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

Forgiveness

 “Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld (John 20:21-23).”

The Holy Spirit advocates peace and forgiveness. As a street minister for Operation Nightwatch, I get to hear how the work of the Spirit impacts the lives of my homeless friends. I met Wayne this week in front of Target. He was standing alone with his bike and a box of food from the food bank. I didn’t think he was interested in talking and wondered if I was bothering him. Reverend Paul and I waited awkwardly through the silence of long pauses for the Holy Spirit to move. Gradually, a conversation began to unfold. Wayne revealed that he had been arrested twenty years ago for drunk driving. Stealing a car at the age of fourteen, and being charged with a DUI, has left Wayne financially unable to drive. He needs seven thousand dollars to pay off his legal debts. Wayne begins to smile as he talks about his son and his plans to see him later in the week. We ask Wayne about his tattoos and if he has seen a doctor about his eye. His eye looks infected, and we want to connect him with medical care. Wayne does not have an eye infection. He takes his glass eye out and his hat off, revealing a huge scar across the top of his head. Three years ago, his roommate attacked him with a sword. “I bleed out and was dead in my apartment for twelve minutes. Six months after the attack I told my roommate that I forgave him. He never did believe me. While I was dead, I saw a bright light that looked like pastel Easter colors. I am grateful to be alive!” Wayne opens his shirt and shows us the cross around his neck. What a blessing to learn about forgiveness from Wayne.

Rhonda grew up in a family of Jehovah Witnesses. Her father disowned her when she got pregnant at sixteen. When she tried to leave an abusive relationship, her dad quoted Bible verses about divorce and told her that marriage was for life. She is forty-eight now and lives in a shelter for survivors of domestic abuse. She is going to be a grandmother and hopes to return home. Rhonda talked to her dad on Easter and told me that she hasn’t really been able to completely forgive him. We talk about how complicated it is when the people you depend on to take care of you also terrorize you. I tell her how Jesus’s teaching on divorce advocates for women. How the Son of God was born to unmarried teenagers, how her dad could have been excited to be a grandparent. Rhonda shares how her dad provided for the family and how he did the best he could. We agree that forgiveness is a process. While were talking, Rhonda looks up to the sky and tells me that the Lord has always taking care of her. Forgiveness freely given and freely received.

Angela tells me that she came out as queer to her son on Easter Sunday. It went well and she is hopeful for their relationship. She grew up Mormon, always hearing the words of the Bible as condemnation. I let Angela know that Scripture includes sexual minorities into the kingdom of God. We discuss Phillip and the Eunuch from the book of Acts, the Eunuch from Jeremiah, and the nonbinary love of Christ. “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:27-28).” Angela smiles and tells me that she has never heard those Scripture versus before and seems relieved that I know what nonbinary means. We pray protection and peace for the LGTBQIA community and forgiveness for the ways I have used the Bible to oppress and exclude people from God’s love. Thank you for not withholding forgiveness. May we no longer feel distressed or anxious but reassured that we are forgiven through our risen Lord!

Michael Cox

Freedom

Darcy is profoundly mentally ill. All the other homeless people living around Safeway tell me how concerned they are about her safety. Every interaction I have had with Darcy for the last three years has confirmed her community’s concern. Trapped in a cycle of delusional thinking, Darcy believes that she is controlling all the banks in the city. In the middle of her ranting monologues, she will often describe gruesome details of rape and murder. Real abuse and trauma are expressed through fragmented mental health. When she talks with me, I try to listen for the thread of continuity that strings the narrative of her life together. Themes of fear, violence, and abuse are articulated in the middle of paranoid delusions of global banking schemes and the FBI. I respond with words and body language that hopefully communicate empathy and concern. I pray healing in the name of Jesus to the damage abuse and trauma have done to Darcy’s identity.

Last week Darcy was walking by and stopped to talk with us. Reverend Paul and I were handing out survival supplies: socks, water, prayers, and a listening ear. Darcy began to sob as she talked with us about the violence and abuse experienced in her family. It is challenging to understand everything she is saying. I need God to send his Spirit to help me interpret her communication. While I am praying, I feel overwhelmed with the presence of God. I interrupt Darcy, and tell her, “God wants you to be free of guilt and shame.” Darcy cries uncontrollable and thanks me. Her entire countenance changes as we discuss the freedom and liberation provided by Christ. She literally looks brighter and lighter. Darcy begins to articulate the grief she feels about losing her son to the foster care system clearly and coherently. She shares about her violent ex-husband and blames herself for being victimized. As we pray, the heaviness of despair and self-loathing are lifted. “Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being (Genesis 2:7).”

Reflecting on my interactions with Darcey, I am struck by the Holy Spirit’s power to preserve, recover, and restore our true God created selves. How Jesus identifies with us in our suffering. “He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself (Philippians 3:21).” To share in a moment of miraculous healing and deliverance with Darcey is an honor and a privilege. In the middle of suffocating fear, the holy breath of God breathes life, continually transforming us into the children of God we were always intended to be. “Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven (1 Corinthians 15:49).”

Michael Cox

Street Church

I have known Jeremy for over twenty years. I met him when he was a homeless teenager living in a van with his brother. He works in construction and lives in a secluded wooded ravine by a wealthy Seattle suburb. By cover of night, he has brought plywood, drywall, and generators into his camp, building himself a mini house. I usually see him on outreach in the same neighborhood he lived in as a homeless teenager. Jeremy is currently working as a day laborer and hates that he is not doing finish carpentry. Operation Nightwatch bought him a pair of work boots and keeps him well fed through out the week. He has expressed interest in getting into a shelter or an apartment. Being inside would be healing for his body, mind, and soul. He has a rat problem at his mini house in the ravine. “I put out rat poison and they just eat them pellets like candy.”

Jeremy has experienced unbelievable amounts of violence in his life. He often loses his train of thought while were talking. He suffers from seizures, a byproduct of being repeatedly hit in the head. Jeremy has a hard time controlling his temper. Lots and lots of fighting. This week he came to the dinner church, excited that he was off work in time to eat a hot meal. Standing on the sidewalk eating chicken biscuit casserole, Jeremy shares about the restraining order that prevents him from seeing his son. “I haven’t seen him in ten years, and it breaks my heart.” Jeremy begins to sob uncontrollably, apologizing through blue collar homeless tears that he has a hard time managing his feelings. I encourage him to cry and realize that this is the first real interaction we have had. In our twenty-year history, our conversations usually revolve around legal issues and why they are not his fault. We hug and pray. I share that God reconciles all things and that he will see his son again. I tell Jeremy that he can work on things he has control over. Working towards his own healing will lead to the restoration of his life. Relationship with his son will come through relationship with God. We can forgive ourselves when we know and trust that God has forgiven us. After we cry, hug, and pray. After I share all the ways God loves and cares for Jeremy and his son. My favorite thing happens. Street church testimony!

I love to hear stories of God’s grace from people on the street. Jeremy, with all the suffering and hardships in his life tells me how God has saved him. He had a fire going in his mini house and thought it would be ok to put a little gasoline on it. After pouring a few drops on the fire the gas can, floor, and walls were ablaze. “I ran outside and went to blow on the gas can. I felt a huge rush of breath behind me, and the fire went out. I heard God say, ‘I saved you fucker!’ I should be dead, and it is a miracle I am alive.” All I can say is yes, I cannot believe you are still alive. God speaks in ways we can hear! “And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed (Exodus 3:2).”

Operation Nightwatch has a new shelter in a church basement, and I offer to give Jeremy a referral. He agrees and I am hopeful that it works out. Whether he makes it to his shelter bed or not, the important thing is that Jeremy knows that he is loved. Loved by a God who shares his suffering, who sees his affliction, who calls to him out of the fire, here I AM.

Michael Cox

Hallelujah people

“Shut up. The Hallelujah people are here.” This was our greeting as we approached a group of tents surrounded by garbage and addiction. A group of homeless men thought we were up to no good and yelled at us. That’s when we met Patricia. Patricia was not ready to let the Hallelujah people be disrespected. Welcoming us and exhorting her community, a street sermon on the hospitality of the Holy Spirit was about to be preached. Patricia began to share her love of Scripture and the reality of her addiction. She shares that she can’t do recovery meetings and finds peace in the word of God. I tell Patricia that reading the Bible is how I got sober. “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart (Hebrews 4:12).” Patricia is overwhelmed with relief. “You mean you feel the warmth and freedom of God when you read the book? I tell Patricia that she isn’t crazy, that the words in the Bible are the breath of God. Patricia tells me that her addiction, and bad behavior have alienated her from God. I tell her that, “I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39).”  Patricia tells me that whenever she can stay in a motel, she likes to watch the Christian channel. We talk about various televangelist and how they have encouraged us over the years. Patricia thinks one of them may have been involved in a sex scandal. After yelling at her neighbors to quiet down for the “Hallelujah people”, Patricia recites John 3:16. It takes her a few times, and we help her with a few words. I ask her if she knows what verse comes after John 3:16. “Yes John 3:17!” Patricia wants to be a preacher when she gets clean from drugs. I tell her that she is a child of God and called to share his word. May our minds be transformed to believe that we are all worthy to receive the love and forgiveness of Christ. Her homework is to read John 3:17. Jesus comes to save the world, not condemn it. Shut up the Hallelujah people are here!

Michael Cox

Come on with it

Last night we had an epic five-hour rainy outreach. From sopping wet tents and tarp lined doorways, homeless men and women told me and my coworker Paul, that they loved us and appreciated us. Steve shared that he dropped out of high school at the age of sixteen and has been homeless ever since. He is now forty-three and hopes to get back to work and into a shelter. He vented for a half hour about his struggles with maintaining sobriety on the street, the shelter system, and his stepdad. “My mom basically picked him over me. I know that my criminal record is connected to what my stepdad did to me.” Steve’s stories of violence and vindictive street justice fill our time together, stories that all serve to cover up the terrified neglected little boy hiding inside of his rage. Our conversation ends with him smiling and thanking us for talking to him. “I mostly talk to myself and have nobody to hang out with that isn’t a drug addict.” I hope Steve hears the loving voice of God our father. “And behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased (Matthew 3:17).”

Casey is smoking crystal meth when we approach him. He is deeply moved that the church is out on such a rainy night talking to him. He wants to make sure we thank the church ladies who made the sandwiches. While Casey is expressing his gratitude he begins to cry. He wants us to pray for his grandfather who has been diagnosed with cancer. He wants to go home and see him but is ashamed of his drug use and criminal history. We hold hands and pray. He is crying and grips my hand tightly, like he is literally holding on for dear life. We hug and cry some more. We talk about how the Spirit intercedes and speaks things that are beyond words. How tears communicate the deep things of the soul. Casey and I talk about the Bible, and he shares his favorite verse. “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate (Romans 7:15).” We then have a tearful conversation about how, in the eyes of God, we are not our bad choices. Casey knows that God’s path is true, and that at some point we have to turn away from darkness. I encourage Casey to ask God for his miraculous supernatural help. We both agree that we can’t change on our own. We need the power of God. “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out (Romans 7:18).” We hug again and I am overwhelmed by the Spirit of God, and thankful to get my theology of sin and forgiveness from the street.

Our last stop of the night turns into a mini prayer service. Misty wants us to pray protection from the devil and asks for the cross around Reverend Pauls’ neck. Paul hands her the cross and leads us in the Lord’s prayer. We ask a young couple a few tents up if they want us to pray for anything. Without hesitating they smile and declare, “come on with it!” “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil (Matthew 6: 9-13).”

Michael Cox