It was late when Karen came over from next door with her cell phone. On the line was Emily, a young school teacher who moved here with her husband to be part of our fellowship, and who has been especially good to Jamilla, an against-the-odds teenager on her block. Karen put Emily on speaker, and suddenly we were all together in the middle of a post-modern teenage nightmare.
With part of her disability check, Jamilla had gotten herself a high-status cell phone that connects with internet, and recently she had been experimenting with ‘Urban Chat,’ a sleazy local website where teenagers flirt with each other online. A few hours earlier, an attractive guy from that site had convinced her to send him a nude photograph. Now he was telling her that unless she paid him $60, he was going to forward that photo to every kid he knew at her school. According to Emily, Jamilla was frantic, embarrassed, and very much afraid.
The ensuing conversation ranged from the new dangers of technology to the old vulnerabilities of adolescent insecurity to the unique blind spots of kids in poverty, but it kept coming back to the problem at hand: What should Emily tell Jamilla to do? For good reasons, Jamilla was terrified to tell her family, and it didn’t take much research to discover she could get into big trouble for sending the photo in the first place. In the end, we told her to agree to pay off her blackmailer the next morning, in person, on the campus of the University of Cincinnati. Of course, we had another plan in mind.
Jamilla and I parked near the meeting place early. She walked there alone, while I stood across the street, pretending to talk on my cell phone. Both of us nervously scanned the face of every young man on the sidewalk, looking for the bad guy. When he finally showed up, he walked towards Jamilla with a confident smile. Before he could say a word, I stepped between them.
“My name is Bart Campolo and I’m Jamilla’s pastor,” I said calmly, as his smile disappeared. “I’ve spoken with our lawyer and also with a police officer in our fellowship, and both of them tell me you’re not in any real trouble yet.” I paused for a moment, hoping he wouldn’t run, but he was frozen in place. “Now first of all, I need to watch you delete that photograph from your cell phone.” Wordlessly, he complied.
“Of course,” I continued, “you might have a copy of that photo on your computer, but I’m here to tell you that if it goes anywhere, I will personally see to it that you go to jail for at least a year and that your family pays out a great deal of money. Do you understand me?” He nodded, as I held up my camera and pushed the button. “Now I have your photograph and your telephone number and I know where you go to school. Son, what you did to Jamilla was ugly and cruel, but I’m going to let you walk away from it. But I promise you, if we ever hear from you again, the wrath of God will come down on you. Again, do you understand me?” He looked me in the eye for the first time. “Yes sir,” he said. I stepped back. “All right then. You may go.”
As he walked away, I put my arm around Jamilla, who still looked very afraid. Honestly, I was a little bit weak in the knees myself. I’m not a natural tough guy, after all. “Do you really think it’s over?” she asked quietly.
“Yes I do,” I replied. “That boy is terrified, and he ought to be. Do you know why?”
“Because I wasn’t bluffing. I meant every word I said.”
On our way to her high school, I gave Jamilla just the kind of fatherly talking to you would expect, about trust and men and self-respect, and Jamilla gave me just the kind of relieved, grateful attention you would expect after an ordeal like that. Over and over, I tried to communicate to her just how precious she is to us. Jamilla teared up, and told me how much it meant to have a caring grown-up friend on her block. Without Emily, she said, she didn’t know where she would be.
After I dropped her off, I called Emily and Karen and Marty, so they could stop worrying. Then I gave thanks for women like them, who live out their love in the most natural ways, and make safe havens for girls in trouble. And then I treated myself to a greasy diner breakfast, during which I reflected at some length on the peculiar exhilaration of utterly overpowering a mean, abusive person in the name of Jesus.
It doesn’t happen nearly often enough, but I do love the smell of justice in the morning!
Keep the faith,
Bart Campolo is minister at Walnut Hills Fellowship in Cincinnati Ohio. Read this post and others at his blog.