Piero gulped and straightened his tie. He had to give a Bible study to a newly converted woman, Irma, who lived on the outskirts of a very, very dangerous neighborhood in Lima, Peru.
And here, just a few minutes’ walk away from Sister Irma’s house, slouched against the walls on each side of the street where he had to pass, were some 30 tough-looking guys.
Taking a deep breath, Piero headed straight toward the ragged, menacing group of young men. Piero wasn’t afraid, really—being a missionary had taught him never to be afraid—but he was the perfect target for thieves: all dressed up in a suit and tie, with a watch, a cell phone, and a nice briefcase full of expensive religious books.
Sending up a quick prayer for protection, Piero stepped off the curb into the street. It stretched out before him for what seemed like miles. The mean-looking guys paid him no attention, but Piero had all his senses alert in case he had to make a run for it. Still, he knew he didn’t stand a chance if they decided to jump him.
He was halfway there. Almost to safety, almost . . .
Just then one of the guys, one with a frightful scar down his cheek, turned and looked straight at him. Their eyes locked for a brief instant, and Piero’s heart stopped beating as time froze. In that fragment of a second, Piero knew.
These weren’t just friends hanging out. They were the Pirañas—the most bloodthirsty gang in all of Lima. They wouldn’t rob him. They’d cut him to pieces.
Then he was afraid.
Piero brought his foot down again, brought the other one up, then down again, and kept walking right through the middle of the gang. He tried to pick up the pace, but he seemed to be moving in slow motion. He could feel every heartbeat, separated by what seemed minutes; he could hear every ragged breath; and his footsteps thudded in his ears.
At last Piero reached the end of the gauntlet, but he kept expecting them to suddenly let out a blood-curdling yell and take after him with clubs, knives, and maybe even guns.
He risked a glance back. They hadn’t moved.
Piero fairly sprinted up the narrow, winding cement steps that crawled up the mountain to the tiny shacks he was headed toward.
Amazing. He was already at Sister Irma’s door and pounding for all he was worth. Even he hadn’t known he could run that fast.
The door swung open, and Sister Irma’s dark and hardened face lighted up into a huge, beautiful grin when she saw him.
“Why, it’s my preacher! How you doin’, boy?”
Piero tried to say hi, but he still hadn’t quite caught his breath, and Sister Irma immediately narrowed her eyes. “You OK, pastor boy? What’s the matter?”
Piero shook his head and managed to crack a smile. “Just a little scared, that’s all. I walked right through the Pirañas on my way, and I guess it shook me up some.”
“You did what?” Sister Irma screeched. “And you still alive, boy? They didn’t hurt you?”
“No, no, I’m fine . . .”
“Them fool boys gonna cook themselves yet. Now how come Switchblade didn’t tell me they’d be here today? I woulda waited for you. Come along wi’ me now. We can’t afford to have this happen again.”
“Where are we going?” Piero stammered as Sister Irma grabbed his arm and dragged him back down the steps.
“Why, to talk to them Pirañas, of course!”
Piero gulped. “But . . . aren’t you sort of . . . I mean, wouldn’t it be dangerous for you to . . .”
Sister Irma hooted. “Me? Dangerous for me? They’re all scared senseless of me! I used to be their leader until I got into this church business. They know better than to mess wi’ Big Mama. Now I’m gonna make sure they don’t mess wi’ you.”
Piero’s mouth dropped open, but he didn’t have time to be shocked because “Big Mama” had already dragged him right back to the street he’d gone through minutes before.
The Pirañas looked up at Big Mama, and a few of them edged away. She stormed straight up to the scar-faced guy and boxed him on the ears.
“Switchblade, you good-for-nothin’ fool!” she yelled. “How come you here today? This the day my pastor boy come by, and you all give him a big scare! That ain’t gonna happen again, ya hear? You mess wi’ him, I mess wi’ you! You got that? You all jus’ be nice an’ don’ make no trouble for him like today when he go by, and we’ll all be happy.”
Switchblade rubbed his ears miserably and scowled at Piero.
“He ain’t come by here,” he muttered. The other guys of the gang mumbled agreement, looking for all the world like a bunch of guilty little puppy dogs.
Big Mama stared at him with her mouth open.
“Course he come by here. Ain’t no other way. If he say he go through here, he go through here.”
“Ain’t nobody come by here this afternoon. If we seen a city boy dressed up all pretty like this cat here, he wouldn’t make it out ’cept buff naked and in a box, maybe.”
Piero swallowed. “But I did come down this very street, not 15 minutes ago,” he said carefully. “You were leaning against that wall over there, and you looked straight at me. Don’t you remember?”
Switchblade glared at him. “You callin’ me a liar?”
“Don’t you use that tone with my pastor, boy!” Big Mama yelled.
Switchblade shrugged, shoving his hands into his pockets. “Anybody see this cat go by here?” There was a general murmur. No, no one had seen him.
“Ain’t nobody come by here today,” Switchblade repeated.
Piero nodded, understanding dawning on him. “I went by,” he said quietly. “But I was invisible. The angels I was walking with hid me so that I wouldn’t come to any harm.”
Switchblade narrowed his eyes suspiciously, then dropped his gaze and shrugged again.
“Come on, pastor,” Big Mama said, taking Piero’s arm. “You owe me a Bible study.” She turned and shook her fist back at the gang. “You jus’ remember, boys, he’s my homeboy. We’re tight. I back him. He ain’t gonna be comin’ to no harm.”
Piero smiled to himself as he
accompanied Sister Irma—that is, Big Mama—back to the little shack on the top of the hill. He knew he was safe from the gang now. Big Mama was certainly a power to be reckoned with. With her backing him, he knew he’d have no trouble.
But why had he ever been scared in the first place? Even without Big Mama’s protection, he’d been safe all along, because he was backed by the toughest warlord of all, the Lord of hosts. He was tight with God. And as long as God needed him to be safe, He wasn’t going to let anybody mess with His homeboy.