Leonce Moussovou knew he was an outsider but felt like he might be home.
“I didn’t know what anybody was saying, but I was like ‘This could be home,’” he says. “I got to the States on a Saturday and came to this church on Sunday. I spoke almost no English.”
2017 is only days old when we meet, and Leonce sits to my left -- tall, athletic, dressed nicely. He’s quiet, and you can see him retreat into himself. He doesn’t dominate a room, yet he has an imposing presence. He won’t be the loudest in a conversation, but he’s intelligent and insightful when you listen. Leonce immigrated at the age of eight to the United States from Gabon, a country with a population comparable to that of Birmingham along the Atlantic coast of central Africa. His mother, Marie Jean, already lived here, and she had been impacted by the ministries of Shades.
Growing up in a Catholic family, Leonce’s family attended Mass though he admits he didn’t really get it. Even during that first Sunday here he had only a shallow understanding of what was going on — that’s not hard to imagine one day fresh in a new country, much less in a Southern Baptist megachurch — but he understood hospitality and an inviting spirit.
“People were trying to find out who I was and introduce themselves,” he says, “they were just really inviting.
Steve Foster is a husband, father, medical executive, and — most relevant to this story — a Sunday School teacher. He first noticed Leonce in the 10th grade Sunday School class he taught, quiet yet attentive. The connection was natural. Steve wanted to get to know Leonce, and Leonce wanted to be known.
“We kind of connected, but sort of nonverbally at first,” Steve says. “I thought, ‘I’m going to figure this guy out; I’m going to find out what’s going on in there.’
"Because I knew there was a lot more going on than we were hearing. I felt like he had potential.”
Steve began asking questions about Leonce and his family and learned more about his difficult home life. Marie Jean worked whatever job she could to provide for Leonce and his younger brother, Kevin, who was born in the States. She ran a strict household, and as Leonce put it, they’re a normal family, just foreign. His dad remains in Africa, but even when the entire family was in Gabon, he was never around much.
What began as a mission for Steve to crack the shell quickly evolved into investing himself into Leonce’s life (and eventually Kevin’s also) as a father figure.
“For him to step up and be there, it meant a lot,” Leonce says, “and to have a father figure and a home away from home brought me closer to God.”
Steve began with simple ways of engaging Leonce. He’d attend Leonce’s basketball games at Carver High School. The Fosters are Auburn fans, and Leonce would get a taste of college football on fall Saturdays. Busyness can be an excuse, and time can be a huge barrier in obeying God. But outside of basketball games or getting dinner, Steve and Leonce’s relationship really grew through Steve integrating Leonce into the rhythms of life for the Foster family.
Because Marie Jean worked a lot, she couldn’t always provide the guidance Leonce needed. As his relationship with Steve grew, however, Leonce began to see his need for Jesus. Steve reminded Leonce to spend time in Scripture. Eating meals with the Fosters taught Leonce the discipline of prayer. And with some nudging from Steve, Leonce’s introversion cooled a little throughout the school year in Sunday School. Steve began to see Leonce grasp concepts of the Gospel.
“By the time I had him in 10th grade, we had a discussion about salvation and if he was at that point of being ready, and he had already made that decision to be a Christian,” Steve says. “We talked through that and felt very good about his understanding of that. I said, ‘Well you know the next step is baptism.’”
“You know I’m shy.”
Steve spoke with then-Minister to Students Scott Heath about baptism options that would take into account Leonce’s introverted personality. “Back then, we were still walking the aisle,” Steve says. “We were going to try to find a way to do it like we do it today where you share your decision with a staff member or encourager and then get baptized. But I told him I’d sit up front with him so he didn’t have to walk far.”
Later that summer following student camp Leonce was baptized.
The more time Leonce spent with Steve and his family, he noticed the way the Fosters interacted with one another, and it began to impact the way Leonce treated Marie Jean and Kevin. He observed the happiness and the love between Steve, his wife Jana, and their daughters Katelyn, Abby, and Natalie, and it influenced him to treat his family with love and care even through the moments he and his mother didn’t get along.
Spiritual topics also came up more as Steve and Leonce’s relationship grew. Steve showed interest and made a Sunday School teacher-student relationship personal by asking about Leonce and his family’s story, and that shaped the way Leonce thought about spiritual things.
“When I first came here before high school, I wasn’t even really that into the Bible,” Leonce says. “I wasn’t in to being very faithful. I was just going through the motions.”
In addition to their conversations about baptism, Steve and Leonce spoke often about serving your church family rather than just showing up on Sunday, hearing the message, and leaving.
“He would tell me that a lot of people would come and just sit in the pew and not get involved,” Leonce remembers, “and that hit home with me because I felt like that was me. I felt like I needed to make a change.”
Steve and Leonce are seven years into their relationship, and Steve admits it’s provided a roller coaster of emotions.
“It’s been a joy, a lot of laughter and fun times. But it’s been a lot of struggles and frustration just living life with somebody that’s got a hand dealt to them that’s not easy,” Steve says. “It’s not always pretty.”
Concepts like discipleship, transformation, and influence seem attractive and, often in our self-centeredness, we can think about how we look good through these things rather than how God is glorified. Relationships where true influence and genuine transformation are displayed are not only walking through the joyous and life-giving times but walking through sin and suffering too.
“It’s hard. But it’s rewarding, and you know you’re being obedient,” Steve adds.
Marie Jean, Leonce, and Kevin have become part of the Foster family. Last August, they all went to dinner to celebrate Steve’s birthday. They get together during the holidays. Now that Leonce has grown up, Steve spends most of his time with Kevin, who was the ring bearer in Katelyn’s wedding. And Steve emphasizes how his own children have been impacted by seeing their family embrace another.
Steve continues to disciple and invest in Leonce, now in his 20s and working at Piggly Wiggly in Crestline Village. He has completed three years at Alabama State and is planning to continue school and major in communications. God transformed Leonce using Steve’s influence, first as a Sunday School teacher, then as a friend and father figure.
“He’s impacted me in ways I never thought I could be impacted by one individual,” Leonce says. “I have friends that I’ve known for a long time that wouldn’t come close to what Mr. Foster has done for me and my family. When I have problems, deep problems, I can go to him and he guides me through it. He doesn’t mind going out of his way to help me out, or help my little brother out, or my mom out. He’s brought me closer to God."
“You can impact somebody’s life by just doing the littlest things,” Leonce has learned through his relationship with Steve, Jana, Katelyn, Abby, and Natalie. “That person that might be in the corner not saying anything could end up being somebody.”
From Steve’s perspective, though, his sees the big picture.
“We see the way our two families have merged and how being obedient to God can impact that person," Steve says, “It impacted Leonce, Kevin, his mother and then my family and not just my immediate family. Through times where you wanted to hang it up, through the muddied picture, you see your obedience made a difference.”