Recently I came across a story I first heard 30 years ago. It moved me then; it moves me now.
Dr. Tony Campolo is a sociologist/pastor from Philadelphia who travels all over the country to speak. If you’ve done much of that you know that time zones can be brutal. There are six of them between Philly and Honolulu and when Dr. Tony arrived in Honolulu his body thought it was 9:30 in the morning, but in Honolulu everyone else thought it was 3:30am. He went walking the streets for a place to get a bite of “breakfast” and finally found a hole in the wall and went in. Whoever coined the term “greasy spoon” had doubtless eaten here.
The grungy guy behind the counter picked a donut off the plate with his bare hands and put it on Tony’s saucer, then wiped his hand on his previously white apron. Tony paid his bill and at just that moment the door flung open and in walked nine “ladies of the night.” There were ten stools and Tony was in the middle, suddenly surrounded by nine loud, bawdy prostitutes. This was a first.
As he stood to leave one of the ladies spoke up and said, kind of to no one, “Well, tomorrow is my birthday; I’ll be 39.” One of the other gals replied, “What do you want us to do about it, Agnes, make you a birthday cake?” “No, it’s just that I’ve never had a birthday party…I’ve never had a birthday cake.” Tony sat down.
A crazy idea was percolating in his mind. After the girls left he said to Harry, the man behind the counter, “Do they come in here every night?” “Yup, about 3:30.” “Do you think they’ll be here tomorrow night?” “They never miss.” “Hey, let’s have a birthday celebration for Agnes. I’ll get some decorations and a cake and we’ll have a party. For Agnes.”
At 2:30 the next morning Tony showed up with a “Happy Birthday, Agnes!” banner, balloons, and a cake. The greasy spoon was festive. Right on time the door opened and nearly every prostitute in Honolulu pressed into the café. Word had gotten around. The raucous women’s chorus began and by the time they were through singing Agnes had tears running down her cheap mascara. When Harry appeared with the cake Agnes was in meltdown. She was too stunned to blow out the candles, so Harry did it. Then he handed her a knife and urged, “Cut it, Agnes, cut it.” Instead, she said, “Can I just take this home…I’ve never had a birthday cake before. Can I just take this home?” And she left.
It was suddenly very quiet. Tony said, “I think we should pray for Agnes.” So he led them in a sweet prayer. For Agnes. For her happiness. For her salvation. Harry leaned over and said, caustically, “Why didn’t you tell me you were a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to?” Dr. Tony replied, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.”
That’s the kind of church Jesus came to create. I don’t know where we got the other one that is so prim and proper. And while the solemnly pious couldn’t relate to what He was about, those lonely people who usually didn’t get invited to parties took to Him with excitement. I want to belong to a church like that.
Addendum: Five years later Dr. Tony was speaking at a large venue in California. As he walked onto the platform he noticed a balloon tied to his chair. As he stood to speak he found a note on the lectern that said, “Happy birthday, Dr. Campolo. I just wanted you to know that I’ve become a Christian and I now work for Harry. All because of a party, a cake, and a prayer. Love, Agnes.”
By Don Jacobsen