Taking a Risk for the Gospel
About the Guest
We're told to love our neighbor as our self? But what if that neighbor is a disheveled homeless man who's HIV positive? Chris Plenkenpol tells how his Bible study group rallied around James, even finding him a job, only to learn later that he lied repeatedly.
We’re told to love our neighbor as our self?
Taking a Risk for the Gospel
Bob: When Chris Plekenpol invited his homeless friend, James, to move in with him, he was not prepared for the number of times he’d be disappointed, the number of times he would have to show grace to James. He also wasn’t prepared for the spiritual lesson he would learn by extending that grace.
Chris: I need Jesus to pursue me like he pursued James, and when I get to see it happen like a real life visual of a man who God gives a chance after chance after chance after chance, I realize how much I don’t deserve it but how much I receive that same sort of grace. It may not be in drugs and homosexuality or anything, but I need Jesus to keep coming after me and saying, “I’m never going to give up on you because here’s the thing: love never fails.”
Bob: This is FamilyLifeToday for Wednesday, December 22nd. Our host is the President of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. We’ll hear what God taught Chris Plekenpol when he decided to bring his homeless friend, James, in to live with him.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. We’ve been in the middle of a story this week that’s a compelling story with a guest, Dennis, who – I’m just curious about this. Our guest has spent time in combat in Iraq and he’s also spent time with a homeless man who was HIV positive, who was eventually, as we find out in the story, who was a drug abuser, living in his home with him.
Dennis: Yes. Living a lifestyle that would be so counter to everything he was learning while our guest was going to Dallas Theological Seminary.
Bob: And I guess what I’m wondering is, would you say one of those was a higher risk environment, or that one of them took more courage than the other?
Dennis: Well, let’s ask our guest.
Bob: I’m curious.
Dennis: Chris Plekenpol joins us on FamilyLife Today. Chris, answer Bob’s question. What do you think?
Chris: Well, the weird part is I think it was the social risk – was the greatest. Because when you’re a soldier you’re expected to go and in a sense be a hero, and I know we talked about this off the air, but the theological foundation I had of understanding the sovereignty of God – I didn’t have a sense of – and I know it just sounds so weird, and it sounds weird to say it now, but at the time I didn’t feel fear being in combat. It was completely his will, so I had that sense of security in a sense that what was supposed to happen would happen.
Now, contrast that with James. I’m talking – at the time I didn’t know any gay people. I didn’t know anyone with AIDS. I didn’t know – he’s homeless, so I almost say that part was harder because it was more unfamiliar.
I hadn’t been trained for that. I had some great theology classes in academia at Dallas Seminary, which I loved, and anybody who wants to go to Dallas Seminary is going to get a great education and an awesome experience.
Dennis: They’re going to be flooded by applicants after hearing you this week. I’m convinced.
Chris: (Laughing) And so, you know, the part that’s kind of left out – I don’t know anybody who trains for this – how do you hang out with somebody that is so completely the opposite of you and makes you spiritually, emotionally, and physically uncomfortable in that environment.
Bob: Well, I have to ask you –I don’t think you wrote about this in your book –
Bob: Tell us about the phone call you had with your mom and your dad, number three and four on your priority list, where you said to them, “Hey, Mom, Dad. I’ve got this guy who’s moved in with me for a while. A homeless guy, HIV positive –
Dennis: Who has a cold and who’s constantly wiping his nose on his forearm.
Bob: Tell us – what did your mom say when you called her with that news?
Chris: Yeah. They didn’t know.
Bob: You never told them.
Chris: Never. They found out about it as I was writing the book. I was like, “Hey, let me read you this” before I sent it to a publisher. So she found out in story form what happened. I wouldn’t tell her what exactly happened until we went through the entire book.
Dennis: I’m just picturing being a dad and I think if I’d been Chris’ dad –
Bob: You did what?
Dennis: No, I think I’d have gone, “That figures. He’s been to Korea, he’s been to Iraq, he’s driven tanks. You know, this is my son.”
Bob: What’s a little downtown Dallas gonna do for the boy, right?
Dennis: Yeah. It’s just like, “What’s next, son?”
Bob: How long did James live with you, and was it this off-on – he was there sometimes, not there, you’re picking him up at the hospital, he’s staying at a friend’s house – was that the pattern?
Chris: It was a couple months.
Bob: And that was the routine pattern during that time.
Bob: Did you ever suspect in the midst of that –
Dennis: Well, before we go to that, Bob, and we talk about what you’re about to talk about tell them about the time you took him to Six Flags.
Chris: Okay. So things are, you know, progressing along and James and I are getting along really well. He stopped being Eeyore. I started calling him Eeyore after a while, because, kind of like the Winnie the Pooh little donkey guy, whenever he lost his tail he was always mopey. And he would always talk about roller coasters.
So one day I just – “What if I just took him to Six Flags?” I get a couple of my friends and we pick him up from the day resource center and we start driving and driving and driving, and all of a sudden he’s like, “Where are we going?” I’m like, “You’ll see.”
And then all of a sudden his eyes about pop out of his head as we pull up to Six Flags. He’s like, “I knew it! I knew it! I knew it!” We get up there, and it’s about 6:37 so they’d stopped selling tickets but the park was still open for a couple of hours. So I’m just like, “Ummm, would you, would you mind if we just kind of go in?” They let all four of us in, and we ride every ride there and he has the time of his life.
Here’s the weird thing about that moment: It wasn’t three people and a homeless guy. It was four friends having fun. All of the sudden, the homelessness wasn’t an issue. All of the sudden, the weirdness was gone. All of a sudden, it was just doing something together that was enjoyable, and the laughter and the smiles came easy. It was just amazing. For a moment it was just like, “This is the way this is supposed to go.”
Bob: In fact what he said to you at the end of the day . . .
Chris: “This is the greatest day of my life!” And when he says that, it kind of resonates in your soul. If there was any moment that was kind of a spiritual high – I know that sounds weird, Six Flags being a spiritual high – but it was, because there was a moment where I’m watching James enjoy himself, watching James not have to worry about where he’s going to eat, sleep, any of those other issues. He is just having fun.
I think that’s kind of how our Heavenly Father is with us. When we enjoy him, I think that becomes his greatest joy, that sense of “I just want my children to enjoy me.” I think that for a moment I got to kind of see God’s heart for us as I watched James enjoy himself.
Dennis: I want to get to Bob’s question next, but I have to just comment. Who would think of taking a homeless person, for goodness sakes, to Six Flags?
Bob: Chris Plekenpol would.
Dennis: Yes. I don’t want to sound irreverent but would Jesus have done that? And I think, absolutely. To have seen a man who lost his daddy when he was a boy, and grew up without a father, and maybe never had an older man or, for that matter, any man who took him just to have fun and to delight. I was watching your face as you were telling the story.
I’m sorry this is radio, Bob, at this moment that they couldn’t see Chris’ face, because he was reflecting, I think, the incarnate delight and joy of Jesus Christ – that God is not in heaven with a giant fly swatter, saying, “You’re having fun. Wipe off that smile from your face for goodness sakes.”
He’s a God who wants his children to enjoy him, enjoy life, and be found guilty of having too much fun. Life is hard. Yeah, it’s hard – there’s war going on and there’s difficulty in marriages and families, but a couple of laughs a week is not excessive.
Bob: You were still going every Monday night to your Bible study.
Bob: James was coming with you?
Bob: All of the guys at the study were getting to know James. He was part of the group.
Chris: He was part of the group.
Bob: But you still had a couple of guys, or at least one guy in the group, who was pulling you aside and going, “Dude, you are getting conned.”
Chris: Yes. Every second – and about the time of the Six Flags moment – it felt like he’d kind of come on board for a moment, but every time that James would go do laundry he’d be like, “There is no way he’s doing laundry. He’s doing drugs.” I’m like, “Bill, he’s never been high. I mean, what? How can you say that? He is our friend. Stop that.”
Okay, so eventually the time will come where a random guy walks into our Bible study, and he sits down. He’s like, “I’m an alcoholic, I hate church, I don’t even know why I’m here, but I need a change.” I was like, “Oh. Good to have you.”
Chris: And then at the end we were doing prayer requests, and his was pretty simple. He’s like, “Well, I’m a realtor and I flip houses. I need someone to clean our houses, so we’re paying $100 a day, and I just can’t find anybody to clean these things.” I’m like, a hundred dollars a day? I mean, there was part of me that wants to take the job.
I’m like, “I’ve got somebody. I’ve got somebody for you.” So James quickly steps up and says, “Hey, I’m willing to do it.” And the guy calls me and he’s like, “Hey, do you think, is James trustworthy?” I’m like, “You betcha!” There’s that part of me that’s like, “Please, dear God, don’t let me be wrong.”
Bob: Mm huh.
Chris: I take him to work the following day –
Dennis: And just to make a comment here, he had not stolen anything from you.
Chris: Not that I know of.
Chris: And so, I didn’t think anything of it. I was like, “Yeah. Absolutely. Let’s do it.” And the fun thing about it was, he was like, “And, he can stay in the house that he’s cleaning that night, and then just move to the next house, so he can kind of have a place to stay.” I’m like – Hallelujah Chorus – the smell is going to go away from my room.
Chris: I mean not to be selfish but it’s just like, after – it’s hot – my air conditioning didn’t really work so well, I mean.
Dennis: How long had he been living with you?
Chris: It was a couple months. So I was seriously rejoicing over that. So I’ll never forget sneaking him into my car the next morning and driving him off to the realtor place, and I leave him there and I call later because I was terrified that he was going to be droopy all day, and not excited to work, but I called my buddy up and he’s like, “Yeah, he’s excited, he’s ready to work. I think this is going to work out great.”
Then I head off to Cleveland to do prison ministry, which is something I love to do as well. And so while I’m in Cleveland I get a phone call from the realtor guy the next day. He’s like, “Hey, where’s James?” I’m like, “Uhh, I thought he was with you,” to which he was like, “No, man. He’s not here and I’m stuck. I’m stuck.” And so I call Bill, and Bill’s like, “Pfff, I know where he is.” Bill’s already convinced that he’s on drugs somewhere.
The next day I’m still in Cleveland – I get a call from James. He’s like, “Where’s my money at? Where’s my money at?” I’m like, “What are you – your money? What are you talking about? Did you go and clean?” He’s like, “Yeah, I cleaned it and nobody’s here to pay me.” I’m like, “Did you show up yesterday?” and he’s like, “No.” I said, “Where were you?” He said, “I was in the hospital, man.”
And all of a sudden I was like, “Oh man.” I said, “James, you could have called. You’ve always been able to call me from the hospital. You could have at least called the realtor.” He was like, “Yes, you know.” I said, “Look, you need to apologize. He doesn’t owe you a thing. You didn’t follow through.”
So we go back. The next day is Sunday. We have a talk. Monday, the Bible study comes and we have a big confrontation. Bill’s like, “I have something I need you to hear,” and he has this recording of the guy that James had said fired him, and it was the manager of the seafood restaurant. Bill has got this Cheshire grin on his face like he’s going to show me something. So he sets the recorder down, hits play, and it’s Bill asking, “Hey, did you hire James?” “Yeah, I did. He was great, a great worker, it was awesome to have him.”
And then, “So what happened?“ he said. “Did you fire him because he didn’t have an ID card?” He was like, “No we didn’t fire him. He just stopped showing up.” I’m like, “Oh man.”
So James shows up at the end of the Bible study, and after the Bible study I said, “I need everyone to leave except for James and Britt and Bill,” and I said, “James, what’s the story? I know that you didn’t get fired.” “That’s my story. I promise you I got fired.” I’m like, “Just tell me the truth.” I confronted him. “We know you’re lying. James, we know you’re on drugs.” And Bill flips out.
Dennis: Now this is a former police officer.
Chris: Yeah. Current police officer, so he is – Former narcotics task force guy. So he knows the deal, so he’s going after it, and I’m having to try and calm Bill down. Eventually James confesses. “Yeah, fine. I was on drugs,” and I was like, “Do you want help? We’ll pay for whatever rehab you want to do. You are still our brother. We’re going to make sure that we can do whatever we can for you. Do you want help?” He looks at me and he’s like, “I don’t know.” “You don’t know? Look, I can’t help you if you don’t want help.”
So we ended up taking him back to the streets and dropping him off. I gave him a hug and he felt like a mannequin. He didn’t want to hug me. I was just heartbroken in a sense, because here’s the guy I’d just poured my life into and he really didn’t want it. He didn’t want to change. He didn’t want – you know, all of that. I was like, “Do you even know Jesus at all?” There were all these thoughts going through my mind, and the frustration of it all. I just watched him walk back to the streets. That was a painful day.
Bob: Chris, somebody hears that end to your story, and you have to look and ask yourself, “Did I just waste all of that time, all of that money, all of that love that I could have been pouring into something else?” Was there a part of you going, “I’m never doing anything like that again as long as I live.”
Chris: Yes, there was a part of me --. Oddly enough, I did the same thing like five months later. There was a part of that. But the thing was with James I still prayed for him. I prayed for him and prayed for him and prayed for him. I even wrote this book, Stumbling Souls, and kept praying for him. I sent this book to the publisher and I sent him an e-mail because he could go to the library and check e-mail. Well, I get an e-mail two years after that day I dropped him off on that curb.
Bob: And you hadn’t heard from him?
Chris: Hadn’t heard anything from him. He says, “Chris, you’re never going to believe what happened. God has done an amazing work in my life. Will you please come to my graduation?”
“What? Graduation?” From rehab. He went to a Bible-based discipleship program called the Denton Freedom House and I am shocked. I immediately go up there and I see him graduate. It’s unbelievable, and the first thing that we go and do is go to Six Flags.
Bob: Back to the roller coasters.
Chris: Yeah. It was amazing. The thing that happened is after I dropped him off he told me, “I was going to go find a building to go jump off of, because I knew that I could never make anything of my life.” He said, “Another guy stuck his hand through a fence, held out a sandwich to him and said, ‘Hey, man, you want a sandwich? God’s not done with you yet.” And so this kid starts ministering to him, repeatedly coming back to see him again, helping him out. And then he would sabotage that relationship. And then another guy would come along and say, “Hey, God’s not done with you yet. Let’s keep hanging out.”
And so then he would sabotage . . . And so for a period of time he would sabotage relationships, lie to people, that kind of thing, and then finally came to the end of himself, when he was like, “I –“ Someone offered him, “Hey, why don’t you come to this place. At least you could do your laundry,” which I thought was kind of ironic.
So he was able to laundry at the Denton Freedom House and for six months he was drug free and clean, and he graduated and I got to see that and be a part of that. Unbelievable to watch that happen in a man’s life, and this is where I get this place of joy.
That’s why I need God -- I need Jesus to pursue me like he pursued James. And when I get to see it happen in like a real life visual of a man who God gives a chance after chance after chance after chance of grace, of grace, of grace, I realize how much I don’t deserve it but how much I receive that same sort of grace. It may not be in drugs and homosexuality or anything – I need Jesus to come and pull me out of myself, especially when I get prideful or especially when I get dark. I need him to keep coming after me saying, “I’m never going to give up on you, because here’s the thing: love never fails.”
Dennis: You know, just hearing your story does wonders for a person’s faith.
Dennis: We walk by sight so often and we think, “Yeah, we dropped him off on the corner two years ago and he probably went back to drugs and living under the railroad trestle or in cheap homeless shelters.” But the God of Heaven did pursue him, and the God of Heaven pursues each of us individually, just as you said, Chris. All of our hearts are dark.
Dennis: The older I get, and I don’t want to sound – I’m just going to say it. I think there’s a whole lot less difference between us and the homeless people than we care to admit. We’re a whole lot more alike. Selfish. You know, maybe I don’t smell, but I got that same dark heart you’re talking about.
Chris: That’s it.
Dennis: And that’s who Christ loved and gave himself for, to redeem.
Chris: That’s right.
Dennis: Your story is the story of a man named James and a story of profound redemption, and the rest of the story is today James is –
Chris: He’s still ministering the gospel. He gets to work at homeless shelters. He’s living with another guy. I got another roommate and the first rule that I got from this roommate was, “We’re not bringing any more homeless people.”
I was like, “All right.” Here’s the thing about James: he stumbled. He has gone back to it, and we’ve had to go back and pull him up again.
Dennis: Eighty percent of people who go to rehab –
Chris: Fall again.
Chris: Yes. And he has, but the amazing thing is he came back to us. He was like, “I need help. Don’t give up on me.”
Dennis: Peter relapsed. Peter fell, and the Savior kept on.
Chris: And I’ll be honest with you. When he relapsed, there was – you know the older brother and the prodigal son?
Dennis: Oh sure.
Chris: I felt – I mean, he’s --
Bob: That’s it.
Dennis: I’m guilty.
Bob: No more grace for him.
Dennis: I’m guilty of the same thoughts.
Chris: Ahhh! When it happened – in fact, here’s the thing: He got a better deal, like right now, he’s living in a better situation than he ever was. This guy gave him a computer, he gave him a way-better apartment than I had, he’s living in a house, and I’m thinking to myself, “He doesn’t deserve that. I mean how about me? I want a free computer and a house, okay?”
So honestly, there’s that sense of – I was shocked myself when I realized, “Oh man, I’m the older brother now. I can’t just rejoice that my brother repented. I want him to . . .”
Bob: You’re Jonah underneath the tree, going, “How did Nineveh get saved?”
Chris: That’s exactly right.
Dennis: Life isn’t fair, you know, but God in his grace comes after us. That is the great story here.
Dennis: That is the great story. Chris, I sure appreciate you joining us and I look forward to seeing what else you write. Come back and join us again sometime.
Chris: Yes, sir. I will.
Bob: I hope a lot of listeners will get a copy of your book, too. It’s called, Stumbling Souls: Is Love Enough? and you can go online at FamilyLifeToday.com to request a copy. Again, our website is FamilyLifeToday.com, or call toll-free 1-800-FL-TODAY, and you can request a copy of the book.
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I want to encourage you to be back with us tomorrow when we’re going to take a look at the birth of Jesus through the lens of history. We’re going to be joined by a Professor of Ancient History, Dr. Paul Maier from Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo to look at the real story of the birth of Jesus. I hope you can tune in for that.
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 next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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