In spite of my bubble gum robbery when I was five and my short career in drug dealing and organized crime, I was basically a good kid. I credit my parents for that. Mom and Pop trusted me, and I always tried to live up to that trust.
I never had a curfew when I was a kid. During my youngest years, I would be out playing in the street. When it came time for dinner or bed, Mom would just open the front window and yell, “Philip!” When I got older, the only rule was, “Just call and let us know where you are and who you’re with.” It’s crazy, but I think my first leanings toward being a pastor were because of Mom and Pop’s laissez faire parenting.
I had one of my religious awakenings when I was fifteen. It was on a Wednesday night. I managed to get home from the drug store early enough that summer evening to make it to prayer meeting. Pastor Watt was on his annual August-long vacation, so we had a guest preacher, Capt. Roger Lingle from the U.S. Army Chaplain School in nearby Bay Ridge. He gave a message that inspired no one except me. And when he asked for those who “really meant business” with God to step forward and dedicate their life to Christ I was out of my seat in a flash. My life was never the same after that.
I felt like I’d enlisted for duty in some kind of cosmic army. It wasn’t a “calling” per se, like to be a pastor or a missionary; I just felt like God might be able to use what little talent, giftedness, and spirit I might possess for God’s purposes. Some of those purposes got a little strange, but Mom and Pop always backed me up.
The first time my parents’ latitude was tested was during the ten days of Billy Graham’s 1969 Crusade at Madison Square Garden. Sometime before the Crusade I learned that Billy’s pianist, Tedd Smith, was working with some local Graham supporters to create an after-hours coffee house to reach the younger crowd of evangelicals. I was all over that. I signed up to be an usher at the Crusade and volunteered to work at the coffee house.
After completing the required usher training, sometime before the June Crusade, I went to a loft in a building a block away from the Garden. There I met Tedd Smith and received my training in operating a soda fountain and running a spotlight. Our house band was a group of Jesus Freak musicians calling themselves The Exkursions. One of them, guitarist Mike Johnson, went on to a long career in Christian rock and blues. The coffee house drew a decent crowd every night, and I enjoyed hobnobbing with Christian celebrities like Smith and Cliff Barrows and George Beverly Shea. I got pretty good at running a follow spot as well, good enough to reprise my lighting career in the boom era of Christian rock—I ran spots for White Heart among others—and later in local theater.
The part where Mom and Pop come in is when I’d come home. The coffee house was open until 11:00 p.m. After that we cleaned up the place, which took at least half an hour, and then I had my fifty-five-minute subway ride back to Canarsie and a fifteen minute walk home from the subway station. Almost half the Crusade nights were school nights. Mom and Pop thought long and hard about me coming home so late and still having to get up at 6:00 for school. But it was June. School was almost over. I guess they figured the Lord’s work could trump school work. Gotta love Mom and Pop.
The first night of the Crusade I made a friend, a guy my age named Jack who lived in Howard Beach, Queens. We took the first part of our subway ride home together that Friday night, and continued to ride together each night for the duration of the event. Our ride together was only two stops. I got off the “A” Train at 14th Street; he continued all the way to Howard Beach. It was great to have someone with whom to walk the two blocks to Penn Station late at night, and to wait for the subway together. The second Friday of the Crusade provided us, and ultimately Mom and Pop, with an adventure in ministry we’ve never forgotten.
As we had for the previous week, Jack and I worked at the coffee house. There were only two nights left of the Crusade, and we were already beginning to miss the excitement as we walked to the subway. When we reached the corner outside Penn Station, we saw a middle-aged Black guy sitting by himself on one of the stone benches, clutching a small brown paper bag. He looked lonely, and we were aggressive young fundamentalist Christians. It was a match made in heaven, or so Jack and I thought.
As soon as we struck up a conversation with the stranger, Jack and I knew that saving the guy’s soul would not be as easy as presenting to him the “plan of salvation” from the Epistle to the Romans. First off, he was mumbling just shy of incoherently. We listened carefully. He seemed to understand that we were religious people, and he clearly said he loved the Bible. That was good. We even got something about his mother. But we were totally clueless when he tried to tell us his favorite scripture passage. He kept repeating “when he was set, when he was set.” When who was set where? We just didn’t get it.
Our mumbly friend grew a little impatient with us and grabbed Jack’s arm. I could tell immediately that Jack’s career as an evangelist was coming to a close.
“When he was set! You know. When he was set. It’s my favorite part.”
Had it been the twenty-first century, I’d have Googled those words, or maybe entered them into a search at BibleGateway.com, but we had no shortcuts back then. It was my memory, a quick skim through the Bible, or nothing.
Where had I heard those words, “when he was set”? Fortunately, my race through the Bible started in the New Testament with the Gospel of Matthew. I found what I was looking for in chapter five, the "Sermon on the Mount”:
And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him. . . .
“Is this your favorite passage?”
I read the first of the Beatitudes to him, and our new friend nodded vehemently, grinning from ear to ear.
“My mama used to read that to us!”
I read some more about the blessedness of the “poor in spirit,” the “peacemakers,” and “they that mourn.” The man’s eyes misted over, but the smile remained.
“I’m Maurice,” he said. “Maurice Charles.”
“Do you live around here?” Jack queried.
“I think so.”
Maurice hesitated. He furrowed his brow, concentrating deeply.
“I don’t remember where. Maybe we can find it.”
By this time, Maurice had emitted enough breath for us to realize the cause of his confusion. Alcohol. Demon Rum! Maurice was drunk as the proverbial skunk. The comparison didn’t end there; he needed a shower badly.
We couldn’t provide Maurice with proper washing equipment, so we suggested the next best thing: food.
“Have you eaten anything tonight?”
Our vast experience with television had taught us that nothing helps weaken the effects of liquor like food and coffee. This being Manhattan at 1:00 a.m. we knew there’d be an open coffee shop nearby. There was.
We carefully walked Maurice a block to the coffee shop. We figured a cup of coffee and a cherry danish would get him, and all of us, feeling better. I think it helped, but not his memory.
“I’m sure I live around here. Maybe the next street.”
We walked to the next street west, then north, then south, then another street. Jack’s missionary zeal had run its course.
“I’m sorry, Phil, you’re on your own. Maurice, it was nice to meet you. I’ll be praying for you. Gotta split.”
And he did.
Maurice and I wandered a bit more around Midtown, but his memory of home got worse, not better. It was time to go into full gospel mode.
“Maurice, I can’t let you stay out on the street tonight. If you don’t mind a subway ride to Brooklyn, I’m taking you to my house.”
He didn’t mind. Now it was time to check with my parents.
I thought, rightly, that they were still awake. The call went almost exactly as expected. After explaining why I still wasn’t home at three in the morning, I told them I’d be bringing a guest when I did arrive.
“Yes, he’ll need a place to sleep.”
“Oh, gee! I forgot I have to be at the drugstore at noon. Uh, could you help Maurice get back to Manhattan and maybe find his way home?”
I being me, Mom and Pop were not surprised. Mom and Pop being them, they said they’d take care of it.
Maurice and I got off the subway in Canarsie around 5:00 a.m. The sun was edging into the eastern sky as we walked the seven blocks to my house. He still carried the brown paper bag. I knew what was in it.
“Maurice,” I said, “You’re gonna have to get rid of that bottle now. My parents won’t allow alcohol in the house.”
He looked a little sad, like he was losing a friend, but somewhere on East 94th Street, about two blocks from home, he poured the contents of his prize into the gutter. We walked on, both a little nervous at seeing Mom and Pop.
They had already decided to be up and out of their bedroom when I got home. That way Maurice could sleep in their bed until he woke up, and I’d be able to catch a few Zs before heading to work. Pop said we could discuss the whole situation when I got home that evening.
I walked Maurice upstairs to the bedroom. Mom and Pop had the bed made up with fresh sheets, ready for their guest. They had even placed a set of towels out for him. Maurice was impressed, and also tired; but before he turned in he asked me a question.
“Are you going to sleep with me?”
My answer was a simple, “No. I have a room downstairs, and I have to get up for work in a few hours. You sleep as late as you want. My dad will get you home after you have some breakfast.”
Then I gave him an extra Bible I had and suggested he read more of the Gospels.
For years I wondered about the motivation for Maurice’s’ question. At first I thought he was hitting on me. Then I thought he believed I was hitting on him. Lately I’ve wondered if he expected to be asked for a sexual favor after I extended hospitality to him. Or maybe he was just craving human contact. Maybe it doesn’t matter. He asked an honest question, and I gave an honest answer.
Later that morning I woke up and got ready for work. Mom and Pop planned to drive Maurice into the city, hoping he would know where he lived but willing to drop him off at Penn Station if that was all he knew. They figured he’d survive.
We never really had that talk about what I’d done. They understood why I felt I needed to bring Maurice home, and they knew I’d eventually learn there might be other ways to help people than dragging them to Brooklyn in the middle of the night. Thinking about it now, I wonder what they talked about on that trip home from Manhattan.
A year and a half later I was home from college for a weekend. The phone rang and Mom answered it. Then, to the phone she said,
“He’s here. I’ll get him.”
And to me she said, “It’s for you; some guy named Maurice Charles.”
At first I didn’t recall the name, but I took the phone and said hello. Then I recognized his voice. He said he called because he wanted me to know that he’d gotten his life together. He was working, and he’d quit drinking. He was going to church as often as he could. He thought I might be glad to know that. I was. Before we said goodbye, he said,
“I still have that Bible you gave me. I read it every day.”
I never doubted that Mom and Pop would allow Maurice into their home. It was just what Baisleys did.
Mom and Pop’s trust extended even farther when necessary. During my senior year at Canarsie High, some of my friends did drugs more than the few I sold them. Occasionally they’d do them at parties. I’d always get invited to those parties even though my short-lived drug days were long past. There was a reason for that. Because of my reputation as a basically good kid, and because I was kind of crazy-fun even without chemical additives, I’d be the guy they’d entrust their drug-free girlfriends to. I’d have a great time surrounded by beautiful women, and they’d get high. A win-win if I ever heard one.
One night, however, a friend had some hash he felt guilty about possessing. He knew he’d smoke it if left on his own, so he called me—at midnight.
“Phil, can you meet me on the Parkway near the station? I’ve gotta talk to you. I’ve got some shit I don’t want to use, and I need you to talk me out of it.”
I woke Mom and Pop, telling them my friend was in a little trouble and needed my help. I didn’t know when I’d be home, but if it went past 2:00 I’d give them a call. It went past 2:00. I called. They said to wrap it up soon if I could, but take care of my friend. I don’t know how many or what kinds of drugs that guy took after that. I only know that for one night he stayed clean. I guess that was another kind of hospitality.
Hospitality was something my parents instilled in me at a very early age. We lived within five miles of Kennedy Airport, the biggest airport on the East Coast. Just about every flight to the U.S. from Europe and Africa landed there, which meant that American missionaries returning home for a “furlough” had to pass through there.
Grace was a very “missionary-minded” church. Although we never had a missionary conference, I know we had two to three missionary speakers each year. And we supported at least eight financially. I grew up hearing stories of miraculous healings, victories over demons and witch doctors, and exciting adventures with exotic animals and dangerous humans in far off places.
The adventure reached me from time to time in the middle of the night when Pop, knowing I was always ready for excitement, would wake me up saying things like, “Hey Phil, Missionary X just flew in from the Congo. The mission board called and asked me to pick him up. He’s going to stay with us tonight and tomorrow and then continue home.”
Off we’d go; me in my pajamas, to pick up a friend or, often, a stranger and offer them a bed and some meals. It’s what my family did, no questions asked.
Missionary airport runs, the occasional stray human brought home, and other hospitalities were ingrained in my genes. Eventually they became part of my life with Sandy and our children. While those years are truly another story, one incident is worth repeating in this context.
Between 1978 and 1982 Sandy and I served as local directors for an evangelical children’s ministry called Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF). Since it was an international mission organization, we were often at meetings with folks from all over the world. We didn’t know many of our French, South African, Brazilian, or other area directors, personally, but we were still connected by our mission affiliation and shared faith.
One night, when Sandy and I were getting ready for a vacation in Florida, we received a phone call from a stranger.
“You don’t know me, but my dad’s the national director of CEF New Zealand. A friend and I are traveling across the U.S. on holiday, and we’re trying to keep our expenses to a minimum. Would it be possible to stay with you for a day or two? We’re only an hour or so from your town.”
I checked with Sandy. We planned on leaving for Florida early the next morning. We thought about it for a second or two, and then the Baisley in me won out. I removed my hand from the receiver.
“Sure. Come on over. Have you eaten yet? We’ll get some food ready.”
When our guests arrived we ordered a pizza. Then we explained what was going to happen the next morning. Basically it was this: we were going to give them a house key and leave them our home for as long as they needed it.
“We’ll be leaving about 6:00 a.m. Use what you need from the fridge and pantry. There’s a supermarket a few blocks away if you need anything. Just put the key through the mail slot in the front door after you lock the back door for the last time. Have fun!”
And that was it. We left our home, one of our cars, and everything we owned except our suitcases with two strangers whom we would likely never see again. It’s just what Baisleys do.
How did a Canarsie boy wind up at a Bible college in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania? Find out in the next episode of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.