Culture Shock

     I stutter.  Sometimes just getting my name out is a major ordeal.  A simple attempt to introduce myself has caused many to scratch their heads and seriously question my calling into the ministry.  Believe me, I understand!  I’ve questioned it a few times myself.  Nevertheless, as a young man, I did feel the call of God, and I knew the first step I needed to take was to get an education.  So, off I went to Warner Pacific College in Portland, Oregon, to answer the call.      Portland was the most incredible city I’d ever seen, and this was the first time in my young life that I had ever been this far from home.  Because of my stutter, it was not uncommon for people to think I was mentally handicapped, so this loner from Visalia, California, was overwhelmed with the thought of having to make a whole new group of friends.  But I must admit that mixed with my uncertainties beamed an excited anticipation of this God-appointed adventure.

     The fall semester was just ahead, so I arrived in Portland six weeks early to get settled and find a job.  The deserted campus was peaceful, and as I entered the administration building and walked to the admissions office, I could hear my footsteps echo in the empty halls.

     “Hi! I’m K-K-K-Kurt S-S-S-Salierno.”

      The startled admissions clerk had that all too familiar look on her face as I attempted to do what’s second nature to practically everyone—introduce myself.  She quickly regained her composure and found my file, which confirmed that I really was supposed to be there.  Then she smiled, put an “out to lunch” sign on the door, gave me a tour of the campus, and took me to lunch.

     Have I mentioned that I went to Portland without any idea where I would be living or sleeping? My next step, after lunch and a quick look around campus, was to decide where to sleep that night.  Standing in the desolate parking lot, surveying all the possibilities, I decided the best one for that night was my car. 

     About nine o’clock, I noticed some guys across the street sitting on the hoods of their cars.  I walked toward them, repeating my name over and over to myself, hoping to make some new friends.  So much for first impressions.  I watched anxiously as “the look” passed between them while I attempted several times to say “Hi!  I’m K-KK-Kurt.”  I guess they thought it was easier to ignore me than try to understand me, so they resumed their conversation.  The group decided to see a movie downtown, so, acting like one of the guys (and hoping no one would notice I wasn’t), I jumped into one of the cars, and off we went.  “This is going to be great!” I thought to myself.      I could not believe this city.  It was after 9:30 P.M., and people were everywhere—walking, talking, and headed in every direction.  My hometown rolled up the sidewalks by this time of night.  I must have looked like a kid at his first carnival, trying to take it all in.       We arrived at the theater, and in my eagerness to take in my new surroundings, I never gave a thought to what movie I was paying to see.  But as the show started, I noticed something unusual about the women on the screen.  They were wearing almost nothing.      “Is this a good movie?” I naively whispered to the guy next to me.  

     “Yeah,” he whispered back, “but wait, it gets better!”  

     Slowly, it hit me.  In my zeal to be a part of the group, I’d spent my last few dollars to see an adult movie.  My first impulse was to run out of there as fast as my legs would take me.  “This isn’t a good movie,” I said to the guys.  “We need to leave!”  

     The antagonism in my newfound friend’s reply was obvious.  “Okay, go!” he laughed sarcastically.  

     Thinking he was surely joking, I tried one more time to make them understand.  “I want to leave,” I pleaded.  

     In disbelief, the guys looked at me again and in unison commanded, “Go!”

     Trying my best to look pitiable in hopes that someone would feel sorry for me, I walked out.  No one followed.  As the theater door swung shut behind me, my heart was overwhelmed with loneliness.  I felt completely deserted, with nowhere to go and no one to turn to.  And I’d foolishly wasted my last few dollars on an adult movie.  To make matters worse, even if I had somewhere to go, I didn’t have a clue how to get there.  Tears stung my eyes as I came to the realization that I was lost in the middle of Portland, with no one to help.

     My only recourse was to pray and ask God to guide me.  Little did I know, as I cried to Him for help, that He’d already planned to give me heavenly directions back to campus—directions that would change the course of my life forever. 

     You’re probably wondering why I didn’t just stop someone for directions.  Well, I did.  But I’d barely get the first word out before I’d start to stutter.  Then I’d watch in total frustration as any hope of human assistance scurried away, fearing for their lives! Again, I prayed, “Okay, Lord.  I’m going to close my eyes and put my arms out in front of me.  Stop me when I’m going in the right direction!”  I was confident the Lord would direct me.  After bumping into a wary couple and scaring them half to death, I stopped, feeling sure of the direction I should go.

     I walked what seemed like a mile when I began noticing that the streets had taken on a dreary appearance.  A nagging fear began to haunt me.  Yet I was sure the Lord had sent me in the right direction, so I kept on.  Suddenly a horrible smell stopped me in my tracks.  Scanning the streets for the source of the smell, I noticed a man lying in the gutter, and I anxiously crossed over to help him.  He was filthy and appeared to have been beaten lifeless.  I was certain the stench that permeated him was the smell of death.  All my childhood Sunday school lessons about the Good Samaritan flooded back to me, and I knew I had to help him.  I began to see firsthand, however, that just like in the Bible story, there were those who simply didn’t care.

     I looked frantically in every direction for someone to help or to call the police, but I was amazed at the many people who passed by as if nothing unusual had taken place! As my eyes darted around for help, I began to notice another body—and then another.  There were fallen bodies everywhere! Perhaps because I was tired or just plain scared, I began to imagine that a cold-blooded killer had shot these helpless people down—and I was the first to stumble onto the grisly scene.

     My imagination was working overtime by now, and I was frantic with fear and concern.  I ran to find help, praying the police would drive by.  Fueled by pure adrenaline, I ran head-on into a man who had just stumbled out of a bar.

     “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to run into you.”  This time the words came flying out of my mouth.  “Please, Mister, there are a lot of wounded people back there.  Can you help me?”

     The man stared at me with the same perplexed expression I’d seen earlier in the theater.  Sheer panic rose within me, and my thoughts shouted, “Oh, no! He’s the one with the gun!”  I backed away, apologizing for bothering him and trying nonchalantly to walk away.      My wild imagination waited for the man to pull his gun and shoot me in the back.  My entire body tensed, anticipating the fatal shot that would end my life.  I wanted to run, but fearing that my sudden movement might alarm the shooter even more, I forced my feet to walk.

     Suddenly, I heard the man yell, “Hey, boy, come here!”      My heart was in my throat, but I knew if I ran I was a dead man.  My shoes felt like concrete blocks as I turned to face my executioner.  For the second time that night, tears welled up in my eyes as I prepared to meet Jesus face to face.  The man walked slowly to me, cocked his head to one side, and looked at me as if I had three heads.  “What you need is a drink!” he exclaimed.  “Come on with me.”      Sure he would shoot me if I refused—and hoping to add a few more minutes to my fleeting existence—I swallowed the lump in my throat, uttered a barely discernable “okay,” and followed him into the bar. 

     Until that moment, my experience with the inside of a bar was limited to what I’d seen on television.  But nothing I’d ever seen on TV had prepared me for the reality of the filth in this place.  It was a dungeon of darkness and despair.  To my dismay, I found more men inside the bar who appeared to be dead! They were lying on the floor or slumped in chairs, and each one possessed the now familiar deathlike stench.  “This man is a maniac,” I thought.

     My escort led me to a table and asked what I wanted to drink.  “I’ll have a water,” I replied.  He found this curiously amusing.

     “Come on, kid, get something stronger,” he ordered.

      “Okay, I’ll take a Coke.”

      Shaking his head, he ordered his drink.  Then he leaned back in his chair and asked in bewilderment, “What’s a kid like you doing in a place like this?”

     By now I was stuttering so badly that with every attempt to speak, I resembled a yard sprinkler that sprays everything in its path! Taking a deep breath, I attempted to answer the man’s question while he held a napkin over his face for protection.  I told him that I came to Portland from a small town in California.  I began to explain my calling into the ministry and my decision to attend Warner Pacific College in preparation.  As we talked, it became clear to me that this man was not responsible for the mayhem I’d discovered outside.  So I told him about the condition of the men I’d seen lying on the streets and related the details of the heinous crime I had envisioned taking place.

     “Those men weren’t shot,” he laughed.  “They were drunk and passed out! This is Skid Row.”  The relief I felt was short-lived as I fully realized the sad truth of what he’d just said.

     We talked for more than two hours that night, and the man seemed as intrigued with me as I was with him.  How ironic that my first friend in this strange new place would be a Skid Row bum! He seemed to get such a kick out of my stuttering and asked me how in the world I was going to be able to preach when I could hardly talk. 

“Good question,” I thought to myself.  I explained to my friend that if God called me to do it, I would trust Him to work out the details.

      “But how can you trust someone you can’t even see?” he asked.      In our short time together, I was able to explain the love of God to this man and share my testimony with him.  “I’m proof,” I said, “that God will not let us down when we align the direction of our lives with His.”  It was quite obvious that our time together was God-appointed, and I found myself asking if he’d like to invite Christ into his life.  To my complete amazement, he reached across the table, grabbed my hands, and asked, “Do you think God would direct my life like He has yours?”  

      I assured him that He would.  

      After more conversation, in a dark, dismal den of the Enemy himself, that Skid Row bum asked Jesus Christ to be his Lord and Savior.

     As we said our goodbyes, my new brother in Christ pointed me in the direction of campus.  I prayed for him as I walked, thanking God for the detour and for allowing me to participate in the miracle that had just taken place.  The sun rose as I arrived back at school, but instead of fatigue, I felt such incredible joy.  That’s when I realized that if one man on Skid Row desired to know Jesus, there had to be more.  I needed to find them.