John Ryan draws a lesson from a favourite story which involves a lady of the night, a cake, and the nature of Church.
Tony Campolo, one-time spiritual adviser to President Bill Clinton, sociologist and Baptist Minister, is a gifted storyteller.
Here is one of his more telling offerings with many lessons to be drawn. Will Agnes return with the cake? Would you accept an invitation to join in the party? Are there two ways of entering into the message.
Tony was in Honolulu to take part in a Christian Conference, and on his first night there he was put out by the time difference and jet lag. He awoke around three in the morning and wandered into the street looking for something to eat.
Eventually he found a little coffee shop where a big guy served him coffee and a doughnut. Tony was the only customer until around 3.30, quite suddenly an invasion of young women filled the shop.
It was impossible not to overhear their conversation that told Tony much about the night life of Honolulu. In every sense of the words these women were ladies of the night.
Suddenly, he heard the woman nearest to him announce that tomorrow was her birthday and that she would be thirty-nine.
The girl beside her responded in an angry tone: ‘So what – what are you looking for? Do you expect us to throw a party, to get a cake, invite friends and sing Happy Birthday and all that jazz? Go tell someone who cares.’
‘Come on!’ said the woman besides Tony. ‘Why do you have to be so mean? Why do you always have to put me down? I was just telling you, that's all. I don't expect anything from you — why should I? I've never had a party in my whole life, why should I have one now?’
When Tony heard this his spirit began to stir. He waited until the women had left and then he asked the guy behind the counter if these women came in every night. ‘Yeah, they do,’ he said.’ ‘How about the one that was sitting next to me?" said Tony. ‘Yeah,’ said the big guy, ‘that's Agnes. She comes in every night. Why do you want to know?’ Tony said” ‘I heard her say that tomorrow is her birthday and I thought we might do something about it. What do you think about us throwing a party for her — right here?’
A smile slowly crossed his chubby cheeks and he answered with measured delight: ‘That's a great idea.’
Encouraged, Tony went on to make some more suggestions. ‘If it's OK with you, I'll get back here about 2.30 and decorate the place. I'll get a birthday cake!’ ‘No way,’ said the man behind the counter. ‘The birthday cake's my thing. I'll make the cake.’
So at 2.30 the next morning Tony was back in the coffee shop. He had picked up some crepe paper for decorations and had made a sign out of big pieces of cardboard that read ‘Happy birthday Agnes’. He decorated the shop from one end to the other and it looked great.
The woman who did the cooking must have got the word out onto the street because by 3.20 every street girl in Honolulu seemed to be in the place. At 3.30, on the dot the door of the diner swung open and in came Agnes and her friend. Tony had them all ready and as they entered the crowd screamed out ‘Happy Birthday Agnes’ and began to sing the greeting to the customary tune.
Tony describes the scene and takes up the story. ‘Never have I seen a person so flabbergasted ... so stunned ... so shaken. Agnes' mouth fell open. Her legs seemed to buckle a bit and her friend grabbed her arm to steady her. As we came to the end of the singing her eyes moistened. Then when the birthday cake with all the candles on it was carried out, she lost it and just openly wept.’
When Harry [ that was the big guys name ] handed her a knife and told her to cut the cake, she just kept looking down at it and softly said: ‘Oh Harry, is it all right with you if I ... I mean is it OK if I keep the cake a little while. Is it all right if we don't eat it right away?’ Harry shrugged and answered, ‘Sure it's Ok. Take it home with you if you want to.’ ‘Can I?’ Agnes asked.
Then looking at Tony she said, ‘I live just down the street a couple of doors away and I'd love to take the cake home and show them. I'll be right back —honest.’
With that Agnes stood up and took the cake carrying it like it was the Holy Grail and walked slowly toward the door. They all just stood motionless and when the door closed there was a stunned silence.
Not knowing what to do, Tony broke the silence by saying: ‘What do you say we pray.‘ As he said, ‘strange and all as it was, it seemed like the right thing to do’. He prayed aloud for Agnes and her well-being. He prayed that her life might be changed and that God would be good to her and her family. He prayed for all her friends.
When he finished Harry leaned over the counter and with a trace of hostility in his voice, he said; ‘Hey! You never said you were a preacher. What kind of Church do you come from?’
Again it was one of those moments when just the right words seem to come and Tony answered; ‘I come from a Church that throws birthday parties for street girls at 3.30 in the morning.’
Harry waited a moment and then almost sneered as he answered, ‘No you don't. There's no Church like that. If there was I'd join it. Yer, I'd join a Church like that.’
- Fr John Ryan, a Sandhurst Diocese priest who lives in Canberra, has spent much of his 49 years of ministry working in renewal projects, especially with priests.