The Thief Who Brought His Neighborhood to Jesus

19 Dec


God was about to do something extraordinary in the South African township, but it all began with something simple and mundane: picking up trash in a dirt lot outside a neighborhood multi-purpose center. A few CRM InnerCHANGE team members gathered, along with some friends from the neighborhood, to clean up the space and set up a volleyball net. But God had a bigger goal in mind.

As they worked, a group of young men was watching them from a nearby street corner. It was a common scene in this part of South Africa—guys in their late teens or early twenties hanging out with nothing to do. With no jobs, they tend to get involved in gambling and criminal activity.

But today was different. The clean-up crew invited the observers to join in, and they worked side-by-side. After playing volleyball together on their new court, the street corner guys accepted an invitation to come over for lunch. At the meal, their host, Luc, shared about the team’s purpose as pastors in the neighborhood, and what brought them out to clean up trash that day. “Jesus was a transformation agent, and those who follow him should be agents of transformation too,” he told the young men.

A week later, one of the guys, Tsepo (not his real name), came back to Luc’s door. “I want to be a follower of Jesus,” he said.

While only in his mid-twenties, Tsepo had already been in and out of prison multiple times. He’d only been out for about a month when he met Luc and the others cleaning up the trash. Tsepo was tired of the life he’d been living and ready for something more fulfilling. He believed that following Jesus was his best chance at change.

Luc started meeting with Tsepo to study the Bible. In the first passage they explored, Tsepo was really struck by the need to obey Jesus, convicted that he hadn’t been obedient to God. It would soon become clear how deep this conviction ran.

Three weeks after choosing to follow Jesus, Tsepo brought a painful, but not surprising, confession to Luc. Tsepo was a thief. He had stolen from more than 20 families in the neighborhood, and he couldn’t keep it secret anymore. Every day he walked by neighbors he had hurt through his thievery. And what had once made him feel clever at never being discovered now felt like a painful prison. “I want to be free, no matter what the consequences,” he told Luc. He wanted to confess his crimes to the families.

Luc was scared. He knew just how serious the consequences could be. Retaliation and revenge were the norm in this neighborhood. Generally, once a criminal was discovered, the community would come together to beat up the perpetrator, often ending in death for the one caught. And now Tsepo wanted to expose himself in order to ask forgiveness.

Despite the fear they both felt, Luc and Tsepo made a plan: they would go together to four families per week, until all of the families had heard the confession. After much prayer, they approached the first family.

Luc was amazed at the response. There was no violence, no desire for payback. One family after another, the response was disappointment and anger, but also grace. “We want to see you live as a changed person, and see you live into your new identity,” one family told Tsepo. After five weeks of receiving forgiveness, Tsepo could finally live free.

In the midst of all of this, God was orchestrating something much bigger than grace for one man. He had a purpose for Tsepo’s life. Before they had finished their rounds to the families, Tsepo approached Luc with a new burden and vision to care for the kids in his neighborhood. “I’ve been playing soccer all my life,” he told Luc. “What if I started a soccer team for the boys, coached them, looked out for them in the neighborhood?” Within two weeks, more than 20 boys were coming for the daily practices. It caught the attention of the local girls, who wanted their own sports team. A girls’ netball team was formed, practicing in the once garbage-filled lot. Tsepo was no longer a thief, but an agent with Jesus of neighborhood transformation.

“God is calling me to make disciples of Jesus,” Tsepo soon told Luc. He dedicated Wednesday practices to studying the Bible with the kids. The first week, 39 gathered at his house to learn about Jesus.

These days, Tsepo meets once a week with Luc to study the Bible, and prepares to lead the local youth in discipleship to Jesus. The youth have split into five groups, one kid with natural leadership abilities facilitating each small Discovery Bible Study. As kids have shared what they’re learning with their parents, adults are starting to come to the youth studies too. A movement of Jesus followers is emerging. And it all started with a garbage-filled lot, a few faithful believers, and a thief who truly learned how to live free.

At the close of 2015, CRM is celebrating thousands of new disciples of Jesus around the world, people who are becoming true followers, sharing Jesus with others and becoming agents of transformation in their communities. As an organization, we rejoice in the 348 redemptive initiatives started or strengthened among the poor this year [download our 2015 Annual Ministry Report] and the incredible work God is doing through each of them that goes far beyond what we can see.

Would you like to help more people like Tsepo discover Jesus' redemptive plan for their lives?