By Teena Myers
Robert never met his father, and his older brother was in prison. He imitated the men in his neighborhood who made their livelihood preying on the misery of others. Robert realized he could become an addict or a dealer. Preferring profits over the pleasure drugs offered, he chose to be a dealer. By the time he dropped out of school, he had developed a profitable drug business and thought he had found the easy path to wealth.
His lavish lifestyle screeched to a halt when he found himself staring through prison bars, feeling remorse for the lifestyle he chose. He had been charged with murder and faced a million-dollar bond. His future looked bleak until he remembered the stories his mother had told him about God’s miraculous power. Hopeful God would do the same for him, he prayed for a miracle.
Unbeknown to Robert, God was already at work. While he waited in the holding tank, a prisoner was reassigned to the fourth floor of the prison to share a cell with Robert. Ricky taught a Bible study for the prisoners. Robert attended the study and services held by the prison chaplain. Week after week, Robert marveled when the prison chaplain preached the same things Ricky taught in his Bible study.
One night, Robert dreamed the police were chasing him in a rainstorm. Wet and frightened, he banged on the door of his home, pleading with his mother to let him in. His mother hollered through the door, “I’m not letting you in until you’re ready to serve God.”
Robert screamed, “I want to serve God.” His mother opened the door. He stumbled into the house, pleading with God to forgive him, and wept as he felt the power of God course through his body, breaking the bondages in his life. Robert awoke, and then woke up Ricky and said, “I have to tell people about God. I have to tell everybody about God.”
Ninety days later, God told Robert he would release him from prison. Robert told the other prisoners he was going home. They laughed and called him crazy. Thirty minutes later, the prisoners who derided Robert watched in amazement when the sheriff came to Robert’s cell door and announced, “Burnside, you are leaving today.”
Robert walked into freedom wearing borrowed pants, a shirt three sizes too small, and slippers. He immediately called his lawyer, who had no knowledge of his release, confirming Robert’s conviction that God had given him a second chance.
Robert’s friends quickly organized a block party to celebrate. As he watched his friends drinking and smoking weed, he knew that he no longer belonged among them. They offered him drugs and money. He took the much needed cash, returned the drugs, and spoke frankly. “When we ran together, I was down with you, wasn’t I?” said Robert. His friends agreed that he had always dealt with them honestly. Robert continued, “The same way I was with you, I’m gonna be with God.”
As he stood to leave, one of his friends called out, “You’ll be back.”
When his former friends realized Robert wasn’t coming back, they paid a hitman to kill him. Robert was filling up his gas tank at a Shell station when a man approached him.
“Robert,” the stranger said, “I took the hit on you. I don’t know what it is, but I’m not going to kill you.” As Robert watched the man walk away, he was overcome with the reality of the living God who had spared his life.
Robert didn’t know how to fulfill his call to ministry. The answer came when he purchased flowers for his wife, and the florist gave him a video about the School of Urban Missions (SUM). Robert enrolled in the Bible College.
The following year, the chancellor of SUM called Robert. “God wants you to help us establish a School of Urban Missions in California.” Robert wasn’t convinced the message was from God until the chancellor said, “He also wants you to get out of debt, finish your education, and obtain ministry credentials.” The chancellor named the goals Robert had written on sticky notes and stuck on a wall in his home. His wife did not want to leave New Orleans, but she couldn’t deny the hand of God in the chancellor’s message.
Six years later, Robert and his pregnant wife returned to New Orleans to help rebuild the city. “I thought it was a Nehemiah call to build spiritual walls,” said Robert.
One month after they arrived, his wife birth to their third child. The ominous winds of Hurricane Katrina approached the city, the same morning they brought their newborn baby home. Many phone calls from friends in California told him he had made a mistake and pleaded with him to return. He appreciated their concern, but knew God had called him to New Orleans.
Robert found temporary housing for his family in Pennsylvania. When the flood waters subsided, he returned to New Orleans to repair their home and started a trucking service. In his spare time, he assisted church efforts to help those in need. When schools reopened, he started a ministry to youth in high schools.
His high school ministry ended when a benefactor purchased a damaged Lutheran church in New Orleans and donated it to a church. The chancellor of SUM recommended Robert as the pastor. Robert accepted the position. He had everything necessary to conduct a church service except a congregation.
Robert started his day making repairs to the church and then walked the streets of the community sharing his faith. He transformed the corner drug dealers gathered to sell their wares into a Bible study. Week after week, he told them about the power of a living God who heals shattered lives. One evening, Robert walked to the corner to conduct his Bible study. Everyone was gone. The love of God drove away the unrepentant drug peddlers.
Whenever Robert saw the police questioning someone in his community, he asked the officers if he could help. One day an officer told him, “We don’t really want this guy. We want his buddy, Chucky. He has killed several people.”
The next time he saw Chucky, he requested a private meeting. Chucky’s gang laughed at Robert, and Chucky brushed him off with a hollow promise.
Weeks later, Robert was about to conclude his sermon when he saw his congregation scrambling to clear a path. Chucky walked to the front of the church and said, “Pastor, I want to talk to you.” Robert stopped his service and met Chucky at the altar. “I gotta get it right,” said Chucky. Robert shared the gospel and prayed with Chucky to accept Christ as his Savior. Three days later, someone murdered Chucky. But Robert knows they were too late to rob Chucky of an eternity in heaven.