By: Ali Elizabeth Turner
It’s Spring Break, and while I realize that it is no longer considered politically correct to refer to it as “Easter vacation,” this season is about new life that comes forth after chaos and great trial. Fifty years ago, our nation was badly divided, and as Solomon said with perfect anointing, “There is nothing new under the sun.” There were race riots, anti-war demonstrations that sometimes turned into riots, college campus riots; politicians were routinely referred to as “hawks” or “doves” and not much else because everyone under 30 “knew” Washington politicians were just a part of “the Establishment”; drug use was rampant; the sexual revolution was in full swing; Charles Manson had sullied our culture with a whole new glimpse of evil; John Lennon wanted us to first “Imagine,” and then from his bed-in with Yoko, “Give Peace A Chance,” as if staying in bed for a week would bring world peace. In a word, it was a hot mess, just like today.
Then as now it was customary for college students to descend by the thousands on Ft. Lauderdale, FL, for Spring Break, and I think it’s accurate to say that their intent was for one week to be hedonists, and in many cases, straight up debauched. It is also customary for groups of believers to go to Lauderdale for the “purpose of bringing purpose” to souls that are lookin’ for love in the all the wrong places, and fifty years ago, I experienced something there that changed everything.
This is not an easy experience to discuss, due in part to how it undid me. I was a fledgling “Jesus People” Christian, having just completely surrendered my life to Christ, and I had joined the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship chapter on my college campus. IVCF is one of the national evangelical organizations that goes to Ft. Lauderdale every spring, and I chose to join them. To say that I had no idea what I was doing, let alone what I would encounter, is a woeful understatement.
We worked in rotating teams, we sang on the beach, we gathered at night time for concerts, and it was there that I encountered God’s ability to love the unlovely in a way that changed me forever. It was one of the “beach nights,” and a divine appointment was unknowingly set for me with a man who embodied everything I despise, and still do. He was a full-on racist; no micro-aggression here—he was on the run from police in Ohio for setting a house full of black people on fire for the unabashed purpose of killing them, and I found myself talking to him alone, with no partner. Yes, there were people all around, and I don’t think I was in any physical danger, but I was definitely in the deep end of the ocean with this guy. I was a sheep amongst wolves, as Jesus promised. What made it even more challenging was that physically he looked like an oily weasel, almost a stereotypical bad-movie bad guy.
I looked at him in disbelief as he told me what he had done, and then the only way I can describe what happened next is that it felt like the top of my head opened like the lid of a teapot, and the insane-by-human-standards love of God for this utterly lost man that had committed a crime against humanity flowed down into my core and out onto the sand. It was mind-and-heart-boggling. It was almost like hearing someone else ask him if he wanted to give his life to Christ, and if he was willing to tell God he was sorry for what he had done. We prayed, and while I can’t judge a heart, it seemed that his tears were like those Paul experienced on the road to Damascus. We parted, and I walked a few feet down to the shore, trying to process what had just happened. The moon was huge, pale and lovely, and in that moment, I came to a profound revelation of “For God so loved the world…”
That was 50 years ago, and it is as real today as it was then. Do I hope he was caught, tried, and convicted? Yes. Would I have gone to see him in jail? Yes. Why? Because 50 years later I still need the Savior just as much as he did, and so do you.