Frostbite

The dictionary defines frostbite as an “injury to body tissues caused by exposure to extreme cold, typically affecting the nose, fingers, or toes and sometimes resulting in gangrene.” I ran into my friend Bill in front of the library. He was sitting next to a fire he had created with avocado oil, woodchips, and rubbing alcohol. He had just been released from the hospital with frostbite and could barely walk. In a humane society, he would be able to heal and recover in a facility that offered respite care. In Seattle, because he is poor and homeless, he is left to figure out how to keep his toes while sleeping outside. Bill got frostbite from being outside. He fell asleep outside and woke up ten hours later in eighteen-degree weather. Unable to move and frozen to a bench, a nearby business owner heard Bill’s screams and called 911. Pouring boiling water on his back and legs, it took the fire department thirty-five minutes to get him unstuck. They took him to the emergency room where they had to soak his feet in boiling water to get his boots off.

Bill feels grateful that he was able to keep his toes. While were talking, other homeless men stop by and share horror stories of friends dying from exposure. I talk about George who had both of his legs amputated a few years ago from frostbite. Jerry comes by with a box of fried chicken and offers everyone a piece. He includes me in the street community communion table and offers me a drumstick. It is always nice to be invited. Bill tells me about a couple in the north end of the city that has set up a dozen food pantries around their neighborhood. People experiencing food insecurity are able to take what they need. I talk with Rodger who is seventy and dying of throat cancer. His speaking voice is a low gravely whisper. He shares with me about the violence of his childhood and his belief in living while we still can. He isn’t going to spend his last days in institutions that continue to traumatize him.

Later that night I meet another man with frostbite. I am in the middle of a prayer time at a church that hosts an emergency winter shelter when, a taxicab pulls up and drops off a man in a wheelchair. It’s raining and the shelter doesn’t open for two hours. The hospital paid one hundred and Ninety dollars for the cab ride. He was assured that there was a bed for him at the shelter. The shelter staff had no idea that he was coming and was at full capacity. After some creative thinking, the shelter figured out a way to have him stay the night. We made shelter arrangements for the following night through Operation Nightwatch and were able to eliminate an extra bus trip for our new friend. Hopefully he will be able to keep his toes.

Michael Cox

You are my Sunshine

The list of names being read on the longest night of the year was as chilling as the weather. Two hundred and seventy names were read out loud. Names of the homeless who died last year without shelter in King County. Beautiful souls tragically lost to poverty, violence, neglect, and abuse. I staggered and almost fell over when I heard her name being read.

 I first met her over twenty years ago in a homeless youth drop-in center. She was one of the first street kids I really got to know. Her life and story were my introduction to street culture. She was fifteen and working in the sex industry. Her boyfriend was pimping her. He would eventually go to prison for second degree murder. She would attend our street church and pray with us. She told me a story once about how God saved her. She got in a car with a date and realized he had recently threatened to kill her. She began to pray, and the door of the moving car opened. She rolled out on to the highway unharmed and safe. Her mother died drinking herself to death at a bus stop. I was honored to be asked to facilitate the memorial service. All of her mom’s friends were in attendance and extremely inebriated. One of the guests stood up with a plastic dancing sunflower plant that sang, You Are My Sunshine. I took myself seriously back then and even wore a blazer with a tie. I met her sister who was in community college and wanted nothing to do with my now deceased friend. So many people I knew as homeless kids have passed away. If you grow up on the streets and are alive in your forties you are a miracle.

A voice was heard in Ramah,

weeping and loud lamentation,

Rachel weeping for her children;

she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.” Matthew 2:18

Michael Cox

The Word became flesh

We walk through the tent encampment that sits next to the freeway. We come here every Monday, today It is bitter cold, and the beanie I am wearing is not cutting it. Edward is walking toward me with a bit of a limp and tells me about the terrible medical care he received this morning. He takes out his phone and shows me a photo of his knee. It is a giant bloody abscess, covered with oozing puss. Edward claims that the doctors didn’t know what they were doing so he left. I listen and am excited to hear that Edward has housing. His neighbor thinks he has an evil spirit and that his room is haunted. She harasses him and other tenants all day long. Edward is working on being patient and not losing his temper. One violent outburst would result in losing his housing. Before we part ways, we pray for healing in his knee and protection from people who seek to get him off track. His mom and brother still live in the encampment and are deep in the abyss of addiction. Edward, like many homeless people, struggles with how to help friends and family that are still homeless. The cost of sobriety and a new life are steep and will require Edward to make choices that will result in even greater isolation and loneliness.

I approach a tent and gently offer gloves, beanies, and handwarmers. A voice joyfully yells, “hold on a second I am reading my Bible.” A young man in his twenties pokes his head out and greets me with a beautiful toothless smile. His name is Doug, and he shares with me how God changed his life. He and his brother took a huge amount of drugs with the intention of dying. They were driving a car going a hundred and sixty-eight miles an hour and ended up in a high-speed chase with the police. His brother, who has never believed in God began to pray to Jesus. “Lord save us we want to live.” Doug woke up in the hospital handcuffed to the bed, happy and thankful to be alive. Months later a pastor from a local church offered to pray for him. Doug experienced the Love of Christ and, “has been on the hook with God ever since!” Doug goes on to tell me his plan to get off drugs once and for all. I offer my resources, and Doug respectfully declines. We both agree that his plan for recovery is going to work! My older gentleman’s body is starting to get sore from squatting and bending over to hear all that is on Doug’s heart. Before I leave, he wants to read me his favorite verse. He tells me that it always makes him cry.  “And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do (Luke 23:33-34).” Tears well up in Doug’s eyes and we pray. I literally witness the “Word become flesh and dwell among us (John 1:14). The presence of God takes up residence and dwells in a tent and “tabernacles” with his people.  “When Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent, and the Lord would speak with Moses. And when all the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance of the tent, all the people would rise up and worship, each at his tent door (Exodus 33”9-10).”

The hope of Jesus is born in distressing circumstances through unremarkable people. We ended the week with an outdoor vigil to remember the two hundred and seventy people who died last year homeless and unsheltered. As the community of advocates, friends, and families of the homeless stood on the steps of city hall with candles and signs bearing the names of the deceased, the contrast between the transformative power of Jesus and the governmental system of domination couldn’t be clearer. Standing in twenty-degree weather and believing a baby born in a barn to unmarried teenagers can change everything seems reasonable. “The light keeps shining in the dark, and darkness has never put it out (John 1:5).”

Michael Cox

It’s good to be in the land of the living

I visited the St. Francis House on Thursday morning. They are a wonderful organization that provides services to all of my favorite people. They are down the street from Nightwatch, so I walked and pretended that I was exercising. When I arrived, I sat at a table in a freshly painted, remodeled kitchen/breakfast nook, and read the prayer of St. Francis that’s written on the wall. It’s hard to argue with the first few lines.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;

I love hanging out with the older Catholic ladies, drinking coffee, eating donuts, and waiting on the Lord. I patiently sit with my breakfast, silently praying and wondering if it’s normal to feel as comfortable as I do. It should feel awkward, sitting by yourself in a homeless drop-in center wearing a clergy collar, yet I feel completely at home! I say hello to a man at the table next to me who pretends to not see me. I have another cup of coffee and continue to wait. Another man looks familiar, and I ask him if he goes by the name Memphis. He tells me that he is from Tennessee and asks me if I am a pastor. And just like that, a conversation is born. I learn that he lives near me and that his wife died of cancer eight years ago. He still struggles with grief from her passing but is thankful that he is still, “In the land of the living”. He asks me to pray for his brother-in-law who is going through chemotherapy. We bow our heads and pray.

Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.

 A young man walks in, looks at me, and says, “Good morning Father, can I sit with you?”  He tells me that he checked himself into a mental hospital for three days and just got out. He is on his way to a housing appointment and feeling better. I encourage him and his mental health self- care. He tells me about the parish he grew up in and shows me the cross tattooed on his forearm. “I am always representing Father!” He asks me to remember him when I pray. He gets up to leave, and in a coffee, donut, pb&j whirlwind he is off to face the day.

A woman sitting alone at the table by the door waves and says, “Didn’t you come around and visit me in the tiny house village?” It’s Nancy! She is now living in an apartment upstairs and doing well. She wants me to thank my coworker Reverend Paul Benz, for his prayers and the giant comforter he brought her when she was staying in the tiny home. It’s amazing how much good you can do with some coffee, donuts, and Jesus centered prayer. May we, “Always preach the gospel, and when necessary use words.”

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;


It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Michael Cox

289

Last week, I attended the Mass for the deceased homeless at St James Cathedral. Two hundred and eighty-nine unhoused people died last year in shelters, hospitals, or on the streets. Father Ryan, spoke of how Jesus, the Son of Man was also homeless. “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head (Matthew 8:20).” Many of us find our home and family in the church. The teaching, preaching, and healing of Jesus are a literal refuge in the storms of our lives. Sitting in the pews and grieving the violent loss of life experienced by my homeless friends, I thought of all the people that have been welcomed and cared for by the faith community. Listening to all the names of the deceased read aloud in the courtyard, punctuated between bagpipes, church bells, and the tears of the faithful few, my longing for fellowship is fulfilled. I wish when we thought of church, the image we had was this, a group of people caring for and suffering with each other. A community that welcomes strangers into friendship with themselves and their creator. Jesus is the God that serves and suffers for all of humanity. “A God with no beautiful or desirable form or majesty. Despised and rejected, a man acquainted with our grief and sorrow, A man crushed by our violence (Isaiah 53:3-5).”

The median age of the two hundred and eighty-nine homeless people that died in King County was fifty-one. The median age of death for people in King County with homes is seventy-nine. What if we viewed homelessness as the public health crisis that it is? Instead of turning away from suffering, what if we, like Jesus stopped, turned, and forgave? What if the church worshiped the God of mercy and justice? “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd (Matthew 9:36).”

When communities like St James gather together and serve the most vulnerable in our city, God is glorified. It’s easy to be frustrated with the church. However, when I experience the body of Christ grieving the death of two hundred and eighty-nine homeless men and women, the forgiveness of Jesus turns my selfishness into selflessness and my suffering into service.

Michael Cox

Thanksgiving

Jesus blesses the homeless from a place where they can see and hear him. On the street, face to face, eye to eye, from, “some flat, level ground (Like 6:17).” Every Tuesday, Operation Nghtwatch participates in a community dinner church. We meet in a parking garage that is literally in the middle of downtown Seattle. As hot entrees and desserts are served out of chaffing dishes, the invitational hospitality of Christ and his love are shared. I begin each meal with prayer and a short story about Jesus. The Bible is often communicated as a book of morality and rules. Our homeless friends often assume they deserve poverty because of their moral failing. “God is punishing me because of all my bad choices.” No one chooses to be abandoned and abused. Trauma that leads people to the street and keeps them there is often seen as part of God’s judgment and wrath. Reading the Bible with people on the street reveals the centrality of God’s care for the marginalized and social outcasts of our city. The story of Jesus is good news to our unhoused friends. “God will bless you people who are poor. His kingdom belongs to you! God will bless you hungry people. You will have plenty to eat! God will bless you people who are crying. You will Laugh (Luke 6:20-21).” Jesus promises abundance, belonging, and joy to the poor.

Our kitchen is closed for the Sunday meal, and I let everyone know we will be having pizza. My friends show up after navigating multiple bus transfers, daylight savings time, and the rain. I usually order a variety of pizza but tonight I decided to get eighteen large peperoni. Marcos comes through the line and declines. He only wants to eat the salad. A volunteer apologizes and I feel terrible. I don’t have coffee tonight and wonder who the first person will be to complain. No one seems to care. John senses my self-loathing and jokingly asks, “doesn’t the Bible say it’s a sin to not have any coffee”? I give the Christ Story and people are genuinely engaged and listening. The stories of Christ are the livable stories of the Bible. The words contained in Scripture are not fragmented bits of information, but the real physical presence of Jesus. Through the Holy Spirit, Scripture sets in motion the story of God’s creation, covenant, salvation, and redemption. The merging of the divine word with the human speech act of proclamation invites participation and conversation with the sacred. The hospitality of Scripture welcomes all to the journey of restoration and renewal. The word of God is not a possession to be policed or controlled. The word “liturgy” literally means “work for the people” or “public service.” Reading Scripture in public is an act of community service, inviting conversation and dialogue. Jesus doesn’t make speeches.

After I share the story of Christ and pray, we eat more pizza. People continue to wander in, finding momentary respite and refuge. I apologize to Marcos for not having a vegetarian pizza option. He hugs me and says, “you give me more than food, the Word, the Word is why I come to the dinner”! The Word of God creating possibilities, “becoming flesh, and dwelling among us (John 1:14).” Scripture declaring to the lonely, outcast, and stranger that the kingdom of God is yours.

Michael Cox

Free Parking

Gustavo needed a ride to his colonoscopy appointment. He has prostate cancer, and the radiation treatment has caused him some internal bleeding. On the way to the hospital, he tells me that he recently passed out at the grocery store. “I was in a lot of pain and then I fell over.” While we are in the waiting room Gustavo tells me that he isn’t worried. He grew up in Central America and witnessed the murder of most of his classmates. “The militarized government killed a lot of people. I survived all of that death and now I am here with you! I trust God and if it’s my time to go so be it.” Gustavo is so thankful that I took the time to be with him and drive him to his surgery that he asks if we can take a picture. He wants a record of our time together. We take a selfie and I think of how many people I have in my life that can and would take me to the hospital. Praying with Gustavo in the waiting room, is a prophetic declaration that God really doesn’t leave us or forsake us. That the forgiveness of Christ is really the only currency that matters. A few hours later we drive back to his apartment. The anesthesia has affected his short-term memory and he is pretty loopy. With all the things going on in his life, Gustavo is fixated on paying for parking. I tell him several times and in many different ways not to worry about it. We arrive at his apartment, and I let another resident and the building manager know to keep an eye on him. Gustavo again asks how much he owes me for parking, and I assure him that it’s no problem. Three days later I receive a call from his landlord. Gustavo is still agonizing about the cost of parking and wants to know how much he needs to repay me. Six dollars shouldn’t be this stressful. The only way I can ease Gustavo’s agony is to lie and tell him that the parking was free. Is it harder to believe in the free gift of God’s grace or free parking? “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death (Romans 8:1-2 NIV).” I am thankful that Jesus breaks the law with love and that he is more powerful than parking enforcement.

Michael Cox

Kicked in the balls

My son loves baseball. When he was little, we would go to the park and play catch until it was dark. Even though he is not allowed to hit whiffle balls over our house, there are usually several on the roof and in our gutters. He is older now and throws the ball harder than I can manage. For the last few years, I have been aware that a day would come when I would be unable to safely handle his athleticism. That day has arrived. Saturday afternoon, while sitting on a bucket attempting to catch my sons’ fast ball and or slider, I caught one in the groin without using my glove. As I stood, screaming words that Reverends are not typically know for, my sons’ first question was, “don’t you think that was a strike?” It seems that both of us are having a hard time seeing.

Monday afternoon I was on outreach when a homeless man walked up to me and told me he was going to kick me in the balls. I pretended I didn’t hear him, and he repeated, “I am going to kick you in the balls.” I gently told him not to and he sat down on the sidewalk. As were talking, he tells me about seeing small smiling faces in the pavement. I ask him how the faces make him feel and he says that he feels trapped. He shares about the good sleep and dreams he has in jail and how he defends himself from being raped. “I have to kick the people in the balls.” He shares details about a reoccurring dream that takes place in his dad’s auto shop. His train of thought is simultaneously scattered and articulate. His mind and body seem to have processed real abuse and trauma as separate dreamlike experiences, both detached from reality and informed by it.  While were talking a large grey blob of bird poop lands on his head. He doesn’t notice and I can’t fathom the level of humiliation he has had to suffer. We have more conversation surrounding his audio and visual hallucinations and I offer to pray with him. He asks me if prayer works, and I say we can give it a try if he wants to. He agrees and I pray for the peace and comfort of Jesus Christ. For the broad expansive freedom of God to replace feelings of entrapment. When we’re done praying, he tells me that his field of vision seems clearer. I encourage him to keep praying to Jesus. “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come (Ephesians 1:18-21 NIV).”  I am thankful that God sees the good the evil and the breaking ball.

Michael Cox

There is no law against kindness

I have known Hailey for three years. Once a week, Street Ministry stops by her tent with socks, snacks, water, and cheeseburgers. She is friendly, intensely private, and doesn’t say much. Ever since her boyfriend was arrested, Hailey has been depressed and anxious. When will he get out? What will happen to us? What will happen to me? Last month her friend who sleeps in a tent nearby was murdered. To be homeless is to be surrounded by fear, violence, and trauma twenty-four hours a day. Hailey sobs as she shares how mean people are to her and her homeless friends. “There is a guy that comes around with his kids and throws fish heads at us. We are out here because were hurting not because we want to be. People assume I am a criminal because I am homeless.” We hug and pray. I tell Hailey that Jesus broke the law with love and kindness. That God chooses people over rules and requirements. Hailey continues to cry as we pray for the restoration of dignity and humanity. Peace to the chaos of being abused and being blamed for it. Healing starts with kindness. “God’s Spirit makes us loving, happy, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled. There is no law against behaving in any of these ways (Galatians 5:22-23).”

Michael Cox

When the still small voice yells

Linda always comes to our Tuesday night dinner church and is always drunk. Not tipsy, buzzed, or inebriated, but falling over, close to death drunk. Between moments of yelling the F word at traffic and at people waiting for the bus, she will usually ask for prayer. This week, she asked me to pray for the Pope and his apology over the abusive history of the church and Indigenous boarding schools in Canada. In the middle of a sweltering ninety-degree parking garage filled with homeless people eating chilled Mediterranean salad and sipping tropical peach iced tea, Linda and I hold hands and pray. As I pray, naming the tragedy and evil of forcibly removing generations of Indigenous children from their homes and making them attend church-run, government funded boarding schools, Linda interruptus me and tells me that God loves everyone, and that “all white people aren’t responsible for the sins of some.” As a Native American woman, struggling through poverty and alcoholism, Linda chooses to offer up prayers of reconciliation. A holy response to my prayer of repentance on behalf of the church. We end our prayer with a hug and Linda asks me if I can bring her a Bible. I know where she lives and cynically agree, wondering if she will even remember talking with me.

The next day it is still a sweltering ninety degrees. I ask my coworker Reverend Paul Benz if he thinks I should even try to find Linda to give her a Bible. Paul responds with an emphatic, “Yes absolutely. We are called to minister and care for people’s souls!” I grab a Bible and drive to the parking garage where we have our dinner. As soon as I pull in, the bus arrives, the doors open, and Linda emerges like an answer to prayer. Like God saying, why would you not bring Linda a Bible? I put on my hazards, get out of my car, and hand Linda a copy of God’s word. She shrieks with delight, and we hug. She thanks me and yells I love you. She yells prayers of love and thanksgiving while I walk back to my car. People stare and the yelling continues. I am now in my car waiting to merge into traffic. Linda is still yelling prayers of love at me. Prayers of public forgiveness. I am thankful that today I was able to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit. Thankful that God keeps his promises. “Your word is a lamp that gives light wherever I walk (Psalms 119:105).”

Michael Cox