The struggle is real

The struggle is real

 I was handing out survival items with Operation Nightwatch when Felicia approached us. She asked if we were outreach workers and took some socks and water. She was staying in a tiny house village and was trying to get her ID. The Deptartment of Social Services lost the hard copy of her birth certificate and social security card. They were still using paper and didn’t save her ID on a database. The Department of Licensing wasn’t much help either. It has been a five-year struggle. Instead of bitter complaining, Felicia was gracious. “I am praying for a miracle. Because at this point, I don’t know what else to do.” I offer to pray and it’s a good one! Sometimes you just know God is on the move!

I run into Felicia three months later. She is still staying at a tiny house village. I visit her village all the time and don’t remember ever talking to her. Yay for getting older! She finally has her ID. She can start applying for jobs and has a few promising leads. Felicia recaps the very real struggle of obtaining identification while living on the street. “People steal your stuff. It’s fifty-four dollars for a replacement ID card. You need to establish residency even if you don’t have an address. A cable bill or piece of mail can work if you have some other supporting document. You can get food stamps from the government but the DOL won’t accept your EBT card as proof of being a person.” Her ID drama ended when she got sealed medical records. “They don’t list medical records as an approved document, but they accepted it. People on the streets have all been to the emergency room!”

We’re sitting on the sidewalk in front of the grocery store laughing about the real struggle for identity. A thirty-something man walks over and offers us a pack of cigars. It’s open and one is missing. How strange. He leaves and we speculate on his plans. “He’s going to make a blunt and is easing his guilt with tobacco charity.” Felicia gets up and tosses them in the trash can. We laugh some more and talk about dogs. A few weeks ago, someone broke into her tiny house and stole her dog. She is confused why the culprit didn’t get arrested. I offer to start a GoFundMe site to see if we can get her a new canine companion. Smiles and tears commence. We both agree that spending time with dogs is way better than dealing with people. Especially people at the Department of Identification! “May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the children of the needy, and crush the oppressor!” (Psalms 72:4 ESV).

Michael Cox

Positive attitude

Positive attitude

I go walking along the freeway overpass on a rainy Monday afternoon looking for homeless people. There are a handful of tents lining the fence where the bike path and on-ramp meet. I met three people here last week and want to see if everyone is ok. This area was swept by the city and the folks that are left seem more isolated than usual. Ronald is on his way to take a shower and looks like he has stepped off the set of a Mad Max movie. He is carrying a giant backpack with smaller bags attached to it with bungee cords. I give him some water and granola bars, which he stuffs into his cargo pants. As he lumbers off, he tells me, “Things could be worse!” Trevor lives in a tent under the bike path and I hand him socks and water. I can’t hear him because of the freeway noise so we just smile at each other. Karen takes some survival items and, within seconds, has shimmied down the side of the freeway to her tent. All I can think about is my daughter and how dangerous life on the streets is for young women.

I travel down to the off-ramp and meet Gary. Gary is sitting in a wheelchair, in the rain, under a tree. His legs were amputated last year when he got frostbite from sleeping outside. He wants to get into stable housing, but it hasn’t seemed to work out yet. His friends tell me that he has a great attitude and never complains. Privately he confides in me that he gets a little depressed sometimes. I have absolutely no idea what to say or do. I can’t get him into housing, and I can’t take him home. So, I stand in the rain and try to encourage him. He knows all the resources and is a very gentle soul. My only plan is to come back tomorrow, stand in the rain, and talk to him again.

I come back to the freeway overpass and talk with Gary again. He is sitting in his wheelchair staring at the traffic. We chat and he tells me he has had a rough night. The rain and cold have left him hopeless and more depressed. He thanks me for the granola bars and says he needs to get inside. As he pushes his wheelchair back to a tent all I can do is pray for him. “Our Father in heaven, reveal who you are. Set the world right; Do what’s best — as above, so below.” (Matthew 6:9-10, MSG).

Michael Cox

Friendship, food, happiness, and health

Friendship, food, happiness, and health

Henry walked by and didn’t recognize me. I remind him that we prayed last week and tell him that I have some socks and PB&Js. “Oh yeah, I am starving.” It’s going to dip down into the low forties tonight and the homeless community is preparing. Henry sleeps in a doorway and feels safe except for when drug addicts try to rob him. I ask if there is anything I can keep in my prayers for him. “Friendship, food, happiness, and health!” I love praying with homeless people at the bus stop. It always makes God smile. The strange looks we get from people leaving CrossFit are equally delightful! I wonder what people think when they see me holding hands and praying with a person everyone is trying to avoid. Prayer communicates care. Henry walks across the street and yells a hearty thanks.

There are three of my friends are sitting on the sidewalk by Starbucks. Martin is a guitar player and I tune his acoustic that’s missing a string. He plays slide guitar with a travel size vodka bottle and we have an instant connection. He is nostalgic about past relationships, wishing he could go back in time. “If I knew then what I know now …” He spots Dorothy, my coworker’s puppy and I am instantly old news. Crawling over to Dorothy on his hands and knees they become fast friends. There is a gentleman lying on the ground. He is the drunkest I have ever seen anybody in my life. He looks like my friend Little Rabbit, but I’m not sure. His level of intoxication has altered everything, even his physical appearance. “Is that you, Little Rabbit?” It is and he’s overcome with shame and guilt. His addiction has set his plans for housing back again. We always pray when we chat, and this time is no different. Kneeling, I ask him what he would like prayer for. I put my hand on his shoulder and tell him that God loves him. That God loved him first and that there is no shame or guilt for those who are in Christ. He grabs my shoulder and squeezes. I think he assumed we were going to pray about the demon of booze tempting him, about the right path and good choices. The presence of God and his love are so thick you could eat it with a spoon. We all need to know the hope of God’s love. Little Rabbit already knows he needs to quit drinking.

My coworker introduces me to Dante. Dante is a sweet, soft-spoken man in his 60s. He has an interesting street hustle as a self-appointed doorman. He stands in front of a restaurant and opens the door for guests. Sometimes people give him a dollar. Everyone says thank you. I have some gloves and extra shirts in my bag, and he is appreciative. Our conversation turns to God, church, and baptism. He was baptized in Atlanta by Martin Luther King Jr.’s sister. Dante was forever changed when he heard God’s voice on the phone. He was in the hospital and heard a gospel song while he was on hold. The song’s lyrics were “I will always be with you and never forget you.” Our eyes get watery sharing with each other how God has changed our lives. He was shot at seven times at point blank range, walking away unharmed. My testimony about miraculous sobriety puts us on the same level. I tell him about how much I used to play the guitar at church. Without missing a beat Dante smiles and reminds me that “even God took a rest!” Preach, sir, preach. I ask him if he wants to pray. If he wants to pray for me. He doesn’t like to pray out loud, so I babble onward and upward. We part ways with a big hug, and I am overjoyed. I thank God for friendship, food, happiness, and health!

Michael Cox

Faith in uncertainty

Faith in uncertainty

I have talked with William a few times now. He is always sitting on the sidewalk by the grocery store. He is a talker and a manic one at that. The last time we talked he shared how his sister had helped him through his mental health crisis. She quit her job at a powerful law firm in New York so she could take care of him. She helped him finish school and get stable. He gushed nonstop about the sacrificial love of his sister. He is forever grateful and proud of himself for being able to pay her back with money he has earned over the years. “She doesn’t need money, and I could never really pay her back. It feels good to contribute what I can. It’s a way to show my thankfulness.” As we part ways, he thanks me for listening to him. He lets me know that listening has the power to bring much healing to people who are hurting.

Tonight, William is sitting in his spot reading books on prayer and theology. He is excited about the mystery of communicating with God. “If we have the ability to talk with God, we should take advantage of it!” I agree and listen to him share his heart. He tells me that faith in God doesn’t mean you know everything. It means that you have peace in the uncertainty of life. The mystery of God is supernatural joy in the midst of suffering. William stands up and begins to preach. “The Bible says Jesus is a healer, not a cure!” We talk about the reality of being healed and not cured of mental illness. “I have a few bad days a month. But, compared to ten years ago I am a walking miracle!”

Our attention turns to the ten-week-old puppy my fellow street minister has brought with us. The most powerful expression of God’s love may be a miniature Dotson. The puppy is in William’s lap and we’re all smiling from ear to ear. William tells me how there are all kinds of ways to pray. “You can kneel or stand. There are prayers of praise and grief. Prayers of blessing and gratitude!” Yes, William’s prayer is a conversation with God! I ask William if he wants to pray together. A polite and refreshing “No thank you” is his response. As we say our goodbyes William shares a parting blessing. “Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times and in every way. The Lord be with all of you.” (2 Thessalonians 3:16). Thank you, William, I receive your prayer of blessing!

Michael Cox

Breakfast with the ladies

Breakfast with the ladies

I had the best time eating breakfast with formerly homeless women on Sunday morning. I showed up to the shelter with a Starbucks to-go box of caffeinated goodness. My friend Sonja brought fresh fruit and made two tasty casseroles. It was pouring down rain and we were all happy to be indoors. Chatting about the merits of flavored nondairy creamer, the conversation turned to kids. The topic being discussed was not seeing your kids grow up and being separated from your family. Connie just met her seventeen-year-old son last month for the first time. Lilly had all three of her kids taken by the state. The undercurrent of shame and regret was palpable. While mistakes had been made in the past, the power of community began to unfold. The breakfast table was becoming a platform for encouragement and hope. “Your son will let you back into his life soon enough!” “Now that you have two years of sobriety things will keep getting better.” “It’s a good thing you filed a restraining order against your husband.” Shared suffering producing gracious support.

We try to watch the football game, but no one knows how to connect the laptop to the television. Heartfelt conversations are mingled with hilarious stories of carrying and birthing children. “That epidural is no joke.” “How do you expect me to push when I am almost unconscious!” “I was so fat when I was pregnant, I tripped and got stuck in the trunk of my car!” I make a dumb joke about leaving the toilet seat up. It’s better for me to listen.

When I get home and reflect on the morning, I am reminded of the story of Ruth from the Bible. A story of tragedy, loyalty, and restoration. Women who were widows and immigrants left to fend for themselves. Through their kindness and loyalty they experience the redemption of God. The women at the breakfast, like the women in the book of Ruth, boldly decide to transform loss into life by weeping together. By caring for each other, they are being transformed into women of noble character. “She is clothed with strength and dignity, and she laughs without fear of the future. When she speaks, her words are wise, and she gives instructions with kindness.” (Proverbs 31:25-26 NLT). Breakfast really is the most important meal of the day!

Michael Cox

Yelling speeches

Yelling speeches

When I first started doing “ministry,” I always felt like I wasn’t doing anything. One Easter, surrounded by homeless youth and a cross decorated with flowers, a staff person asked me if “I had brought the word.” I thought I had, but wondered if I should have brought it differently. Maybe sharing stories and meals isn’t powerful enough. Perhaps the problem was with my presentation. Yelling seems to be the preferred way of communicating the Gospel for many of the Lord’s anointed. Maybe pastors and evangelists think God is hard of hearing. In church I often thought, “Why are you yelling at me? I already believe all of this Bible stuff.”

Walking around the streets where homeless people live, you can usually find a few people yelling. Sometimes people are yelling about God. My approach has always been to get to know people. God is relational. Through conversation the hearts of people are revealed. We talk with Ronald in the park. He tells us where some pregnant women are staying by the freeway. “They could use some guys like you to talk with. You don’t give long speeches about God.” Pastor David offers him a cigarette. “Thanks, Mr. Cigarette Saint.”

A young man and his dog are spare changing by the grocery store. He shares wild stories of travel and adventure. He was prayed for by some faith healers in Los Angeles. “Hey, I’m up for anything. I felt some things lift off me when they prayed.” He thanks us for hanging out with him and listening.

We approach three people sitting on the sidewalk in front of a busy restaurant. A young woman begins to cry as she talks with Pastor Ben. She shares how she is tired of living on the street. Through tears of fear and sorrow she tells us that spiritual warfare is real. Her favorite verses are the ones from Ephesians. “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil (Eph 6:11).” Pastor Ben prays a quiet, calm and loving prayer of protection. Her friend tells me his favorite verse is from Revelations 14, The Lamb and the 144,000—“That is some epic shit!” We take turns reading the chapter out loud to each other. We are all sitting on the ground. I look like a Little League coach that has lost his way. After we pray, they ask me if I have a Bible. I have The Backpacker Bible and three pocket-sized New Testaments. “Do you want a burgundy or black New Testament or the full meal deal?” The Bibles are all received with excitement and joy. Jack tells me his favorite verse, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So, it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8). Bible studies on the street are the best.

As we’re packing up at the end of the night, a gentleman selling Real Change newspapers walks by. We chat and give him our last pair of socks and granola bar. He’s trying to make enough money to buy a tub of rainbow sherbet. We pray for him and it’s a great end to the night. As he’s walking away, he yells “Thanks for the prayers!” I hope he got some ice cream.

We get back to the office and there’s a woman in a wheelchair, with her friend, by the front door. She’s crying and incoherently trying to figure out how to get a van cab. She uses our phone to try to make arrangements. There are no van cabs at night. We part ways and it seems like her friend is going to help her. As I walk to my car she cries for help, “Michael!” Her friend has left her, it’s 11 p.m., and she’s homeless, alone, and in a wheelchair. I push her up the hill to the bus stop. She doesn’t want to get on the bus and doesn’t want to go stay with her friend. We pray and say our goodbyes. I pray that the Word is made flesh. That the provision and protection of God materialize in practical and meaningful ways for our friends living on the street. I hope I was able to bring the Word.

Michael Cox

You’re the only person I trust

You’re the only person I trust

At first glance, the park seems quiet. I look again and notice a group of men in matching blue shirts arguing with a group of homeless people. I wonder if it’s a church group assuming people living in the park don’t know the good news of Jesus. I keep moving and run into Isaac. He’s been barred from the church across the street and is upset. “They said I was using drugs on their property. Now I can’t sleep in their shelter or eat the free breakfast.” We talk about his drug use and his desire to be clean. “I don’t want to waste anybody’s time. If I go to treatment and relapse, then that would disappoint everyone trying to help me.” I offer my sage wisdom and declare the goodness of trying. “It takes an average of seven times for people with substance abuse disorders to be free of addiction.” He believes that meth works like Ritalin did when he was a kid. His grandmother kept increasing his dosage until he left home at fourteen. “Boom keeps me focused and alert.” We talk about his family. How alcohol destroyed his parents. How funny and wise his tribal ancestors were.

The people who live in the condominiums around the park where Isaac sleeps are being confrontational, accusing him of stealing. They have been videotaping him and his friends. Lots of yelling. “They are always threating me and act like they don’t get high or drunk in their homes.” People from all lifestyles like to justify their addictions by scapegoating other addicts.  Saying things like “At least I don’t smoke crack. I don’t shoot up and I never sold myself. I just have a few glasses of chardonnay after tennis with my book club.”

Isaac remembers his prescription for a skin infection is waiting for him to pick up, but he doesn’t have the money to pay for it. “I woke up with this huge ass spider bite on my leg. Maybe it was a family of spiders having a feast.” I offer to cover the prescription cost, and he accepts. Fifty-eight dollars seems like a small price to pay for abscess-free legs. We walk back from the drugstore to his pile of belongings and hug. “Thanks Mike, you’re the only person I can trust.” I leave, hoping Isaac takes his medicine. I am fearful that his leg will get infected and need to be amputated. “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you. In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can flesh do to me?” (Psalm 56:3-4, ESV)

Michael Cox