602) A Birthday Party for Agnes

Nighthawks, 1942, Edward Hopper (1882-1967)


From the book The Kingdom of God Is a Party, 1990, by Tony Campolo

     If you live on the East Coast and travel to Hawaii, you find that there is a time difference that makes three o’clock in the morning feel like nine; so whenever I go there, I find myself wide awake before dawn.  Not only do I find myself up and ready to go while almost everyone else is still asleep, but I find that I want breakfast when almost everything on the island is still closed—which is why I was wandering up and down the streets of Honolulu at 3:30 in the morning, looking for a place to get something to eat. 

     Up a side street I found a little place that was still open.  I went in, took a seat on one of the stools at the counter, and waited to be served.  This was one of those sleazy places that deserves the name, “greasy spoon.”  I did not even touch the menu.  I was afraid that if I opened the thing something gruesome would crawl out.  But it was the only place I could find.

     The guy behind the counter came over and asked me, “What d’ya want?”

     I said I wanted a cup of coffee and a donut.

     He poured a cup of coffee, wiped his grimy hand on his smudged apron, and then he grabbed a donut off the shelf behind him.

     As I sat there munching on my donut and sipping my coffee, the door of the diner suddenly swung open and, to my discomfort, in marched eight or nine provocative and boisterous prostitutes.

     It was a small place, and they sat on either side of me.  Their talk was loud and crude.  I felt completely out of place and was just about to make my getaway when I overheard the woman beside me say, “Tomorrow’s my birthday.  I’m going to be 39.”

     Her “friend” responded in a nasty tone, “So what do you want from me?  A birthday party?  Ya want me to get you a cake and sing ‘Happy Birthday’?”

     “Come on,” said the woman sitting next to me.  “Why do you have to be so mean?  I was just telling you, that’s all.  Why do you have to put me down?  I don’t want anything from you.  I mean, why should you give me a birthday party?  I’ve never had a birthday party in my whole life.  Why should I have one now?”

     When I heard that, I made a decision.  I sat and waited until the women had left.  Then I called over the guy behind the counter, and I asked him, “Do they come in here every night?”

     “Yeah.” he answered.

     “The one right next to me, does she come here every night?”

     “Yeah.” he said.  “That’s Agnes.  Yeah, she comes in here every night.  Why d’ya wanta know?”

     “Because I heard her say that tomorrow is her birthday,” I told him.  “What do you say you and I do something about that?  What do you think about us throwing a birthday party for her—right here—tomorrow night?”

     A cute smile slowly crossed his chubby cheeks, and he answered with measured delight, “That’s great!  I like it!  That’s a great idea!”  Calling to his wife, who did the cooking in the back room, he shouted, “Hey!  Come out here!  This guy’s got a great idea.  Tomorrow’s Agnes’s birthday.  This guy wants us to go in with him and throw a birthday party for her tomorrow night!”

     His wife came out of the back room all bright and smiley.   She said, “That’s wonderful!  You know Agnes is one of those people who is really nice and kind, and nobody does anything nice and kind for her.”

     “Look,” I told them, “if it’s okay with you, I’ll get back here tomorrow morning about 2:30 and decorate the place.  I’ll even get a birthday cake!”

     “No way,” said Harry (that was his name).  “The birthday cake’s my thing.  I’ll make the cake.”

     At 2:30 the next morning, I was back at the diner.  I had picked up some crepe-paper decorations at the store and had made a sign out of big pieces of cardboard that read, “Happy Birthday, Agnes!”  I decorated the diner from one end to the other.  I had that diner looking good.

     The woman who did the cooking must have gotten the word out on the street, because by 3:15 every prostitute in Honolulu was in the place.  It was wall-to-wall prostitutes… and me!

     At 3:30 on the dot, the door of the diner swung open, and in came Agnes and her friend.  I had everybody ready, and when they came in we all screamed, “Happy birthday!”

     Never have I seen a person so flabbergasted… so stunned… so shaken.  Her mouth fell open.  Her legs seemed to buckle a bit.  Her friend grabbed her arm to steady her.  As she was led to sit on one of the stools along the counter, we all sang “Happy Birthday”‘ to her.  As we came to the end of our singing with “happy birthday, dear Agnes, happy birthday to you,” her eyes moistened.  Then, when the birthday cake with all the candles on it was carried out, she lost it and just openly cried.

     Harry gruffly mumbled, “Blow out the candles, Agnes!  Come on!  If you don’t blow out the candles, I’m gonna hafta blow out the candles.”  And, after a few seconds, he did.  Then he handed her a knife and told her, “Cut the cake, Agnes.  Yo, Agnes, we all want some cake.”

     Agnes looked down at the cake.  Then without taking her eyes off it, she slowly and softly said, “Look, Harry, is it all right with you if I… I mean is it okay if I kind of… what I want to ask you is… is it O.K. if I keep the cake a little while?  I mean, is it all right if we don’t eat it right away?”

     Harry shrugged and answered, “Sure!  It’s O.K.  If you want to keep the cake, keep the cake.  Take it home, if you want to.”

     “Can I?” she asked.  Then, looking at me, she said, “I live just down the street a couple of doors.  I want to take the cake home, okay?  I’ll be right back.  Honest!”

     She got off the stool, picked up the cake, and carrying it like it was the Holy Grail, walked slowly toward the door.  As we all just stood there motionless, she left.

     When the door closed, there was a stunned silence in the place.  Not knowing what else to do, I broke the silence by saying, “What do you say we pray?”

     Looking back on it now, it seems more than strange for a sociologist to be leading a prayer meeting with a bunch of prostitutes in a diner in Honolulu at 3:30 in the morning.  But then it just felt like the right thing to do.  I prayed for Agnes.  I prayed for her salvation.  I prayed that her life would be changed and that God would be good to her.

     When I finished, Harry leaned over the counter and with a trace of hostility in his voice, he said, “Hey!  You never told me you were a preacher.  What kind of church do you belong to?”

     In one of those moments when just the right words came, I answered, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for whores at 3:30 in the morning.”

     Harry waited a moment and then almost sneered as he answered, “No you don’t.  There’s no church like that.  If there was, I’d join it.  I’d join a church like that!”

     Well, that’s the kind of church that Jesus came to create!…   Anybody who reads the New Testament will discover a Jesus who loved to gather with whores and with all kinds of left-out people.  The publicans and ‘sinners’ loved Him because He did not reject them.  The lepers of society found in him someone who would eat and drink with them.   And while pious people could not relate to what He was about, those lonely people who usually weren’t included took to him with excitement.


See and hear Tony Campolo tell this story at:



Luke 15:1-2  —  Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus.  But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”


 Matthew 22:1-3…8-10  —  Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying:  “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son.  He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come…    Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come.  So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’  So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.


 Luke 5:29-32  —  Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them.  But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”

Jesus answered them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.  I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”


John 8:10-11  —  Jesus straightened up and asked her (the woman caught in adultery), “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”  

“No one, sir,” she said.

“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”


We beg you, Lord, to help and defend us.

Deliver the oppressed, have compassion on the despised, and raise the fallen.

Reveal yourself to the needy, and bring back those who have strayed from you.

Heal the sick, feed the hungry, lift up the weak, and remove the prisoners’ chains.

May everyone come to know that you alone are God, that Jesus is your Son, and that we are your people, the sheep of your pasture.  

AMEN.  –Clement of Rome  (??-99 A. D.)