Some nights on out-reach are better than others. The last few week have not been the greatest. With the stress of the pandemic, protests, and police brutality, the homeless population is on edge. Last Thursday, Alex was drunk and belligerent, wildly swinging a samurai sword, and dishing out hugs designed to intimidate. The week before last, an intoxicated bully in the park tried to punch one of the Deacons. At the community dinner a man tried to pull my clerical collar off and fight me because I’m not a real Roman Catholic priest. Our team is always learning the balance between welcoming the stranger and being safe. Without fail, something beautiful always happens before or after one of these episodes of street violence. God is in the chaos and the street will minister to you if you let it. The hope of God always shows up when we persevere. “Because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us (Romans 5:4-5 NIV).”
Last night was the Holy Ghost victory lap! We first talked with Doug who is trying to get into treatment. All of the human services programs in the city are hard to access during a pandemic. He has been reading the book of John and wanted to know why Jesus asked, “Father, if you are willing, please take this cup of suffering away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine (Luke 22:42 NLT).” Jesus being fully human and fully divine is both confusing and comforting.
We meet Larry who had been protecting the Verizon store from looters during the protests. Larry has a big heart and feels responsible for his community. “I need to show the younger generation of homeless kids how to behave. Everybody needs help.” Larry tears up while talking about a police officer that gave him a leather jacket in Montana. We pray together and he says he will be praying for us while he prepares for his quarter mile foot race. “Let us run with endurance the race God has set before us (Hebrews 12:1b NLT).”
Jeremy wants us to pray for him. We met him last week and talked about getting him a bus ticket back home to Connecticut. Phone calls are made, and the family reunion process begins. We bless several crucifixes and place them over the heads of our homeless friends living along the waterfront. We pray for Sheila who loves God and is filled with street survivor shame. Woman on the street are extremely vulnerable. “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1).” We talk about scripture with two gentlemen living in tents by the ferry terminal. Matthew is reading Ezekiel and Romans. He says he reads with an open mind and thanks his creator every day. His friend reminds us to pray for understanding and wisdom before we study the Bible. We talk about reading the Bible for transformation and not information. “To be transformed by the renewing of your mind (Romans12:2).” Matthew’s favorite verse is Nahum 1:3. “The Lord is slow to anger but great in power; the Lord will not leave the guilty unpunished. His way is in the whirlwind and the storm, and clouds are the dust of his feet.” Matthew knows that God is real and in the midst of suffering, violence, and chaos. God is in the chaos and the street will minister to you if you let it!
Larry asked us if he could get baptized back in January. He comes to the dinner church regularly and we wanted to get to know him before we performed his public demonstration of new life. Over the next few months Larry would tell us that the devil was following him and telling him to do crazy things. I thought he might be addicted to meth and was being paranoid. I also believe in the spiritual reality of Jesus and that the battle for the soul is real. People on the street are often in-tune with the unseen world and understand the battle between good and evil. However, mental health issues can often distort reality in both the natural and supernatural. After many conversations, it became clear that Larry wanted to know how to deal with demonic activity in his life. “This guy came up to me on the bus and his face looked like a ghost. Then, I was walking down the street and I heard a voice tell me to walk in-front of the bus. It seems like the devil is after me.” I told Larry that I thought God was after him! I told him to play worship music and read scripture out loud. The words of the Bible are living and active and there is power in the name of Jesus. We prayed and ate some lasagna.
It’s a steamy hot day in the parking lot of the Salvation Army woman’s shelter. We are eating fried rice out of togo boxes. Some of us are practicing social distancing. Someone is drinking a twelve pack of Bud Ice at the bus stop. My friend James tells me I look like the combination of a referee and a priest. We all laugh, and I am flattered. We hand out masks and Larry’s ready to announce to the world that he wants to follow Christ. He is ready to get baptized. The dinner church community looks on as we read Colossians 2:14 from The Passion Translation, “He canceled out every legal violation we had on our record and the old arrest warrant that stood to indict us. He erased it all – our sins, our stained soul – he deleted it all and they cannot be retrieved! Everything we once were in Adam has been placed onto the cross and nailed permanently there as a public display of cancellation.” We ask him the traditional baptism questions. He answers yes and we poor a pitcher of water over his head. “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit!” The community yells congratulations and we praise God. I hand Larry his official baptism certificate and his smile looks like it’s going to hurt in the morning! Larry thanks me five times and leaves saying, “I can’t wait to tell everybody!”
“No, I will not abandon you as orphans – I will come to you (John 14:18 NLT).” I met James in front of a church service in the middle of the CHOP, Capitol Hill Occupied Protest. The church was holding a nightly prayer service and handing out coffee. Their doors were wide open with a sign that said, “The love of Jesus is for everyone, and so are the bathrooms.” The people living in the park across the street felt welcomed. James told us that he loves to read the Bible and asks me what I think of the Beatitude’s. The church couldn’t find a Bible to give him. I went to my car and returned with a pocket New Testament! James was excited, “It also has the Psalms! I don’t have a backpack, so this is the perfect size!”
A woman named Sally strikes up a conversation about astrology. She tells me that she was born when the moons and stars aligned. She brings up the three wiseman. I sing westward leading still proceeding. Guide us to your perfect light. We talk about the promise God gives Abraham in Genesis, “Look up into the sky and count the stars if you can. That’s how many descendants you will have (Genesis 15:5).” She is a riot and soon her friends come over and join us.
A homeless man comes into the prayer time and prays for our peace and safety. He uses a walker and can barely stand. “God has always provided for me. I am still alive and able to thank him for everything he has done for me.” He pats me on the arm and tells me to “be careful, the police are on their way.”
One of the volunteers asks James if he grew up going to church. James tells us that he went to Sunday school with his adopted family. As an orphan he met God and found him to be a loving father to the fatherless. “So you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children (Romans 8:15).”
People on the street have profound insight into the God who cares for the orphan and the widow. The Old Testament is a guide for relational responsibility. “Cursed is anyone who denies justice to foreigners, orphans, or widows (Deuteronomy 27:19).” Jesus provides justice by sharing God the Father with all of us. “The love of Jesus is for everyone, and so are the bathrooms.”
It is liberating to stand with homeless people and listen to their lives. Sitting in the pain of human suffering and listening to a broken heart amplifies the voice of Christ. Mostly, street ministry is me nodding my head in agreement and trying not to cry. It is amazing how listening restores human dignity. St. Vincent de Paul said, “If God is the center of your life, no words are necessary. Your mere presence will touch hearts.”
I met Carissa downtown. She was barefoot and sitting in a pile of trash. She talked with me about the church and her time in state run mental hospitals. She showed me her arms and how they were free of track marks. She had been shooting up in her leg, which was covered with bruises. While we were talking, her friends commented that she was acting differently. “It’s like God is here and she knows it!” She talks nonstop and I listen. Between her incoherent sentence fragments, I can hear a thread of logic. She keeps saying the names of different men, her way of sharing abuse received on the street. Between her mental health and addiction, she is offering up prayers of lament. She pours water on her sandwich to make it easier to chew. I ask her if there is anything, I can keep in my prayers for her. She pulls her shirt up and wants me to pray that she isn’t pregnant. We pray and she says, “thanks for thinking of me!’
Laura comes to the dinner church with a twelve pack of beer. She introduces me to her friend “This is my pastor. He has known me since I was seventeen.” She needs pads and we walk to the corner store. She hears voices and thinks the cashier behind the counter killed her friend. He sympathizes with her and we both listen. Laura taps me on the shoulder and tells him that I am “literally a pastor”. She realizes he is not the killer and apologizes for having an open beer in his store.
We meet Len in a tent encampment. He has a needle in his hand and tells us that it’s his friend’s birthday. I suggest we sing, and a delightful birthday party ensues. After singing Happy Birthday we pass out water, snacks, and socks. Len wants to pray, and we all gather in a circle, elbow to elbow. He leads us in a prayer of thanksgiving. I give him a Bible and he asks me to write a blessing in it. We talk about the Spirit and baseball. He loves Roberto Clemente and 1 Corinthians 13. “Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged (1 Corinthians 13:4 NLT).” He gives me a can of soda and says, “Thanks for the good looking out. I like being around people with positive energy.”
Connie is cooking potatoes and eggs in her tent across from the auto part store. We talk about her former life with a violent husband. “He broke my leg because I made waffles instead of pancakes.” Her friend was jumped yesterday and has a cracked rib. Business owners are fed up with homeless people and have begun spraying them in the face with fire extinguishers. We pray safety and protection for the homeless community. “If people only listened to the story of how we became homeless.”
We have a full crew of outreach workers hitting the streets tonight. Three Public Health Nurses, four Catholic Deacons, and loads of sandwiches and snacks. Doing outreach with the Public Health Nurses has been fascinating. They provide Hep A/B vaccines and flu shots as well as wound care. People living on the street represent all levels of understanding and interest in the value of medical services. Responses to the nurses’ questions range from the respectful: “I am all up to date on my shots. Thanks for asking,” to the defensive and suspicious: “I don’t do needles anymore of any kind. What are the ingredients in the vaccine? What big pharma is the government using?” Former heroin users want to avoid needles. Mental health issues and the internet help to form many ideas about what the nurses are up to. I never thought it would be important for the church to affirm and support the work of nurses. I assumed we all could agree that medicine was a basic human right and need. I never knew that pastoral care would be saying things like, “the pandemic is real,” or “washing your hands prevents the spread of disease.” I am shocked at how many people, both homeless and housed, take information from YouTube as authoritative.
The Catholic Deacons provide a refreshing non-evangelical approach to ministry. They are practical and compassionate, rallying their parishes to make sandwiches and donate money to serve the homeless of their city. I asked them about their feelings about The Church and our governor’s shut down orders. They speak with the authority of old oak trees whose limbs and trunks cannot be broken. “The church has always existed, and it always will!” Even though the restrictions are frustrating, their main concern is the care of people. The Deacons tell me, “People aren’t transformed by our opinions. They need to see Jesus in us.” Sometimes I wish I were a Jesuit Priest.
At the end of the night we meet a woman sitting on the ground in front of 7-11. She is rocking back and forth and doesn’t want anything to eat except fruit snacks. She seems like she has no idea where she is. As were talking, a woman walks up to us and asks me, “Why are you talking to her? She is a menace to society. Don’t waste your time.” The woman sitting on the ground says, “I don’t know about the world.” The outreach team walks back to the car, reflecting on all the times people have harassed us for helping homeless people. The nurses share stories of being yelled at from passing cars, “Your killing Seattle.” The pastors and deacons talk about belittling and dismissive questions from church leaders. “How is the homeless thing going?”
We get to the car and our friend Mark is setting up his “cardboard modular home!” He got clean from heroin on the street two years ago. He has had a hard time climbing up and out of homelessness. He always prays with us and reminds us not to forget to pray for ourselves. “Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God (Proverbs 14:31).”
Experience can sometimes lead to the assumption that you have seen it all. When I first started working in ministry, I found that experienced leaders could be closed off to new ideas or approaches to sharing the gospel. “We already tried that, and it didn’t work. Let’s not waste our time.” Stuck between the desire to innovate or to be instructed, I was either bold or timid. Confidence in my relationship with God was born from both listening to others and myself, from finding balance between the wisdom of experience and the fresh wind of the Spirit. It has taken me many years to understand God’s plan for my life, to trust that I am not “out of order” for serving him in the way that I do. It’s so strange to be thankful for every terrible, hurtful thing that has happened to me. I have learned to be encouraged when people ridicule me. “God blesses you when people mock you and persecute you and lie about you and say all sorts of evil things against you because you are my followers. Be happy about it! Be very glad! For a great reward awaits you in heaven (Matthew 5:11-12 NLT).” It’s a blessing not to take yourself too seriously! The painful and humiliating events in my life that used to torture me have now become some of my greatest assets. God has taught me to trust him, preparing me for the distractions that come from people and their words.
Before our Tuesday dinner we walk around the neighborhood inviting people to join us. Our friend Tanya and Gus are drinking beer with some friends at the bus stop. Tanya, without fail, always asks us for money. My coworker and I have an over/under bet on how long it will take before she asks us for a dollar. I think it will be over two minutes and Ben guesses under thirty seconds. It takes Tanya a microsecond. Before I can respond, one of her drinking buddies starts screaming at me. “You’re a hypocrite. Give her some money.” I try to explain that I don’t have any money. But he insists, yelling, “You are a priest and a hypocrite, give her a dollar.” We explain that I am not a Priest but a Reverend. I am still apparently a hypocrite. After a few more minutes of being yelled at, I offer some pastoral advice and suggest that he is being judgmental. His response is one of my favorites: “I repented so fuck you.” We invite everyone to dinner and leave, feeling a mixture of comedy and tragedy.
Later that night I am serving coffee at the dinner. Tanya and Gus approach me with looks of great sorrow on their faces. They tell me they have come to apologize for their friend. “We are really sorry about Ernie yelling at you. We wanted to let you know how much we love and appreciate you.” Gus pats me on the arm and looks like he is going to cry. “How ecstatic you can be when people insult and persecute you and speak all kinds of cruel lies about your love for me (Matthew 5:11 TPT)!”
The community dinner church has many strengths. Adaptability defines the Spirit-Filled mobile meal. During these times of social distancing and quarantine we are more pared-down than usual. Serving warm meals in to-go boxes from the back of my car sometimes feels transactional. I miss gathering around tables and sharing the Christ story. I don’t miss washing all the table linens. Pouring cups of coffee in the parking lot has become my main task. Sometimes the spout gets stuck which gives me more time to make corny small talk with under-caffeinated homeless people. It has taken Larry six weeks to accept the fact that I really don’t have any cream and sugar.
Last week a woman was pushing her newborn in a stroller past my one-beverage barista station. I offered food and coffee which she happily accepted. Another woman with a newborn walking by offered to give her a box of diapers and wipes. It seemed like a whirlwind of blessing was in our midst. While she is waiting for the bus, I encourage her to take some more food for later. My friend Ben noticed she was limping and offered to pray for her. She cries and bows her head saying, “I was wondering why I got off at this bus stop.” She asks for prayer for her back and her boyfriend, who is struggling with addiction. We pray and the healing presence of God fills the street, turning the bus shelter into the grandest of cathedrals. She cries some more, and I offer up some church clichés about divine appointments and sacred space. My churchy lingo resonates with her because God knows how to have church.
Later that night my friend Melinda comes by and says she needs to thank me. She says her hip feels better and that she knows I did a sneak attack prayer on her last week. “I woke up the next day and my hip felt great. I wondered why you walked all the way up the alley just to ask how my hip was feeling!” She says she is a heathen atheist. I tell her that God loves her and that I am considered a heathen in most circles as well. We pray for her tax issues and hopes for employment. “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom (2 Corinthians 3:17 NRSV).”
My buddy Chris is always walking around barefoot. Inevitably, someone asks him if he needs socks or shoes. People usually ask in horror, as if he is unaware that his feet are naked on the nasty downtown pavement. I imagine him looking at his feet in shocked surprise and answering, “Holy guacamole, why am I barefoot?” When he isn’t barefoot, he likes to wear sandals. They are made of rope and look like something from ancient Mesopotamia. I looked them up on Amazon and they retail for thirty-eight dollars.
Two of my formerly homeless friends have died this week from the coronavirus. I open our Community Dinner with a solemn prayer of thanksgiving for life. Two guys are preparing to fight in the parking lot and quickly de-escalate. Chris strolls up, and he is barefoot. Several Dinner Church guests ask him the usual questions. Aren’t your feet cold? Don’t they hurt? He is smiley and tells them that his feet are getting nice and hard for summer. I ask him if we can light a match on the bottom of his soles. He laughs and gets another cup of coffee, telling me how he gave his sandals to someone who needed them! While we chat, another fight breaks out in the parking lot. I am able to redirect the “tough guy” to the bus stop. Peace prevails.
Chris and his biblical feet are quite thought provoking. I am reminded of the armor of God from Ephesians 6. “Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace (Ephesians 6:14-15 ESV).” We are praying for peace and life in this time of death and sickness. Hopefully, I’m as prepared as my buddy Chris!
I met Amanda a few weeks ago at the Community Dinner. She was getting over food poisoning and politely declined the meal. The next week we talk, and she’s feeling much better. It’s Holy Week and our conversation is about the death and resurrection of Christ, who “Being found in human form … humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:8).” She refers to me as “Father” because of my collar and thinks I’m offended when I tell her that I’m a reverend. I’m not offended, and we continue to talk. She tells me I should try reading the Gnostic gospels of Mary and Thomas. Amanda believes Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. Again, she worries I might be offended—this time with her theology. Instead, I just listen. Our conversation is delightful. Amanda shares about her abusive ex -boyfriend. He was arrested and is now in prison. She can finally leave the women’s shelter and go back home!
Amanda asks me for prayer but doesn’t want me to pray with her. She says she doesn’t have the experience of intimacy with God other people seem to have. I tell her about Jesus being God in human form and how we can pray to him. How hope is a person and his name is Jesus. I encourage her to read the Psalms. She smiles and says, “I love Psalm 116.” I read it out loud and pray for her. She tells me how cathartic it was to talk to me, another human. I hope she realizes she can talk to God. Thank you, Jesus, for loving humans through other humans. For using us to reveal your power and glory. “Who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. (Philippians 2:6–7).”
What if poverty made life embarrassing, inconvenient, and dangerous? My friend Donna knows the answer to this question. Sitting on the sidewalk eating pasta and salad, we chat about the weather and our dogs. Because of social distancing and business closures, downtown is quiet. The street feels like our living room, familiar and intimate. Donna likes the meal and thanks me profusely. She’s an artist and gives me one of her paintings in appreciation. She tells me a few times that she’s having female problems. It takes me a while to realize that she is talking about menstruation. After an hour of eating and chatting, she provides me with gracious clarity, “Outreach workers hardly ever have tampons and it’s embarrassing to ask.” We arrange to meet at the drug store in two hours.
Later that night, Donna, her dog, and her boyfriend are in front of Rite Aid. A friend of mine has given me some money to help people in need. I also have a pair of work boots in my car that I promised her boyfriend a few months ago. He goes to my car with the dog and my co-worker Ben. Donna and I go to the feminine hygiene section. As we look for tampons, Donna tells me all about her fear of being murdered. She’s involved in prostitution and believes she’s being followed by a drug cartel. She regrets talking to the police and worries she will disappear like her friend. She’s pretty frenzied, and I have no idea how to respond. I offer to help her talk with the police if she feels threatened or connect her to a shelter that helps women fleeing abuse. She knows all the resources and doesn’t trust them. After she picks the cheapest box of tampons, we pray. We bow our heads and I let a third-level-open-heaven prayer of protection loose. We pray against paranoia and violence. We thank God that nothing can separate us from his love. We have church in Rite Aid! She thanks me for the prayer and tells me that she prays all the time for everything. We hug and I think God will protect us from the coronavirus. The Rite Aid staff are irritated and are trying to close the store. I ask Donna if she wants a Snickers bar. They are two for three dollars, and they’re the jumbo size! She’s confused at the offer of candy and says thanks. I guess I’m trying to make buying tampons fun. We meet up with her family out in front of the store and Donna asks me if I want one of the Snickers bars. “Let joy be your continual feast. Make your life a prayer. And in the midst of everything be always giving thanks, for this is God’s perfect plan for you in Christ Jesus (I Thessalonians 6:16-18, TPT).”