By Dave Smith
I remember the first time I heard songs from Les Misérables. It was 1988, and I was riding in a van to Chicago with Tim Streett and a couple other guys. Tim and I were interning at our home church, East 91st Street Christian Church in Indianapolis. We were on our way to Chicago for a conference. Tim did not say much that day. He just kept playing songs from Les Misérables, over and over again.
Many know Les Misérables as a powerful story of grace and forgiveness: but no one knows this better than Tim.
Tim remembers. “As I was bending over to pick up a shovel of snow, I heard a voice behind me say, ‘Don’t move and nobody will get hurt.’ I turned around and saw two black men standing there, and one of them had a gun.
“I heard my father say, ‘What’s going on here?’ And then the gun went off. I turned to see my father fall backwards in the driveway.
“Then the man with the gun stuck it in my face and demanded I give him my wallet. I did. It held one dollar. Then I turned around with my hands up, expecting that I would be shot in the back. After what seemed like an eternity, but was only a few seconds, I looked back over my shoulder and saw the men running up the street.
“When I knelt over my father and lifted his head up, I heard a gurgling sound. I knew it was bad, but I never thought he would die. My father, who had been hit in Vietnam with 11 pieces of shrapnel and lived, died from one bullet.”
Because the police felt Tim’s life was also in danger, he left to live with friends in another city for six months. He came back to Indianapolis at the start of his junior year. “I was a decent athlete in high school, pretty popular kid, and my grades were OK.”
Listening to God
Tim was also a Christian, the president of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes Huddle at his school, a student leader of the Campus Life Club, and involved in Young Life. But when Tim took off for college, “I decided it was time to figure out who I was, and I would figure that out through alcohol.”
The next few years, alcohol supplanted God and church. It was not a crisis of faith, Tim recalls. “It was more like I was just tired.”
When Tim graduated, he still was not thinking much about God. He wasn’t thinking much about his future. He didn’t care.
He started tending bar for TGI Friday’s, excelled at it, and eventually found himself in Houston trying to turn around a struggling Friday’s. He worked long, stayed out late, and came back to an empty room at 2:00 each morning.
One night a Bruce Springsteen song came on the car radio. He was singing about someone cutting a “valley through the middle of my soul.” Tim realized, “I was the person that had taken the knife and cut God out of my life.”
He pulled over because he was crying so hard, and recommitted his life to Christ right there. The next day he quit his job, but the regional manager gave him a job back in Indianapolis. He reconnected with East 91st Street Christian Church, and God eventually called Tim to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
While at seminary, Tim took a class at a satellite campus. He was the only white person. He began to hear the stories of leaders who worked with urban youth, and he began developing a heart for their work among the urban poor.
When he graduated, Tim returned to Indianapolis to try to find a job with an inner-city church or ministry. But no doors opened. Then one day he read the book Breaking Down Walls by Glen Kehrein, a white man, and Raleigh Washington, a black man. It was all about the relationship they had developed over 15 years as they worked with an urban ministry in Chicago.
Tim decided he wanted to work with those guys. They invited him for an interview and said, “Sure, come on up. We’d love to have you. Of course, we can’t pay you.”
He accepted the position, and a young woman named Stacy, whom he’d known only three weeks, accepted his marriage proposal, and together they took off to learn about racial reconciliation.
One Monday, after a particularly powerful sermon on reconciliation by Pastor Washington, Tim prayed, God I want to become that kind of preacher. I want to be able to preach about reconciliation with that kind of authority.
God spoke to Tim: Tim, one of the things you have to know is that men like Pastor Washington can preach effectively on forgiveness and reconciliation, because they have forgiven, and you have not.
“You see,” Tim remembers, “I had kind of reached a deal with God. I told him I was ready to forgive, and I would forgive, when I saw some repentance. The shooter still maintained his innocence. I saw him as a cold-blooded killer, not someone who mattered to God.”
God told Tim, I went to the cross and died for you before you asked me to forgive. You must do the same. You must forgive.
So Tim wrote to the man who had killed his father. Tim told him what God had done in his life and offered to share that with him. He told the man he forgave him.
On the way to mail the letter, Tim was involved in an accident with a car driven by three young black men. They asked for money, threatened him, and chased him to his place of ministry. This incident paralyzed Tim with fear. Soon he was afraid to leave his apartment.
But he did one Sunday morning. Tim stood before the whole church and told his story. They embraced him, prayed for him, and stood by him. He mailed the letter, and when he did, “God began to do his good work in me. Too many Christians get it wrong. They say ‘God, I will forgive when you release me from this anger. When you heal this bitterness, I will forgive.’
“What we forget is that God calls us to obedience first, and often does his good work in us, after the obedience. And he commands us to forgive whether we feel like it or not.”
Learning to Forgive
Tim never heard back from the man who killed his father. But he began to share his story of forgiveness. One day, after moving back to Indianapolis, Tim met an urban pastor who told him, “I want you to know, I know somebody who was involved that night. I know Don Cox.”
Don Cox was the driver of the car. Though Tim never saw him, Don testified at the trial. Don had been convicted of being an accessory to murder and sentenced to 90 years. He was incarcerated in the Pendleton Maximum Security Prison, just north of Indianapolis.
“Sometimes he comes to our prison worship services,” the urban pastor continued. “I’m sure he would love to talk to you.”
So Tim wrote to Don. He told Don he forgave him for what he had done. He even asked Don to forgive him for waiting so long to write. Tim offered to come up and see him sometime. Don wrote back immediately, “Please do.”
A few weeks later Tim found himself walking into a maximum-security prison, gates opening in front of him, and then shutting behind him again.
“And I went in,” Tim says. “And I don’t know why, but I just felt compelled to hug him, and he hugged me. We had a great talk for about an hour that day. Before I left, Don asked me, ‘Do you mind if I call my mother and tell her about you coming to see me? Do you care if she calls you?’’’
Tim agreed, and the next day Don’s sister called. “I hear you went and saw my brother.”
“Yes,” Tim replied.
Then she suggested to Tim they have dinner sometime.
Tim’s wife Stacy said, “Why don’t you invite them to our house?” So Tim invited Don’s sister and mother over for dinner.
The next day Don’s sister called back. “Do you mind if my other sister comes?” she asked. Tim agreed.
The next day, Don’s sister called again. “Do you mind if my brother comes?” Tim agreed.
Though she stopped asking at that point, she told Tim later that about a dozen members of the family all wanted to come. It ended up being a great experience, and very healing for Don’s family.
Don had spent 17 years in prison, without being written up for any negative behavior. Someone told Tim this was a record within the state system.
Tim stepped further into Don’s life. He testified on Don’s behalf at a hearing. Don was released early, after spending 22 years in prison. Tim helped him start a business and even performed his wedding ceremony.
Standing with Jesus
For the last 25 years, Tim has worked with the urban poor. He started Jireh Sports, a ministry that seeks to touch the lives of urban youth through nontraditional sports like gymnastics and wrestling. Tim now serves with Shepherd Community Center, which seeks to break the cycle of poverty. He spends much of his time educating suburban churches on the challenges of generational poverty.
Tim reflects on walking into Pendleton prison that first time. “As I was standing there getting ready to meet Don, as all those gates were opening, then closing behind me, the words of Jesus came to mind: ‘When I was in prison, you came to visit me.’
“And I started thinking about those words. I thought, you know, this is the first time I had ever stood in the shoes of Jesus, and I know I am only standing in those shoes not by my power, but by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
Don also remembers that day. “I had been going to church, and I had been telling my mother I wanted to turn my life around. But when you walked through that gate, I gave my life to the Lord right then and there, because I knew the only reason you were walking through that door was because God was real, and Jesus Christ died on the cross for my sins, and you were being obedient.”
In Les Misérables, Jean Valjean is released from prison after serving 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread. No one will give him shelter because of his past. Desperate, he knocks on the door of a kindly bishop who welcomes him. That night, as the bishop and his sister sleep, Valjean steals the family silver and creeps off into the darkness.
The next morning the police knock on the bishop’s door. They have captured Valjean. He is standing there with them. They are ready to put him in chains for life.
The bishop responds, “So here you are. I am delighted to see you. Had you forgotten the candlesticks as well? They’re silver like the rest and worth over 200 francs.” Valjean is no thief, the bishop assures the police.
The power of grace and forgiveness changes Valjean’s life forever. When we show grace and forgive, God changes people. And as Tim’s story attests, he changes no one more than us.
Dave Smith is executive director of community outreach and church planting at East 91st Street Christian Church, Indianapolis, Indiana.