A Terrorists Demand
The North Sea slapped my face with salty brine. I shivered and pulled my collar up around my neck. The muscular man in front of me hunkered down with practice; his shoulders slumped forward, his face drawn beneath the wool cap. He took a fleeting glance to see if I was still following. Had he regretted the request? His eyes were haunted.
I followed him down a squat alleyway where brick walls smelled of urine and beer. Graffiti was scrawled in red anger and black hatred, damning everyone. The smells burned in my nose. The words screamed insults at my convictions. Leslie appeared immune. We moved down another alley, did a quick right and suddenly found ourselves on Craigavon Road. I breathed a sigh of relief. I wasn’t completely lost.
Tucked between a string of shops was Maggie Maye’s Café, not the most inviting on this cold blustery night. Leslie gave me a slight nod then entered the smeared glass door. Somewhere a bell tinkled to alert Maggie we were there. The smell of greasy fish and chips clung to the walls with a fine-like layer of last year's dust.
Leslie walked through the café, past some vacant tables toward a dark corner with a single table and chairs. The place was deserted, apart from a dreary couple sitting near the window. Leslie pulled out a chair and sat down in the shadows. I joined him.
Was I trusting, or stupid? I had no idea what his agenda was, but he knew mine. I had shouted it on Leslie's street corner, in Leslie's town, within Leslie's earshot.
Here I was, a young brash American, standing on Leslie's soapbox in his village of Northern Ireland and dared to shout a different story. Yes, he knew my agenda. The call to follow Christ was to leave all and follow Him. To assure him I practiced what I preached, I followed Leslie without question waiting for his agenda to be revealed. It wouldn't be long. I found myself sweating profusely . . . so was Leslie.
Maggie had brought a pot of steaming tea with milk and two mugs. As I stirred my tea, we stared into each other's face for the first time. Two lives, two worlds apart. I saw in Leslie a haunting that dulled his eyes into cataract zones, despair etched his face. Most of all I saw a fear so pervasive, that I recoiled.
I don't know what he saw in my face, but whatever it was had been intense enough to bring the two of us together, at his bidding, for an urgent clandestine meeting.
He leaned forward, his voice raspy. "I have a 9 MM Luger on me and its loaded." He sat back in his seat and watched my face. I felt my left cheek twitch, in rhythm with his trigger finger that danced on the tabletop.
Suddenly, I saw the gun and I forgot about my tea.
"What you said out there on the street . . . " he paused. " . . . was somethin’ I'd never heard before." He didn't wait for a reply. "That took guts. ‘Course you know this country’s at war. I fight for freedom, for my Protestant religion that I thought I knew.” He used the word thought, to express sarcasm. “I am what some people call,” his voice dropped to a whisper, “. . . a terrorist."
My thoughts swirled into near panic. I'm sitting having tea with a Protestant terrorist! What am I doing? I must be nuts. Why wasn't I told about this in advance? Why me God? I'm still young.
His words pushed onward. "I've been fightin’ for somethin’ I knew nothin’ about. What you preached on the docks were fightin’ words. I've been church goin’ since two months, but never have I been told how to follow Jesus." The rims of his eyes were red. They shifted around the room, roaming into the shadowy recesses to see if someone was there . . . listening. I felt his paranoia then I finally focused.
This man had listened to the claims of what Jesus’ demanded.
I finally spoke, "I've only preached the gospel of Jesus Christ which is a two-thousand-year old story that still needs to be told...until He returns."
I reached into my coat pocket and Leslie's body jolted like pistons, knees cocked for action, sat half off his chair as his hand reached for . . . the . . . Luger.
“Easy.” His voice was tense, “Easy . . .” My hand stopped. I looked like Napoleon.
I stuttered. “I, I was just reaching for my Bible.” I waited for him to relax before I took another breath. When he inhaled, I said, “If I was carrying a weapon I wouldn’t be preaching like I did . . . I'd be blowing up buildings.”
He relaxed but my hand stayed where it was.
“Right. Sorry. It's just that . . . I've lived my whole life this way, watchin’ out the corner o’ me eye, watchin’ me back.”
“Can I take out my Bible now? I want to read those verses?”
“Yes.” He flushed. “Sorry.” Leslie looked into the shadows. “I’ve lost a couple of mates for being careless. Few people I trust and fewer trust me.”
Now that was just great news. And I'm sipping tea from the same pot.
Like holding a hot-wired bomb, I slowly removed my Bible. We both sighed. Then I turned to Matthew 16 and quietly read the words of Jesus. “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.”
“Yes, that's it! Why have I never heard that before?” He seemed to have such clarity regarding the call to discipleship yet confusion over the church’s neglect of the gospel.
“There are only two reasons.” I responded. “Either it was never taught from the pulpit or your heart would not listen. But today you have listened, and you can be free from serving evil. Let hatred go.” This man's heart was on the brink of discovering the deepest truths of the Gospel.
Leslie's eyes narrowed. He watched the weary couple near the window. Maybe sensing his stare, the couple got up and paid Maggie and walked into the night. It was now raining, causing the shop’s windows to steam up.
The tired waitress looked at her watch, then up to the clock, then toward us.
“You know its closin’ time gents. I've gotta be goin’ soon me-self. Got lads at home you know. You gonna be here much longer?” She pushed a strand of dyed hair back behind her left ear.
Leslie nodded. “Lock up, we’ll be outta here soon.”
“That's mighty kind of you.” She locked the front door and put up the ‘closed’ sign, then disappeared to finish paper work.
I refocused, wanting to help Leslie discover the freedom that forgiveness in Christ would make. I felt as though this man had exposed the darkest part of his life to me, like a confessional. He was acknowledging that for him to surrender he had to let go of something important in his life.
“You can turn your life around, regardless of what you've done Leslie. There is no sin too dark that God can’t forgive. Nothing is beyond Him. Christ came to set people free.”
“You’ve made the message clear enough.” His eyes lowered. He fanned his fingers out on the table. “You don’t know what these hands have done . . . or what my eyes have seen.” He suddenly shuddered, and it reverberated across the table. “Tonight . . . I’ve got to make my decision. If I chose to follow Christ, then my life will be exposed to the world.”
“Jesus Christ is calling you.” I leaned in closer despite the gun. I knew this man was serious, yet I felt terror in my gut.
“If I make that decision tonight . . .” he exhaled a deep sigh, “. . . I’m a dead man.”
“What?” I was staggered. "No Leslie, no, no, (I suddenly realized that that was probably not his real name,) You’ll be more alive than you’ve ever been.” I was confused at his words, a dead man?
“Doesn't Jesus say that to be his disciple, we must deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Him?”
“Exactly.” This guy has thought it through. I dared to get closer so only he could hear. I envisioned Leslie marching across Ulster, preaching in the Pubs, spreading the gospel in Christ's name from Belfast down to County Cork. I could see him breaking through strongholds of hatred between families and neighbors.
Leslie shook his head. His face darkened. Suddenly, the man stood up shoving his chair away. His next words exploded like a bomb . . . my thoughts scattered like shrapnel.
“I'm a hit man. I work for the Ulster Defense Regiment during the day. At night I work for an underground militia. I get paid to hunt down the enemy and hold them ransom until they pay." The man was sweating, and his tattered wool jacket smelled foul.
“I get paid to take hostages, torture them until their family pay up.” His emotions ratcheted higher. His eyes were swollen, tears breaking through the dam of self-imposed resistance. “Most Irish families can’t pay, so I have to dispose of the children. I tie them in gunny sacks and.” his voice quavered, “I tie them to the back of my truck and drag them . . .” He shook with sobs, “until . . . until they quit screamin.’” I closed my eyes and wished I’d never heard those words.
I was beyond responding, stunned into silence. Our trite American call to discipleship looked like Disneyland for the saved.
Now it was clear why he only told me his first name. I would have to turn him in if I were true to my own convictions. Somehow, he knew I would.
Leslie breathed deeply.
“If I chose to follow Christ, I'll have to surrender to the authorities. Within an hour, operatives would find out. Informants are everywhere. I’ve got a lovely wife and two wee lads at home. One is five, the other eight. They’ve done nothin’ wrong. They're proud of their pap, ‘cause I work for the UDR." He shook his head. “Why didn't my church tell me? All these years I've been fightin’ for the wrong cause. So much hatred!”
He shuddered and so did I. I still couldn't speak.
“They’ll torture my family. They’ll want me to know, so they’ll finish me off with an inside sweep. I know too much.” Leslie looked straight into my eyes. “I chose many years ago to put my family’s lives in danger. I made a wrong choice.”
The weight of truth hung heavy above us.
Maggie came out during that tense silence and poked her head around the door. She’d freshened herself up with a new layer of glossy lipstick and heavy rouge. Bright bangles hung from her ears. She was relieved to see us move toward the door. She didn't see Leslie's puffy eyes, or the Luger. But . . . she did see me hand my Bible to Leslie and watch him eagerly tuck it into his other pocket. She raised her eyebrows.
Together, the three of us passed over the door stoop, out into the heavy rain. The night seemed blacker than hell. But, of course it was nothing like hell. The future for anyone like Leslie or you or me without Christ is blacker than our worst fears could conjure.
The tinkle of the bell faded as Maggie locked the door. Maggie shouted, "Ta ta," and hunched into the night toward the pubs and music.
I desperately wanted to make Leslie's choice for him, but I couldn't. We headed out into the night without another word, but a glance from his eyes told me. Tonight, I must make my decision.
God’s offer to him was step one. God’s care for Leslie’s family was just as intense. But His call is deep, because the results are weighed in eternal measures.
Since that night, I keep standing on people's soapboxes, telling the ancient story. Jesus’ words beckon me. “For the Son of man came to seek and save that which was lost.”
My eyes followed Leslie as he moved into the dark night toward his cross.