Column: The 3 a.m. Birthday Party

By Drew Williams

Dr. Tony Campolo is a sociologist, pastor, author, public speaker and former spiritual advisor to a U.S. President. He once shared the following story that made a great impression on me.

Tony had flown from the continental United States to Honolulu, and because of the jet lag he had awoken at 3:00 a.m. His body thought it was about 9 a.m. and was asking for breakfast. He got up, and wandered down the street and into a down-at-the-heel restaurant. He ordered a cup of coffee and a donut. The man behind the counter was an unkempt man named Harry. Harry poured him a cup and handed Tony a donut. Not long after, the front door burst open and eight or nine women entered, having ended their working night in the brothels that crowded the back streets. They sat down at the counter next to Tony. One of the women was heard to say, “Tomorrow is my birthday. I’ll be 39.” Her friend said, “So, what do you want from me? I suppose you want a party or something. Maybe you want me to bake you a cake?” The first woman (whom Tony later found out was named Agnes) said, “Why are you so mean? I don’t want nothing from you. I’ve never had a birthday party and no one has ever baked me a cake. So be quiet!”

At that point Tony had an idea. When the ladies had left, he asked Harry, “Do these women come in here every night?” Harry responded, “Yes, they do.” “This one next to me—Agnes?” Harry nodded, “Same time, just like clockwork.” So Tony said, “What about if we throw a party for Agnes, a birthday party?” Harry smiled and called out to his wife in the kitchen. She thought it was a great idea.

The next night Tony came back at the same time and the place was decorated with crepe paper and a sign on the wall, “Happy Birthday, Agnes!” They sat and waited. Soon others began to trickle in. Word had gotten round on the streets.

At the regular time, at 3:00 in the morning, Agnes and her friends burst through the door and everyone shouted, “Happy birthday, Agnes!” Her knees buckled. Her friends caught her. She was stunned. They led her to the counter and she sat down. Harry brought the cake out and her mouth fell open and her eyes filled with tears. They put the cake down in front of her and sang, “Happy birthday.” Harry said, “Blow the candles out so we can all have some.” But Agnes just stared at the cake. Finally, they convinced her to blow out the candles.

Harry handed her a knife and told her to cut the cake. She sat looking at the cake, as if it was the most precious thing she had ever seen. Then she asked, “Do I have to cut it?” Harry said kindly, “No, you don’t have to cut it.” Then she added, “I would like to keep it for a while. I don’t live far from here. Can I take it home? I’ll be right back.” Everybody looked at her with puzzled faces and he said, “Sure, you can take it.” She got off the stool, picked up the cake and walked slowly toward the door. Everyone just stood there motionless as she left.

When the door closed, there was a stunned silence in the place. Not knowing what else to do, Tony broke the silence by saying, “What do you say we pray?” Later Tony remarked that it just felt like the right thing to do. He prayed for Agnes. He prayed that her life would be changed and that she would encounter the fullness of God’s love for her. As he said “Amen” at the end of his prayer, Harry leaned over the counter and said to him, “Hey, I didn’t know you were a preacher!” Tony answered, “I’m not a preacher. I’m a sociologist.” Harry asked, “Well, what kind a church do you come from anyway?” Tony said, “I guess I come from a church that throws a birthday party for a woman called Agnes at 3 o’clock in the morning.” And Harry said, “No, you don’t. There’s no such church like that ‘cause if there was,” he said, “I’d join it.”

Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least…you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40) We are all God’s children. We are all made in God’s image. God is tenacious in love, all pursuing, ever persevering and He refuses to give any of us up. If we will heed His call, Jesus will lead us into the extraordinary adventure of His love, an adventure that will bring us to the most unlikely places to restore all those who, beneath the dust and debris of disappointment and battered dreams, still bear His image. Many times we will be wearied and soiled in His great love as we seek to be His hands and feet, but it will be life to us and it will be life to all those for whom He would have us serve and celebrate.

Publisher’s Note: We are grateful for the opportunity to share Drew’s weekly devotionals with Greenwich. About a year and a half ago, I walked into Greenwich Hospital to visit a friend who had just delivered a very premature baby (who is perfectly healthy now!) and I noticed the volunteer behind the welcome desk reading the Greenwich Sentinel.

“Excuse me,” I said, “may I ask what you like most and least about that paper ? I’m the publisher,” I explained, “and always looking to improve.”

She opened the paper to Drew’s column and said, “this is what I love. I need more of this.”

That is a comment I have heard many, many times since.

As you may have read in the Sentinel a few weeks ago, the Rev. Andrew Williams, Drew to us, will serve as the next bishop for the Anglican Diocese of New England. Drew is set to be consecrated on March 16, 2019.

As you can imagine, Drew has a lot on his plate at the moment and will be taking a month off from writing. Please offer your prayers for his successful and smooth transition. If you have a favorite from among his columns, please email me at and let me know so that we can organize a reprint.