What Is The 5th Sparrow?

Welcome Message From Lead Pastor George Valco
January 2, 2017

What Is The 5th Sparrow?

In the Bible, Jesus spoke in parables about the birds of the air and of sparrows, in particular. In the Gospel of Matthew He said, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny” (Matthew 10:29). But in Luke’s Gospel He said, “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies?” (Luke 12:6) In both Gospels, He said, “And not one of them is forgotten before God. Do not fear; you are of more value than many sparrows.” There is a famous song that says, “His eye is on the sparrow and I know He watches me.” So what about the 5th sparrow? When you do the math, it’s easy to see that the 5th sparrow was a part of a bargain deal. Buy two for a penny, but buy four and get one free! It was like shopping at John’s Bargain Store at 7th & Snyder Avenue in South Philly. The 5th sparrow had no value attached to it. It was thrown in to make a deal. But Jesus said, “Not one of them,” including the 5th sparrow, “is forgotten before God.” God cares about the sparrows, not just beautiful cardinals, blue jays or eagles. Sparrows are ordinary and most people are thought ordinary too, but God knows the location of every sparrow, including the 5th sparrow. How much more does He know where you are today? Fear not, you are of more value than can be imagined. The reason I write this is because I was the 5th sparrow!

Who Am I?

My parents and I moved to South Philadelphia from New Jersey in the summer of 1963 so that my father could be closer to his work at Mount Sinai Hospital. We settled into a small apartment on Tasker Street between 4th and 5th Streets. This was a whole new world to me comprised of three cultures – Irish, Italian and African American. There were some Jewish people left in South Philly, like Moishe’s Delicatessen across the street and the kosher poultry store on the corner.  My new neighborhood had a host of characters straight out of central casting with names like Joey Fox, Weasel, Fat Reds, Harry the Harp, Whitey, Reb (from down south), Eddie the Mole and a lot of Antnys. I had a problem, where would I fit in? I am English, Irish and French on my mother’s side and Austrian (of all things) on my father’s side. To make matters more difficult, I was raised Episcopalian in a predominantly Catholic neighborhood. At 4th and Tasker the Irish guys hung out, and at 5th and Tasker the Italian guys dominated. I was literally in the middle of the block and had a serious identity crisis! On different occasions the Italians beat me up for being Irish and the Irish beat me up for being Italian. The black guys just beat me up on general principles. I finally settled with 5th and Tasker and the Italian community, because they were a little closer to my apartment.  As an only child, another oddity amidst a Catholic community on two sides, I found a new family of sorts…on the corner. As the mid- sixties turned from doo-wop oldies, 45 records and top 40 radio to the psychedelic scene, FM radio and albums like The Beatles’ “Magical Mystery Tour” and, of course, drugs, so my life turned along with it.

Where Am I Headed?

Things happened that I never planned. This was an age of experimentation, new-found freedom and fun, lots of fun, at first. Even the Bible admits that there is “pleasure in sin,” but only “for a season.” My season of sinful pleasures lasted from fourth grade through junior high school days at Furness Junior High. Skipping school became a habit, along with joy rides on the subway to Center City and shoplifting at Gimbels department store. My life was headed downhill, but at first I didn’t know it. Soon my “second family” on the street corner was more important to me than my true family. I never planned it that way; it just seemed to happen.  I never planned to steal cars, vandalize property, use drugs and hurt people, including my parents, but I did. Without God in your life, you are capable of doing many things you never planned!

Rock Bottom – A Long Bad Trip

During the summer of ’69, everything fell apart. Drugs became the driving force in my life. I never planned to use LSD, but I did. I never planned to have a bad trip, but I did…several times. I never planned to get arrested and go to jail, but I did. Most of all, I never planned to become a heroin addict, but I did. By age fifteen I was a junkie. I had become the 5th sparrow. Society thought I was worthless, but I would one day discover that Jesus cared about me and knew where I was.  Two events in 1969 and 1970 were traumatic. Satan was truly attempting to destroy my life and bring me to hell! Jesus said, “The thief (Satan) only comes to steal, kill, and to destroy” (John 10:10). A couple of days before some of us were going to travel to Woodstock, we thought it would be a good idea to drop some acid (LSD) together and begin the journey tripping out. I remember being fearful about this.  Others had so-called “good trips” and relished their mind bending euphoria, but I never had an LSD trip end well. Peer pressure prevailed and I took my tab of LSD with everyone else. I never made it to Woodstock! Instead, I “freaked out” and plummeted into an abyss of terror. Gripped with fear, I did the unthinkable; I took more LSD pills…my whole supply…enough for three people. Days later, my friends told me I had attacked some people in the park like a madman and the police had to beat me into submission with night sticks. I had absolutely no memory of the incident. It was literally a night from hell. I awoke the next day in a padded room, alone at the local police precinct, bruised all over, my body in severe pain. I only tell this story now so that others will know that God offers hope and power over the works of darkness. After this incident, all I wanted was heroin…not to get high for a fun time, but to medicate my messed up mind. I was a shattered person at age sixteen. After this, my mother couldn’t take it anymore and eventually separated from my father and me. She was the one who had me arrested, but my father couldn’t accept the truth about his son’s addiction until it was too late.

Just When You Think Things Can’t Get Any Worse, They Sometimes Do

My two best friends and I bought three vials of injectable methadone with 20 cc’s of the poison used by society as a synthetic substitute for heroin. We went on a demonically inspired binge that night, each injecting the entire amount. Truly the Devil wanted to kill us all! The next day I awoke about three in the afternoon to learn that my friend Bobby had overdosed and was in the hospital, and that my best friend Stephen was dead! A few days after this incident, which made the newspapers, the police came to my house. They told my father I had to come to the precinct for questioning, and that I would be back in a few hours. I didn’t come home for two months! They questioned me about my supplier and threatened me with severe charges, saying I was partially responsible for Stephen’s death, because I assisted him with drug injections which, of course, was common practice among drug users. I remember that they transferred me to police headquarters, known as the Round House, where they played good cop/bad cop with me while I was handcuffed to a chair. I think I ate egg sandwiches and tea for three days before they transferred me to the House of Correction to await trial.  I’ll never forget going up the elevator in police headquarters next to a high school student who had shot another student that day.  I thought to myself, “How did I get here?” I hadn’t planned it this way, but here I was at rock bottom. I thought, “This is not me. I’m not a killer. I don’t belong here!” It was a nightmare, but there was no waking up…not yet.

His Eye Is On the Sparrow

By now I truly was the 5th sparrow. I had become the kid the other parents warned their sons and daughters to stay away from.
But through the years, God had been at work, sometimes in mysterious ways, preparing my heart for change.  Growing up in the Episcopal Church, which some said was like being Catholic without the pope, and being an altar boy had planted a seed of truth, but it was a small seed with incomplete truth. I believed in the God of the Bible, but I had absolutely no relationship with Him. Weekly church services gave me a sin- consciousness, but I knew no remedy. Jesus was presented as a historical figure who died on the cross and rose from the dead, but He didn’t seem relevant to my present situation.  Once, while in a drug rehab, my priest visited me and gave me a sort of self help book of prayers. He wrote in it “God is Love…love is all that matters.” That sounded nice, but I didn’t know how to receive God’s love and, besides, I needed love and power! I needed deliverance. I knew about God, but I didn’t know God.  When I was still in junior high school the Lord reached out to me. I was selling the Old Philadelphia Bulletin Newspaper near 12th and Market Streets. (I made $35.00 a week – good money in those days for a couple of hours after school). A young man approached me and gave me a gospel tract.  I read it casually after work on the bus home. It was about some guy who rejected the gospel and went to hell. At that point I promptly threw it out the window, but I remembered the back was stamped “Teen Challenge of Philadelphia,” a Christian drug rehab that was new to the city.  At this time I was incarcerated in the House of Correction. My cell mate was unique; he watched out for me and showed me the ropes. One Saturday, he was applying lye soap and water to his shirt and pasting it to the wall to create a kind of starched effect. When I asked him what he was doing, he said, “Tomorrow is Sunday and I’m getting ready for church.” He was putting on his Sunday best. This guy was strange, but he also seemed to have a good heart. I now believe he was a Christian although he never witnessed to me outright. You see, God’s eye is still on the sparrow even in prison! I decided to starch my shirt as well, and the next day I went to prison church with him. I don’t remember one thing the preacher said, but I clearly remember praying with him at the end of the service along with others. I don’t remember what I prayed, but I felt something like a spiritual glow as I returned to my cell. Sadly, the seed of truth was not clear enough to bring lasting change. I had no understanding, but God was definitely moving in my direction and on my heart.

Before I left prison, my cell mate gave me an important gift. It was a copy of a book entitled “The Cross and the Switchblade” written by David Wilkerson. David Wilkerson was the founder of Teen Challenge. He said, “Read this book; it can change your life.” Then I remembered the gospel tract that was handed to me a few years back; it was from Teen Challenge. Maybe God was trying to tell me something. “The Cross and the Switchblade” was about gang members in Brooklyn, New York, like Nicky Cruz, who gave their lives to Jesus Christ and were dramatically changed. This was so different from my view of Christianity.  My impression of a Christian was someone who was weak and a sissy, but these guys in the book were the opposite. They were tough characters who accepted Jesus as their Savior. The Jesus they met had power over their sin and bondage. This was the Jesus I needed. I was curious.  Upon my release, I must admit that I didn’t go to church. After all, I didn’t know of a church that preached about a powerful, relevant Jesus, and I didn’t need a tradition or religious ritual. Ironically, a church that preached about this powerful Jesus did exist in South Philadelphia, twelve blocks away from my house, and I would one day be the pastor of that very church. That church is Calvary Temple. Instead of going to church and following up on my new-found spiritual curiosity, I reunited with my old friends. They threw me a big welcome home party with lots of drugs and alcohol. I was back at the bottom again, but God was still at work – “His eye was still on this 5th sparrow.”

 At Eternal Crossroads

By late 1970, I was no longer living, but merely existing. At age sixteen I was completely burned out. I had long since dropped out of high school and I was nursing a double addiction to both heroin and methadone. I would time my heroin usage around my legal dosages of methadone. However, God now had a hook in me, and was about to “reel me in,” and I was ready.  Two things happened to me that were supernatural kinds of divine appointments. I remember driving the streets of South Philly in some beat-up car to buy drugs. What was unusual was that I was with this guy called Gionutz (John), who was in his fifties and a lifelong addict. When I looked over at him I began to tremble.  A voice in my mind said to me, “That’s a picture of you if you don’t change your direction!” Fear gripped me, and I could envision myself lying dead in some alley. God was speaking to me, and the message was a clear warning. Then God began to reel me in.  One evening while I was watching TV, I flipped the channel to one of the so-called educational channels. I never watched that type of stuff, but something directed me. It was a panel discussion with several representatives of Philadelphia area drug programs discussing the solutions they thought they had. “Let me see what these experts have to say,” I sarcastically said to myself. I had personally been to almost all of their programs, to no avail. Their success rates were almost non- existent. I mocked them and cursed them from my couch – high on drugs. Then another guy spoke up. He was the Director of Philadelphia Teen Challenge (can you believe it? – yes!). He said, “We at Teen Challenge believe that Jesus is the answer.” Wow! Jesus…Teen Challenge. It all clicked. I remembered the gospel tract with Teen Challenge stamped on it and I remembered the book, “The Cross and the Switchblade,” the story of Teen Challenge.

During the next few days, God allowed a deep feeling of desperation to come over me, and I called Teen Challenge for an appointment. It would become a life-changing appointment of eternal destiny. Remember, in the Bible Jesus always responded to “desperate faith.” The blind beggar by the roadside cried out to Jesus in desperate faith, and Jesus healed him (Matthew 20:29-34). The woman with twelve years of internal bleeding, in a desperate act of faith, touched the hem of Jesus’ robe and was healed (Mark 5:25-34).

In a drug induced stupor, I drove to Teen Challenge to keep my appointment. My father’s old car was barely drivable; the brakes screeched as they rubbed metal to metal. I don’t know how I made it. The address was 1620 N. Broad Street, near Temple University.  I could not find the building for the life of me, and the car brakes were getting worse. Just as I was about to give up, I pulled to the curb in frustration and paused to let the brakes (metal) cool down. Glancing across the street, I saw a brown three-story building. It had a sign on it that read, “Teen Challenge.” This was not a coincidence. So I went to my appointment. The Devil had made one last failed attempt to keep me from the gospel. Once inside the Teen Challenge building, two men in their twenties interviewed me. They wanted to see how serious I was. They even asked if I was willing to “stand on my head to get help.” I still wasn’t quite sure what was happening to me, but I was truly ready for help. One said, “Can you come in this week?” I said, “Sure, why not?” I found myself agreeing to everything. The rules would be strict, like no smoking or TV, but I just said “Ok.” In the back of my mind, I thought to myself, “Why am I agreeing to this?” But God was pulling me in with a supernatural magnetic force.

The Sparrow Finds a New Home

In the Bible, while talking about the place of God’s presence, the Psalmist says, “Even the sparrow has found a home…your altars, O Lord of Hosts”(Psalm 84:3).  A couple of days following that interview at Teen Challenge, during the last week of January 1971, my priest drove me in his beat up car to Teen Challenge. I had one old suitcase with clothes jammed in it and my Bible on top. This was the Bible my father had given me for Christmas years earlier, but I had never read it. That was all about to change.  It wasn’t long until my last dose of methadone was wearing off and I began to feel that familiar, dreaded sickness of withdrawal symptoms come over me.  I was driven to the men’s home located at 49th and Hazel Streets in West Philadelphia. It was a three story twin house with two bathrooms, no showers and about 20 men! Have you ever seen 20 guys wash, dress and get ready for church with no showers? Believe me, you don’t want to. The staff searched my luggage and handed me an old, second-hand tie given by some church to the ministry. I didn’t know how to tie a tie, so the staff had to help me put it on. After a hurried meal, someone shouted out an order, “Everybody get ready for church; we’re leaving in 20 minutes!” We were going to attend a revival service in Glassboro, New Jersey where Bob Bartlett, the Director of Teen Challenge, would be preaching.

Now, I had never heard the word “revival,” and I had never been in a Bible preaching church where people believed in God’s present day power for miracles. We were headed to a Pentecostal, Holy Ghost, Spirit-filled church in the midst of red hot revival services, and I was bound by Satan’s shackles of drug addiction. To make matters worse, I was beginning to get sick. I was sweating with cold chills and an aching pain throughout my body. Were these people crazy or what? Surely they didn’t expect me to go with them in my condition, but they did. I thought we were going to play checkers and dominos and that I could spend as much time in bed as I wanted; this was unfair. This was not at all like the other rehabs I had been to. Where were the tranquilizers and group therapy sessions? I was not prepared for what was about to happen next.  About fifteen of us crammed into a twelve- passenger van. Apparently Teen Challenge believed that the wheel well in the back and the engine cover could function as seats.  As we traveled across the Walt Whitman Bridge to New Jersey, everyone in the van began to sing gospel songs in rapid succession. They sang loud and they sang long! One guy hollered out, “Let’s pray around!” Instantly the van turned into a mobile prayer meeting, each man taking turns praying vigorously and passionately. My turn came and I respectfully said, “I’ll pass.”  “How did I get here?” I thought. I was physically sick by now and trying to replay familiar Jimmy Hendrix songs in my mind to maintain my sanity, as I knew it.

We arrived at the church and soon the service was in progress. Wow! Fifteen praising, praying radical Christians had become 300 or so praising, praying radical Christians. The singers sang and the preacher preached. His eyes were full of fire and he possessed a spiritual power unlike anything I had ever experienced. He was a kind of Elijah the Prophet type. There was a presence of God in that church that was real and tangible. Then it happened. An altar call was given! Please understand that I had never heard of such a thing. We didn’t allow them in my church. Nevertheless, I responded to the altar call without even knowing it. You see I was sitting in the middle of the pew with about four Teen Challenge guys on my right and four on my left. The entire row shuffled out to the center aisle, then the crowd pushed us all toward the front of the church. Can you believe that I ended up directly in front of the communion table looking up at the preacher and the pulpit. Then the preacher peered directly at me. Everyone was praying and pouring their hearts out to God in earnest. He said, “This is a new young man who has just come into the program today and I want this whole church to pray for him!”   A thunderous chorus of prayer ascended to God on my behalf while church elders, Teen Challenge Staff and little old Italian ladies pushed to lay hands on me in prayer, all at the same time. I did not experience a complete healing that night, but this was surely the beginning of God’s mighty work of deliverance. I experienced something from Heaven that night in January, 1971.

The next month was critical. Satan would make a concerted effort again to stop God’s redemptive work in my life. By now I was in the throes of a full-blown, cold turkey withdrawal from a double addiction to heroin and methadone. I literally did not sleep at all for three days. I was wandering all over the house at night, causing much disturbance. My mind was messed up. As I withdrew from the drugs, it was as if every bad trip on LSD I had ever known began to return to me and overwhelm me; I began to hallucinate and hear voices. This was not just a physical and mental condition, but an intense spiritual battle – a battle for my very soul! It seemed like a kind of spiritual tug-of-war between God and Satan with my soul as the prize. During this ordeal, both God and the Devil spoke to me. Suicidal thoughts would race into my mind and a voice would say to me, “Crash through this window and run away from here! Do it now!” But then it was as if the Lord’s hand would rest upon me and stop me from taking any such action.  The Teen Challenge Staff called an emergency meeting about me; they didn’t know what to do. They couldn’t allow me to upset the entire ministry. After all, other men needed attention and help. There was discussion about transferring me to a hospital for my own safety. Someone said, “We’re not equipped for this type of situation.” But one man spoke up with a word from God; his name was Vic Fitzmaurice. He was visiting Teen Challenge from South Africa and he was a real prayer warrior. He said, “Let’s wait a couple more days and I will devote myself personally to prayer for this boy.” In fact, I believe he interceded in prayer all night long on my behalf.  How I thank God for this man! I am convinced that I would not be writing this today if it were not for Vic Fitzmaurice. Some call this kind of praying “standing in the gap.” No wonder the Bible teaches the priority and power of prayer. Jesus Himself said, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations” (Mark 11:17).

Soon after, something began to break and I could finally begin to sleep a little. But God wasn’t finished with me and, by the way, He still isn’t! Like the Bible teaches, “He is the Potter and we are the clay.” He keeps molding us into the image of Jesus and complete wholeness until we reach Heaven. May we stay soft and pliable in the Master’s hands.

“He Sent His Word and Healed Them” – Psalm 107:20

I soon learned that Teen Challenge was not just about powerful revival services and deliverance but it was equally about discipleship, and especially God’s Word in the Bible. We experienced intense saturation in Scripture that involved regular memorization assignments, instruction by gifted Bible teachers and powerful preaching times. We went to church services at least seven times a week. In addition, we had a chapel service of our own every morning Monday through Friday. And then there were regular afternoon Bible study classes.

Our head Bible teacher was affectionately known as Aunt Madge. She was an older, grandmotherly lady who taught us how to memorize scripture and study the Bible. Back then, Teen Challenge had no sophisticated curriculum as they do now, but our secret weapon was Aunt Madge. She made me memorize Philippians 4:13 “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Most of the Scriptures I know today by memory I learned in 1971 from Aunt Madge. God’s Word will heal you inside and out!

The Sparrow Can Fly

The most important thing in the world to each person is to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. The second most important thing is to know God’s will for your life. After I experienced the power of the Holy Spirit in the spring of 1971, the leadership of Teen Challenge began to ask me to share my story of God’s grace in schools and churches. During this early season I began to sense a deep compelling desire to share God’s truths with others. Eventually it became clear to me and others around me that God was calling me to preach His Word in some kind of full-time ministry. I began to use my new-found spiritual wings, and God opened a door of opportunity to attend Bible school in Texas. When my friend and I boarded that American Airlines plane to Dallas, I didn’t think I would ever come back to Philadelphia except to visit. After Bible school, I spent many years of ministry in Ohio and New York City. I would not return to Philadelphia for permanent ministry until twenty four years later, to be the pastor of Calvary Temple.

A famous Bible verse says, “The Gospel of Jesus is the Power of God unto Salvation” (Romans 1:16). Salvation, however, goes beyond the forgiveness of sins. The word “salvation” means wholeness and blessing on top of forgiveness. When I came to Jesus for help I was hopelessly addicted to drugs, mentally and emotionally burned out, deeply scarred and confused. All I wanted was freedom from pain, but He did so much more for me! The Bible says He is “able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20).  God has richly blessed me with a magnificent wife, Ruth, and two wonderful children who are now adults serving the Lord. He has provided all of my needs over the years since I accepted His Salvation. I have been blessed beyond what I ever imagined. Years ago I learned that God blesses us to be a blessing. My purpose in writing this story is to be a blessing to you; although I may not know you or your personal situation, I have written this booklet for you. What God did for me He can do for you or anyone else who will call out to Him in heartfelt repentance and faith. “It is no secret what God can do – what He’s done for others He will do for you!” Jesus Christ never changes – “He is the same yesterday, today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).

Jesus Is the Bridge Over Troubled Waters

Some might remember the classic 60’s song “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” by Simon and Garfunkel. I used to hear it while I was on the street. The message was one of hope, but nobody, not even Simon or Garfunkel, ever came to help me. Then I found out who the true Bridge is. One line of the song says, “When you’re down and out, and when you’re on the street…I will comfort you…when darkness comes and pain is all around, like a bridge over troubled waters, I will lay me down.”

When I was in darkness and surrounded by pain, Jesus came to my rescue. This is what Jesus did for us on the Cross! He said, “I lay down My life for the sheep” (John 10:15). The Cross is the real “Bridge over Troubled Waters” – the troubled waters of sin and despair.  I grew up near the Walt Whitman Bridge which connects South Philadelphia to New Jersey. Now, if you want to go to New Jersey, you have to cross the bridge. It is not enough to just believe in the bridge or look at the bridge you have to go across it. Many believe in Jesus, or rather about Him, but they have never personally turned to Christ and invited Him to take over their lives. You can “Cross the Bridge” today by turning away from sin and Satan’s lies and placing your trust in Jesus. He is the Bridge to life! Forgiveness, healing, blessing, joy and peace are waiting for you on the other side of your decision.

“How Can I Cross the Bridge to New Life?”

It’s not complicated! You don’t have to become super religious or join a certain denomination. It’s all about Jesus and it’s as easy as A, B, C…

A. Admit you’re in need of a Savior and that you have fallen short on your own. “For all have sinned and fall short of the Glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

B. Believe on Jesus as your Savior. This means to fully trust Him and rely on the power of Jesus’ death on the cross and His supernatural resurrection. Believe that Jesus died for you and in your place. He has paid the price in full for all your sins. Jesus Himself said, “The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15).

C. Confess your sins to Jesus and your faith in Him. When two people get married, they verbally confess their vows to one another in a sacred act of true commitment.  Prayer is talking with God. When we receive Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord, it is appropriate to verbally confess our commitment to turn from our sin (and all false gods) and to turn to Him alone as Savior and God.

“If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9).

If you are ready to cross this Bridge to spiritual life right now, you can. Pray this prayer from your heart – out loud.

“Dear Lord Jesus, I believe that You love me. I believe that You died on the cross and rose from the dead for my salvation. I believe that You are the Bridge to Life. I admit that I need Your help and forgiveness. I now confess my sins to You and ask You to come into my life and change me forever. In Jesus’ name I pray.  Amen.”

“Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” Luke 12:6,7

 

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