Armor of God

My ministry is dependent on hospitality. When I walk into a homeless encampment or set up chaffing dishes for the community dinner, I am both the host and the guest. The Spirit of God is given and received through the radical practice of mutual hospitality. When strangers welcome each other, the comfort and care of the Holy Spirit is evident. Our hearts are strengthened and nourished by the mutual love of relationships. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it (Hebrews 13:2 NSRV).”

My ministry is simple and uncomplicated. Every Thursday I stop by the St Francis House for coffee. It is a drop-in center that offers clothing, household items, and other resources helpful to those in need. I show up around noon, sit in the cafe, and wait for someone to start talking to me. This week it is busier than usual. All the tables are full and there are several folks waiting to access the clothing room. No one is talking to me. Over the years I have become incredibly comfortable sitting in what most would call awkward silence. After the room clears out, a man in his fifty’s waves at me and cheerfully shouts, “Good morning, Father!” What follows is Ian’s story. A story of God’s miraculous healing power. Ian had a heart attack in rehab and an angel of the Lord saved his life. As the story unfolds, memories of nurse’s shaving his chest, and the warm presence of God, are punctuated with the joyful laughter of gratitude. As we continue to talk, we realize that a church that hosts a community dinner has been instrumental in Ian’s recovery. After rehab and nowhere to go, the church welcomed Ian into their lives. They paid for a few nights in a motel and connected him to a housing case manager. Ian helps serve and volunteers at the dinner. The church literally embraced him. Ian tells me about how he has a statue by the door of his new apartment of an angel hugging a child. To go from being homeless and having a heart attack to being healed and housed is truly a miracle.

My ministry isn’t my ministry. As the St Francis House is cleaning up and closing, Ian tells me that he prays that God would hug all the people who are hurting and in pain. He tells me that the armor of God is a hug. That God battles the despair and hopelessness of addiction by wrapping his arms around us. “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm (Ephesians 6:10-14).” Ian and I exchange numbers and hug, putting on the full armor of God!

Michael Cox

Breath of God

When I first met Linda, she was sitting on the steps of the church surrounded by garbage. She was singing, and yelling incoherently at everybody and nobody, to anybody who would listen. She told me that I was a handsome man, that she was opening a crafting store in Walmart, and that she had to get to the bank and let them know to freeze her friends checking account. I gave her a bottle of water and invited her to the community dinner. Now she is a regular guest! It’s always exciting when she attends. Linda’s presence creates the full spectrum of joy, grief, and chaos. She is a tornado of song and soliloquy, spilling coffee on herself as she hugs and thanks me for being kind to her. One of the things I love about Linda is the way she is simultaneously organized and disorganized. In the span of three minutes, I have seen her eat a meal, change her clothes, put on a blue wig, and speed walk halfway down the block, yelling and screaming at everybody, nobody, and anyone who would listen. One night I saw her across the street making her way towards the meal. When she saw me, she yelled. “I am on my way pastor.” It means something to Linda to have a pastor stand in the rain by the bus stop, serve a delicious meal, share Scripture, and pray. It’s healing to be invited, welcomed, and received. When Linda arrives so does the kingdom of God.

On Mother’s Day Linda came to the Sunday morning church service at All Pilgrims Church. She is a member of this radically hospitable group and like me, and everyone else who regularly attends, has her own laminated name tag. At one point in the service, Linda stands up and declares a blessing for all the mothers. Her voice moves in and out of a modified Shakespearean accent and it feels more appropriate than disruptive. During the prayer time before communion, I feel someone blowing on the back of my neck. I look up and Linda is behind me smiling. I give her a hug and ask her how she is doing. She answers, “better now that you see me!” I am reminded of all the times in the Bible God breathes life into his people. Filling our gasping and panting souls with the fresh wind of his craetive Spirit. “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 NRSV).”

After church, Linda asks if she can help serve at the dinner. When my wife and daughter respond with a hearty yes, Linda breaks down in tears, thankful to be welcomed and included. Leaving church, I wonder how realistic it is for Linda to show up and help. I worry about all the possible scenarios that could present themselves. What if Linda is drunk and I have to tell her not to throw hot coffee on someone that makes her mad. While I am walking to my car spiraling into doom, a bird poops on my neck, a humbling reminder of God’s care for creature’s big and small. A gross and gentle reminder not to worry or take myself too seriously. “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they (Matthew 6:26).”

It’s Monday and I am setting up the community dinner church. It’s a record ninety degrees and Linda shows up on time ready to help. Her friend threw up yesterday from the heat and I suggest   that they both sit in the shade and drink some water. As we get closer to starting, Linda and I discuss the possibility of her serving next week when it’s not so hot. She agrees and I tell her that the community dinner believes that sitting at the table, sharing a meal, and talking with people is also a volunteer role. In fact, it may be the most important and meaningful way to serve. Linda smiles and loves this idea. She is calm and peaceful, knowing that she is invited, welcomed, and received. I give the Christ story about the ascension of Jesus and pray about his promise of hope. I ask God to breathe understanding and life into us all and marvel at how our heavenly Father feeds us. How he reveals himself through the flesh and blood reality of his scars. Through sharing his broken body and breath. How we recognize him when we eat together. “When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him (Luke 24:30-31a).” Linda, you are on your way!

Michael Cox

The Fathers

Samuel has been sleeping in front of the school for at least four years. When I see him, he is always friendly and chatty. He calls me and the other outreach workers “The Fathers.” As a street minister for Operation Nightwatch, I wear a clergy collar. Sometimes people assume I am a Catholic Priest. I will try and clarify, explaining that I am a Protestant Minister or Reverend. People usually glaze over with boredom as I drone on and on about how I am friends with Catholics and that I believe in the Priesthood of all believers. Last week while I was serving pizza casserole, pasta salad, and lemon cake, a young woman looked at me, got nervous, and referred to me as “your honor.” The awkward conversations around my, “get up” as one outreach worker from the county called it, are worth the moments of pastoral care and therapeutic relief that the clergy collar invites.

Samuel went to work with his brother last year and I bought him two pairs of jeans from Costco. He lost his temper, his sister died, and his brother is not speaking to him. Back on the street and sleeping in front of the school, Samuel has a host of health care needs. He has prostate cancer, back problems, and needs a catheter to urinate. His stories about trying to pee at the hospital have all of us doubled over laughing. The more we laugh the better his stories get. He tells us about raising llamas as a child, trying to ride them, and getting thrown off. He believes one particular llama, intentionally saved all the llama food in its cheek, cornered him, and pelted him in the face machine gun style. Not many people can say they have been shot at by a weaponized llama. Working day labor and staying on and off in cheap motels, Samuel has been able to survive the violence of the street and stay alive.

Over Christmas, I ran into Samuel downtown. He was sleeping in a shelter program and looked great. This week he came to our Monday Community Dinner and told me that he had his own apartment. He wanted me to come see it, letting me know that his size for jeans was still 32 32! When I arrived at his apartment, he was waiting for me in the lobby. The building and his room are nice and new. After showing me his DVD collection and refrigerator, we prayed. We lifted up the life and soul of his sister, thanking God for his rest and peace. We prayed reconciliation for him, and his brother, thanking God for restoration and reconciliation. We prayed a blessing on his apartment and for the other residents and staff, thanking God for protecting us with his mercy and kindness. When we’re done praying, Samuel takes me down the elevator, leads me through the lobby and opens the door for me. We hug and he says, “Thanks Father, tell the other Father’s I say hi!

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going (John 14:1-4).”

Michael Cox

Manuel Labor

Street ministry often feels like working for the Post Office. Lots of walking, driving, and carrying stuff. When I am moving cases of Costco water up and down stairs and packing the trunk of my car with donated bags of shoes, I hear the hallowed words of my mom who carried everyone’s baggage, both physical and emotional. One time at Disneyland she had all of me and my two sisters’ allowance money in her purse. Probably thirty pounds of loose change! “I am done schlepping all this crap around. I am not the prospector’s donkey.” The blue-collar nature of street ministry is challenging for people who perceive themselves as enlightened and sophisticated. It’s easy to get mired in resentment, walking around in the rain with pizza casserole all over your coat, being yelled at by the people you are trying to help. Over the years, I have seen many well intentioned and kindhearted volunteers get frustrated and quit because they were not able to “be successful”. People who “know how to get things done” have a challenging time on the street. The kingdom of God accomplishes victory through forgiveness and vulnerability, prioritizing the social outcast and marginalized, using dirt, spit, bread, blood, and words for healing. Jesus is a terrible CEO with an even worse business model. “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it. And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? Is anything worth more than your soul (Matthew 16:24-26 NLT)?”

 Steven ran across the street to tell me how God had saved his life. He suffered a stroke last week and now believes in the spiritual reality of angels and demons. In the two years I have known him he has been shot, stabbed, and had his tent along with all of his possessions burned to the ground. He is clean and sober now and can’t stop talking about the goodness of God. He walks with me through the encampment I am visiting and helps me pass out socks, gloves, and hand warmers. He tells me about his friend that he is praying for. She is stuck in the cycle of addiction, and he knows that she is being oppressed by the forces of darkness. He is manic in his sharing, and I do my best to listen and offer calm biblical instruction about spiritual warfare. We talk about the authority and power of Christ and how we can participate in his healing by giving and receiving forgiveness. We leave the encampment and continue talking. Steven introduces me to several of his friends and asks them if they need any beanies or snacks. We continue walking and run into Brian, a mutual friend from the street who shares the news that there has been another overdose death from fentanyl. The conversation briefly excludes me as Steven and Brian share conspiracy theories about how it’s impossible for the person who died to have overdosed. They don’t think he was a drug user and suspect foul play. Brian leaves and Steven and I continue talking about Jesus. About the light of the world overcoming death. I put my hand on Steven’s shoulder and pray, asking God for wisdom and protection. When we’re done praying, Steven takes a deep breath, thanks me, and tells me what I need to hear. “Thank you for doing the menial tasks. It’s the menial tasks that get people to open their hearts.” Thank you, Jesus, may we continue to schlep onward and upward!

Michael Cox

Spiritual abuse

I met Sarah and her boyfriend a few months ago. I was struck by how self-aware and articulate she was. She grew up in my neighborhood and was prescribed mental health medication at the age of seven. When she talks about herself and her family, she uses clinical mental health terminology and sounds like a therapist. She seems to view the world and herself through the Diagnostic Statistical Manuel of Mental Disorders. “He has neurotic impulse control disorder. I struggle with intrusive thoughts and have major depression. My family all have ADHD.” The years spent in and out of mental health institutions have come to define Sarah’s identity. She sees herself as a diagnosis not as a daughter of God.

Sarah got into a Christian woman’s shelter and began to separate from her abusive boyfriend. Things were going well and then she was kicked out of her housing. Sarah shared how her depression makes her angry and frustrated. How the shelter promised to take her to the methadone clinic and then didn’t. She tells me how she filed a restraining order on her boyfriend. How she went to jail for scratching him while defending herself. She can go to a domestic violence shelter but feels safer on the street with her friend. I offer to pray with her, and she accepts. I pray for protection and safety, affirming the courage it takes to leave oppression and abuse. To take care of our mental health with a balance of therapy, community, and medication. I pray that we could all know the love of God and rediscover our identities as his beloved children. When were finished praying she is smiling from ear to ear and says, “That’s what I thought prayer was supposed to be!” She then gets out her phone and shows me a video. It’s the prayer time at the shelter that kicked her out. The staff are screaming about how God sits on the throne and judges our thoughts and minds. How God moves and heals in our submission and obedience.  I tell Sarah that the church has failed to understand mental health and that yelling at women who are fleeing domestic violence in the name of Jesus is spiritual abuse. I tell Sarah some of my own personal stories of being traumatized by the people of God.

We continue to talk, and allow the Holy Spirit to minister and heal the parts of our identities that have been malformed by rejection and neglect.  We part ways asking each other, how have we misunderstood the character and nature of God? What lies do we believe about God? About ourselves? “You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body and knit me together in my mother’s womb. Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! Your workmanship is marvelous—how well I know it.You watched me as I was being formed in utter seclusion, as I was woven together in the dark of the womb (Psalms 139: 13-15 NLT).”

Michael Cox

Kneeling on the corner

I saw you out of the corner of my eye. You were well hidden between the abandoned store front and busy bus stop. The vacant look in your eyes made me wonder if we should leave you alone. If talking to me would be upsetting for you. Gently, I offer some socks and handwarmers. You don’t hear me or understand what I am doing and look scared and worried. I hold out a pair of Kirkland brand tube socks and we start a conversation. Your story reveals that you’re forty-two, a Navy veteran, and that your brain is extremely tired. You are confused about the details of your Military service but are interested in talking with a counselor and accessing benefits. I give you my pen and you write down phone numbers, addresses, and bus routes. Gradually the countenance of your face becomes brighter, your speech more articulate. We discuss the two bloody scratches on your neck. They are deep and concerning. Emblematic signposts of your suffering and longing for safety. You genuinely seem to understand the danger you’re in. We kneel down on the busy sidewalk, hold hands, and pray for healing, peace, and rest.

Michael Cox


The dictionary defines frostbite as an “injury to body tissues caused by exposure to extreme cold, typically affecting the nose, fingers, or toes and sometimes resulting in gangrene.” I ran into my friend Bill in front of the library. He was sitting next to a fire he had created with avocado oil, woodchips, and rubbing alcohol. He had just been released from the hospital with frostbite and could barely walk. In a humane society, he would be able to heal and recover in a facility that offered respite care. In Seattle, because he is poor and homeless, he is left to figure out how to keep his toes while sleeping outside. Bill got frostbite from being outside. He fell asleep outside and woke up ten hours later in eighteen-degree weather. Unable to move and frozen to a bench, a nearby business owner heard Bill’s screams and called 911. Pouring boiling water on his back and legs, it took the fire department thirty-five minutes to get him unstuck. They took him to the emergency room where they had to soak his feet in boiling water to get his boots off.

Bill feels grateful that he was able to keep his toes. While were talking, other homeless men stop by and share horror stories of friends dying from exposure. I talk about George who had both of his legs amputated a few years ago from frostbite. Jerry comes by with a box of fried chicken and offers everyone a piece. He includes me in the street community communion table and offers me a drumstick. It is always nice to be invited. Bill tells me about a couple in the north end of the city that has set up a dozen food pantries around their neighborhood. People experiencing food insecurity are able to take what they need. I talk with Rodger who is seventy and dying of throat cancer. His speaking voice is a low gravely whisper. He shares with me about the violence of his childhood and his belief in living while we still can. He isn’t going to spend his last days in institutions that continue to traumatize him.

Later that night I meet another man with frostbite. I am in the middle of a prayer time at a church that hosts an emergency winter shelter when, a taxicab pulls up and drops off a man in a wheelchair. It’s raining and the shelter doesn’t open for two hours. The hospital paid one hundred and Ninety dollars for the cab ride. He was assured that there was a bed for him at the shelter. The shelter staff had no idea that he was coming and was at full capacity. After some creative thinking, the shelter figured out a way to have him stay the night. We made shelter arrangements for the following night through Operation Nightwatch and were able to eliminate an extra bus trip for our new friend. Hopefully he will be able to keep his toes.

Michael Cox

You are my Sunshine

The list of names being read on the longest night of the year was as chilling as the weather. Two hundred and seventy names were read out loud. Names of the homeless who died last year without shelter in King County. Beautiful souls tragically lost to poverty, violence, neglect, and abuse. I staggered and almost fell over when I heard her name being read.

 I first met her over twenty years ago in a homeless youth drop-in center. She was one of the first street kids I really got to know. Her life and story were my introduction to street culture. She was fifteen and working in the sex industry. Her boyfriend was pimping her. He would eventually go to prison for second degree murder. She would attend our street church and pray with us. She told me a story once about how God saved her. She got in a car with a date and realized he had recently threatened to kill her. She began to pray, and the door of the moving car opened. She rolled out on to the highway unharmed and safe. Her mother died drinking herself to death at a bus stop. I was honored to be asked to facilitate the memorial service. All of her mom’s friends were in attendance and extremely inebriated. One of the guests stood up with a plastic dancing sunflower plant that sang, You Are My Sunshine. I took myself seriously back then and even wore a blazer with a tie. I met her sister who was in community college and wanted nothing to do with my now deceased friend. So many people I knew as homeless kids have passed away. If you grow up on the streets and are alive in your forties you are a miracle.

A voice was heard in Ramah,

weeping and loud lamentation,

Rachel weeping for her children;

she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.” Matthew 2:18

Michael Cox

The Word became flesh

We walk through the tent encampment that sits next to the freeway. We come here every Monday, today It is bitter cold, and the beanie I am wearing is not cutting it. Edward is walking toward me with a bit of a limp and tells me about the terrible medical care he received this morning. He takes out his phone and shows me a photo of his knee. It is a giant bloody abscess, covered with oozing puss. Edward claims that the doctors didn’t know what they were doing so he left. I listen and am excited to hear that Edward has housing. His neighbor thinks he has an evil spirit and that his room is haunted. She harasses him and other tenants all day long. Edward is working on being patient and not losing his temper. One violent outburst would result in losing his housing. Before we part ways, we pray for healing in his knee and protection from people who seek to get him off track. His mom and brother still live in the encampment and are deep in the abyss of addiction. Edward, like many homeless people, struggles with how to help friends and family that are still homeless. The cost of sobriety and a new life are steep and will require Edward to make choices that will result in even greater isolation and loneliness.

I approach a tent and gently offer gloves, beanies, and handwarmers. A voice joyfully yells, “hold on a second I am reading my Bible.” A young man in his twenties pokes his head out and greets me with a beautiful toothless smile. His name is Doug, and he shares with me how God changed his life. He and his brother took a huge amount of drugs with the intention of dying. They were driving a car going a hundred and sixty-eight miles an hour and ended up in a high-speed chase with the police. His brother, who has never believed in God began to pray to Jesus. “Lord save us we want to live.” Doug woke up in the hospital handcuffed to the bed, happy and thankful to be alive. Months later a pastor from a local church offered to pray for him. Doug experienced the Love of Christ and, “has been on the hook with God ever since!” Doug goes on to tell me his plan to get off drugs once and for all. I offer my resources, and Doug respectfully declines. We both agree that his plan for recovery is going to work! My older gentleman’s body is starting to get sore from squatting and bending over to hear all that is on Doug’s heart. Before I leave, he wants to read me his favorite verse. He tells me that it always makes him cry.  “And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do (Luke 23:33-34).” Tears well up in Doug’s eyes and we pray. I literally witness the “Word become flesh and dwell among us (John 1:14). The presence of God takes up residence and dwells in a tent and “tabernacles” with his people.  “When Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent, and the Lord would speak with Moses. And when all the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance of the tent, all the people would rise up and worship, each at his tent door (Exodus 33”9-10).”

The hope of Jesus is born in distressing circumstances through unremarkable people. We ended the week with an outdoor vigil to remember the two hundred and seventy people who died last year homeless and unsheltered. As the community of advocates, friends, and families of the homeless stood on the steps of city hall with candles and signs bearing the names of the deceased, the contrast between the transformative power of Jesus and the governmental system of domination couldn’t be clearer. Standing in twenty-degree weather and believing a baby born in a barn to unmarried teenagers can change everything seems reasonable. “The light keeps shining in the dark, and darkness has never put it out (John 1:5).”

Michael Cox

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