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Love in Action

with Chris Plekenpol | December 21, 2010

What will people think? Seminary student Chris Plekenpol felt increasingly uncomfortable knowing that James, a homeless man who had recently confessed to being HIV positive, was returning to the street each night after their Bible study.

What will people think? Seminary student Chris Plekenpol felt increasingly uncomfortable knowing that James, a homeless man who had recently confessed to being HIV positive, was returning to the street each night after their Bible study.

Love in Action

With Chris Plekenpol
|
December 21, 2010
| Download Transcript PDF

Bob:  Chris Plekenpol remembers clearly the thought he just couldn’t shake, couldn’t get out of his mind, the thought that he ought to invite a friend of his, a homeless man, to move in with him.

Chris:  Really it was one of those things where I was like, “God, is this really you?”  I mean, you sit there and it’s like, “This is a good idea.  It sounds like something very heroic and I’m going to go do it!”  But you’re still like, “This is a homeless guy.  This is going to take my time, my talent, and definitely my treasure.” 

I was like, “You know what?  Again, what if I really believe Jesus?  What if I really took his heart for the poor and said, ‘I’m going to make it my heart for the poor,’ and then let him come through.”

Bob:  This is FamilyLifeToday for Tuesday, December 21st.  Our host is the President of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine.  We’re going to hear today the very honest and riveting account of what happened when Chris Plekenpol invited a homeless friend of his to move in. 

And welcome to FamilyLife Today.  Thanks for joining us.  The story that we’re dialoguing over here this week reminded me of a night – this was maybe a year-and-a-half ago.  My son had been out riding his bike and he was up at the K-Mart and he calls me on his cell phone and says, “Dad, can you come up and pick me up?  There’s a guy here who needs help.” 

So I thought, “Okay.”  So I hop in the car and I drive up to the K-Mart and he’s out front and here’s my 14-year-old son at the time with this guy, and he said, “I met him here and he was telling me his story and he just moved here and he doesn’t have a job and doesn’t have a place to live, and can we help him?”

Dennis:  (Chuckling) And you’re the dad and he’s the son, and so what did you do?

Bob:  I said, “Yeah, absolutely.”  I said, “Are you hungry?”  So there was a restaurant in the K-Mart parking lot and the guy said, “Yeah.”  I said, “Come on over,” and we went in and I went in with the guy and I handed the lady $10 and I said, “My friend here is going to get something to eat.  Get him whatever he wants for his $10,” and prayed with him and said, “God bless you,” and we left and we went home.

And on the way home my son said, “Where’s he going to sleep tonight?”  I said, “I don’t know.”  (Dennis and Chris chuckling)  “Well, couldn’t he come and sleep at our house?”  I said, “I don’t know.” 

And you know, that’s kind of the end of the story.  I don’t have anything more than that, other than this:  I’ve never forgotten it.  I’ve always wondered if I should have done more than I did.

Dennis:  Yeah.  Who hasn’t had that thought?

Bob:  And I’ve always reflected on the scene from Les Mis where the priest takes in Jean Valjean who steals from him

Chris:  Right. Right, right.

Bob:  And it’s a redemptive moment.  You look at that and you think to yourself, “Okay, Lord.  I want to be your ambassador.  What does that mean?”  We’re hearing this week what it meant for our guest, and how that got lived out in his life.

Dennis:  Yes.  And it’s a compelling story.  Here at Christmas time folks are looking for a good book to give to a family member or maybe to just purchase and in the new year read out loud for some family times. 

It’s just a great story.  It’s a compelling story of a person who needed some help and hope and our guest on the broadcast today, Chris Plekenpol, stepped out and made a difference in a man by the name of James’ life.  Chris, welcome back to FamilyLife Today.

Chris:  Thanks, guys.  So good to be here.

Dennis:  Chris, as I mentioned earlier, has served in the military.  He is a graduate of West Point.  Also (we’re going to get this in on all the broadcasts, too, Chris) he’s a graduate of my alma mater, Dallas Theological Seminary, and today heads up a ministry.  Why don’t you explain to our listeners just what your ministry is all about.

Chris:  The ministry is called I Am Second, and I wouldn’t actually say I am heading it up.  I am a huge part of it – we’ll call it that.  I Am Second is a ministry that puts Christ first. 

There are essentially three components to this ministry.  One is videos, which show incredible life change from people that didn’t have Christ to people who have Christ, or even for Christians that struggled with some area of their life and found Christ’s redemptive power in the midst of that.  Those testimonies will encourage your faith and may even help somebody who doesn’t have any faith at all. 

The second aspect of the ministry is – you know the videos are the thing that draws people – but the meat and the heart and soul of our ministry is I Am Second’s small groups, where you really get into the heart of reaching the lost through a small group of people to actually live out their faith.  So the discussion orientation of the ministry. 

And then also, expeditions, where we go – domestic:  homeless shelters, prisons, or overseas to, a sense, the mission field, where you plant churches and start I Am Second groups there.

Dennis:  Well, you talked about some kind of prioritization where Christ is first and I am second.  I’ve been in your book, which, by the way, is titled Stumbling Souls: Is Love Enough?  Great title, by the way.  But you have a list, and I just love this list, Bob.  He had seven things on the list that were important –

Bob:  There were ten.  Weren’t there ten?

Dennis:  Were there ten? 

Bob:  I think there were ten.

Dennis:  Well, number seven on the list was “getting married.” 

Bob:  That was the one that caught your eye.  Yeah.

Dennis:  Was “getting married.”  Here’s a 33-year-old guy --

Bob:  Yeah.

Dennis:  -- and he’s served in the military, he’s been a hero in war, he’s gone to Dallas Seminary and graduated from there and now works in a ministry, and number seven, Chris?

Bob:  Number seven.  Number seven.

Dennis:  Number seven. 

Chris:  (Laughing)

Dennis:  You’re a leader.  You led in the military.  You had 21 tanks in Iraq under your control.

Bob:  In fact, I got the list right here.

Dennis:  And I wish our audience could see the color of red . . .

(laughing)

Bob:  Here’s the list.  Number one: Dallas Seminary was number one.  No, Jesus was number one, right?

Chris:  Absolutely.

Dennis:  Well there you go.  Thank you, Bob. 

Bob:  Dallas Seminary and finishing seminary --

Chris:  The call that Jesus put on my life of Dallas Seminary.

Bob:  Number two:  Speaking engagements to sell books. 

Chris:  Yeah.

Bob:  I’m glad that you were honest about it.  Get the book out there.

Dennis:  That’s right.

Bob:  Number three: my mom.  Number four:  my dad.  Number five: my Bible study group.

Chris:  Mm – hmm.

Bob:  Number – actually it’s number six:  find a wife.  Number six is find a wife.

Dennis:  There are a number of girls taking heart that his mom and his dad were ahead of them.  But number six?

Bob:  And right behind “find a wife” was “try not to eat out every meal.”

Dennis:  (Laughter)

Bob:  Which might go hand-in-hand with finding a wife.

Chris:  Yeah, I haven’t really succeeded at number seven.

Bob:  Number eight was work out and stay in shape, which if you eat out every meal you’re going to have to do that. 

(Laughter) 

Number nine was try to publish the next book, and number ten was help James.

Chris:  Yes.

Bob:  And James is the guy -- you’ve already shared this week -- the guy you ran into at church, homeless, he later told you his story.  He was HIV positive, he had been involved with drugs, he’s living out in the streets in Dallas, and one of your friends said, “Well, come to our Bible study,” and he starts showing up every Monday night at the Bible study, right?

Dennis:  And he tells his story about how he grew up in an evangelical home, how his dad died when he was a boy, and how he was sexually molested at a camp and started living the gay lifestyle, contracted AIDS, as you mentioned, Bob, and now we find you bringing this guy to a Bible study but you’re doing this list, this prioritization, and you look at the list and James is at the bottom.  What happened in your heart?

Chris:  I just realized that after all those things take place, James can get about 30 seconds of a thought of my day.  And here I am, reading James chapter 2 which essentially says if you see a need and you don’t meet it, then what good is your faith?  Even the demons believe in God and shudder, so there is just that thought. 

I’m sitting there as I’m talking to my good friend, Britt, who is a seminary student with me.  I’m just saying, “Here’s the reality of where my – if I’m really honest, if I’m completely honest and maybe even selfishly honest of where I really am, here is where I lay out my priorities.  Number one, God put Dallas Seminary on my heart.  I’m going to go and do that.  But everything else falls behind that, and then there’s James.  But what if, what if I put him up at the top of the list, and my conclusion was, I’d bring James home to my apartment.  That would be the next . . . 

If anybody else in my Bible study needed a place to say, I wouldn’t even think twice about it, and James had been coming to the Bible study for a couple of months, so we’d known him and we’d spent time with him.  So I’d pray for James just like I’d pray for Bill or Britt.  If they needed a favor, I’d go do something for them.  If they said, “Hey, I need to crash your place for a night,” it wouldn’t even be a question.  If they said, “I really need help doing something,” of course I would. 

So – alright, what does James need?  What does James need?  James needs a place to stay.  He needs someone to stand in the gap for him where he can’t.  So how can I do that?  I thought the only way I’m actually going to care about it enough is if he moves in with me and his pain becomes my pain. 

Bob:  Mm hmm. 

Chris:  And so the perfect opportunity came when it started to rain.  I mean, the rain was crashing down.  I’d told Britt about this, I’d been thinking about it.  I’m sitting at Café Brazil drinking a latte and eating out and doing Greek homework –

Bob:  Kind of looking around to see if there were any girls –

(Laughter)

Chris:  and Britt called –

Dennis:  No, you were thinking about Mom.  You were thinking about your mother.  Tell the truth.

Chris:  Exactly.  I was thinking about my mom and how wonderful she is, and how I need to go and –

Dennis:  I’m really questioning your priority list.  I think we need to call your mom on the phone, right?

Chris:  She’d vouch for me.  And so, I’m sitting there and Britt called me.  It had been his turn to drop James off, which, you know, everyone kind of dreaded that.  And so he calls me and he said, “Chris, I just dropped James off at a laundromat.  They’re going to let him stay there the night, but I dropped him off at a laundromat, man.  Our faith is worthless.” 

And so something inside me was like, “Mmmm.  I have to do it.”  Then he even says, “You know, if I was single, he’d be at my place,” and I’m like –

Bob:  Oh.  Ooh – ooh – ooh.  Thanks, bro.

Chris:  Yeah, thanks for the conviction card.  Alright.

(laughter)

Dennis:  I just want to add here for folks who don’t know how most seminarians go to school, go to grad school.  They are dirt poor.  Most are just scraping by, and as I read your story, you know, you lived in an upstairs above a garage –

Chris:  Right.

Dennis:  -- in a place that was probably big enough for you—

Chris:  Right.

Dennis:  -- but it wasn’t like you had a three-bedroom apartment or house to invite James into.

Chris:  Right.  It was small.

Bob:  So did you go down to the laundromat and pick him up?

Chris:  No.  I waited till the next week.  As I sat there and I was like, really it was one of those things where I was like, “God, is this really you?”  I mean, you sit there and it’s like “This is a good idea.  It sounds like something very heroic, and I’m going to go do it.  I’m going to go –When I was in combat, I just went and did it.  There wasn’t a – you know, if there was a soldier out in need, we’d just jump in the tank and we went out to save the day.  So here I am thinking along those lines, and I’m like, “That’s what I – I – hmmm.” 

But you’re still like, “This is a homeless guy.  This is going to take my time, my talent, and definitely my treasure,” which, you know as a seminary student, you’re like, “Oh, I don’t know.”  You’re just contemplating, “Do I have enough to do this?” 

Well, I was like, “You know what?  Again, what if I really believe Jesus?  What if I really took his words that ‘I’ll never leave you or forsake you,’ and what if I took his heart for the poor and said, ‘I’m going to make it my heart for the poor,’ and then let him come through.” 

So the following week I see James at the Bible study and he’s looking mopey – which, he always looks mopey, but then he’s spending a week on the streets, not exactly a vacation. 

I’m like, "Hey, man.  You’re coming home with me tonight.”  He looks at me like, puzzled, surprised, but like, “Okay.”  And so we do it.  He comes home and I lay down the rules.  I’m like, “Look, I don’t want to resent you.  I want to establish some boundaries so I don’t get on edge with you,” and he’s like, “Well, if you don’t want to do this you don’t have to do it.”  And I’m like, “No, no, no.  I want to do it.  I just want to not resent you as a part of this, and so, I’ve never done this before, so here’s the ground rules. 

Just don’t go inside my room, and I will go and I will drop you off every morning at the day resource center so you can look at getting a job and possible whatever, and I’ll pick you up every night.  We’ll just coordinate a time every day.” 

So he was okay with that, and so we got home and we prayed and it started.  I was like, “Please take a shower.  Again.”  Just the funk – it kind of – he probably didn’t know how bad he smelled, and I was like, “Bro, just please just take a shower so that the whole apartment doesn’t smell like your feet.”  Not that I’m trying to be rude, it’s just, you know.

Dennis:  Yeah.

Chris:  So, that’s where it begins.  And then I realize at that moment, this isn’t going to be a week-long thing.  This is going to be a long-term endeavor.

Bob:  So you were dropping him off every morning at this resource center.

Chris:  Yes.

Bob:  Picking him up every night?

Chris:  Yes.

Bob:  And was he always there, ready to come home?

Chris:  Yes.  For the most part.  For the first week or so he was always ready.  But then he’d ask me to go do laundry.  And I’m like, “Well. . .”  I didn’t have a washer and dryer in my apartment so it made sense to me.  So I was like, “Okay, cool. Yeah.”  He’s like “I’ll just stay down at a friend’s house.  If I give him a couple bucks then he’ll let me stay there that night, and he’s got a washer and dryer, so can you give me some money and I’ll do that?”  I’m like, “Oh.”  I didn’t think twice about it.  “Yeah. It sounds good.” 

And the thing that was kind of neat that happened over time was that at first, when he’d ask me for money I’d be very kind of “Ugh.  What do you need ten bucks for?” and then it transformed to like – “Hmmm.”  Over time it almost became gratifying.  I don’t even know how to explain that, but there was this sense of “I’ve got a change to provide and be a resource for him,” as opposed to feeling like he was ripping me off.  I felt like this was God’s resources, this is what God has done, and here’s the weird thing. 

Random times at the library some random guy comes up to me at the Dallas Seminary Library.  I had never met him before.  I had been blogging about this on Facebook and MySpace and he says, “Hey, I’ve been watching your story.  I don’t know you or James, but here’s 50 bucks . . .”

Never met the guy, never saw him again, never heard from him again, but stuff like that would just happen.  Money would just appear. I wouldn’t ask for it, I wouldn’t even -- It was the most weird thing ever, and I was like “Whoa!”  So when you talk about prayers being answered in a sense of need, because every night I would be like, “God, I don’t know how we’re going to provide for this, I don’t know how this is going to happen.”  Stuff happened.

Bob:  Let me ask you quickly.  Let me take you back to the story I told at the beginning.  If you were me, I want you to project ahead now twenty years, and you’re married and you’ve got a 14-year-old son who calls you. 

Chris:  Yeah.

Bob:  Do you bring that guy home?  I mean, the reason I’m asking is because we hear your story on the radio and all of us go . . .

Dennis:  Oh, yeah.

Bob:  . . . should I drive downtown tonight and find somebody and bring them home?

Chris:  Well, no, I wouldn’t do that, because – here’s the problem – and we’re going to get to that as the story progresses.  The problem is, homeless people are homeless for a reason.  That sounds so, I don’t know, judgmental, but in our –

Dennis:  No, it’s not a matter of being judgmental.

Chris:  Okay.

Dennis:  It is a matter of cause-effect.

Chris:  Sure.

Dennis:  There are some decisions that have been made along the way . . .

Bob:  And maybe are still being made along the way . . .

Dennis:  That’s right.  There are bad things that happen –

Chris:  Right.

Dennis:  -- to good people, who get off track,

Chris:  Yes.

Dennis:  but in all fairness to them, they’re not all victims of bad circumstances.

Chris:  Right.  Let’s just go for a general – There are three types of homeless people, and maybe I’m really stereotyping, but I’ll just give you the three that I’ve seen. 

One is the mentally ill, and that person needs help but they probably won’t ask you to go home with them.  Then there is the person who has been laid off for a short period of time and they’ve just hit rock bottom and they’re trying to get it together.  I have seen one or two of those. 

But the majority that will ask for help are those who are involved in drugs.  They’re the ones for the most part that are on the street corners or underneath the bridge with the sign that says, “I’m homeless.  Need something to eat.”  That becomes the way that they fund their habit. 

In our society there is always a free meal.  There is, in a sense, a place to stay for the most part.

Bob:  You’re talking about the rescue missions, and the . . .

Chris:  Yes.  But there are rules.  You have to abide by those rules, and if you don’t want to play by the rules then you sleep out in the street. 

Bob:  Mm hmm.

Chris:  And that’s for the most part the ones that are on the street that you see.

Dennis:  Yes.  Chris, recently I went to a homeless shelter with a friend and they just explained some of those rules and the boundaries and how that brings about health and hope and the possibility of somebody stepping up –

Chris:  Right.

Dennis:  -- and fulfilling their responsibility and not just getting a hand-out.  There are some really good ministries that are involved working with the homeless across the country.  I mentioned it at the outset of the broadcast that I’ve been doing some thinking about the love of Christ.  A verse that I read recently that really you’re reminding us of is John 12:47:  “Jesus said, ‘If anyone hears my words and does not keep them,’” now listen to what he says, “’I do not judge him, for I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world.’” 

Our Savior, who has the ultimate standard – He gave us the Ten Commandments, his Father did.  If there’s anybody who could be a judge, it would be Jesus.  But he said, “I did not come to judge the world, but to save it.”  I’ve just been convicted recently in my own personal life, am I spending more time as judge or more time engaged in not saving the world as in how Christ did it, but in being redemptive, which is what you did in James’ life, and what makes the story of your book so powerful.

I just think at Christmas time -- this is the Incarnation.  This is the story of Christmas, for goodness sake.  And yet we miss Christmas because we’re so busy giving gifts and running around and doing all this stuff.  I just encourage families:  pull back.  Allow the Incarnation of Christ to not just fill the manger but to fill your home, so that you and your family are not judges of others, but you’re redemptive of others.

Bob:  I think we have to keep in mind in the midst of that, that even in this season, the Advent season, the season leading up to the celebration of Christmas, we reflect on the first coming of Jesus, coming full of grace and truth.  But there is a second coming, a coming when Jesus will come to gather the Father’s children to be with him.  At the same time he will come with judgment.  He will come to pour out righteous wrath on those who have rejected him, and we can’t lose sight of that. 

That gives us an urgency to tell others, to warn others that God’s grace is a wonderful, remarkable gift, and as recipients of it, as you said, we don’t stand in judgment of anybody.  We know what we’ve been forgiven of; how can we judge another?  But at the same time, we have to warn you that there is a judge who is coming, and it is right for him to judge and he will judge with righteousness. You want to make sure that you are a recipient of his grace and not one who stands opposed to him on that day of judgment. 

This is not an easy thing to talk about.  It doesn’t make for good Christmas dinner conversation often, and yet it’s important that we have the courage and the boldness and the wisdom and the sensitivity and the kindness to know how to say these things to friends and to family members.

I ought to mention that we do have copies of the book that you’ve written, Chris, called Stumbling Souls: Is Love Enough? that chronicles your story of your time with James.  We’ve got that in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center, and we want to encourage our listeners to get a copy.  Go online at FamilyLifeToday.com to request one. 

Again, it’s FamilyLifeToday.com, or call1-800-FL-TODAY, 1-800-358-6329, that's 1-800 “F” as in Family, “L” as in Life, and then the word “TODAY,” and we can make arrangements to have a copy of Chris’ book sent to you. 

Now, a quick update for those of you who are regular listeners.  We’ve been talking this month about the matching gift fund that has been made available to us here at FamilyLife.  Some friends of the ministry came along and, at the beginning of the month we had a little more than $2 million that had been pledged as a matching gift amount, so that every time that we receive a donation during the month of December we can withdraw the same amount from the matching gift fund.  Each donation is matched dollar-for-dollar that way. 

Well, what’s happened over the last several weeks is we’ve had some additional families come along and say, “We want this to keep going.  We don’t want it to stop at $2 million.”  So our matching gift fund now is up a little more than $3 million.  Of course that’s great news for us, but it’s only great news if we can hear from enough listeners between now and the end of the year so we can take full advantage of these matching gift funds.  That’s why we wanted to bring you up to date on what’s going on, encourage you to go to our website, FamilyLifeToday.com, to see just how we’re doing in relationship to this now $3 million plus matching gift, and ask you if you will make as generous a year-end contribution as you possibly can to help support the ministry of FamilyLife Today. 

You can make your donation online at FamilyLifeToday.com or you can call to make a donation at 1-800-FL-TODAY.  We just want to say thanks in advance for whatever you’re able to do.  If you can’t help with a donation, can we ask you to pray for us, and ask that we would be able to take full advantage of this matching gift opportunity?  Let me say thanks in advance for whatever you’re able to do, and thanks for listening.  We appreciate you tuning in and being a part of the FamilyLife Today family.

We want to encourage you to be back tomorrow when we’re going to hear the conclusion of the story we’ve been hearing this week with Chris Plekenpol. We’ll find out what happened to James, and it’s an interesting ending.  I hope you can be back with 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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