In our work in Brazil we have tried to walk the streets as much as possible. As part of this we take coffee once a week to the homeless, pray for them and offer ways to help them to start a new life. In these walks we encounter all sorts of people. From travellers, who have been robbed and end up living on the streets temporarily, to assassins.
Of course, not every story we hear can be taken very seriously. We have met people who claim to be secret agents, who break secrecy just to tell us they need some money to go back to Secret Services HQ. We have met “millionaires” who choose to live on the streets because they love to sleep under the stars, as well as people who claim not to have drunk in days, whilst struggling to stand on two feet. The streets are full of stories…
Some stories are heart breaking. We hear of people who were abused from day dot and found the streets safer than home. People who had a good life but after trying crystal went down a downward spiral that landed them there. We certainly meet many victims. But we also meet people who have killed and hurt others.
Today I met Clayton, a short man with a serious expression. His face, covered with scars from fights a few moons ago, tell me he is not always as calm as he is now as he talks to me. As he sips his coffee he goes on to tell me that the most important thing in life is to have faith in God. I of course agree and tell him that this faith leads us somewhere and changes us. He nods. He then goes on to say that he needs to change because of the things he has done. In trying to answer my question as to why he has ended up on the streets of Goiania, he goes on to share some of the most chilling and disturbing stories I have heard to date.
This short and hurt looking man has killed many people. Sometimes he killed to defend himself or his honour. He said, ‘I rather have his mother cry than mine’. But he acknowledged a pleasure for killing, smiling as he described how he killed. The most upsetting tale was the time he killed because the man was wearing his t-shirt without consent. Details are too graphic, but he said with a smile how he enjoyed feeling the man’s heart stop at the end of the knife.
To my surprise he wanted prayer. To my surprise he me called friend (which was a massive relief!). To my surprise, there I was, in the middle of a public square disgusted and appalled by what I had heard and yet I was invited to extend grace. What to do?
You know, it is so much easier to help victims. It is so much easier to extend grace to those who seem to deserve it. And as I stood next to this assassin and murderer I knew this grace was also his. The word tells us in 2 Timothy 1:9, that:
“He has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time”
It was before the beginning of time that this grace was given to Clayton, even before he committed any of heinous crimes. Not because of him or his actions. But it was his, the whole of it. The assassin’s grace was the same that was offered me. The assassin’s grace was the same as mine. As I prayed for him I realised that he and I shared the same condition… we were both underserving of grace but it had been offered to us both in equal measure. So I did what I should do, I shared in that grace which seems so unfair to the human sense of justice. I prayed blessings over him. I prayed God’s grace would change him.
When we finished praying he said, ‘I think God has a plan for my life, I should be dead.’ I went on to tell him that he needed help and to let God in. He said he was going to try, we said our goodbyes and we parted.
As I walked back to the office still shaking from our encounter, I was reminded that on the cross Jesus forgave a man who was hanging on the cross next to him. Pure grace expressed. Yet I always saw it as a beautiful thing, read through rose-tinted lenses. It was only today that I fully understood how radical, gritty and real it was. The other thing I learned afresh was that this grace was also expressed to me.