I was taking a midmorning stroll down Peachtree Street in Atlanta one chilly Saturday morning when I stumbled upon Jesus. Now, I’m not from downtown Atlanta, and I don’t have much in common with its denizens. I’m an upper-middle class white boy from suburban Kansas, after all. The people of downtown Atlanta are…well, they’re not that.
In my hand I had a brand new Georgia State t-shirt, because who wouldn’t walk two miles from your hotel to purchase merchandise supporting a college football team with a 1-23 record the past two seasons? I’m not sure, but I was probably gripping it so tight my fingers were turning white. To be completely honest, I was nervous. The stretch of Peachtree Street between my hotel and the Georgia State campus wasn’t exactly Main Street in Mayberry, and I knew that as a white boy in a Nike Kansas City Royals sweatshirt I was sticking out like a sore thumb.
I was trying to walk as fast as my feet could go while still looking natural when an older black woman walking in my direction made eye contact with me. “Are you from Kansas City?” she asked in a thick Southern accent.
On a normal day, I would have just shaken my head no and kept walking. But for some reason that day, I stopped. “No, but I live about two hours away from it,” I explained.
“Oh, I see,” she replied. “Have you ever been to the Negro League Museum?”
“No, I haven’t, but I really would like to.”
“Me either,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to, but I don’t think I’m ever going to make it to Kansas City. Do me a favor, would you?”
“What is it?” I asked, a bit nervous that she was going to ask me for money or something. It’s really embarrassing to admit just how on edge I was.
“Would you go to the Negro League Museum someday, and think of me?”
I couldn’t help but grin, but my heart had sunk to my toes. Going to the Negro League Museum would’ve been a powerful experience for me, but what it meant for me wouldn’t come anywhere close to what it would mean for her.
“I will absolutely do that,” I promised.
She smiled at me, squeezed my shoulder, and said, “Thanks, sweetie.” Then she continued on her way, to do whatever it was she had to do that day. I continued on mine, but I just couldn’t get her out of my head. I wondered what her story was, what she’d experienced living in downtown Atlanta, who she’d met, who her friends and family had been, what had made her laugh, and what had made her cry. I wondered where she was when Jackie Robinson took his first Major League at-bat, and whether she’d ever made it to a Braves game.
“Damn, it’s cold.” The voice of the man beside me shook me out of my reverie. He was dressed in well-worn clothes that did little to fight off the mid-November chill, and that smelled pretty strongly of marijuana. He clearly belonged there.
Again, normally I would just nod politely and continue on my way. But that day, for some reason, everything was different. “I’m from Kansas, so this really isn’t too bad for November,” I said.
The man turned to me and flashed me a grin that lacked a few teeth here and there. “Kansas?” he exclaimed. “What are you doing here?”
“I’m here for a conference,” I told him. “At the Convention Center.”
“Oh, cool,” the man replied, nodding to me.
I held out my hand to him. “My name’s Zach.”
“Isaiah,” he said, shaking my hand.
We prattled back and forth about the weather in our respective hometowns for a block or two, when we passed a by group of people handing out free hot chocolate. I hate hot drinks, but Isaiah accepted one gratefully and we kept walking.
“It’s nice to see some people doing good things like that,” Isaiah said once we were out of earshot of the hot chocolate stand. “The world’s a pretty messed up place, you know, and there aren’t too many people out there doing good for other people. You aren’t a part of that church in Kansas that thinks God hates gay people, are you?”
I was really shocked at the question, but I quickly said, “No, definitely not. I think that God loves everybody the exact same, whether they’re black or white, straight or gay, man or woman.”
Isaiah stopped walking and turned directly to me. “Are you a Christian?” he asked bluntly.
Oh, great, I thought. Here’s my Columbine moment.
I took a breath to steel myself, then said hesitantly, “Yes.”
“No way!” Isaiah cried, a smile spreading across his face. “Jesus Christ saved my life! That means you’re like my brother, man!”
Relief flooded my body. I didn’t really think Isaiah was going to do anything bad to me for being a Christian, but I thought I might have offended him. I mean, Christians don’t have the greatest reputation in the world, and plenty of people have plenty of reasons to hate Christians. Some days I’m not even the biggest fan of Christians.
“Mine too,” I replied. “The conference I’m here for is actually for youth ministers.”
Isaiah’s smile got wider. “I do that kind of thing too! I volunteer with the kids at the Presbyterian Church nearby, serving them meals and stuff. I want to tell them all about what Jesus did for me, and I want to help them not make the same mistakes I did.”
I got chills. I still get chills thinking about it. I mean, when I think of a youth minister, I think of a white guy with a goatee and khaki shorts, not Isaiah. And yet here he was, so excited to tell me about how Jesus Christ had changed his life and how it was his goal to help other kids meet Jesus too. I don’t think I’ve talked to anyone more genuine about their faith.
I continued to talk to Isaiah all the way back to my hotel. We talked about Jesus, ministry, the new job at a nursing home in Austin he had just gotten, and my job working with kids back in Kansas. When it came time for us to part ways, part of me was ready for a handshake and a toodles, but out of nowhere I said, “Isaiah, can I pray with you?”
Now, here’s a confession: even though I’m a Christian, I don’t like to pray. Especially not out loud, in front of other people. But there I was, in the middle of the sidewalk along Peachtree Street, with my arm around a man who couldn’t be more different from me save for this one thing: we were brothers in Christ. And so I prayed and Isaiah interjected with “Yes, Lord” and “amen.”
Isaiah pulled me into a hug after I closed the prayer. Those who know me well know I don’t like hugs, but I didn’t mind it then. I can’t really explain it, but this wasn’t just a hug. This was… something else. I’m not a very sentimental person, so I’ll skip any grandiloquent discourse on the eternal significance of that ephemeral moment.
The hug ended and we went our separate ways. I somewhat expected Isaiah to say something like, “See you in heaven, man,” but he didn’t. He just went on walking, and I went to Arby’s in the CNN Center. But he didn’t need to say it.
I couldn’t get into the youth ministry conference’s worship session that evening. I’m not one who really gets into worship as it is, but it was particularly difficult that night. Maybe it was because I had already met Jesus that day, and he wasn’t manufactured by strobe lights and bass drum beats. Jesus was down on Peachtree Street, smelling of marijuana and cussing about how cold it is. Jesus was down on Peachtree Street, changing lives like Isaiah’s.
That’s when I realized that Jesus isn’t all for me and the people like me. He didn’t come to make me feel better about myself and my eternal destination. Jesus didn’t come to make sure white kids in suburban America have a place to hang out on Sunday and Wednesday nights. Jesus came to change things. He came to bring life to lifeless places, hope to hopeless people, and freedom for the oppressed. Jesus is so much bigger than I had ever realized, and his purpose is so much greater than I had ever imagined. If Jesus were to walk the earth again, I think he’d take a stroll down Peachtree Street himself. There are some people there I think he’d really like.
I haven’t made it to the Negro League Museum yet, but I plan to someday. And when I do, I’m going to sign the guestbook for that woman I met in downtown Atlanta, and pray that she runs into Jesus on Peachtree Street. Maybe they can road trip to Kansas City together. That’s a memoir I’d love to read.