Coat of many colors

What does your coat say about you? I moved to Seattle when I was twenty-three years old. I had long hair, an orange VW Bus, and no coat. Having come from Los Angeles, my wardrobe consisted of t-shirts, jeans, and shorts. Arriving in the Pacific Northwest in November, I experienced ninety days of rain in a row. I couldn’t wrap my mind around all the coat purchasing options. Overwhelmed by REI, fleece liners, outer shells, and wind breaker vest combos, I finally caught the flu and was sick for a week. My budget and poor understanding of the cultural significance of a coat led me to the Army Navy surplus store. It was here that I bought my first coat. Looking for a job in a new city with a ponytail and a coat that screamed homeless guy was an eye-opening experience. It never occurred to me that a giant cheap coat would made me look sketchy.

My relationship with coats has always been troubled. As a kid I lost my coat every year. My mom finally got mad and said that she was done buying coats for me. I remember having to wiggle out of a snug hand-me-down in the hallways of middle school. The broken zipper canceled out the “wow factor” of the detachable sleeves. Years later my mom would confess that her only parenting regret was bugging me to wear a coat. She would lament, “Just because I was always cold didn’t mean you were. Kids aren’t cold. They are running around being kids.” My mom was cold if it was below eighty degrees. She stopped visiting me in Seattle because of the rain and my no smoking in the house rule.

After the Pacific Northwest Army Navy Surplus homeless guy jacket, I continued down the road of transient fashion. Triple extra-large flannels were a staple. Combined with a bright orange cycling windbreaker, my look could be best described as lumberjack meets Tour de France meets crossing guard. Then, I got married. My wife quickly replaced my wardrobe with items that were in style.  Now, I had several coats. According to my wife it is “fun” to have coats for different situations. This was when I learned about the theological implications of a coat.

My wife and I met volunteering with street youth. We would walk around downtown at night praying with people, encouraging homeless kids to be safe, reminding them that Jesus never abandoned them. It was a miraculous community of faith. I noticed that my coat could be a topic of conversation. Once while wearing a jumbo flannel with Carhartt overalls, I was told by a homeless kid that I looked like an ax murderer. My puffy Old Navy coat apparently made me look like a crack head. The coat everyone liked had a huge fur-lined hood. What was my coat saying about me? What does my coat say about my relationship with God?

I have been emotionally attached to a few of my coats. The windbreaker I wore while working for the post office was my literal armor of God. “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil (Ephesians 6:10-11).” I would eventually get a uniform allowance and wear the standard issue gear. However, the windbreaker I got from the REI Memorial Day sale was the best. Lightweight, warm, and indestructible, it helped me survive snow, dogs, and other mailmen. When I left the post office to work in full time street ministry, I found myself once again without a coat.

Pastoral street ministry necessitates strategic choices when it comes to outerwear. You need to have a beanie no matter what. The beanie needs to be warm, but not too fancy. The coat is more complicated. It needs to be waterproof, warm, and understated. Personally, I don’t want to spend two hundred dollars on a coat. I also don’t want to freeze. My first coat for Operation Nightwatch street ministry was a sixty dollar Columbia ski jacket from Marshalls. It has served me well. My friends on the street have told me that it is a good brand. “Hey Mike, that’s a nice coat.” I still haven’t washed the casserole stains from Community Dinners off of it!

Giving homeless people coats when it is freezing outside is one of my greatest joys. It is such a powerful demonstration of God’s practical love. “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me (Matthew 25:35-36 ESV).” To give a new coat to a person living outside is to speak the power of life over death. A new coat for a homeless person is the embodiment of salvation. “Wake up, wake up, O Zion! Clothe yourself with strength. Put on your beautiful clothes, O holy city of Jerusalem, for unclean and godless people will enter your gate no longer (Isaiah 52:1 NLT).” There is restoration in a new coat.

Clothing communicates cultural norms and expectations. My daughter bought me Nike Airforce Ones for my birthday. When I wear them on outreach somebody, usually under thirty, lets me know that my shoes are cool. I prefer to wear my Nike Air Monarchs. Classic “dad shoes,” simple, durable, and comfortable. I like my mailman shoes! Besides, is there anything worse than guys my age trying to dress like they’re twenty? I went to a church for many years that preached “you can learn a lot about a pastor by looking at his shoes.” So much for the content of our character. This group believed that we should approach God in excellence. This meant suits, ties, and shiny shoes. I was doomed to hell the minute my slovenly self entered the sanctuary.

On the street, clothing is about survival. My gutter punk friends use dental floss as sewing thread, recycling the same clothes over and over again. Sweatpants under jeans with two pairs of socks communicates function over form. Laundry is challenging and clothes are disposable for the homeless. Clothes are also currency. “Yo, my buddy gave me this coat for a phone charger.” Homeless people are also generous, they will literally give you the coat off their backs. “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise (Luke 3;11).” What a blessing to be gifted a coat.

This Christmas I received a two hundred dollar Amazon gift card. The elders and deacons from a church that is in my network just wanted to bless me. I purchased a black Carhartt insulated jacket, concluding my long and arduous coat journey. I ordered the wrong size and had to return it. After returning it, it was sent back as damaged and undeliverable. It finally arrived, a coat that’s warm, fits, and meets the approval of my family. Whenever I wear this coat, a homeless friend pays me a compliment. “Hey Mike, that’s a nice coat.” After standing outside with homeless people in the rain and snow, I will never take my coat or salvation for granted. My mom would be so proud!

Michael Cox

Out of the pit

“He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand (Psalm 40:2).” This verse describes my friend Jacob and his situation. I first met Jacob twenty years ago in front of Jack in the Box. He was fifteen, homeless, and riding a BMX bike. He and his younger brother looked like characters from a futuristic, post-apocalyptic sci fi movie. I affectionately referred to them as the, “mountain men” of downtown. Over the years I was able to help connect Jacob to a carpentry mentorship and walk with his brother through cancer treatment. They were two of the wildest street kids I had ever met.

I reconnected with Jacob last year in front of a free community lunch, just a few blocks from the Jack in the Box where we had first met all those years ago. Rooted in patterns of abuse and trauma, it seemed as though time, and his life, had stood still. We tried to meet so we could get his driver’s license. Jacob said it was suspended for driving without insurance. He never showed up and apologizes whenever I run into him. I suspect alcohol is involved with his Department of Motor Vehicle drama. His history of fighting and assault has, in my opinion left him with a traumatic brain injury. I probably will never know what happened to him when he was a toddler.

Jacobs ex-girlfriend is worried about him. He is alone in his tent, smoking synthetic marijuana, and having seizures. She broke the cardinal rule of homelessness and told me where he was camping. She offered to take me to his spot, but we decided I would go look for him on my own. I didn’t want to implicate her in finding someone who does not want to be found. He had mentioned to me once that he had built a house in a ravine. His carpentry mentorship skills were helping him survive or slowly die.

I went to the spot and was baffled as to how he was able get down into the ravine, let alone build a house and not get caught. There are million-dollar views and houses surrounding the pit where he lives. Other homeless people have died in this ravine. A few years ago, there was a gentleman who broke his ankle and couldn’t walk out, slowly dying alone and forgotten. As I stood looking into the tree covered pit, I felt helpless, unable to figure out how to find him. I didn’t want to reveal his spot to the neighbors, I also didn’t think I could get in and out safely.

Jacob’s ex-girlfriend told me he goes to the smoke shop every day for synthetic marijuana. My plan is to hang out there and pray, hoping to share the good news with Jacob that Jesus, “redeems your life form the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s (Psalm 103:4-5).”

Michael Cox

No doubt faith

As a Street Minister for Operation Nightwatch I get to experience the ways God is moving in the lives of homeless people. Last night I met Donnie, a man of remarkable faith. He told me about how he met the Lord during a Bible study. “I closed the door to my room and started studying the Word. It was just me and the Lord.” As we talked about living out our faith, Donne shared about the persistent violence he encounters on the street. “Rape, murder, and robbery happen all the time out here. The coronavirus has made everything even more challenging. When people get desperate, the devil seems to get power over everyone’s thoughts and actions.” Donnie asked me how my family was doing, if my kids were ok, if I was on top of my mortgage payment. The thoughtfulness of my friends who live in doorways always ministers the love of Jesus to me. In-spite of the struggles Donnie experiences, he is confident in the goodness of God. It was that moment, alone with the Lord and the Bible, that he became confident in the living God. The Holy Spirit pouring out from heaven, speaking love to his beloved. Donnie believes that no matter what happens in his life, the Lord will make a way for him to keep on living. As we part ways, Donnie encourages me to be safe and to never doubt the goodness of God.

My friend Frank has been wearing a one-piece ski suit all winter. It is the perfect outfit for living homeless in Seattle. We meet on the corner and exchange pleasantries. Frank is unusually talkative and excited. He has a shopping cart filled with tins, art supplies, and other dumpster diving treasures. Tapping his finger on a canister of talcum powder, Frank describes his plans to build a drum set. I share my knowledge of the band Aerosmith using sugar packets as percussion instruments and jazz bands using metal plates as wind chimes. Suddenly, Frank looks me in the eye and asks if I know anything about the Trinity. I explain the Triune God and the idea of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit sharing the same essence, functioning, and operating independently and in unison. Frank has been thinking about the Lords Prayer and discerning the voice of God. “I hear voices in my head. How do you know when the voice is the Holy Spirit? Does the Trinity mean that God speaks in multiple voices?” We talk about the Holy Spirit being a voice of comfort, advocating peace and love. When Jesus is baptized, he hears the Spirit of God say “You are my beloved Son. With whom I am well pleased (Matthew 3:17).” We talk about Pentecostal oneness theology, the Great Schism between the Catholic and Orthodox church, and the tension over the divinity and humanity of Christ.

 Frank asks if I know of any woman that can help him get rid of his lice. We talk about showers, new clothes, shaving your head, and having to get rid of the one-piece ski suit. He asks if I go to a church that has a youth group or a worship band. He is building a drum set and wants to start a percussion ensemble. I invite him to play at my Community Dinner Church that meets down the street in the Salvation Army parking lot. He thanks me for the socks and sandwiches, and I thank him for talking about theology with me. The word really does become flesh and move into the neighborhood (John 1:14 MSG).”

Michael Cox

Honor everyone

My friends on the street treat me with such kindness. It is so moving when someone who is mentally ill and living in a tent asks me how my day is going. Gloria always wants to know if I have watched the movie Maximum Overdrive. She thinks my son will love it. A classic 80’s Stephen King film with AC DC music, Emilio Estevez tank tops, and machines destroying the world. What’s not to love. Declaring, “God is a bad ass,” Gloria is a street theologian, and a good one at that. She tells me that Jesus protects her from sorcery and witchcraft. She is aware that her drinking is destructive and ultimately killing her. She tells me that sometimes, “sin feels good while it’s happening”. I agree and we both laugh. We talk for a good long while. We pray for freedom from addiction and shame. She tells me that she doesn’t have any shame just regret. Respectful of my time, she asks if I need to get going and thanks me for listening to her. Everyone feels honored when they are heard.

William has been out of work because of the pandemic. He was a bar back and bouncer at a sex/bondage nightclub. He tells me that he misses the work but is glad to not be there anymore. “It was kind of my scene and kind of not.”  We discuss the connection between internalized trauma and unhealthy expressions of love. William is a rape survivor and agrees with me that healing is a slow miracle. Such a tender, vulnerable moment shared on the street.

Several times on Monday night my friends on the street asked to pray for me. I received prayers of appreciation, safety, and protection. Brian thanked God for me because it gives him hope knowing that people are out making sure he is alive. His faith in humanity is renewed when people stop and say hi to him. He also asked me for a five-person tent, a generator, razors, and hydrogen peroxide. One time he asked me if I had a van he could have. The Bible does say ask, seek, and knock!

I am speechless when people who live under the freeway, are thoughtful enough to ask me how my Christmas was. Humility and honor seem to be the same thing. Mellissa and I prayed for God to provide for our daily needs. She thanked God for her boyfriends continued success in anger management and for the high heeled shoes she found at the gas station. We talked about our sobriety and she prayed the serenity prayer over me. I cry thinking about her roller covered head poking out of her tent. She asks me how the hair rollers look and is excited that she found them in the garbage. All I can say is beautiful. We receive courage, strength, and wisdom when we “honor everyone (1 Peter 2:17).”

Michael Cox

Walking with the Lord

Rosemary attends the Community Dinner every Tuesday night. Attending, can be defined as drinking Bud Ice at the bus stop and screaming obscenities into the air. Alcohol and yelling usually attend our community gatherings. The first time I met Rosemary she was “attending”, and “participating”, in the evening service. One of our well-meaning volunteers told her that she needed to be quiet or leave. Much to Mr. Well Meanings surprise, Rosemary was not interested in complying. I was also not interested in having her leave or comply. After all, we meet in a parking lot surrounded by alcohol and screaming. She is a perfect match for our church. Over the next few months, she would stop by the dinner and get a meal or a coffee. She would pace up and down the block, screaming things that actually made me blush. She told me her name, got mad when I remembered it, and hugged me. Throughout the week, I would see her downtown, screaming in front of different bus stops. She would remember me and my clerical collar, hug me, and we would pray.

Two weeks ago, I was irritated at the dinner church. The meal was messy. The weather was messier. Wind was blowing cold rain on us. The tent was dripping rain onto the fruit salad. Volunteers were few and running late. When the weather is that bad, homeless people try to find a dry place to stay. Food, and my charming personality become less of a priority. I had a lot of leftovers that I was able to bring to messy, wet, homeless encampments. I finished the evening thinking, its always important to be consistent. Showing up on time, all the time, speaks more than any words I could ever say.

The next week I was recharged and ready for action. I had a renewed sense of calling and purpose. It wasn’t raining and I was determined to be a blessing. We pull up to the parking lot and Rosemary is waiting for us. She is drinking a Bud Ice and asks if we are having church tonight. She asks if we would pray for her. She tells us that she isn’t walking with the Lord like she should. She tells us that her methamphetamine use is a struggle and a problem. That the devil keeps tempting her with drugs. My coworker Ben prays for her and our messy, alcohol soaked, scream filled church service has begun! “Those who abandon everything in order to seek God know well that he is the God of the poor.” Thomas Merton.

Michael Cox

Public health

Over the last year I have been able to work alongside a group of Public Health Nurses. Together, we walk around homeless encampments, providing spiritual and physical care. Healing wounds that traumatize the people that we serve. I love the Public Health Nurses! They have come to my dinner church and provided flu shots and Hepatitis vaccinations to the most vulnerable of our city. They lovingly refer people to medically assisted drug treatment and usually have candy. They provide wound care to people with serious, life threating infections. They also get yelled at, accused of being government pawns of big Pharma, sent to infect and profit off the poor.

 Turning a bus stop into a church service/medical clinic is easier than you think. Last week we met Patricia downtown. She is from Arkansas and told us that she has breast cancer and diabetes. “Praise the Lord though, I still haven’t lost any of my hair!” She thanked God that she ran into us and we prayed. When we asked her if she was interested in a flu shot, she was clearly enthusiastic. “Praise the Lord, oh yes I would!” We all lingered and listened to Patricia as she shared deep wisdom from the stories of her life.

We met two women from Florida that thought it was wonderful that we were out serving the Lord. They have both been living on the street for two years and believe God has called them to share the Good News of Jesus to the homeless community. Rhonda asked if she could pray for us. We all held hands and received a blessing from our new friend. I cannot imagine a sweeter prayer ever being uttered.

We had our second church service/medical clinic at the next bus stop. Matthew wanted prayer for permanent housing, his kids, and his addiction. He was excited to get his flu shot and wanted to know if it would be on his backside. I told him that would cost extra. We all laughed, and he rolled up his sleeve. It is an amazing sight to see a man who has survived years of homelessness and incarceration flinch at the first prick of a needle. Matthew shared the fear he had of going to the doctor. He thinks he has AIDS but is to afraid to know for sure. It was a powerful moment of openness and vulnerability. The nurses spoke to him in a way that made me want to go the clinic.

My friend Rebecca was down the street screaming. I first met her at my dinner church where she can be found screaming and drinking Bud Ice. She was happy to see me and gave me three fist bumps. While the nurses were giving a drunk man a flu shot, Rebecca and I hold hands and pray. She is hard to understand but through the yelling I believe she is asking God for freedom from her Meth addiction. Its hard to see our traveling medical prayer circus and not smile.

We walk up the street and notice a man selling prepackaged cuts of meat. No one has ever seen anything like this. Who is buying stolen meat at eleven pm on third and Pike? Next to him is a group of young man acting tough and trying to intimidate us. The leader of their group asks for the nurse’s phone numbers. I ask him if he wants my number too! He asks if I am a preacher. I say yes, and ask him if he wants to pray? All the street credibility in the world can’t resist the presence of God. We pray and I can feel his heart move. He is, for the moment, not full of macho street bravado. Now, he is awkward and uncomfortable, instantly laid bare before his creator, the lover of his soul. He thanks me and then tells his friends to shut up. “The fucking church outreach nurses are here.”

Michael Cox

Prostitution, handwarmers, and the Rosary

I have been praying the Rosary with a group of Catholic Deacons and woman involved in the sex industry for a few weeks now. We meet on a corner in the city that is busy with the activity that surrounds prostitution. I have experience praying for people on the street but no experience with the Rosary. The Deacons give me a sheet of paper with instructions and a string of Rosary beads. We meditate on the joyful, luminous, sorrowful, and glorious mysteries of Jesus, and the events that surround his life. We wave at the woman from a distance and offer roses, letting them know that they are loved. Men pull up and ask us what we are doing. “Can I have some prayer beads? Are they blessed?” I give my rosary beads to a guy with a bunch of cash in his car. The women are friendly and seem to understand what we are about. Hail Mary, full of grace.

Yesterday, a woman who was working came over to our prayer time and said hi. She is from the Georgia and not in love with the Seattle weather. The police are less aggressive here and don’t harass her like they do back home. “Here, they ask if you are doing ok. Back home, they just put you in jail.” She tells us that a woman was murdered last week, that handwarmers are helpful, and that she has had guns pulled on her multiple times. All the trauma and violence in her life seems to be commonplace and expected. It’s a mystery how the events of her life have unfolded. I ask her if she wants to pray for protection and safety. She does, and we bow our heads, asking God for freedom from violence. We pray to Jesus for peace that surpasses all understanding and for extra warmth from the Holy Spirit. Seattle weather really does suck. She thanks us and tells us her name. A sign of trust and vulnerability.

The Holy Spirit inhabits the events of our lives when we ask him to. Praying with the Deacons and woman involved in prostitution is a physical expression of Christ’s love and suffering. Asking for prayer and handwarmers while working in prostitution invites the power of the resurrection into the suffering of shame. “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame (Romans 10:11).” Pray for us, that we may made worthy of the promises of Christ. Amen.

Michael Cox

Disposable

 My coworker Ben and I are walking around downtown doing outreach. Ben knows the couple we are approaching and says, “we are going to be here for a while.”  Sometimes a person’s reputation proceeds them. Lola and her husband Josh are in front of 7-11. It’s late at night and they have been permanently barred from their shelter. They are eligible for all the services offered to the homeless in the city and have lost access to all of them. They seem to be unable to get stable. Unable to receive help. Lola is tiny and animated, a nonstop talker. She has a tattoo that covers half of her face. Like her story the tattoo is unfinished and incomplete. She is scared and believes the doctors are doing experiments on homeless people. “I know they are storing dead bodies and lying about it. Everyone who goes to get treatment ends up getting even sicker. People either end up missing or dead.” She shows me her neck and wonders how the scars got there. It’s clear Lola has experienced serious trauma in her life. To escape a life of abuse and neglect, her survival has depended on living in a world of fantasy. She is a master storyteller. Currently, she has everyone believing that she is pregnant. She tells me she has been pregnant for three years. She was staying in a domestic violence shelter and kept smuggling in her husband. Her chaos can disarm even the most experienced social worker. She believes she has cancer and is going to die. She is convinced that she is terminally ill. She tells me that nobody cares about her and homeless people. “It’s like everyone thinks were disposable.”

I offer to pray for Lola, and she accepts, bowing her head in reverence. The Spirit of God falls upon us and we are enveloped with light from the 7-11 sign. A group of pigeons are pecking around the trash can for dinner. We thank God for being created in his image. For his love and care. We pray for healing and truth, for balanced understanding of our lives. When we are done praying Lola says thank you. With the voice and mannerisms of a five-year-old she says, “It really is true that God loves me. I really am a child of God!” Yes Lola, you are not disposable! “So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows (Matthew 10:31 NLT).”

Michael Cox

Jack in the Box

Jack in the Box has always been a great spot to talk with homeless people. Twenty years ago, when I worked with street involved youth, I would stand in front of the restaurant and wait. People would be hanging out there all day long, seeking shelter and using the bathroom to shoot up. The menu always had a few cheap specials. Two tacos for ninety- nine cents, three breakfast jacks for two dollars etc. I prayed with many people at the Broadway Jack in the Box and always thought of it as a holy place. When the Bible talks about the “kingdom of heaven” I think of Jack in the Box. Jesus tells the poor in spirit that the kingdom of heaven is theirs. The good news of Jesus is that “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule (Matthew 5:3 MSG).”

I still go to Jack in the Box! The one on Broadway is closed but the one on 4th is happening. There is a food bank next door and a methadone clinic up the street. The bus stop in front connects to downtown and the international district. I stand in front of the restaurant and wait. I talk with a group of people who are excited to get some hats and gloves. It’s cold and you can never have enough beanies. The crowd thins and people yell over their shoulder thanks and God bless you. A man rolls over in his wheelchair and starts praying for me. “Lord, thank you for this man’s heart. Thank you for the leading of the Holy Spirit. I pray you bless him as he has blessed us today!” We talk about God and he tells me about his dreams. “I had a dream where God showed me the desires of his heart. He showed me my heart and healed me of all bitterness and anger. I was able to move on in my life and be free.”

There is a woman who lives in front of the food bank next to Jack in the Box. She has a huge pile of her stuff spread out between two shopping carts. She spends her days picking up trash, cleaning the bus stop and parking lot. I offer her a granola bar and she says, “thank you, God bless you”. People in front of Jack in the Box understand the blessings of God. “You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the one most dear to you (Matthew 5:4 MSG).”

Michael Cox

You can’t control the weather

I met Robert on Thursday night. He had been in town for ten days and was not prepared for homelessness. His job fell through and he found himself stranded in the cold of downtown Seattle. Because of Covid there are literally no shelter beds for people experiencing homelessness. He asked if I knew of anyone that could provide bus tickets home and was delighted to find out that I was able to help. I explained how I needed to verify that he had a safe place to go and that he didn’t have any warrants out for his arrest. Robert spent the next half hour explaining his history of incarceration. It was no small task to assure him that I just needed to make sure he had no active warrents in Washington state. His anxiety made me sad, reminding me that people get institutionalized and over policed. He reminded me how we criminalize poverty in America.

The following morning, I called his mom, she was worried about him and happy to have him home. This almost never happens. Having a loving family will make all the difference in his ability to stay alive and get off the street. I do the background check and he is all clear to take the three- day bus ride home. We meet and discuss the departure time for tomorrow morning. His mom calls me three more times and eventually invites me out to her house as well!

We meet at the bus stop and Robert is on time. This almost never happens. He stayed at the airport the night before and is ready to get out of Seattle. As were checking in, we discover that his bus is cancelled. The station in Spokane is closed due to record snow fall. What are the odds? A homeless man wants to go home, passes the background check, has a home to go to, and shows up on time. You can’t control the weather. His frustration doesn’t deter his gratitude and we reschedule for the next day. I talk with his mom three more times who asks me how old I am and if I am single! Flattery will get you everywhere.

Sunday morning, we meet at six thirty am at the bus station. He has made friends with the station clerks who let him store his suitcase overnight. Robert offers me some t shirts and a bracelet as a thank you gift. His departure from chilly Seattle is in motion. His mom calls me and hits on me again. I take a nap and marvel at how much a two-hundred-dollar bus ticket can change somebody’s life.

Michael Cox