Persistence

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).”

Michael Cox

Murder

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).”

Michael Cox

Angelic Lyft Driver

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).”

Michael Cox

Well-oiled machine

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.

Michael Cox

Our Father

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).”

Michael Cox

The prayers of Jesus

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.

I wouldn’t wish his life on anyone

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.

Michael Cox

FlexBrew

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).”

Michael Cox

Miracle

We met Brett last month. He was living in a tent next to the freeway onramp. We introduced ourselves and gave him some socks, gloves, and a sandwich. Standard issue survival supplies. The next week we gave him a beanie, more socks, and more sandwiches. He didn’t come out of his tent or talk with us. His buddy took the survival supplies and thanked us. Sometimes people are getting high in their tent and are ashamed or embarrassed to talk to us. Other times, people just want to be left alone. The next week we saw Brett in a doorway organizing his backpack. It was freezing cold and raining. The wind added insult to injury, making it impossible to stay warm or dry. Brett was chatty. He had just survived a near death experience. He was asleep in his tent when a truck lost its brakes and smashed into him. “I should be dead. I don’t know how I survived.” We prayed thanksgiving for miracles and gave him a brand-new sleeping bag. The next week we saw Brett in a different part of town. We talked again about how God saved his life. I reminded him that he was a walking miracle. Its amazing how quickly we dismiss the miraculous. Brett began to cry. He shared how he believed in God and how God had blessed him in the past. He shared how he is trying to get clean from drugs. How he is apprehensive and afraid. We exchanged numbers, prayed, and made plans to connect next week for coffee. Operation Nightwatch creates a space of trust and vulnerability on the street through consistent respectful listening. People experience God through people. It is through tear- soaked eyes that Brett can say, “I see God in you guys.” “You are the God who performs miracles; you display your power among the peoples (Psalm 77:14 NIV).”

Michael Cox

Coat of many colors

What does your coat say about you? I moved to Seattle when I was twenty-three years old. I had long hair, an orange VW Bus, and no coat. Having come from Los Angeles, my wardrobe consisted of t-shirts, jeans, and shorts. Arriving in the Pacific Northwest in November, I experienced ninety days of rain in a row. I couldn’t wrap my mind around all the coat purchasing options. Overwhelmed by REI, fleece liners, outer shells, and wind breaker vest combos, I finally caught the flu and was sick for a week. My budget and poor understanding of the cultural significance of a coat led me to the Army Navy surplus store. It was here that I bought my first coat. Looking for a job in a new city with a ponytail and a coat that screamed homeless guy was an eye-opening experience. It never occurred to me that a giant cheap coat would made me look sketchy.

My relationship with coats has always been troubled. As a kid I lost my coat every year. My mom finally got mad and said that she was done buying coats for me. I remember having to wiggle out of a snug hand-me-down in the hallways of middle school. The broken zipper canceled out the “wow factor” of the detachable sleeves. Years later my mom would confess that her only parenting regret was bugging me to wear a coat. She would lament, “Just because I was always cold didn’t mean you were. Kids aren’t cold. They are running around being kids.” My mom was cold if it was below eighty degrees. She stopped visiting me in Seattle because of the rain and my no smoking in the house rule.

After the Pacific Northwest Army Navy Surplus homeless guy jacket, I continued down the road of transient fashion. Triple extra-large flannels were a staple. Combined with a bright orange cycling windbreaker, my look could be best described as lumberjack meets Tour de France meets crossing guard. Then, I got married. My wife quickly replaced my wardrobe with items that were in style.  Now, I had several coats. According to my wife it is “fun” to have coats for different situations. This was when I learned about the theological implications of a coat.

My wife and I met volunteering with street youth. We would walk around downtown at night praying with people, encouraging homeless kids to be safe, reminding them that Jesus never abandoned them. It was a miraculous community of faith. I noticed that my coat could be a topic of conversation. Once while wearing a jumbo flannel with Carhartt overalls, I was told by a homeless kid that I looked like an ax murderer. My puffy Old Navy coat apparently made me look like a crack head. The coat everyone liked had a huge fur-lined hood. What was my coat saying about me? What does my coat say about my relationship with God?

I have been emotionally attached to a few of my coats. The windbreaker I wore while working for the post office was my literal armor of God. “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil (Ephesians 6:10-11).” I would eventually get a uniform allowance and wear the standard issue gear. However, the windbreaker I got from the REI Memorial Day sale was the best. Lightweight, warm, and indestructible, it helped me survive snow, dogs, and other mailmen. When I left the post office to work in full time street ministry, I found myself once again without a coat.

Pastoral street ministry necessitates strategic choices when it comes to outerwear. You need to have a beanie no matter what. The beanie needs to be warm, but not too fancy. The coat is more complicated. It needs to be waterproof, warm, and understated. Personally, I don’t want to spend two hundred dollars on a coat. I also don’t want to freeze. My first coat for Operation Nightwatch street ministry was a sixty dollar Columbia ski jacket from Marshalls. It has served me well. My friends on the street have told me that it is a good brand. “Hey Mike, that’s a nice coat.” I still haven’t washed the casserole stains from Community Dinners off of it!

Giving homeless people coats when it is freezing outside is one of my greatest joys. It is such a powerful demonstration of God’s practical love. “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me (Matthew 25:35-36 ESV).” To give a new coat to a person living outside is to speak the power of life over death. A new coat for a homeless person is the embodiment of salvation. “Wake up, wake up, O Zion! Clothe yourself with strength. Put on your beautiful clothes, O holy city of Jerusalem, for unclean and godless people will enter your gate no longer (Isaiah 52:1 NLT).” There is restoration in a new coat.

Clothing communicates cultural norms and expectations. My daughter bought me Nike Airforce Ones for my birthday. When I wear them on outreach somebody, usually under thirty, lets me know that my shoes are cool. I prefer to wear my Nike Air Monarchs. Classic “dad shoes,” simple, durable, and comfortable. I like my mailman shoes! Besides, is there anything worse than guys my age trying to dress like they’re twenty? I went to a church for many years that preached “you can learn a lot about a pastor by looking at his shoes.” So much for the content of our character. This group believed that we should approach God in excellence. This meant suits, ties, and shiny shoes. I was doomed to hell the minute my slovenly self entered the sanctuary.

On the street, clothing is about survival. My gutter punk friends use dental floss as sewing thread, recycling the same clothes over and over again. Sweatpants under jeans with two pairs of socks communicates function over form. Laundry is challenging and clothes are disposable for the homeless. Clothes are also currency. “Yo, my buddy gave me this coat for a phone charger.” Homeless people are also generous, they will literally give you the coat off their backs. “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise (Luke 3;11).” What a blessing to be gifted a coat.

This Christmas I received a two hundred dollar Amazon gift card. The elders and deacons from a church that is in my network just wanted to bless me. I purchased a black Carhartt insulated jacket, concluding my long and arduous coat journey. I ordered the wrong size and had to return it. After returning it, it was sent back as damaged and undeliverable. It finally arrived, a coat that’s warm, fits, and meets the approval of my family. Whenever I wear this coat, a homeless friend pays me a compliment. “Hey Mike, that’s a nice coat.” After standing outside with homeless people in the rain and snow, I will never take my coat or salvation for granted. My mom would be so proud!

Michael Cox