The love of Jesus was tangible as more than 100 homeless people and a group of volunteers from various churches mingled and worshiped the Lord on the square in front of the Port Elizabeth City Hall on Tuesday evening. Leading the ‘city feed’ outreach with heartfelt passion was Southern Kings captain Luke Watson.
I interviewed Watson over coffee next morning and discovered that the thrice-weekly ‘city feeds’ that he and his wife Elaine host under the banner of their ‘Love Story‘ ministry, are the most normal thing in the world to the talented rugby player whose greatest ambition is to become a full-time missionary “in the hellholes of the world where nobody else is prepared to go”.
Watson firmly believes that his and the Kings’ best rugby days are still ahead. But while he considers his professional rugby career to be a great blessing he says it was never something that he sought.
“At the age of 17 all I wanted to do was devote my life to reaching out to opressed people and spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ,” he said.
“I so badly wanted it and I prayed every night for it. And every day rugby got more and more apparent and the doors were just opening and before I knew it I was a professional rugby player — still praying ‘Please can I become a full-time missionary’.”
At the age of 18 and 19 Watson used to reach out to homeless children in Port Elizabeth. Some years later, while captaining the Stormers and Western Province he remembers driving home from practice one night and pleading with God to use him to reach the opressed. He said God directed him to an open field in the Cape Town city centre where He said he would find people. Watson saw a number of street people on the field and went to a nearby shop where he bought 50 pies and 50 cans of
He said the people on the field were suspicious of him at first but that night was the beginning of a season in which he spent every Friday night with them. Sometimes he got dressed in shabby clothes and sat on street corners at midnight to try and find out how it felt to be a street person. One night he sat on the street in Sea Point “in front of my very expensive car”. He bowed his head so that people would not recognise him, as he was a well known public figure. During his four hours vigil he said: “People threw cents at me. Most walked past thinking I was a homeless drunk. The only person who stopped and asked ‘Are you ok?’ was a homeless person.”
During this season Watson said he often got into arguments with security guards and policemen who accused him of bringing more homeless people into the area. He also offended people in restaurants when he brought in groups of homeless people.
Watson admits that he was arrogant at that time and while he had lots of grace for poor, oppressed people, he had little grace and consideration for other people. He also was naive and had to learn a lot of lessons on the street — like how people sold the food and clothes he gave them to buy drugs.
At that time he also tried to “find his spiritual feet” and overcome fear by prayer-walking up Table Mountain at 2am in areas where he knew people had been attacked.
God finally told him to end that season and to concentrate on learning about grace.
In 2009 Watson and his wife, Elaine, who he married while he was in Cape Town, moved to Bath in England, where God took him through a different season in which “I encountered God in a most powerful and beautiful way” and “He [God] became more real than ever”.
Back in Port Elizabeth in 2012 Watson soon felt the call back to street ministry.
“It all started one night again. It was 4am and I couldn’t sleep because I was in so much pain after a shoulder op.”
He said as he lay crying out to God, the Lord told him to give his most prized possessions to the most oppressed and downtrodden people.
“In my life I had previously given away all my life savings three times. The only thing I hadn’t given away was my rugby jerseys – my Stormers, my Sharks, my Springbok. They were my most prized possession.”
During the early hours of that morning he loaded about 160 kg of prized rugby clothes into eight kit bags and spent the next three hours distributing them to homeless people.
“To this day I still see guys in the area wearing these jerseys. I have never regretted it.”
Watson said he never regrets being obedient to what he feels the Holy Spirit is telling him to do, even if there seem to be no results or ‘devastating results’.
“I take care of the process and God takes care of the results.”
About a year ago, Elaine visited the township home of a young mother and saw that all she had in the way of baby care material was one bottle of cream and two or three nappies. A young mother herself, with ample baby care resources, she was moved by compassion and organised a fund raising tea party on behalf of the poor mother. The event was a great success and gave birth to Love Story which was founded on Luke 10:37 in which Jesus refers to the compassionate action of the Good Samaritan, saying “Go and do likewise”.
Movement of restoration
Initially the focus of Love Story was on babies but later they asked the question “What do we want this to be?” and decided it must become a movement of restoration.
“It is about people’s basic needs, to restore their dignity, to restore their hopes and dreams, to restore them as human beings. The ultimate goal is to restore sons and daughters to their Father. If we don’t have this ultimate goal we are just another charity,” he said.
“Love Story is not about meeting a specific need but about meeting whatever needs come across our path. We don’t fall into any one category so people with different talents and abilities and resources can contribute in any way they want.”
He said the movement has been addressing a variety of needs but the biggest project at the moment is the ‘city feeds’ which are now held three nights a week (on Tuesday, Friday and Sunday from 17:45). Christians from churches all over Port Elizabeth get involved, preparing warm food that is handed out to the homeless people, and participating in the worship and ministry on the square.
“We’ve seen some incredible things happen,” he said.
Indeed on Tuesday night when I was at the ‘city feed’ some people testified about restoration in their lives through the love of Jesus Christ. One man thanked God that though they slept on the street they knew He was protecting them from dangers.
Watson said the ‘city feed’ ministry was a result of him responding one night to an instruction from God to take back the city for Him. For six months he prayer-walked Govan Mbeki Street in the heart of the city late at night. He was joined by a few people and they began to bring food for homeless people who approached them. Then they started a weekly ‘city feed’ and as the numbers of homeless people and volunteers grew they expanded it to three nights a week.
A month ago Watson visited Iris Ministries in Mozambique. He was invited there by some pastors from the famous, radical ministry to the poor led by Heidi and Roland Baker. While he was still pondering whether or not to go, Elaine bought him a ticket and sent him off.
“It blew my mind. It’s brought about a significant shift in me. And it 100% confirmed what God is doing here [in PE] and the direction in which the Spirit was leading me.”
Watson said the unrestrained worship at the Iris Ministries church was “like heaven on earth”. But the biggest shift he experienced there was being exposed during ministry to the culture of honouring everybody from the poor, to wealthy donors, to volunteers. It is something major that he has definitely embraced.
He said missionaries at Iris who just did what God called them to do without any recognition were among his greatest heroes.
“Just to go and see the miracles — these servant hearts — is unbelievable!”
During his five day stay at Iris Minsitries, Heidi Baker invited him to speak to the church.
“It was the greatest honour of my life to stand on a platform that I knew God had just given me,” he said.
He spoke about he restoring power of Jesus Christ and His love.
Watson says that after receiving confirmation in Mozambique that God wanted him to buy a big house and take in people to disciple he had to take some drastic action. He sold his house just before he left for Mozambique and signed a lease on a smaller house with a view of simplifying his life. Against all odds he managed, within a short time, to get out of the lease, buy a big house and find five people to move in to the house on the understanding that he will disciple them daily.
He says that with the lessons they have learned, he and Elaine have determined to “live by two simple things”.
Love that costs
“Everything we do is birthed out of love. — a love that costs, a love that hurts. And everything we do out of that love is done in an honouring manner: we honour people, we humble ourselves and in honouring people we honour God. And that’s all led by the Spirit. Simple.”
In the past few weeks he has also been led to start walking around the worst streets of Central late at night. It is a tough area, full of drug dealers, pimps and prostitutes. There are many foreigners and Muslims and the atmosphere is confrontational. A few nights ago he had what started as a hostile encounter with a drug dealer but ended with them holding hands “as I prayed the love of Jesus over him and his family”. About half an hour later a man threatened him with a knife and he was sure he was going to be stabbed. But the confrontation ended and as he drove off God told him not to let that incident detract from what had happened.
“So I went back a couple of nights later. Since then I have invited others to join me. We just walk the area and see what the Sprit does.”
I asked how his wife feels about his nocturnal activities.
“She is used to it. She just says ‘ok, be careful, good night. I come back at 2 or 3am and the next morning I tell her the stories.”
Watson says that his rugby career, with its many hard lessons like putting the team first and getting up after defeat, has been a wonderful preparation ground for his life’s calling.
“I could not have asked for a better training ground. It’s been an incredible blessing. An incredible privilege. I think the Kings is only in the beginning stages of what God is wanting to do. I do believe for me the best rugby days are still ahead. And after that, who knows?
“But I want to go to the most broken and opressed people in the world because I know its where I will experience the most of God’s grace. We are going to see God’s love and His grace and mercy and justice flow deeper and bigger in the area where there is more sin and need. I want to get into those environments.I want to get into the hell holes on earth for two reasons: because I will learn, get changed, get impacted. And we will see God’s light shine in the darkness. And thats always been my prayer. To this day.”
He says that as a husband and the father of two little girls he does not approach his missionary aspirations lightly.