It’s good to be in the land of the living

I visited the St. Francis House on Thursday morning. They are a wonderful organization that provides services to all of my favorite people. They are down the street from Nightwatch, so I walked and pretended that I was exercising. When I arrived, I sat at a table in a freshly painted, remodeled kitchen/breakfast nook, and read the prayer of St. Francis that’s written on the wall. It’s hard to argue with the first few lines.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;

I love hanging out with the older Catholic ladies, drinking coffee, eating donuts, and waiting on the Lord. I patiently sit with my breakfast, silently praying and wondering if it’s normal to feel as comfortable as I do. It should feel awkward, sitting by yourself in a homeless drop-in center wearing a clergy collar, yet I feel completely at home! I say hello to a man at the table next to me who pretends to not see me. I have another cup of coffee and continue to wait. Another man looks familiar, and I ask him if he goes by the name Memphis. He tells me that he is from Tennessee and asks me if I am a pastor. And just like that, a conversation is born. I learn that he lives near me and that his wife died of cancer eight years ago. He still struggles with grief from her passing but is thankful that he is still, “In the land of the living”. He asks me to pray for his brother-in-law who is going through chemotherapy. We bow our heads and pray.

Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.

 A young man walks in, looks at me, and says, “Good morning Father, can I sit with you?”  He tells me that he checked himself into a mental hospital for three days and just got out. He is on his way to a housing appointment and feeling better. I encourage him and his mental health self- care. He tells me about the parish he grew up in and shows me the cross tattooed on his forearm. “I am always representing Father!” He asks me to remember him when I pray. He gets up to leave, and in a coffee, donut, pb&j whirlwind he is off to face the day.

A woman sitting alone at the table by the door waves and says, “Didn’t you come around and visit me in the tiny house village?” It’s Nancy! She is now living in an apartment upstairs and doing well. She wants me to thank my coworker Reverend Paul Benz, for his prayers and the giant comforter he brought her when she was staying in the tiny home. It’s amazing how much good you can do with some coffee, donuts, and Jesus centered prayer. May we, “Always preach the gospel, and when necessary use words.”

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;


It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Michael Cox

289

Last week, I attended the Mass for the deceased homeless at St James Cathedral. Two hundred and eighty-nine unhoused people died last year in shelters, hospitals, or on the streets. Father Ryan, spoke of how Jesus, the Son of Man was also homeless. “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head (Matthew 8:20).” Many of us find our home and family in the church. The teaching, preaching, and healing of Jesus are a literal refuge in the storms of our lives. Sitting in the pews and grieving the violent loss of life experienced by my homeless friends, I thought of all the people that have been welcomed and cared for by the faith community. Listening to all the names of the deceased read aloud in the courtyard, punctuated between bagpipes, church bells, and the tears of the faithful few, my longing for fellowship is fulfilled. I wish when we thought of church, the image we had was this, a group of people caring for and suffering with each other. A community that welcomes strangers into friendship with themselves and their creator. Jesus is the God that serves and suffers for all of humanity. “A God with no beautiful or desirable form or majesty. Despised and rejected, a man acquainted with our grief and sorrow, A man crushed by our violence (Isaiah 53:3-5).”

The median age of the two hundred and eighty-nine homeless people that died in King County was fifty-one. The median age of death for people in King County with homes is seventy-nine. What if we viewed homelessness as the public health crisis that it is? Instead of turning away from suffering, what if we, like Jesus stopped, turned, and forgave? What if the church worshiped the God of mercy and justice? “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd (Matthew 9:36).”

When communities like St James gather together and serve the most vulnerable in our city, God is glorified. It’s easy to be frustrated with the church. However, when I experience the body of Christ grieving the death of two hundred and eighty-nine homeless men and women, the forgiveness of Jesus turns my selfishness into selflessness and my suffering into service.

Michael Cox

Thanksgiving

Jesus blesses the homeless from a place where they can see and hear him. On the street, face to face, eye to eye, from, “some flat, level ground (Like 6:17).” Every Tuesday, Operation Nghtwatch participates in a community dinner church. We meet in a parking garage that is literally in the middle of downtown Seattle. As hot entrees and desserts are served out of chaffing dishes, the invitational hospitality of Christ and his love are shared. I begin each meal with prayer and a short story about Jesus. The Bible is often communicated as a book of morality and rules. Our homeless friends often assume they deserve poverty because of their moral failing. “God is punishing me because of all my bad choices.” No one chooses to be abandoned and abused. Trauma that leads people to the street and keeps them there is often seen as part of God’s judgment and wrath. Reading the Bible with people on the street reveals the centrality of God’s care for the marginalized and social outcasts of our city. The story of Jesus is good news to our unhoused friends. “God will bless you people who are poor. His kingdom belongs to you! God will bless you hungry people. You will have plenty to eat! God will bless you people who are crying. You will Laugh (Luke 6:20-21).” Jesus promises abundance, belonging, and joy to the poor.

Our kitchen is closed for the Sunday meal, and I let everyone know we will be having pizza. My friends show up after navigating multiple bus transfers, daylight savings time, and the rain. I usually order a variety of pizza but tonight I decided to get eighteen large peperoni. Marcos comes through the line and declines. He only wants to eat the salad. A volunteer apologizes and I feel terrible. I don’t have coffee tonight and wonder who the first person will be to complain. No one seems to care. John senses my self-loathing and jokingly asks, “doesn’t the Bible say it’s a sin to not have any coffee”? I give the Christ Story and people are genuinely engaged and listening. The stories of Christ are the livable stories of the Bible. The words contained in Scripture are not fragmented bits of information, but the real physical presence of Jesus. Through the Holy Spirit, Scripture sets in motion the story of God’s creation, covenant, salvation, and redemption. The merging of the divine word with the human speech act of proclamation invites participation and conversation with the sacred. The hospitality of Scripture welcomes all to the journey of restoration and renewal. The word of God is not a possession to be policed or controlled. The word “liturgy” literally means “work for the people” or “public service.” Reading Scripture in public is an act of community service, inviting conversation and dialogue. Jesus doesn’t make speeches.

After I share the story of Christ and pray, we eat more pizza. People continue to wander in, finding momentary respite and refuge. I apologize to Marcos for not having a vegetarian pizza option. He hugs me and says, “you give me more than food, the Word, the Word is why I come to the dinner”! The Word of God creating possibilities, “becoming flesh, and dwelling among us (John 1:14).” Scripture declaring to the lonely, outcast, and stranger that the kingdom of God is yours.

Michael Cox

Free Parking

Gustavo needed a ride to his colonoscopy appointment. He has prostate cancer, and the radiation treatment has caused him some internal bleeding. On the way to the hospital, he tells me that he recently passed out at the grocery store. “I was in a lot of pain and then I fell over.” While we are in the waiting room Gustavo tells me that he isn’t worried. He grew up in Central America and witnessed the murder of most of his classmates. “The militarized government killed a lot of people. I survived all of that death and now I am here with you! I trust God and if it’s my time to go so be it.” Gustavo is so thankful that I took the time to be with him and drive him to his surgery that he asks if we can take a picture. He wants a record of our time together. We take a selfie and I think of how many people I have in my life that can and would take me to the hospital. Praying with Gustavo in the waiting room, is a prophetic declaration that God really doesn’t leave us or forsake us. That the forgiveness of Christ is really the only currency that matters. A few hours later we drive back to his apartment. The anesthesia has affected his short-term memory and he is pretty loopy. With all the things going on in his life, Gustavo is fixated on paying for parking. I tell him several times and in many different ways not to worry about it. We arrive at his apartment, and I let another resident and the building manager know to keep an eye on him. Gustavo again asks how much he owes me for parking, and I assure him that it’s no problem. Three days later I receive a call from his landlord. Gustavo is still agonizing about the cost of parking and wants to know how much he needs to repay me. Six dollars shouldn’t be this stressful. The only way I can ease Gustavo’s agony is to lie and tell him that the parking was free. Is it harder to believe in the free gift of God’s grace or free parking? “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death (Romans 8:1-2 NIV).” I am thankful that Jesus breaks the law with love and that he is more powerful than parking enforcement.

Michael Cox

Kicked in the balls

My son loves baseball. When he was little, we would go to the park and play catch until it was dark. Even though he is not allowed to hit whiffle balls over our house, there are usually several on the roof and in our gutters. He is older now and throws the ball harder than I can manage. For the last few years, I have been aware that a day would come when I would be unable to safely handle his athleticism. That day has arrived. Saturday afternoon, while sitting on a bucket attempting to catch my sons’ fast ball and or slider, I caught one in the groin without using my glove. As I stood, screaming words that Reverends are not typically know for, my sons’ first question was, “don’t you think that was a strike?” It seems that both of us are having a hard time seeing.

Monday afternoon I was on outreach when a homeless man walked up to me and told me he was going to kick me in the balls. I pretended I didn’t hear him, and he repeated, “I am going to kick you in the balls.” I gently told him not to and he sat down on the sidewalk. As were talking, he tells me about seeing small smiling faces in the pavement. I ask him how the faces make him feel and he says that he feels trapped. He shares about the good sleep and dreams he has in jail and how he defends himself from being raped. “I have to kick the people in the balls.” He shares details about a reoccurring dream that takes place in his dad’s auto shop. His train of thought is simultaneously scattered and articulate. His mind and body seem to have processed real abuse and trauma as separate dreamlike experiences, both detached from reality and informed by it.  While were talking a large grey blob of bird poop lands on his head. He doesn’t notice and I can’t fathom the level of humiliation he has had to suffer. We have more conversation surrounding his audio and visual hallucinations and I offer to pray with him. He asks me if prayer works, and I say we can give it a try if he wants to. He agrees and I pray for the peace and comfort of Jesus Christ. For the broad expansive freedom of God to replace feelings of entrapment. When we’re done praying, he tells me that his field of vision seems clearer. I encourage him to keep praying to Jesus. “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come (Ephesians 1:18-21 NIV).”  I am thankful that God sees the good the evil and the breaking ball.

Michael Cox

There is no law against kindness

I have known Hailey for three years. Once a week, Street Ministry stops by her tent with socks, snacks, water, and cheeseburgers. She is friendly, intensely private, and doesn’t say much. Ever since her boyfriend was arrested, Hailey has been depressed and anxious. When will he get out? What will happen to us? What will happen to me? Last month her friend who sleeps in a tent nearby was murdered. To be homeless is to be surrounded by fear, violence, and trauma twenty-four hours a day. Hailey sobs as she shares how mean people are to her and her homeless friends. “There is a guy that comes around with his kids and throws fish heads at us. We are out here because were hurting not because we want to be. People assume I am a criminal because I am homeless.” We hug and pray. I tell Hailey that Jesus broke the law with love and kindness. That God chooses people over rules and requirements. Hailey continues to cry as we pray for the restoration of dignity and humanity. Peace to the chaos of being abused and being blamed for it. Healing starts with kindness. “God’s Spirit makes us loving, happy, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled. There is no law against behaving in any of these ways (Galatians 5:22-23).”

Michael Cox

When the still small voice yells

Linda always comes to our Tuesday night dinner church and is always drunk. Not tipsy, buzzed, or inebriated, but falling over, close to death drunk. Between moments of yelling the F word at traffic and at people waiting for the bus, she will usually ask for prayer. This week, she asked me to pray for the Pope and his apology over the abusive history of the church and Indigenous boarding schools in Canada. In the middle of a sweltering ninety-degree parking garage filled with homeless people eating chilled Mediterranean salad and sipping tropical peach iced tea, Linda and I hold hands and pray. As I pray, naming the tragedy and evil of forcibly removing generations of Indigenous children from their homes and making them attend church-run, government funded boarding schools, Linda interruptus me and tells me that God loves everyone, and that “all white people aren’t responsible for the sins of some.” As a Native American woman, struggling through poverty and alcoholism, Linda chooses to offer up prayers of reconciliation. A holy response to my prayer of repentance on behalf of the church. We end our prayer with a hug and Linda asks me if I can bring her a Bible. I know where she lives and cynically agree, wondering if she will even remember talking with me.

The next day it is still a sweltering ninety degrees. I ask my coworker Reverend Paul Benz if he thinks I should even try to find Linda to give her a Bible. Paul responds with an emphatic, “Yes absolutely. We are called to minister and care for people’s souls!” I grab a Bible and drive to the parking garage where we have our dinner. As soon as I pull in, the bus arrives, the doors open, and Linda emerges like an answer to prayer. Like God saying, why would you not bring Linda a Bible? I put on my hazards, get out of my car, and hand Linda a copy of God’s word. She shrieks with delight, and we hug. She thanks me and yells I love you. She yells prayers of love and thanksgiving while I walk back to my car. People stare and the yelling continues. I am now in my car waiting to merge into traffic. Linda is still yelling prayers of love at me. Prayers of public forgiveness. I am thankful that today I was able to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit. Thankful that God keeps his promises. “Your word is a lamp that gives light wherever I walk (Psalms 119:105).”

Michael Cox

I appreciate you

I usually see Gary every Monday afternoon, selling homemade jewelry on the street where we first met over twenty years ago. Back then, Gary was a teenager experiencing homelessness and walked around with two backpacks. One for schoolbooks and one for all of his clothes. He isn’t homeless anymore and is living with his dad. Gary is always smiling! Like a family reunion, our conversations are a mix of reminiscing and catching up. How are your kids? Remember the movie we saw on your sixteenth birthday? Did you hear who died? Most of the kids Gary grew up with have passed away. It is the sad truth about adverse childhood trauma. Poverty and abuse make Gary and his peers vulnerable to an early death. When every I ask Gary what he wants me to keep in my prayers, it is aways a prayer for someone else. Gary is grateful to be alive, and often prays thanksgiving for the provision of food, shelter, and safety. Things most of us take for granted.

Gary has a hernia and has been waiting three months for surgery. He has been walking to his doctors’ appointments because the bus is too expensive. My offer to take him to his surgery, wait for him, and drive him home is a major relief. He can’t get medical care if he doesn’t have a ride and I am the only person he knows who has a car.

The morning of the surgery Gary is ready and waiting for me. We arrive at the hospital on time. The admitting staff verifies that I will be there to take Gary home. Ten hours later, the surgery is a success. The nurse gives me instructions for his medication and prescription. We drive to the pharmacy and Gary is beside himself. He is convinced that he has lost his wallet. He calls his dad, looks in the plastic bag the hospital gave him and can’t find it. I explain our situation to the pharmacist, and she is able to fill the prescription with his date of birth and Social Security number. I ask Gary if he has checked his pockets and his wallet is found!

On our way home Gary tells me that he loves me, that I am like family, and that I have always been there for him. He names all the people that he grew up with that have died and tells me that he sees a therapist once a week. “A lot of bad things happened to me when I was on the street. A lot of terrible things happened to me before I was homeless.” We talk about anxiety and how traumatic events of the past can feel like they are happening in the present.

Gary has to walk up three flights of stairs to get to his apartment. He is in a lot of pain, and we stop every few steps. I encourage deep breathing and tell corny jokes. His dad answers the door, the tv is blaring and I explain the interval schedule for Gary’s pain meds. His dad thanks me and mentions he bought Gary pudding and soup.

People always ask me, why are there so many homeless people? My answer is always why is there so much neglect, poverty, and abuse? All my friends on the street have experienced levels of trauma that have made it virtually impossible for them to function in a world as violent as ours. The story of Jesus, his suffering and resurrection creates space for supernatural hope to overwhelm the overwhelmed, transforming trauma into grace. My time with Gary reminds me that the inclusive radical love of Jesus really does change everything. “Most important of all, you must sincerely love each other, because love wipes away many sins (1 Peter 4:8 CEV).”

Michael Cox

Forced out into lonely places

Being homeless means being isolated and lonely. The common answer to the question of, “how to solve homelessness” is always more housing. Simple enough. Where there is lack provide the needed resource to fill in the gap. While the housing first model is successful for some people, there is a difference between a housing program and a home. Community connection and familial relationships are more life giving than four walls and a roof. My friend Samuel died alone in his apartment last week. He had been homeless for many years and overdosed the first week he was housed. I had known Samuel for three years and had no idea he was addicted to opiates. His biological sister and the people he lived with on the street were fully aware of his struggle with addiction. Had he been living in community, his family and friends would have known his patterns, triggers, and history of abuse and trauma. They would have been looking out for him. Being alone in a studio apartment, separated from everyone that knows and cares about you can be fatal.

In the gospel of Luke, Jesus seeks out and heals a man terrorized by isolation. He finds a lonely soul, naked, bound with chains, living in a cemetery, cutting himself, and screaming “Jesus, Son of God Most High, what do you want with me? I beg you not to torture me (Luke 8:28 CEV)!” Jesus responds to this terrified man, whose “demons would force him out into lonely places (Luke 8:29 CEV),” by asking a question. “What is your name?” The healing that the man in the tombs experiences starts with Jesus’s desire to get to know him. Not as a mentally ill homeless man that needs to be connected to resources, but as a beloved child of God that has a name. When the people in town who had abandoned the troubled man find him healed, clothed, and in his right mind they become terrified, demanding that Jesus leave the community. Jesus instructs the newly healed man to stay, “Go back home and tell everyone how much God has done for you (Luke 8:39 CEV).” Healing continues as the transformed man is empowered to transform his community.

My friend Donnie died last week alone in his tent. He was shot in the head. He was thirty-seven years old. He was remarkably sweet and kind to me considering how hard his life was. His sleeping bag was wet, and he was preparing to move out into the sun to get warm. He had a severe infection in his leg and his mental health had deteriorated rapidly, leaving him extra isolated among the most vulnerable. The last time we spoke, he talked about how some “bad people” had moved into the tents around him and how he believed in Jesus as his Lord and savior. “Our God, from your sacred home you take care of orphans and protect widows. You find families for those who are lonely. You set prisoners free and let them prosper (Psalms 68:6a CEV).” We pray freedom from the demon of loneliness and for the abundant life of Christ.

Michael Cox

Consistent faithful presence

Street ministry always feels like a work in progress. Like the bathroom ceiling fans at my house. I have the fans, just haven’t been able to install them. A friend of a friend installed one and fixed my hallway light switch. My father-in-law fixed my leaky faucet. Another friend of a friend installed new doors after my house was broken into. Reverend Rick Reynolds fixed my toilet! Those of us not experiencing the isolation of homelessness can take our access to help for granted. This week a woman sitting alone at a picnic bench in Pioneer Square thanked me for socks and handwarmers. We talked about the chilly weather and how my clerical collar helped me look less like a cop. She didn’t want to pray but shared some uplifting words of encouragement. “We are all in this together.” Another young woman came to the Capitol Hill community dinner and asked if we could baptize her. We are helping her find peace and wholeness as she navigates her new life of sobriety. She wept when I told her she was included in the story of God’s love. We met a man in Ballard who told me how Nightwatch had saved his life. “I was only homeless for three weeks. I was able to work during the day and get fed and into shelter at night with you guys. The way Nightwatch is set up really works!” In a moment of clarity, our long-time friend on the street who suffers from schizophrenia was able to call his dad and leave him a message. His dad called back and shared how grateful he was for our relationship with his son. Last night as I was walking to my car, I met a man with crutches kicking a wheeled basket with his belongings in it. He was on his way to Nightwatch for a meal and community. We talk about how he was hit by a car. He is grateful to be alive. “If I had been standing one foot over, I would be dead.” I walk with him to the dispatch center, and he tells me more of how God has helped him. I kneel and place my hands on his knee and pray for continued healing. The trust Nightwatch builds, repairs, and restores in the middle of extreme brokenness is truly miraculous. “But even when I am afraid, I keep on trusting you. I praise your promises! I trust you and am not afraid. No one can harm me (Psalms 56:3-4 CEV).” Thank you for supporting street ministry at Operation Nightwatch.

Michael Cox