graduate of West Point and served in Korea, also in Iraq for a year – and I want to get to that in a minute – has also attended my alma mater, Dallas Theological Seminary, which took some courage.
Bob: Give me five. That took courage. Taking Greek and Hebrew takes courage.
Dennis: Absolutely. It does. And he’s written a couple of books. One is Faith in the Fog of War, which is a devotional that you actually penned coming out of Iraq.
Chris: I actually wrote it while I was there. It was a compilation of emails that I sent home from Iraq to people that I thought here’s an opportunity, I have a platform for the Gospel, I’ll tell a war story and then I’ll tell biblical truth, and hopefully some believers will get encouraged and some non-believers will start asking questions.
Dennis: Yes. And your second book is called Stumbling Souls: Is Love Enough? I have to tell you, this theme about love and loving like Jesus Christ loved people is one that is fresh on my heart these days. I’ve been reading a book that’s kind of taken me near the heart of Christ, being a better lover of people.
I think you’ve done a fine work here in this book, and I do want to talk about that in a moment. But since you are a legitimate war hero, alright? – I’m saying that proudly, that you have served our country and the families that are listening to this broadcast, and singles as well. You were in Iraq for a year.
Dennis: You oversaw 100 guys, 21 tanks, a budget of $85 million. You were how old?
Chris: I was 28.
Dennis: 28 years old. I have to ask you – just share with our listeners your favorite story, your favorite moment from your time in Iraq.
Chris: So many different moments come to mind, but one that just sticks out completely is one night, we had just lost a soldier in sector, and his best friend held him in his arms while he died. That soldier was one of those evangelical atheists, and he would always try to just take shots at me in a good-humored way.
So he comes to my room that night, this time not looking to take a shot at me but he was like, “Sir, what are we doing here?” I go, “Well, there’s something wrong with the human condition. It’s why marriages break up. It’s why nations go to war. It’s why people die. It’s this thing of sin, and that’s essentially why we’re here. But the good news is that Jesus Christ came from heaven to earth to pay the penalty for your sin, and rose from the dead so you can have eternal life with our heavenly Father.” He looks at me like, “That’s like a fairy tale. You can’t go back to this thing about Jesus.” I said, “Well, that’s the truth.” I said, “I’m going to start praying for you.”
He said, “What if I start sinning again. What if I start watching porn again, and what if I start drinking again?” I said, “Stop. Look, the Gospel is not about making bad people good. It’s about making dead people alive, and once you come to faith in Christ he starts to change you from the inside out.” So tears start rolling down his eyes as he steps over that line of faith. It’s unbelievable.
So fast-forward about four months: he gets -- a RPG slams in the side of his tank, and Sergeant Kish gets a chunk of shrapnel underneath his flak vest somehow, and he has to be evacuated to the States as well.
Dennis: So he was injured.
Chris: He was injured. And before he leaves, I get a chance to talk to him and he goes, “I don’t know why this happened, but I know God has a plan and he’s got a purpose for my life.” He would live and he would be okay, but it was in that moment where I realized that God is just working stuff out on such a much greater – I mean this was the – no chance would he be a Christian. No chance would Jesus – and then like the ultimate pain and suffering of somebody’s loss of life is the catalyst that transforms him into a man of faith, and not only a man of faith, but one who when he’s encountering his own sense of suffering is able to rely on the cross of Christ and the power that’s inside him. That to me became like – Yes-s-s! That’s the victory.
Dennis: And just in you telling that story, personally I get emotional for our troops that are over there. I mean, these are young men and women who are putting their lives on the line right now.
Dennis: 24-7. There is no Sunday day off in war.
Chris: That’s right.
Dennis: I want to encourage our listeners to pray for our troops and pray for their safety and for their families that are back here as they suffer the loss that is created by war. I’m not just talking about the loss of life, but the loss of relationships and the loss of being together.
There’s another story that is kind of bigger than life as well that you tell in your book, and it begins with a man named James.
Dennis: Introduce our listeners to James, would you? In your best words – you’re an author –
Dennis: Take our listener’s hand in yours and put it out and extend it to James and explain to them who he is and what he looks like.
Chris: Well, I’ll never forget the first time that I saw him. He was this heavyweight African-American gentleman, sitting in the front row of church with a big backpack. I’m thinking to myself, “What’s this guy. . . ?” It was odd, only because this was kind of like the uptown church. This was the church that you came dressed to impress, and it was the cool church.
Dennis: This was in Dallas, Texas.
Chris: This was in Dallas, Texas.
Dennis: Lot of thread jocks in Dallas, Texas.
Chris: Absolutely. So I’m thinking, “Wow, that’s interesting that he would feel comfortable here.” So I see after the service we had like a newcomer’s meeting which he went to, and he stocked his little bag full of all the extra meals that we had, and I was like, “Oh, great. We’re helping out a poor soul for the day.”
As he’s walking away from the church with a real little rolling bag behind him, he’s got the sweat pants on and he’s got the – sort of like a denim shirt on that’s way too big, holey sweat pants, and I’m just like “huh.”
Just something hits me, as I’m watching him walk away. “What’s that guy’s story?” Something inside me compels me to go and just ask the guy his story and invite him to lunch.
Dennis: You were at Dallas Theological Seminary as a student at the time.
Chris: That’s right. I was in my first year at Dallas Seminary.
Dennis: So you’re getting immersed in the Scriptures. It’s coming at you left and right.
Chris: Left and right, and we’re studying. For me one of my favorite books of the Bible was the book of James. Just something about taking care of widows and orphans. I didn’t know his story at the time, but I just had this sense of somebody needs to ask that guy’s story. Somebody needs to figure out where he’s been.
I’d seen homeless guys tons of times all over the place, but something – I just go after this guy, and I say, “Hey, buddy. Do you want to go to lunch?” He looks back, like – I’m wearing almost what I’m wearing now, you know, pinstriped pants with a dress shirt – and he looks at me very suspicious like, “Okay, yeah. I’d like that.”
I get in the car, we head to Pei Wei, a little Asian diner, and we buy him lunch. There’s a group of about ten of us, and I think everyone was kind of expecting that we’d place James over to the side and he could eat his meal and no one would bother him and he wouldn’t bother us and we’d be cool, but I’ve never been one to avoid the awkward, so I just kind of jump right into it. So I say, “James, why don’t you tell all of us your story?”
He looks up, unsure a little bit, and he says, “Well, I’m a Katrina victim.” I said, “Well, no, I want to know about the whole story.” So he goes back, “Well, I grew up in Virginia Beach in a Christian home. My dad died when I was nine years old of double pneumonia, and at about sixteen I left home and started traveling the country, and I’ve been kind of homeless ever since.”
I was like, “Well, there’s a little bit of a disconnect. How do you go from growing up in a Christian home . . . Sure your dad dies; what was the thing that kind of turned the corner for you as far as that kind of a life?” And he looks at me and says, “Well,” and he kind of drops a bomb on all of us. He’s like, “I’m a homosexual.”
The thing that was interesting about this, nobody kind of like excused themself from the table, or -- pretty much nobody flinched, just kind of gave him full attention – and he told the story. He was at a boys camp of some sort after his father died and there were some things going on in another tent and he got asked in and involved and the next thing you know, he’s – at ten years old – has had an experience which has kind of marked his life for forever.
That trajectory puts him on a path towards rebelliousness towards his mom. You know, how is his mom going to even deal with that – even know that that was going on?
Bob: Mm hmm.
Chris: For gay people that don’t believe it’s okay, there is a sense of huge guilt that falls from everywhere. So he kind of felt guilty, and so the way that he coped with guilt was drugs. And so, drugs became his answer for just about everything as he traveled the country trying to find work, trying to get it together. But eventually every ounce of his money or every ounce of anything he could earn went to his drug addiction.
Bob: So the scene here is you and your church friends at Pei Wei right after the service with James, who has just said, “I’m a homeless homosexual.” He didn’t say he was a drug addict at that point. Did you suspect it?
Chris: He told us that that was in his past. He said, “That’s kind of how I coped. I’m way free of that. That’s not an issue for me anymore.” He talked about how he was working in New Orleans, that’s where he kind of last found himself, and Hurricane Katrina came. He spent six days in the Superdome and he told us stories about, he’d watched women getting raped in there and people getting robbed, fights, murders, just Lord of the Flies happening in the Superdome.
He says he was just thankful to get out of there, and he ends up in Dallas, Texas. The bus drops him off, here’s a couple bucks, go do your thing. So now he’s trying to find work. He doesn’t have an ID card. He doesn’t have anything. He’s just trying to figure out how to make it.
By this time it’s about six or seven months after Katrina actually happened is when I first meet him. So we go through this whole lunch and Bill, who’s a guy that was in my Bible study with me, he’s a crusty cop, he looks at James, he goes, “Why don’t you come to our Bible study?” To which my initial reaction was kind of, “I don’t know if we really want him to come to our Bible study. I mean that’s . . .”
Bob: That could mess up the Bible a bit.
Chris: It’s not exactly a homeless friendly environment. I’m all about serving the homeless. I love – that’s what God – but I don’t know if that’s going to mesh well with our 26- to 46-year-old kind of business guys that are trying to figure out the Word of God and a comfortable environment for them to learn it. I didn’t really think about – you know, bringing a homeless man into that kind of environment will change the dynamics of the entire group. But, you know, once the invite’s tossed out there you can’t be like, “Oh, just kidding.” So we go with it. He says, “Yeah, I’d like that.”
So that next Monday night Bill brings in James and the next thing you know, we have a Bible study. Here we are, guys are talking, we go through the Bible study of learning the Scripture. We’re working through Matthew.
Dennis: How many guys are in the Bible study?
Chris: Twelve. Twelve guys. And so you’ve got business guys . . . It’s fairly intimate, when after you get done with the Bible study part – it’s a two-and-a-half hour Bible study. We were a serious Bible study – but the last part, that last hour or so, we’d get into each other’s lives. We’d say, “Here’s what’s going on.” Guys were pretty frank. Some guys, “I hate my wife. I don’t know what I’m doing with her. This is terrible.” Other guys would be like, “I want to get a raise. I’m making 60; I’d like to make 70.”
Those kind of things would kind of pop up, and then there’s James, and James would say something like this: “Last night someone put a knife to me and took the only eight dollars that I had, so if you guys would pray for that, that would be great.”
And so all of a sudden, your prayer requests kind of – it’s like, “huh! Maybe the things that we thought were important weren’t and maybe my wife isn’t as bad as I thought she was, and maybe my job wasn’t as . . .” You know, all the things, the perspective kind of, focus for a moment. James became someone that kind of brought a total different dynamic.
Shockingly, no one freaked out at the fact that he was there. Now the first day that he was there he was like, “I’m also HIV positive,” which brought a whole other dimension into it. I know all the facts about how AIDS are transmitted and whatnot, but there’s still a sense of, shaking his hand, you had to unflinchingly “I’m going to shake his hand without flinching.”
Dennis: Yeah. Yeah.
Chris: You just had to . . . There’s that reality of like . . .
Dennis: Moving toward someone who has AIDS.
Chris: Right. I didn’t know many people with AIDS. I didn’t know anybody that had AIDS or HIV or anything like that, so this was kind of like a first encounter, a first encounter up close and personal, a first encounter with somebody, that intimately, from the streets. But he would come, and we’d drop him off every week. We’d pick him up on that Monday night, do the Bible study, hear the stuff, prayer requests, drop him off back at the streets downtown.
Bob: Drop him off in the street?
Chris: I know. You go pick him up from the street and then you drop him off in the street.
Bob: So is he living under a bridge? Is he in a shelter somewhere?
Chris: It just depended. Sometimes if we gave him some money he’d go stay at what’s called a bunkhouse, where you’d have about a hundred bunks. For eight bucks you could stay there for the night, or for 30 you can stay for the month. You know, that kind of thing.
Bob: But I just am trying to imagine after the Bible study driving downtown and opening the door and saying, “We’ll see you next week.”
Chris: “See you later.”
Bob: And he’s going to go sleep under the bridge.
Chris: Right. Yeah. That’s what kind of . . . So here’s the thing about that. You’d just drop him off. You always hated to be the guy…it was your turn to drop him off, because you always felt like, “This isn’t right.”
Dennis: You’re a poor seminary student.
Dennis: But you still have a roof over your head.
Chris: Right. And so I’m thinking . . . We did. We assuaged our guilt. We’d take money every now and then, “Here. Go get a hotel for a day or two.” And then somebody would meet with him for coffee throughout the week, just go meet him at a random Starbucks downtown, buy him a cup of coffee, maybe some air conditioning for the month, air conditioning for the day, rather. But it was hard, because you – where’s the trust level?
You don’t know – you know, these guys aren’t exactly comfortable with hanging out with the homeless people. So, that’s where we’re coming from. That’s what made this thing fairly interesting.
Dennis: Well, speaking to the trust issue, Bill, who was the former police officer, his experience kicked into gear, because he . . .
Bob: His antenna was way up on this, wasn’t it?
Dennis: Yeah. And this is the point I really wanted to draw for our audience. This is where the body of Christ must work together. There are different members who are followers of Christ who have different gifts. Some of us rescue. . .
Dennis: . . . the helpless and the hopeless, and left to our own means, we would just keep on rescuing people and in many cases, be taken advantage of by people.
Dennis: But there are guys like Bill whose experience and antenna pointed out something out different.
Chris: Oh, yes. Bill was reading James differently than me, and I kept. . . He was like, “Chris, he’s on drugs.” I’m like, “Bill, you invited him.” And so, “There’s no way he’s on drugs. We’re helping him.” He’s like,”Chris, nobody that lives downtown that doesn’t have a roof over their head is not on drugs. I’ll bet you that if we went and did the research, we’d find out that all the stuff he’s telling us – that he had a job and lost it – that he just started doing drugs and didn’t show up anymore.”
I’m like, “Bill, you cannot say that. “ So he and I are having conflict right off the bat, of him saying, “Chris, I don’t trust this guy. I’ve been a cop for 20 years. I’m telling you. You may have been to Iraq. You may think you’re invincible, but I’m telling you, you’re dead wrong, and I’m not going to watch you get yourself hurt over this. I’m going to let you know.”
Bob: You know, everybody listening has wondered, whether it’s the guy on the street with the sign or whether it’s the person that you pass, or somebody you’ve come in contact with, and you’re thinking, “Okay, is this person conning me? What’s really going on in their life? How do I . . .”
Because our heart is, we want to help, but we’re not sure that engaging, bringing somebody home, paying for a hotel, if we give them money, what’s that money going to get used for? I think everybody wrestles with the impulse and the desire to help and the practical side that says, “What really brings help?”
Dennis: Yeah, Bob. And we’ve all grown up – or not all of us, but many of us in Sunday school classes where we heard the story of the Good Samaritan. You know, that story turned out pretty well. And then you live enough of life where you try to be a Good Samaritan and you get taken advantage of, and it doesn’t turn out the way you expected it, and you find that people, well, are not trustworthy sometimes.
And through an interesting set of circumstances, I’ve had some similar experiences, not exactly like yours, but God has really grown me up in the last decade of my life, because I tend to think of most Christians being like me, living like me, and having the same kind of lifestyle that I have.
And there are guys like James in every community across the country, who, as you talk about in the title of your book, really need love. It’s not just a handout. It’s the kind of love that meets a need, confronts, corrects, talks tough to, lifts up, helps them when they fail. Our assignment as followers of Christ, we’ve got to love more like he loved, and you know what? Just as Bob pointed out a second ago, that will involve risk. Big-time risk.
Bob: So the balance of that risk and using wisdom, stepping out in faith, wrestling with all of that – I think what you’ve done in telling your story, Chris, is to bring some reality, just some good sober judgment. And your story is not about how you did it perfectly or about how everything turns out rosy in the end, but it does give us a perspective on what risk and stepping out in faith looks like, and how you apply wisdom in this situation.
We’ve got copies of the book in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. Let me encourage our listeners to consider getting a copy. The book is called Stumbling Souls: Is Love Enough? Again, you can go online at FamilyLifeToday.com to request a copy. That’s FamilyLifeToday.com, or call 1-800-FLTODAY, 1-800-358-6329, that's 1-800 “F” as in Family, “L” as in Life, and then the word “Today.” Ask about the book, Stumbling Souls by Chris Plekenpol, or again order online at FamilyLifeToday.com.
Now I need to give you an update on the matching gift fund that we’ve been talking about this month. Many of you know we’ve had some friends who have come along and have offered to match donations that we receive here during the month of December on a dollar-for-dollar basis. Every time we get a donation of $25 or $50 or $100 from somebody we can go and draw those funds out of the matching gift amount that has been pledged to us.
What has happened in recent days is we’ve had some additional families come along and add funds to the matching gift fund. They’ve said, “We want to really challenge FamilyLife Today listeners to be a part of helping support the ministry of FamilyLife Today. The fund which was a little more than $2 million has now grown to become a little more than $3 million, and obviously, that’s great news for us but it also means that we need to get the word out and ask folks to be as generous as you can be and help us start 2011 in a good place. Can we ask you to do that?
Again, you can donate online at FamilyLifeToday.com or you can call toll-free 1-800-358-6329 and make a donation over the phone. Let me just say thanks in advance for whatever you are able to do. You know, if you can’t help with a donation here at year-end, please pray for us. Just ask that God would supply what we need, and that we’d be able to take full advantage of this matching gift opportunity. We appreciate that.
And we want to encourage you to be back with us tomorrow. We’re going to find out more about Chris Plekenpol’s relationship with his friend, James, and about what happened when James moved in to Chris’ apartment. We’ll find out about that tomorrow. Hope you can join us.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you back tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.
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