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).”
The first time I met Patricia she was throwing a garbage can at some construction workers. They had thrown her stuff away and she was not going to let that happen. She told me that she had housing but hated it. “It might as well be county jail. You can’t have visitors in your room and are required to attend meetings. It’s not a home.” The second time I talked with Patricia, the Vicar from the Episcopal church was walking by. Apparently, Patricia damaged the Vicars car. “I’m really sorry about what I did to your car. I’m better now and back on my meds.” Every time I talk with Patricia, she gets mad and then calms down. Extreme outbursts may be her personality strength and her primary method of survival.
This morning I am with a group of public health nurses in front of the library. The nurses are offering hepatitis vaccinations and flu shots. I introduce my homeless friends to the nurses and it’s a big success. The coronavirus has made everyone interested in health care. My friend Patricia sees me and is mad. She can’t get any clothes from the church clothing bank. Her clothes are wet, and she isn’t having it. “I am going to break a window and get some clothes. Why don’t you use your pastoral, collar authority and make some calls?” I listen and agree with most of what she is saying. I explain how the church didn’t want to close, how they were overwhelmed by increased demand and staffing shortages. Patricia understands why the elderly church volunteers had to take a break. “They don’t want to get sick and die helping us. I don’t blame them.”
The feeding program will open tomorrow along with the clothing room. No windows were broken, and Patricia continues to survive with her strengths. A church group is handing out breakfast and Patricia is mad. Yelling, “The church steals from people and oppresses the poor.” Patricia’s friend threatens to punch her for hassling the church people. Extreme outbursts follow, “I will put hands on you. I don’t give a crap.”
Patricia tells me that she is polytheistic and believes Mary was raped by the Holy Spirit. We discuss theology and I am interested in her views. I have never heard that the immaculate conception wasn’t consensual. The Bible story portrays Mary as brave and courageous while Joseph is scared. Patricia wants to know why I am not offended by the idea of rape and the nativity. I tell her that I would rather have a conversation than argue over the virgin birth. She looks bewildered and peaceful. She tells me that she loves me and walks across the street to yell at her friend who previously threatened her. I love you too Patricia. “Heart–shattered lives ready for love don’t for a moment escape God’s notice (Isaiah 51:17).” Michael Cox
The first week of street ministry with social distancing was challenging. How do you minister to people on the street and avoid contact with people? Monday evening, I went to Pike Place Market. There were a few shop vendors open for business. Some were closing their booths and looking quite worried. The only people downtown were homeless people. One of the community dinners was passing out to-go boxes, so that’s where I went. I talked with my friend Carl who was barefoot. He gave his sandals to a friend and said, “I have another pair of sandals in my backpack!” His bare feet reminded me that homeless people have big hearts and lots to worry about. I prayed with Micah, who asked for a closer relationship with Jesus. “I need help. I need to be grounded. Being homeless is like being in a constant war for survival.” His mental health issues seem to make him forget that he knows me.
Tuesday, we served one hundred meals on the street without congregating. We had worship music in the parking lot. Larry was mad that we didn’t have cream and sugar for the coffee. He yelled, “This is bullshit!” and threw his coffee in the street. He’s always kind of cranky. I brought fifteen leftovers to a tiny house village. Renee said that she and her husband could split one. People on the street survive by sharing.
On Wednesday, everything was closed. Where can homeless people wash their hands and go to the bathroom? Matthew told me he went to the hospital to wash up. Mental health effects physical and spiritual health. Terry thinks he is immune to the coronavirus because he only has six percent human DNA. “Alien life forms aren’t at risk in a pandemic.” The part time and seasonal work that homeless people do has all ended. People can’t charge their phones because the library is closed.
Thursday, one of the homeless encampments I visit had a big sign up that said Wash Your Hands. We still brought pizza and I was accused of being a cop. I met a transgender woman who asked me if I was praying for us. We talked about the love of Christ shining on the good and the bad. She shared how she survived threats of murder while sleeping in her car. Being born intersexed contributed to her addiction. She told me how she was all alone one day and a person out of nowhere offered to help her get on suboxone to treat her dependence on opioids. “It was like an angel of the Lord came and saved me. That’s how I know God is real!”
Friday, I prayed online and with my coworkers. I walked to two hospitals and prayed. I walked to a chapel at the University and prayed there as well. Please pray for people living on the streets. “Therefore let all the faithful pray to you while you may be found; surely the rising of the mighty waters will not reach them (Psalms 32:6 NIV).” Michael Cox
My boss told me I needed to start wearing a clerical collar. I had been wondering about the future of my outreach outfit and took our conversation as a sign. I ordered three clergy shirts and hit the streets. The reaction has been fascinating. Overall, the collar seems to communicate that prayer is available. People living in tents by the freeway have asked me to pray against demonic activity in their camp. “Thank you for your time, Father. Thanks for being here!” is the most common response. The idea that the church would show up on the street seems to rattle everyone’s theological cage. “What about the role of laity in the church? What about the priesthood of all believers?” “Are you a real pastor?” “Thanks for showing up!”
People living on the street understand what the collar means. They understand that I’m not a case manager. I’m not a city worker tracking treatment outcomes. I’m not a cop. They can look out of their tent or up from the sidewalk and ask, “What church are you from?” The collar is an invitation to participate in the kingdom of God.
Monday night I prayed with four people. Alex wanted healing prayer for his back. “It feels better. Thanks for praying, Father!” Terrance grabbed my hand and yelled through a mouth full of booze, “Bless me, pastor!” Jerry and I prayed for healing, finances, and peace on the steps of the bookstore. Donnie told me to pray as I felt led.
Donnie is someone I have known for twenty years. I met him when he was a kid. He is in his thirties now and in rough shape. He sleeps in the park often with no shoes. Tonight is the first time he has seen me in the collar. He is sitting in a parking lot staring obsessively at a five-dollar bill. I offer greetings and salutations and he does the same. He looks at my collar and grins from ear to ear. “Very nice, very nice.” I ask him what he thinks of my new look. “I approve, I approve, very good!” Thank Donnie! “You are coming to Christ, who is the living cornerstone of God’s temple. He was rejected by people, but he was chosen by God for great honor ( 1 Peter 2:4, NLT).” — Michael Cox