Like an old friend
It has been a quiet night out on the street. The cold weather seems to have everyone hunkered down early for the night. My friend Henry is at the bus stop, and he is upset. His belt broke and his pants keep falling down. His friend has set up a pillow and sleeping bag on the bus stop bench. Garbage and newspapers are strewn everywhere; it is a mess. Three sheriff cars pull up and let us know it’s time to go. Watching Henry clean up everything he owns is heartbreaking enough without his pants falling down. The sheriff deputies are irritated, but wait patiently for Henry and his friend to get organized. I give Henry underwear and razors and try to keep everyone calm. Apparently, Henry’s friend has been yelling at the bus and its passengers all night. I stand there being a friend to the friendless, wishing I had an extra belt.
The evening is winding down and I notice a shopping cart and several umbrellas set up in the alley. We approach our friend Katherine who has fallen asleep sitting up. “I must have fallen asleep for an hour.” She is happy to see us, and we apologize for waking her up. The handwarmers and emergency silver blankets are a big hit. “Yes! Those blankets really keep you warm!” I am with a group of Catholic deacons and I make some corny “how Catholic are you” jokes. Katherine tells us she grew up Catholic and asks me if I believe in the unexplainable. I tell her about a time I felt the power of the Holy Spirit heal me from the inside out. She asks what it felt like and I explain the warmth and peace that came upon me. Katherine tells us about a painful time in her life. “My mother had died, and I was really distraught. I felt this comforting hand on my back and assumed it was my boyfriend. I turned around but no one was there. It felt like an old friend. I always thought it was God.” An incredible conversation about the Holy Spirit begins to unfold. We discuss the mystery of the Trinity and the comfort of the Holy Spirit. With tears in her eyes, Katherine tells us about her son dying two years ago. She asks why Jesus has to leave and then send his Spirit.
The promise of God’s loving presence has manifested in the alley. We all kneel and hold hands, thanking God for loving us first and promising to never leave us. “I’m telling you these things while I’m still living with you. The friend, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send at my request, will make everything plain to you. I’m leaving you well and whole. That’s my parting gift to you. Peace. I don’t leave you the way you’re used to being left, feeling abandoned, bereft. So don’t be distraught” (John 14 :24-27, MSG).
— Michael Cox
Thanks for showing up
“Hey, thanks for showing up.” That was our greeting as we entered a homeless encampment under the freeway. “If everybody just came out and got to know us, it would be different.” The heart of our greeter under the freeway is gentle. He tells us that he appreciates us and asks for a Bible. I pull a New Testament out my bag and hand it to him. “Oh thanks, I already have one of those. Do you have the one with Genesis, in the beginning?”
I think about how in the beginning “the earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2). How God created us and “saw everything he made, and behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). The story of God. The story of creative redemption. From the empty void to wholeness.
The homeless in Seattle have no control over their story. The media presents them as lazy criminals who are killing “your” city. The fact is, most homeless folks are working day and night to improve themselves and their situation. Julie and Jason are both clean and sober. I drive them to the food bank twice a week. The thing that helped jumpstart their sobriety was living in a tiny house village. The story of addiction is common among those living on the street. Many of my homeless friends had a family member introduce drugs to them at an early age. Parents introducing a child to heroin is not uncommon. “I had no choice after my dad got me high.”
Driving back from the food bank our conversation turns to sobriety. Jason lets out a cry of gratitude. “Thank you, God, that I am not smoking crack anymore.” Julie from the back seat, “I give God all the glory. I don’t have liver failure or Hepatitis C.” John asks me to share my miraculous sobriety story. I oblige. “I prayed that I would quit drinking if God provided a job for me. While I was praying, the phone rang with a job offer. Three months later I prayed to Jesus and felt the healing presence of Christ.” “In the beginning the Word already existed. The Word was with God, and the Word was God. He existed in the beginning with God. God created everything through him, and nothing was created except through him” (John 1:1-3, NLT). Thank you, Jesus, for showing up ─ for existing in the beginning!
— Michael Cox
Why wouldn’t I want prayer?
I had a wonderful time Monday night meeting Sean! He is sitting at the bus stop by himself, smiling from ear to ear. His joy is infectious. I introduce myself and we strike up a conversation. He is living in an apartment two blocks away and loves it. Bouncing on the bench, Sean cheers, “There is a great view from the roof! Have you ever been on the roof? It’s awesome. You can see the water and the mountains!” My co-worker Ben has been on the roof of Sean’s apartment building and enthusiastically agrees. Sean tells us that he was in the hospital with a broken foot and a cracked rib. His ninety-year old mother was taking care of him. The fact that his mom is healthy enough to care for him makes him smile. “She provided healing for my foot!” His rib is still cracked, and he has a hard time sleeping. While sharing the details of his injury, he can’t help but make eye contact with me. It seems like he has a question that we both already know the answer to.
I am overwhelmed by the reality that God and Sean both want me to pray! I ask Sean if he would like to pray about his rib. I suggest it as an option if he wants. I don’t want him to feel on the spot or pressured so I present it as delicately as possible. He responds with enthusiasm. “Why wouldn’t I want you to pray for me? Why wouldn’t I want healing prayer?” We laugh and I sit down next to him. He places my hand over his rib. It is protruding out and obviously broken. I begin to pray, thanking God for his power, love, and healing. I can feel the very real and radical faith that Sean has in God. He really trusts that God is his provider. As we continue to pray, his rib pops back into place. Amen!
Sean says he feels better, and the smiling continues. Sean stands up and says he has a question. “You guys are probably the right people to ask!” I wonder what his question is going to be. I anxiously prepare to answer questions like, “Why does God not heal everyone? How come there is so much suffering in the world. How can a good God offer his son as a sacrifice for humanity?” I sit down and wait for the theological drama that is sure to ensue. Instead, Sean grabs my shoulder and asks, “Do you think I should wear a Santa suit this year while I spare change?” This may be the best question and response to a God that heals cracked ribs at bus stops! Yes, Sean you should for sure dress up like Santa!
“The Lord has done it this very day; let us rejoice today and be glad.” (Psalms 118:24 NIV).
— Michael Cox
Power in the name
Noni is sitting in front of the grocery store selling newspapers that advocate for the homeless. Some street drama has unfolded around the corner and she is happy to be by herself. It’s hard for homeless folks to have a moment to themselves. Winter has come early this year and it’s already snowing in the mountains. Her boyfriend is an alcoholic and is in detox today. She seems relieved that he is safe even if he is mad at her. Across the street, a group of homeless folks are drinking and playing music. The battery powered guitar amp is surprisingly loud and distorted. One of my homeless friends is mixing vanilla extract and Gatorade. Vanilla has alcohol in it, and I imagine the tiny bottle is easy to steal. A woman walks by and a homeless gentleman tells me to thank Jesus. “Thanking Jesus will take the place of lust!” Wisdom from the street.
Noni has a Bible verse tattooed on her arm. It’s a verse of protection. She believes in the power of Jesus. “There is power in his name!” When Noni was a teenager a drug dealer had a gun pointed at her head. She yelled the name of Jesus and the gunman’s arm pointed toward the ceiling. “He freaked out and ran out of the room!” Noni has been saved by calling upon the name of Jesus many times. She tells me story after story involving the goodness of God in her life.
Hearing all the ways God has provided for Noni causes us to praise God. I kneel on the sidewalk and we hold hands. We pray and thank God for the power of his name. “I call upon the name of the Lord, who is worthy to be praised, and I am saved from my enemies.” (Psalms 18:3 ESV). I love praying on the street.
— Michael Cox
End of the world
I was talking with a group of homeless folks on Friday
afternoon. It was pouring down rain and everyone was anxious. The city keeps
telling homeless people they need to move, but there is no place for them to
go. Packing and unpacking your stuff in the rain is exhausting. They ask, “Where
should we go?” I have no good answer for this question. The shelter system is overburdened,
and affordable housing is nonexistent. I try to keep the conversation focused
on the positive and hopeful. It is amazing how people on the street survive.
Living on the food people throw away and trying to navigate the system of human
services must be demoralizing. Carter tells me about all the stuff he finds in
the garbage. Watches, antique radios, and cash are some of his favorites. He
wears a reflective vest when he dumpster dives so people don’t think he is car
prowling. “Why would I try to be visible if I were up to no good?” Even with
the vest, people have threatened him with violence and murder. People on the
street live between the margins of law and justice. “No one cares if we go
missing or die.” I tell Carter that I always thank God I know so many homeless
people. If the world ends, they will be the only ones who know how to survive. I
believe Carter and his friends would take care of me and my family.
A couple is franticly packing up their tent and sleeping
bags. The business owners don’t want them making the storefront their home. Who
can blame them? “Don’t you know people die out here? What are you going to do to
help us?” Again, I have no good answer for this question. I listen to his
desperation and anxiety. To his mental health crisis and drug abuse. As I
listen, our conversation becomes less confrontational. I am not the bad guy, and
I agree with lots of his frustration. He offers me a beer and I respectfully
decline. His crippling paranoia has him thinking there is a government
conspiracy trying to exterminate the homeless. He tells me an elaborate scheme
involving food served at shelters. “It’s prepared with a chemical that causes
organ failure.” He tells me how the blankets that people pass out to the
homeless cause cancer. I encourage him in his ability to survive: “It’s good to
be in the land of the living!” The couple packs up and is ready to move. We
part ways and I wonder how long I would last sleeping outside.
My friend Ryan comes to my church and loves to talk about the end of the world. He feels it is his duty to warn people about the final judgment on earth. He isn’t interested in conversation. He likes to corner people with his monologue of fear. This week I confronted him and told him that people might be interested in getting to know him. That his message may be more meaningful to people if they knew him. Not realizing all the ways that God can transform us through our neighbors might be real end of the world! “I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” (Psalms 116:9).
— Michael Cox
The light shines in
We walked into a tent encampment next to the freeway downtown. We are standing by the off-ramp, surrounded by tents, garbage, and drug paraphernalia. It feels like we are removed from civilization. I have never been in a situation like this and am filled with anxiety. Standing with my canvas tote bag filled with survival items, I make friends quickly. The motor powering this camp is heroin. The engine hums steadily, people of all walks of life coming and going. Black, white, Latino, young, and old. Certain tents seem to be steering the entire camp toward darkness and death. I talk with a woman who says she has been addicted to opioids since she was twelve: “I broke all the bones in my leg. I have metal screws in my knee that expand when it rains. All the pain meds they gave me changed my brain chemistry.” Before I can respond with anything hopeful, she excuses herself and shoots up on the couch in the middle of camp. My coworker is hugging a longtime street friend who is crying. Tears of regret and shame drip into the dirty blankets on the ground because he was unable to go to his dad’s funeral. “I lost my I.D. and couldn’t get a plane ticket.” A resident invites us to go check on the tents toward the back of camp. We walk up the hill and somebody asks us for a Bible. A voice from a tent thanks us for the granola bars and wishes us an enjoyable summer. There is a young married couple frantically pacing up and down the camp as if they are looking for a precious keepsake or long-lost treasure.
It’s hard to make sense of our time under the freeway. Drug addiction brings everyone to the same place of hopelessness, stealing life and dignity. However, the light of Christ shines everywhere. Reminding us in our garbage that we are created in the image of God, created for life. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:5, NIV). The true light of Jesus, which gives light to everyone, has come into the world. (John 1:9). Even under the freeway.
— Michael Cox
The struggle is real
I was handing out survival items with Operation Nightwatch when Felicia approached us. She asked if we were outreach workers and took some socks and water. She was staying in a tiny house village and was trying to get her ID. The Deptartment of Social Services lost the hard copy of her birth certificate and social security card. They were still using paper and didn’t save her ID on a database. The Department of Licensing wasn’t much help either. It has been a five-year struggle. Instead of bitter complaining, Felicia was gracious. “I am praying for a miracle. Because at this point, I don’t know what else to do.” I offer to pray and it’s a good one! Sometimes you just know God is on the move!
I run into Felicia three months later. She is still staying at a tiny house village. I visit her village all the time and don’t remember ever talking to her. Yay for getting older! She finally has her ID. She can start applying for jobs and has a few promising leads. Felicia recaps the very real struggle of obtaining identification while living on the street. “People steal your stuff. It’s fifty-four dollars for a replacement ID card. You need to establish residency even if you don’t have an address. A cable bill or piece of mail can work if you have some other supporting document. You can get food stamps from the government but the DOL won’t accept your EBT card as proof of being a person.” Her ID drama ended when she got sealed medical records. “They don’t list medical records as an approved document, but they accepted it. People on the streets have all been to the emergency room!”
We’re sitting on the sidewalk in front of the grocery store laughing about the real struggle for identity. A thirty-something man walks over and offers us a pack of cigars. It’s open and one is missing. How strange. He leaves and we speculate on his plans. “He’s going to make a blunt and is easing his guilt with tobacco charity.” Felicia gets up and tosses them in the trash can. We laugh some more and talk about dogs. A few weeks ago, someone broke into her tiny house and stole her dog. She is confused why the culprit didn’t get arrested. I offer to start a GoFundMe site to see if we can get her a new canine companion. Smiles and tears commence. We both agree that spending time with dogs is way better than dealing with people. Especially people at the Department of Identification! “May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the children of the needy, and crush the oppressor!” (Psalms 72:4 ESV).
— Michael Cox