Last night, I prayed for two women. They both live in the park and cried while we asked the Lord for protection and healing. Jesse has a medical issue that has affected her voice. She speaks in a gravely whisper and it’s hard to understand her. I have a doctor, a nurse, and a social worker with me and invite Jesse to speak with them. She is excited and tells me the details of her medical issues. While we are waiting for the doctor, there is loud music and yelling, coming from several tents. There is a man smoking crack and a woman smoking meth sitting near us as well. A man who is agitated approaches, swinging a piece of rebar over his head. My outreach partner says, “heads up” and I prepare to engage in possible street drama. Another man, sitting next to my new friend Jesse, lets us know that he has our back. “Don’t worry, I see that guy.” I ask Jesse if she wants to pray while we wait for the doctor. I kneel and ask if its ok to put my hand on her shoulder. I pray that she would recover her voice. The folks on the bench listen, as I thank God for seeing and hearing us. I ask God to heal any wounds or trauma that may be impacting our health. I can feel her body shake and am in awe of how open she is to God. The doctor listens to Jesse’s fear about the emergency room. Jesse listens to the doctor’s concern about her health. I love to watch the medical professionals in action. I offer to take Jesse to the hospital and give her my card. She is appreciative and we agree to talk again next week.
Cathy is at the other end of the park. She is alone and scared. Her boyfriend has beaten her and taking all of her belongings. She tells me that, “He wanted to control me, and I can’t be controlled”. She lifts up her shirt and shows me a giant bruise on her side from being assaulted. I write down the address and number for a domestic violence shelter and introduce her to my medical outreach pals. Cathy lets us know that God is going to deal with her ex-boyfriend, and that she has done nothing wrong. I affirm all of her wisdom and am amazed at her resolve. We pray for protection, and I am in awe of how open she is to God.
I had the chance to pray for a woman that has dedicated her life to serving God. She works in a part of the world where her identity as a Christian missionary could get her killed. She lives her life with the understanding that, as followers of Christ we are to, “live dead”. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him (John 12:24-26).” I am in awe of how open she is to God.
I offer a sandwich and water to a homeless woman. She is sitting on the sidewalk with a group of homeless people I have known for a while. She is nodding off from heroin and ignores my culinary offerings. I begin to talk with another gentleman, when I hear her yell, “hey, where is the food.” I apologize, saying I misunderstood and thought she didn’t want anything. Upon receiving the sandwich, she begins a series of interrogating questions. When were the sandwiches made? Why did you not pass them out in the morning if you received them in the morning. Who made them? Why do you think I need a sandwich? I answer each question and think, you are under no obligation to eat the food I am handing out. I do understand the frustration she is expressing. People often assume homeless people will be grateful to receive their rotten leftovers and dirty clothes. She asks me why I think homeless people are garbage cans and starts to pick the sandwich apart, throwing bread, meat, and cheese, from the Metropolitan Market into the bushes. I must confess that my inner monologue wasn’t, “oh she is having a rough day”. I thought about all the time I have spent trying to make sure homeless people don’t get treated like garbage cans and how I didn’t want her to throw food at me. I was hit by a glass of milk years ago and am not naïve to the possibility of projectile picnics. She continues to escalate so we walk over to my friend Matthew. We talk about the 80’s tv show Nightrider. I win older guy pop culture points for remembering that the cars name was Kit. Matthew says Kit was more than a talking car, he was artificial intelligence. He asks me how I am doing and how long I have been married. We shoot the breeze for a while before we move to a group of guys playing cards.
I have learned not to interrupt gambling on the street. If someone starts to lose money while I am blabbing about socks and Jesus, I will be blamed for bringing them bad luck. A few men look up from their cards and get water and sandwiches. A younger guy is walking through the park with a shirt on that says repent for the kingdom of God is at hand. He introduces himself and tells me how he has been called by God to warn people about the antichrist. He gives me his literature and I wish him well. We approach a tent and meet a woman who is eight months pregnant. She sees my collar and my coworkers’ cross necklace and asks us to pray for her. We hold hands and she begins to sob. We pray against shame and guilt. We thank God for being a God of life and we pray for her soon to be son. She is struggling with addiction and is struggling to remain hopeful. She is trying to “get right with God”. I share that Jesus is a cry baby and we read Psalm 56:8. “You have kept track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle, You have recorded each one in your book.” I give her my number and tell her to call me anytime. She is visibly moved from our exchange, and I am overwhelmed by the goodness of God. Later in the evening we visit are friend Marta in her tent. She always gives me a hug and thanks me, calling me Father. She is a little flirty. Last week, with a mischievous grin and giggle she called me grandpa. After she gets her supplies, she thanks us for remembering her. We see Ivan on a scooter by the waterfront. He tells us that he has cancer and that its not the worst thing that has ever happened to him. Before motoring off, he leaves us with some wisdom. “Suffering is relative. It depends on your perspective.”
Rhonda is a regular guest at the Nightwach outdoor community dinner. She is always intoxicated and screaming obscenities. In the middle of her outbursts, she often breaks down and cries, asking for prayer. After we pray and hug, she will usually calm down for a while and eat a meal. She will eventually start yelling again, drink a beer at the bus stop, and then walk across the busy intersection into traffic. One evening she was extra aggravated, pushing a volunteer, and throwing a bottle of water at another. All I could think was, “this is who Nightwatch is built for”. When Rhonda left the meal, she grabbed an entire bag of Dicks hamburgers, walked into the street, and glared at me. All I could do was laugh. Rhonda is exactly who Jesus invites to dinner. Only God knows what has happened to her life. The next week Rhonda came to the meal and apologized, handing me a swordfish Christmas ornament she found in the trash. I thanked her and promised to hang it up in my office.
Rhonda came last night to the dinner and hugged me saying, “Thank you pastor and thank you to the church.” She was clear headed and well spoken. She had been in county jail for twenty days and was clean from meth, alcohol, and crack cocaine. She participated in a jail house Bible study and was praising the Lord. The judge at her arraignment gave her a second chance and told her he wanted to see her succeed. I said so do I and so does God. Rhonda asked me if I hung the swordfish ornament in my office and if I would pray for her. As I was driving home, I could not stop crying. “But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling and fell down before him and told him the whole truth. And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease (Mark 5:33-34).”
It was the beginning of a record-breaking heat wave in Seattle. Warm weather shelters were being opened to keep the unhoused safe and alive. A homeless friend was stabbed to death in the park next to the courthouse. Our street ministry team was headed to the encampment, to perform a memorial service, and offer prayers for the deceased. We decided to walk a different route when we met Tammy. She was sitting in a stairwell alone, wearing purple crocks and a sundress. Her forearms were covered with open wounds that come from desperation and drug needles. Upon seeing us and our clergy collars, Tammy began to praise the Lord. She had been struggling with her addiction, resisting the urge to shoot up, and praying. “I was sitting here waiting on the Lord, and then you all showed up!” Tammy rose to her feet and began to pray. She shared about her upbringing and her family. Growing up in a predominately white neighborhood, Tammy said she had some “black girl drama”. After our prayers, Tammy declared that it would probably be best if she went back home.
We arrived at the park and posted up in an out of the way corner. The block is overwhelmed with tents and structures made of plywood and pallets. While praying, my heart is moved by the reality of racism, poverty, and the justice system in America. The people living in the park by the courthouse are almost all African American. It gives me chills to think about the literal, physical proximity of the encampment, the courthouse, and the county jail. They are all within a three-block radius, forming a web of oppression for the poor and marginalized of society. Pillars of destruction for communities of color.
We drive a few blocks south towards downtown and meet Adam and Beth. They both live in tents where the stabbing occurred. I mention that we were just there praying. Adam asks me what I felt while I was praying in the park. I fumble through my answer, using words like, chaos, and tension. Adam gently tells me that there is a spiritual stronghold in the park that is keeping people in bondage to addiction. I agree and can feel the anxiety and stress in his voice. I offer to pray, and we bow our heads. After we pray, there is a lingering sense of the Lord’s presence. We remain silent, savoring the comfort of the Holy Spirit, reminded of the victory of life in the face of death. “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10).”
It is a beautiful evening in Seattle. Views of Puget Sound and the Olympic mountains are available to anyone willing to stop and look. The sun is setting, and Seattle’s homeless community begins to make plans for the evening. The Park that we are doing outreach in, holds these two realities of beauty and suffering in epic tension. An ambulance appears and paramedics engage with a group of rowdy beer enthusiasts. A woman tells me that she is a jazz singer and plans to perform soon. She has been homeless for twelve years and demands four sandwiches. She quickly becomes agitated, shakes my hand, and starts looking frantically for her phone. A man who is drunk wants to share a drink with one of our volunteers. Deacon Frank pretends to drink a beer and discovers that his new friend is an Eastern Orthodox Christian. A conversation of lament ensues regrading doctrinal divisions and church polity. A woman walks by and asks if I am a priest. I give her some socks while Deacon Frank blesses a cross for her. “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them (Matthew 18:20 ESV).” A woman in a tent asks us to pray for her. In between paranoid ramblings and compulsive organizing, she tells me that worship music helps her. While holding a dirty stuffed animal she begins to cry, and we pray. I pray about angels worshiping in heaven and protection. She lifts her hands in the air, praising God in agreement. “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come (Revelation 4:8 ESV)!” When we are done praying, she gives me a high five and says, “Jesus does stupid things that make sense!”
There is a man on a bench who is coughing and tells us that he has chest pains. Our friend Molly, who is a registered nurse, is with us, and immediately goes to work. He opens up about his medical history and agrees that a visit to the emergency room is in order. Molly calls a Lyft driver who arrives in under a minute. I walk up to the car, hoping to use some of my white privilege to smooth out the inevitable drama that is about to take place. I can’t imagine a Lyft driver wanting to chauffeur a homeless man. To my surprise the driver is not only friendly, but excited to help our sick friend. The driver tells me that he comes to the park with food and is frustrated when people take pictures of people living in tents. He tells me its disrespectful and dehumanizing when “do gooders”, hand out food to the homeless and make it a selfie. We put two, dirty, overstuffed backpacks with broken zippers into the trunk. Our homeless friend is invited into the front seat and arrives at the hospital safely. “Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers, for some who have done this have entertained angels without realizing it (Hebrews 13:2 NLT).”
For the most part, street ministry is waiting. Waiting expectantly for God, for moments when a person is open to the possibility of new life. Sunday evening at the dinner church, I met Roland. He asked if I had a sleeping bag and explained that he was newly homeless. I offered to meet with him the following day. I would have a sleeping bag for him, and we could talk about different housing resources. I have a very low success rate for people showing up for appointments. One out of ten might be a generous estimate. Roland arrives on time and I am stunned. For street ministry this constitutes a miracle. We discuss his situation and some possible steps he can take. I give him three pairs of socks, two t shirts, and a windbreaker. He needs to get a negative covid test to get into a shelter. He has identification and a phone. Miracles number two and three. I tell him about the Tuesday dinner, and he writes the address and time down. Before we part ways, I offer to pray. I encourage him to stay hopeful. Because of the pandemic, it is not easy to get into housing or shelter. We pray and I think only God can help this guy. He is way to gentle and kind to survive out on the street. As were praying, I sense the presence of God, and can tell that Roland feels the goodness of the Lord as well.
The next day we meet at the dinner. He borrowed twenty dollars from his brother yesterday and was able to stay in a shelter that charges fifteen per night. Miracle number four. Roland has been busy talking with different service providers. He is enrolled with a mental health care agency and has what he needs to get referred into shelter. I call my co-worker and the dispatch center is ready for him. Through-out the evening I check my phone for an emergency, “They wouldn’t help me get into shelter” call. No such call comes, and I assume Roland is figuring it out.
The next day I receive an email that Roland has been placed into a Tiny House. This is literally, the greatest thing I have heard all year. I call Roland to make sure he doesn’t miss his appointment. He already has his keys. He thanks me and tells me it was just like I prayed. “God really does care about my life”. We make plans to meet for coffee and I lose track of the number of miracles in Roland’s life.
Earl has been homeless for a long time. He is often wandering around aimlessly looking through trash and muttering to himself. Our conversations are usually incoherent, following no discernable pattern of thought or logic. The last time I talked with him I walked away wondering how he has been able to stay alive for this long. His addiction is profound, and his mental health is in need of much care and comfort. It always takes me awhile to convince him to take a sandwich.
A few weeks ago, I find Earl on the street. He is wearing LA. Laker basketball pants and slippers. His body is moving in all directions, arms and legs randomly rotating independently from each other. When he sees me, he stops suddenly, and asks about my clerical collar. He is curious about the denomination I am a part of and the requirements for ordination. Earl grew up in the Lutheran church and has fond memories of his youth group, baptism, and confirmation class. He felt like after he was baptized the church was done with him. “It was like their only goal was to get me in and out of the program.” Earl asks about different Bible stories and shares some of his favorites. I ask if there is anything he wants to pray about. He reminds me that Jesus taught us all how to pray and we recite the Lord’s Prayer together. The peace of the Holy Spirit falls upon us and we talk for forty-five minutes. Earl is, for the moment in his right mind.
I spoke with Earl last night. He was in the same spot as last week. I looked up his childhood Lutheran church, and his pastor is still there. Earl tells me about the memorial services the church had for his parents when they passed away. “The pastor and his wife were a team.” We agree that it’s pretty cool that they are still at the church pastoring together. Earl makes some jokes about his new mustache and I buy him a burger. I buy myself two burgers and spill special sauce all over my clergy shirt! The body of Christ is beautiful and awkward. Daily bread, forgiveness, the kingdom of heaven revealed through people. “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love (1 Corinthians 13:13).”
When I think of Jesus praying for me, I think of John 17:9. “I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours.” In his high priestly prayer, Jesus prays that the love he shares with God the Father would also be in us and that we would be protected from the evil one. I love that his prayer is so straightforward and simple. Eternal life, joy, and unity are what Jesus is focused on. The holy presence of God is revealed through the sacrificial life and death of Jesus. “I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them (John 17:26).” Like the disciples, we receive a new way of loving and understanding through the prayers of Jesus.
This week at the Community Dinner I shared John 17. Before we had dinner, I read the passage and shared how Jesus prays that we would know that we are loved by God the Father. That the love Jesus has can also be in us. Jesus doesn’t pray that we would be nice, smart, or cool, just that the love of God would be in us and that we would be safe. Later in the evening, Mark, who attends the dinner regularly, approached me with tears in his eyes. He has Huntington’s disease and recently learned that there is a cure. He is going to quit drugs now that he knows he can live a long life. While Mark and I are talking, I keep trying to offer to pray with him. He tells me that he has always wanted to be a dad. He loves his nephews and wants to be the best uncle that he can be. He continues to cry tears of joy. Tears that come from the freedom found only in Christ. I stop trying to offer prayer, realizing that the prayers of Jesus are happening in real time, on earth as they are in heaven. “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me (John17:20-21). The prayers of Jesus change everything.
My friend Robert died. He was found in his apartment on the Monday before Easter. I first met him at the community dinner. He told me that his life had been completely changed because of the dinner church community. The dinner is where he was baptized, where he made friends with college students, where he was inspired to go back to school. The dinner is where we talked about his life spent in homeless missions and Christian outreach programs. We met for coffee on Thursdays and talked about go fund me sites for laptops, friendly security guards, and Jesus. The church bought him a laptop and the school let him sleep in the lobby before class started. We always ended our time in prayer.
The last time I saw him he looked terrible. He was at the dinner and said he couldn’t feel the left side of his body. I called 911 and the paramedics arrived. I finally talked Robert into letting me drive him to the emergency room. He was discharged two days later. I went to his apartment to check on him but couldn’t find the address. He died alone, in his very first apartment, he was sixty-one years old.
I spoke with his sister on the phone after he had passed. She shared stories of Roberts’ childhood that made me sick to my stomach. “Dad was really tough on Robert. I wouldn’t have wished his life on anyone.”
The memorial service was hosted in a beautiful Lutheran Church where the Friday dinner is held. We all shared stories of how we had known Robert, how he had made himself known to us. Instead of avoiding his suffering, Robert exposed his wounds to community dinners. Healing and hope were found in his emotional and spiritual scar tissue. After the resurrection, Jesus is revealed by his wounds. The scars on his hands and side, the scars of torture identify Jesus as the one who overcomes. Robert died a man who had reconciled his past, a life of injustice and neglect, to spend his future with eternal hope. “Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe (John 20:27).” Thank you, Robert, for sharing your life with me. Thank you for teaching us how to touch forgiveness in suffering.
I met Keith at the community dinner three years ago. He is a self-described party animal. “When I go to karaoke and have a few drinks, look out. Everyone calls me a dance machine!” Keith lived with his mom before she required twenty-four-hour nursing care. She lives in the hospital now, and Keith lives alone. Now that she is hospitalized, he is drinking less. “It was not good. She would be throwing wine bottles into the parking lot.” He seems relieved not to be his moms drinking buddy anymore. He has a guardian from the state that manages his money and a case worker that checks up on him. While it’s frustrating for him that he needs help, he seems to be at peace with the reality that he can’t take care of himself.
Keith began texting me in the middle of the pandemic. He likes to ask me questions about sports and the news. “Go Seahawks! Isn’t the election crazy?” He has lived in the same apartment for twenty years and worked the same part time job with the city for twenty-five. “I could retire, but health insurance is so expensive.” I visit him with coffee and absorb his anxiety about the news, his case worker, and whether or not he should complain about his talkative neighbor. “She really is a problem. So nosey, and intrusive.”
Keith has purchased a coffee maker and has some questions. He is not sure what kind of coffee to use or how much water he needs. “How do you do it?” We exchange texts about the brand, I suggest pods or a number one paper filter. We decide it would be great if I could come over and help. I am amazed that he is unable to make coffee. I discuss his lack of self-sufficiency with my co-workers, lamenting all the people we know that can’t take care of themselves. I am friends with a sixty-year-old, formerly homeless man, who is in his very first apartment. He has no idea how to pay his electric bill or adjust his thermostat. Another formerly homeless friend, spends his monthly Social Security check, taking his friends from the street out to breakfast at IHOP.
I arrive at Keith’s apartment and we get to work on the coffee. He is concerned that it will be a problem and feels like he has asking a lot of me. I assure him that its no problem and begin the FlexBrew lesson plan. My first attempt results in water and coffee grounds overflowing on the counter. This really raises the stress level for my student. I read the directions and began to feel the comedy of humility. I begin to doubt my own ability to read directions and make coffee. My second and third attempt produce hot water but no coffee. Keith begins to repeat, “this is a problem” like an ancient medieval chant. I decide that we should go the store and get some pods. Keith is convinced that pods will not work. I finally realize that the filter opens, and the beans go inside. Kevin and I laugh for a half hour on his patio, sharing in our unique brew. He lets me know that his cup is full of coffee grounds. My cup is so strong I began to fear for my life. On my way home I lament at how none of us can take care of ourselves. I think I need Keith’s help more than he needs mine! “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ (Galatians 6:3).”