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

Hardboiled eggs

We talked with seventy-two people last night. The Deacons and my coworker Ben handed out socks, sandwiches, snacks, and hardboiled eggs. We didn’t see Dante in his usual sleeping spot and prayed that his absence was an indication that he was inside, safe, and warm. Alan loves Deacon Frank and told his friends to treat us all with respect. “Shut the F up, my church is here,” is a wonderful greeting to receive. Chad wanted prayer for his memory and asked how he could be praying for me. There was a man sitting twenty feet away from us screaming, “give it back to me” over and over again. Another man thanked us saying, “it may not seem like it, but it makes a difference when you guys come out here.”  We walked around the corner and I got accused of being a pedophile and was told my church would be burned down. The threats and accusations came from a young man that was so drunk he could barely stand. On my way home that night I saw him walking in the middle of the street into oncoming traffic. I met a woman that believes downtown used to be a torture chamber. She said she has a bird in her head and that she used to be chained up inside a metal box. I spoke the freedom of Christ over her and she smiled. I had a great conversation with a young Native American kid about his art. We looked at pictures on my phone from a native owned gallery in the Pike Place market. He explained the art of the coastal tribes to me and the significance of the eighth generation. He said he felt inspired.

 Our friend Nathan was thankful for the wheelchair we gave him last week. Considering that his last one got stolen, it was a miracle that he still had it. Who steals a wheelchair? He asked me why I was so quiet and how my week was. I told him about my new doors and how a friend was installing them for free. We both agreed that we were blessed. A woman cried when we told her that she was loved. I prayed for a young man that had just injected heroin into his arm. Blood was clotting under his sweatshirt while the Holy Spirit stood him up on his feet, reminding him that God has always had a purpose and plan for his life. He thanked me for listening and not preaching. I hope the Bible we gave him helps connect him to God and the sobriety he is seeking. His drug dealer was riding around us on his bicycle like a vulture circling roadkill. A woman stopped me and told me that she needed something spiritual. She asked for a prayer of protection. We prayed and she told me how God saved her from an abusive marriage. “The husband is gone, and God never left.” She has a level of faith that can move mountains. As we rummaged through our pockets, looking for the packets of salt to go with the hardboiled eggs, our homeless friends offered yells of encouragement and laughter. The eggs, incidentally, are hit and miss!

Thank you, Lord, for our time last night. I always learn who you are from people living on the street. “Be completely humble and gentle: be patient, bearing with one another in love (Ephesians 4:2).”

Michael Cox

Blessed are the meek

It is Wednesday evening, and the streets feels tense. There are police cars racing back and forth with sirens blaring. The ambulance and firetruck are following, all heading downtown. We look at the police blotter and discover there is a protest heading our way. We stop and talk with Carl who is having liver failure from years of alcohol abuse. He is crying and thanking God for us. He tells us how much he loves and appreciates the good work we are doing. He promises us that he will go the hospital in the morning. I offer to call an ambulance, but we all agree that emergency dispatch has their hands full. Even on a non-protest night, Carl and his liver are a low priority for the city of Seattle. The business owners on the other hand, have helped Karl in many ways. They have let him sleep in their doorway, taking him to the hospital, helped him get on medication, and giving him a sleeping bag. I pray with Carl and he prays for me. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5).”

Around the corner is our friend Jake who sleeps next to the police station. Jake is a fan of our ham and cheese sandwiches and likes to fill us in on the latest street gossip. He tells us about a fight that involved someone getting hit in the head with a hammer. It is chilling to me how normalized this level of violence is for people living on the street. Jake has befriended the business owner of his doorway as well, exchanging pleasantries with one of the shops employees as he leaves for the night. As we talk with Jake, my anxiety level tells me it’s time to go.

Police have poured out on to the street and are greeted by fellow officers in a van. They are passing out riot gear and preparing for battle. I wave and try to be friendly, but they do not care about me, my clergy collar, or my sandwiches. Watching the police put on riot gear in the street fills me with fear. Fear of the level of hate in their eyes and fear for my safety. We walk around the corner and plan to cut through the park. We are met by a group of protestors. They are drinking and smoking and preparing for battle. Watching the protestors mount on bikes with bats and alcohol also fills me with fear. Fear of the level of hate in their eyes and fear for my safety.

Loving your enemy is the ultimate expression of Christian nonviolent protest. Biblical meekness refers to a spirit of gentleness that trusts in the power and strength of God. When I was standing with Carl and Jake between the police and the protestors, I felt the blessing that come from meekness. I know that the power of God is with the people who are crying out for their lives. People who are sleeping in doorways and storefronts. The people forgotten by the national media, the church, and the activists are the ones who hear the Lord saying, blessed are you who are meek, poor, and merciful. Yours is the kingdom of heaven. Yours is a kingdom of peacemakers.

Michael Cox

Anointing and vengeance

My favorite passage of scripture is Luke 4:18-19. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Jesus is quoting Isaiah 61:1-2 while omitting the phrase, “The day of vengeance of our God.” The audience may have been hoping for the “fulfilment of Scripture” to include the judgment and destruction of political enemies. We all have a secret list in our hearts entitled “People who deserve the vengeance of the Lord.” This prophetic proclamation of Jesus lets everyone know that “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing (Luke 4:21).” Jesus is anointed to heal the broken hearted and the time is now. The kingdom of Jesus extends God’s grace and mercy to people outside of familiar religious traditions and cultural circles. His healing and hospitality also invite hostility. “When they heard these things, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath (Luke 4:28).” Jesus always makes church people mad! Dinner church makes people mad too! Vengeance will have to wait. Jesus has some healing to do.

When Jesus is baptized, he receives approval from his Father. “The heavens opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, ”You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased (Luke 3:22).” It has taken me a while to believe that I am beloved by God. Through the dinner church I have learned that the kingdom of God is in our midst when the church is among the poor. “God blesses you who are poor, for the Kingdom of God is yours (Luke 6:20).” My prayer Is that the church would find its authority by walking in the anointing of Jesus. The favor of God is good news to the poor. The dinner church turns enemies into friends. “The vengeance of the Lord” becomes “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink (Romans 12:20a).”

I was driving home last week wondering what loving our neighbors will look like going forward in this time of uncertainty and divisiveness. How political enemies could become friends? How the dinner church could move forward during a pandemic? Within the span of thirty minutes, two people from our dinner church called. One gentleman wanted to thank me. The dinners had helped encourage him through a time of unemployment and homelessness. He now has an apartment and a job! He credits God and the prayers he received at the dinner as central to his improved situation. Another friend called to invite me over for coffee and to see if I had any extra polo shirts! Vengeance will have to wait. Jesus has some healing to do.

Michael Cox

The church that serves dinner

We had the Community Dinner for a year and a half. Our small gathering on Sunday night averaged around twenty people. We had been doing everything we could to get the word out. Putting signs up at the foodbank and library. Passing out sack lunches and fliers at the dollar store. Talking with community groups in the area. Posting on social media and the neighborhood blog. The night we had four people made me question what we were doing. Nobody new was coming and I began to wonder if God wanted to “remove our lampstand.” Maybe it was time to pack it in. I knew that the dinner was a blessing to the handful of people that came but I didn’t want to be delusional. God is faithful and wants to bring the increase, but maybe not at this particular location. We had our faithful volunteers over for dinner and talked about the future of our fellowship. We discussed the low attendance and I gave some ideas. We could try a new location. We could bring the meal to my friends living in a homeless encampment instead of inviting them to come to us. To my surprise the team wasn’t burned out or discouraged with our small turnout. They wanted to keep going. We decided to present ourselves as a church instead of emphasizing the free meal. The conventional wisdom was that the word church turns people off. We didn’t want people to feel misled or tricked so we would be upfront about our churchiness. Sharing a meal, music, art, and the Christ story, we were on a journey to becoming the church that serves dinner.

We prayed and prayed and thanked God for what he was going to do. We call that a “yet praise” in the spirit filled church world. Actually, we mostly yell that.  “Oh God, please bring more people. We have all this food and space. We want you to be honored and I want to be successful. Or at least prove to the people that made fun of us that they were wrong.” Sometimes my motives aren’t the holiest.

After six more months of faithfulness we still had not attracted any more people. Undeterred, my wife and I started serving food and prayer in the parking lot in front of the Bartell Drug store. People came and thanked us, and blessed us, making it clear that we had a new home. We now serve seventy- five meals and welcome the neighborhood of White Center into the kingdom of God every Sunday night. Sometimes the best place for church is out of the back of your car! “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom (2 Corinthians 3:17).” We are becoming the church that serves dinner!

Michael Cox

Jesus in the parking garage

It’s Christmas Eve, and we are having our Community Dinner Church service. We meet very Tuesday in a parking garage downtown. The heat lamps are warm and toasty. The tablecloths are draped over a mismatch of round and square tables. Charlie Brown Christmas is playing on Spotify, we are ready to go. The meal is salad, mashed potatoes, and pork loin with cranberry and caramelized onion. We have chocolate mousse cake and Christmas cookies for dessert. When I start cutting the pork loin a silent awe falls over the dozen or so folks waiting in line. The meal is special and so are the people who have come to have dinner church with us. We sing Silent Night and pass out glow sticks. Our version of the traditional candle – light service. I share the story of Christs birth. God’s redemption and hope announced in a barn through unwed teenagers nobody believes, the Holy Spirit conceiving the inconceivable. The parking garage is the best place to celebrate the birth of Christ. “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem” (Isaiah 53:2-3). The people at our Christmas Eve service know the Jesus who suffers and is rejected. The women in the domestic violence shelter know what it’s like to not be believed, to flee violence. The Christmas story is hope in the shadow of suffering.

My friend Irene gives me a big hug and a Merry Christmas. She can’t work because of her disability so she volunteers her time serving. She stays in a shelter and is content to help people in more need then herself. A transgender woman chats with my wife over chocolate Santa’s and coffee. Harold tells me that the Mashed potatoes are the truth. “You can’t beat the price either!” How did I ever go to church anywhere else? Jesus is in the parking garage.

We start to wrap up. Tables are put away, chairs are stacked, and to go containers filled. “Merry Christmas” and “have a good night” are exchanged. A gentleman who has a new bike that he received for free from a nonprofit shakes my hand, thanks me, and tells me an old Proverb. “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will reward them for what they have done” (Proverbs 19:17 NIV). I agree and proclaim, “He already has!”

Michael Cox