A stranger hugged me the other day in front of my house. This wasn’t the kind of thing I’d come to expect on the streets of Houston. So I’m still soaking it all in.

After a day on the town, I was giving our one year old his favorite snack. He was squeaking and giggling while I sliced away, and didn’t notice a thing as my wife said, “there’s someone screaming outside.” Not sure what was going on, I headed to the front door to see for myself.

Just outside our door, I saw a young woman clawing her way out the passenger door of a car, a man inside violently restraining her with screams and shouts loud enough to be heard up and down our street. I threw open the door and sprinted across to the car. Not knowing what I would find (guns, drugs, etc…?) I ran with my thumb already on the 9-button of my cell, and memorized the license plate. I knew only that something needed to be done by someone.

Approaching the car I saw a Hispanic man wrestling with a lady who kept saying over and over, “Let me out! Let me out!” Spittle was all over his face and hair, rage in his eyes, and hate dripped from his lips. I was not a welcome presence… for him. But for her my presence meant salvation, and freedom. I made it clear that I was there to help, and was prepared to call 911 if needed to protect the young lady.

Then he came at me yelling, arms raised and chest puffed up, “I don’t even care anymore…. Get lost!” ready to destroy me. I noticed for the first time how huge he was, 6’5, 270 lbs, and able to do major damage. Not praying exactly, but knowing that violence towards me would too easily be transferred to his girl-friend, I tried calmly to talk him down. Nothing worked until I pointed out to him how much God loved his girl-friend, and how much God loved him, and how terrible it is to do violence to one of God’s beloved children. There was nothing strategic about this! No training equipped me with how to respond.

But with those words, he almost instantly calmed down and backed down. Then he broke down in tears. He began to tell me their story, and she chimed in. I told them both I was a pastor at a local church, repeated that I was there to help them, and made it quite clear that no violence would be accepted in front of my house. All the while I wondered to myself what my neighbors were thinking as the peaked through their blinds at this scene before them.

Over the next 20 minutes I spent time hearing their stories, repairing their lost sense of hope, and working towards some solutions to their problems: Violence is bad, God is good, and people who care for you will help you journey with both those realities. In the shadows of Houston’s flickering street lights, I shared the way of peace and relationship with two young people I came to deeply appreciate.

Before it was all over, while tears of mercy streamed down his shame and now hope stained checks. He set aside his machismo, reached over to pull me in tight, and held me for over a minute. “Thank you, thank you, thank you… I love you man,” was the new language falling from his lips.  Funny, but while he was hugging me, I noticed for the first time he was about my size, 5’9, 180 lbs or so.

I don’t know what became of them. Perhaps they repeated the story the next night on another street not far from where I live. If so her victimization falls at the feet of my pastoral naiveté. Or, perhaps it’s true that out of the depths of pain and sorrow comes new life. And if so, there is hope for my new friends. And hope for us all. And there is hope too, that next time my neighbors will join me in working nonviolently for hugs on our streets.