Exactly one week ago, I learned more about Christ from a homeless man on Bourbon Street than I have from any "good Christian" in my 18 years.
If you flipped on any television in America right now, you'd see stories of corruption and brokenness taking center stage on almost every channel. Whether it be on our shores or distant ones, it's no secret that the world we live in is fractured. No place better represents that than Bourbon Street.
Just off the main road in downtown New Orleans, the buildings fade from white marble to a dirty black. The physical difference between Bourbon Street and the others around it is evident. Neon signs flicker with temptation. Almost everything that's wrong in the world can be found on either side of the pavement. Even the air, a mixture of heavy alcohol, sweat, and various types of smoke, smells like sin. The first few times I scurried past that street, I build a wall between myself and the patrons on that road. Sure, I've done my fair share of sinning, but them? They've gone too far, I decided. That changed one night, when I found myself with my family, headed down Bourbon Street at 10:00.
The party was in full swing. Young women, girls not much older than I, sauntered by in nothing but a pair of panties and pasties, posing for pictures while being molested by men who had too much to drink. Others begged on the corner for just a bit of change for their next drink. My wall stood tall. The only thing on my mind was getting back to our hotel on the other side of town.
Music broke out in the center of the street. Three men dressed in white grabbed a wireless microphone and a crowd formed around them. My group was sucked in with the rest. The trio began an impromptu dance party, right there, in the middle of a functioning road. While watching them spin on their heads and receive roaring applause, a man put his arm around my fathers shoulder. With that one gesture, the entire wall I had built out of judgement, crumbled.
He was 58. He was tall, slanted, and his black skin was leathered from living outdoors. His eyes shine bright blue from behind the cataracts. He shared his bed, the sidewalk, with a wife and two children. I never caught his name.
At first, his conversation with my father was purely surface level. My father, being the conversationalist he is, didn't hesitate to engage the stranger. He asked if that blonde girl was my dad's wife. When my father said she was, he congratulated him on his beautiful family. My sister, he mentioned, looked just like Dorothy with her braids. Multiple times, he told me I looked just like my mother. Other times, he thought I looked like my father. This man had been drinking for a while, and not just for that evening. Nonetheless, he appeared harmless. While my sister and mother slowly backed off, my father and I kept engaging in his conversation.
He asked if I was going to school. "Yes sir." He asked what I was gonna be when I grew up. "Youth Minister, sir." This is when God's spirit really got to work.
His face stretched into a gap-filled smile, and he started getting more and more excited. He was so so happy that I was going to work for the Lord. He asked me if I was right with Jesus. "Yes sir."
"Ma'am," he told me with the utmost joy, "we are brother and sister in Christ now!"
He went on to tell me about the love of Christ and how it extended to all sorts of people. He talked about loving your neighbor with more certainty and authenticity than I had ever heard from anyone else. I didn't catch everything he said, his Louisiana accent slurred some words together, but I understood the most important part. We aren't here to love our "good Christian" neighbor, we're here to love those like us - broken and bruised.
My new friend asked me if I was ever coming back to New Orleans. "I hope to, sir!" When I come back, he promised, he'd remember me. If I ever needed him, if a boy ever looked at me sideways, he'd have my back.
Not for a minute did I feel threatened. In fact, I felt the most peaceful and the most human that I'd ever felt. God spoke to me that evening, not through a preacher, but through his child. In my new friend, I saw myself. Broken and so desperately in need of a Savior. He understood something that not many believers do, that Christ came for us all. Not just the ones who get dressed in their Sunday best for church, and not just for the one's who tithe their fair share. He came for me and for my brother on the street.
My heart is so prone to judgement. When I lift the veil of my tendencies, I've found that I am just as broken as the next person. I look at my flaws and mistakes, and I could find myself right next to my friend on Bourbon Street. In Christ, it is not the bad things we've done that define us. But it's also not the good things that define us. In Philippians, Paul calls both garbage. Our identity is rooted in Christ alone. The girls who wander Bourbon street? Christ loves them. The "perfect Christians" who attend each and every session of Sunday school? Christ loves them. It doesn't matter who we are, where we are from or what we have done. Christ alone is our identity. When that truth becomes our reality, judgement fades into a great sense of community.
The body of Christ is alive in the hearts of the broken. Our broken pieces are coming together to form something greater than ourselves. I caught a glimpse of that in the last place I thought I would: on Bourbon Street.