The strong wind pelted me with dirt and leaves, forcing me to lift my forearm to shield my eyes. Leaning forward, I pressed on. This weather would not deter me from reaching my destination.
"Hey, so glad you could come today. My name is Grant, I'm the pastor here."
I was surprised to find the minister greeting people at the door, "I'm Matthew. I heard about this place and thought I'd check it out."
"That’s great! Oh, Andrew - come and meet Matthew, he's visiting us today."
“Nice to meet you, Matthew; how would you like to sit with me and my friends?”"
The lad led me to a row of seats near the front. A dozen youths greeted me with genuine warmth.
Reaching an intersection, I pulled my coat tight around my sparse frame, and waited for the lights to change. An endless stream of rejection scenarios fled through my mind as cars rushed past. How would they respond when they saw me again?
"Here's your coffee, dear," said Mrs. Simons. The home group meeting had just concluded.
"Thanks! I love the smell of coffee."
A hand touched my elbow, "Are you okay, Matthew? I noticed you frowning during the meeting."
I looked at Michelle, moved by her concern. She was a year older than I. "I'm going through a bit of a rough patch. You know, hard to make ends meet."
She slipped a twenty-dollar note into my hands, "It's not much, but I hope this helps."
"Thanks, I, ah, don’t know what to say," I answered, feeling guilty. I had just stolen another hundred from a purse I lying on a table in the foyer.
The pedestrian light changed to green so I crossed quickly, chiding myself for my utter stupidity. I had been part of a community of loving people who cared for me and looked out for me, and I had repaid them with grief.
"Matthew, I'm, at a bit of a loss what to do. A year ago, you joined our church and gave your heart to Jesus. However, three witnesses have come to see me this week and have told me very disturbing things. Is there anything you would like to say?" said Pastor Grant.
"Look, ah, I've got a few problems, but dealing with them just didn’t work out."
"Are you sorry that you did these things?"
“Well, a little guilty, perhaps, but I really needed the money. I sort of regret taking the offering last week, and the money from the youth group's honesty box, and the money from some of the members’ purses. But I had no choice, you see, because I've got this bug about the pokies and I can't stop myself."
"Are you willing to receive prayer and counseling on this gambling addiction? Jesus can break those chains and set you free."
"Sorry, Pastor, but, ah, it's too much fun. The pokies are my life now."
"Then I'm afraid that there is only one thing I can do. I have to hand you over to Satan so that your old nature is destroyed and your spirit can be saved," he said sadly.
That was six months ago. Since then, my life had degenerated into a living nightmare. I lost my job, my girlfriend, and my family rejected me too. I had also developed agonizing stomach ulcers.
I saw that I had arrived at last, so I joined the others mounting the steps and made my way inside the church.
"Matthew, what is it that brings you here today?" said a welcoming voice.
"Oh, Pastor Grant, um, I've come to the realization that I need help. I want Jesus to set me free from those chains you told me about. I’ve made a complete mess of my life."
"That’s excellent news, Matthew. Come and see me after the service, and we'll begin your counseling."
I thanked him and slunk like a dog with my tail between my legs to the back row.
A gentle hand touched my elbow and a familiar voice said, "Oh no you don’t.”
My face burning, I turned to face Michelle. This was it; she was going to tell me to leave.
“Come to the front and sit with Andrew, myself, and your other friends. We've missed you," she said, smiling.
"How can you say that? I stole money from so many of you. I stole from you, Michelle."
"But you have returned with repentance, I see.” She held out a hand. "So, are you coming?"
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