December 2022 – Christmas at the Hiway Host

Dear Friend in Christ:
What makes this time truly wonderful is not really all of the lights and decorations and parties … it is that each of us has the renewed opportunity to receive Jesus and His miraculous gifts of salvation, acceptance, and joy.

In my life, I’ve been blessed to be in membership of at least six local churches and have served in planting several others. I was saved and baptized in Southern Baptist churches, graduated an Episcopal High School, graduated a Catholic Jesuit College, attended a Presbyterian seminary, and studied at a Charismatic Bible College. But when people ask me where I received my education, I also tell them I graduated from “The Norman Ronnie Baldwin Theological Institute.” Ronnie Baldwin was the first person to whom I gave personal pastoral care, and he taught me a lot about God and life. Later in this letter, I’ll tell you a little more who Ronnie was and why he is important to our story here.

First, let us consider the words of the prophet Isaiah, given 700 years before the birth of Jesus. Isaiah was empowered by God to prophesy concerning the coming of the Messiah. One of these passages, which we always consider at Christmas, is:

“For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, to order it and establish it with judgment and justice from that time forward, even forever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this” (Isaiah 9:6-7).

Isaiah also clearly saw and prophesied, by the Holy Spirit, what Messiah’s mission would be.

“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me, because the Lord has anointed Me to preach good tidings to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord…” (Isaiah 61:1-2).

Now, fast-forward to Luke 4, where we are given the account of Jesus the Messiah, standing in the synagogue of Nazareth, His hometown.  On this particular Sabbath, Isaiah 61 was the assigned reading, and it was Jesus’ turn to do the reading.  So, Jesus stood up and read these words. Upon concluding, Jesus clearly declared that He is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. He noted that the hearts of the people had grown far from God’s heart.

None of what Jesus said there that day was appreciated by the congregation. In fact, Luke 4 tells us they were filled with wrath and they tried to throw Him over a nearby cliff! I wrote about this incident much more extensively in my September 2021 Pastoral Letter, “The Courage of Jesus.”

Jesus understood His mission…He understood the heart of His Father…He was about doing the Father’s business. What is God’s business?  What is His heart? Approximately 700 years before the birth of Jesus, Isaiah had a revelation of Jesus. In the same way that the Holy Spirit anointed Isaiah and anointed Jesus, He has called and anointed us today so that we might …

Preach Good News to the poor—in word and in deed
Heal the brokenhearted
Proclaim liberty to the captives
Open Prison Doors
Proclaim the year of God’s favor and justice
Comfort those who mourn
Exchange beauty for ashes
Exchange the oil of joy for mourning
Exchange the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness
To cause the weak to become trees of righteousness

Doing these things will cause the world to say, “Glory to God!” We are Ambassadors of Christ, not Conquistadors.  We are called to represent, not dominate.

Let me introduce you to Ronnie Baldwin. He was a Nevada convict who received our magazines and Bible teaching cassette tapes in prison. (Remember cassettes?)  By age 8, Ronnie had been abandoned by both of his parents. He had been jailed for the first time at age 13. He raised and supported himself on the streets of Las Vegas. What he endured was terrible. He became a habitual criminal, and by age 48, he had spent more than half of his life in prison.

But in the mid-1970s, Ronnie miraculously received salvation in Christ while in prison, while listening to one of my Dad’s Bible teachings on cassette tape. Ronnie led many people to Christ, despite his frequent relapses and occasional bad temper. Upon release from prison in 1985, he came to Mobile, where we served at Covenant Church.  He said he wanted to be discipled in Jesus.

I was not yet 22 years old, newly married to my wife, Susanne, eager to continue to serve the Lord, very energetic, and incredibly naïve. Ronnie and I were destined for each other! After they tried working with Ronnie for a few weeks, some of the local church elders asked me to be Ronnie’s pastor. Our church was very large, and we had a Senior Pastor, Elders, and small home group pastors. Wanting to serve any way I could, I agreed. So, I became Ronnie’s pastor and we started a home group for prayer, Bible study, and fellowship.  Ronnie decided he should be my physical training coach at the gym, and along the way, he taught me a lot about the heart of God.

I’ve never known anyone who loved telling others about Jesus more than Ronnie Baldwin. He could be as mean as a grizzly bear, but whenever he saw someone in need or downtrodden, his heart was as tender as a child’s. There are so many stories to tell about Ronnie Baldwin…some hilarious, some heartbreaking…a couple of them are even jawbreaking! Ronnie went home to be with the Lord more than 25 years ago, but I’ll never forget him.

In the late 1980s, Ronnie was living at The Hiway Host Motel out on the edge of town. This sprawling old motor hotel was later torn down, because it was a notorious haven for violence, muggings, drug dealing, prostitution, corruption, and transients on the run from the law.

Ronnie was living there and working as a security guard, which, upon reflection, may not have been ideal. However, it gave Ronnie a unique perspective on how the people there were living their lives, and his heart was broken by the need that he saw. Are our hearts so calloused today that we cannot see the very real needs around us?  You don’t have to live at the Hiway Host to see broken people all around you.

Ronnie came to me in early December and told me there were many children living there who were going hungry and not expecting to get anything for Christmas. As we prayed about it, Ronnie and I knew we had to do something. At the time, I was leading the Young Married Couples Team at the church, and I told them about the need.  We received an offering…canned goods and turkeys and hams were donated, gifts and toys were donated, and one nice large Santa suit was loaned.

Just a few nights before Christmas, Susanne and I began walking the driveway of the Hiway Host…me dressed as Santa, carrying a large bag of food; Susanne carrying more sacks of toys and gifts; and both of us being guarded by three ex-convicts who were also carrying…some items!

In most cases, the children that we were visiting that night were the children of prostitutes … some of their moms were trying to support drug habits, some were just trying to get by…we didn’t go there to ask a lot of questions or to judge.  We were there because the Spirit of the Sovereign Lord had anointed us to preach Good News. In each room where we stopped, we saw the joy and the smiles on the faces of the children we visited that night, and the tears of gratitude from their moms.

After passing out gifts and food, we would then ask if there were any prayer needs. We told each family that we were there in the name of the Lord Jesus.  It’s a little surreal getting down on your knees in a Santa suit and praying with folks! But at the Hiway Host and a nearby trailer park where we also stopped, there were seven people who gave their hearts to Jesus. A truly life-changing, holy night.

Out of that night came many miracles over the following months and years: salvation, healing, deliverance, supernatural provision, infilling of the Holy Spirit, and one of the most incredible stories of family restoration that I’ve ever witnessed. Joy to the world, indeed!

This is what Christmas is all about.  It is the joyful proclamation and demonstration of God’s love for those who have been oppressed; for those who have been crying in darkness. It is the demonstration of His mercy and compassion for the whole world, His perfect provision for salvation in Jesus. It’s about His people being willing to be vessels of blessing to others. Isaiah saw it so clearly…can we see it today? And in seeing, let us say with Isaiah, “Here am I, Lord…send me!”  (See Isaiah 6.)

For more than 50 years, CSM has worked to declare this Good News, and to equip hundreds of thousands of people worldwide to do the same. When you stand with us in your prayers and financial giving, you are part of this great global ministry.  This year has been very challenging financially – in fact, the past three years have been very challenging overall.  May I sincerely ask you to prayerfully consider a special year-end, tax-deductible Christmas gift to support the work of the ministry?

We freely give away ministry resources to many people who cannot afford to give any funds; we want to continue.  Who is the next Ronnie Baldwin, sitting lost and hopeless in prison today, just waiting to hear some Good News … some hope … some purpose? Would you help us reach him or her, and many others who are starving for hope, to know the goodness of God?

In Jesus,
Stephen Simpson

About the Author:

Stephen Simpson

STEPHEN SIMPSON is the Editor of One-to-One Magazine and the Director of CSM Publishing. In addition to publishing ministry, Stephen has served in leadership for churches and ministries in Costa Rica, Florida, Mississippi, Texas, and Michigan, as well as being the Senior Pastor of Covenant Church of Mobile (2004-2013). He continues to travel in ministry across North America and in other nations.