I went on outreach with a registered nurse and a group that does Hepatitis education. I had water, handwarmers, and Bibles. We visited five camps that the city has received complaints about. Most of the camps are under freeways, and the people living in these camps are extremely isolated. The lack of support these people have is evidenced by the piles of garbage and feces that surround their tents. We walk in through an opening in a fence and start talking to folks. I am never in a big hurry and love to chat. I talk with campers about Pink Floyd and the Wizard of Oz. My new outreach partners offer flu shots, clean hypodermic needles and Narcan. Helping people stay alive is the main concern. There have already been over one hundred overdose deaths in King County this year. Clean needles reduce the risk of disease and death. Narcan brings people back to life who are overdosing. People are always asking me if I have any clean needles. I have water, handwarmers, and Bibles.
We visit a large camp with lots of drug use. I have been here before with limited success. No one is ever interested in talking with me. Walking around with people that have safe injection kits and Narcan seems to change everything. I pass out my water and talk with a woman who is fresh out of jail. The public health nurse has a folding stool and an ice chest filled with medical supplies. A young woman named Harriet has a seat and gets a Hepatitis A vaccination. I am standing off to the side and pray silently for her. She is talking a mile a minute and has two black eyes. Another female camper punched her in the face yesterday. The care provided by the nurse is incredible. Harriet thanks us and asks me for my name. She then turns to the rest of the outreach team and begins to declare the Gospel of Jesus. “The Holy Spirit is real. Heaven isn’t some kind of bullshit. God loves us and the Bible is the real deal word of God.” I listen and understand God is going to have me pray for her. I wonder what the nurse and clean needle outreach team will think. I ask Harriet if she wants a Bible and prayer. She closes her eyes and bows her head. “Pray for my family and for protection.” We pray and she tells me Psalm 30 is her favorite. “The chaplain at the mental hospital prayed that one for me!” We hug and she thanks me for the prayer. The other outreach worker sarcastically says, “I hope that prayer works for you.” I know it already has! “O Lord my God, I cried to you for help, and you restored my health. You brought me up from the grave, O Lord. You kept me from falling into the pit of death.” (Psalms 30:2-3 NLT).
— Michael Cox
Every Monday night our outreach team talks with Christopher. He’s always sleeping in the same doorway. Christopher is fifty years old but looks much older. His addiction has cost him everything. His wife left him, and he has lost touch with his two teenage kids. He is always friendly, and profusely thanks us for the hand warmers and socks. It’s always awkward talking to him in his doorway. It feels like my coworkers and I are tucking in him for the night.
Christopher seems to be more troubled lately. Tonight, he is writhing around in his sleeping bag, contorting his body in terrible pain. My coworker Ben asks if there is anything we can pray about. Christopher asks for peace and happiness. It feels more serious then peace and happiness, like he is on the edge of death, like he is giving up trying to live.
I sit down next to him and we talk about the first time we met. It was in the park; some kids had stolen his glasses while he was asleep. He didn’t want me to take him to the free eye clinic even though he couldn’t see. We laugh and I ask him again if there is anything we can pray about. Our eyes are locked, and he bursts into tears. Through painful sobs of remorse and shame he asks for prayer for his kids, for his ex-wife. He is laying in his sleeping bag and we hold hands. I pray for reconciliation and forgiveness, that nothing is impossible with God. At one point he squeezes my hand, affirming that the prayer is accurate and true. My prayer ends, “in Jesus’ name.” Christopher hugs me, crying hysterically. “I love you guys, keep up the good work!” We encourage him, tuck him in, and say goodnight. Have a goodnight sleep, Christopher. We pray that you live to see another day. “Awake, O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light” (Ephesians 5:14).
— Michael Cox
I will sing a blessing to you
We seem to have a lot of talks about God in the parking lot behind the Episcopal church. Last week we prayed with a woman who had lost her family to drugs. Her husband’s in jail and her kids are with Child Protective Services. Her daughter’s living with a much older boyfriend and life is painful. “I’m trying to stay away from people who are too far gone into sin. I don’t want to get caught up in evil.” Her family had her over for Thanksgiving and it was unpleasant. She hadn’t seen her kids in eight months, and the holiday reunion did not go well. She also ended up fighting with her brother. We pray and she cries. “I’m not a bad person and I try to do the right thing.” She explains how she knows when she needs to pray for someone; her chest begins to hurt. We talk about the move of the Holy Spirit and the gift of discernment.
This week we are in the same parking lot talking with a different group of homeless folks. People stop by and say hi and thank us for the socks. People ask us what church we’re from and my co-worker Sonja tells them about my dinner church. Erick asks me what the sermon was about, and we all start talking about Scripture. Last week’s message was on John the Baptist and expectation. Jesus being a God who demonstrates his kingship by healing the sick and bringing good news to the poor. Someone brings up King David having Bathsheba’s husband killed. “Uriah the Hittite!” yells a man from under the church awning. We talk about the prophet Nathan and the flaws of human nature. Someone shares about the tree of knowledge ─ “people eating forbidden fruit because they think they have their big boy pants on.” Linda talks about growing up Catholic, then becoming agnostic. I share my testimony and we all have a good laugh.
Ivan pulls up on his bike and gives Sonja and me a big hug. He has been struggling with heroine and wants to walk us to our car. We stop and talk with people along the way. Ivan passes out packages of facial cleanser and helps us move some socks. We come upon two men and they take some water. Before we leave, one of the men tells us he wants to sing a blessing over us, “If I don’t give away the gift that was giving to me it will spoil like mayonnaise in the sun!” He opens his mouth and ends our time of outreach by singing the benediction, “May the Lord bless and keep you; may his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; may the Lord turn toward you and give you his peace” (Numbers 6:24-27).
It’s such a blessing to follow Christ with the homeless community.
— Michael Cox
I met Rhonda last week while I was on outreach. She was on the corner in front of the bank crying. My co-workers and I approached her gently, offering hand warmers and gloves. She couldn’t find her boyfriend and was upset about the way the burger stand’s security guard had talked to her. “I was in line to get a cup of ice and he yelled at me in front of everybody. It was humiliating.” She continues to cry, and I continue to listen. The homeless are in touch with shame and indignity. Getting yelled at over a cup of ice is embarrassing.
Rhonda doesn’t feel safe in any of the women’s shelters and is going to sleep outside. I hand her an emergency blanket and offer to pray. She asks for healing prayer for her stomach. While we’re praying, I’m overwhelmed by the humiliation and suffering of Christ. “They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him. They wove thorn branches into a crown and put it on his head, and they placed a reed stick in his right hand as a scepter. Then they knelt before him in mockery and taunted, “Hail! King of the Jews!” And they spit on him and grabbed the stick and struck him on the head with it. When they were finally tired of mocking him, they took off the robe and put his own clothes on him again. Then they led him away to be crucified (Matthew 27:27-31).”
This encounter also made me reflect on how I’ve endured my own dose of humiliation. Years ago, I worked as a chaplain for a ministry that served homeless youth. For ten years I visited kids in jail and in the hospital. I officiated weddings, baptisms, and funerals. I broke up dozens of fights. Providing pastoral care to young people that lived on the street was always life-giving. Late one Friday evening I received a phone call informing me I was being let go for budget reasons. My position was being eliminated. I was asked to clean out my desk, turn in my keys, and leave the building. How would I say goodbye to the hundreds of homeless kids I knew? What would I do for work? Where were the leaders I had served with in the “relational ministry?” The next nine months were humiliating. No one would hire me. I was too Christian for social services and not Christian enough for the church. After nine months of interviews and applications, I got hired with the United States Postal Service. My next lesson in humiliation.
I was thankful for my new job. The blessings of the Lord, etc. USPS reminded me of a drop-in center for homeless youth. The only difference was that the postal service was cruel and soul-crushing. The blue polyester shorts may be the root cause of people “going postal.” For nine years I worked sixty plus hours a week. I was bullied and intimidated almost every day. I had never worked so hard and been treated so badly in my life. In the middle of year four I went back to school. I took theology classes online and wrote papers in my postal vehicle. I did well and got credentialed with the Assemblies of God. I was eventually able to leave USPS, plant two dinner churches, and work as a street minister with Operation Nightwatch.
As I prayed with Rhonda, all the loss and humiliation I experienced during those last nine years finally made sense. God wanted to give me a righteousness that comes through faith in Christ ─ to depend on a righteousness that was not my own. To know that the power of his resurrection comes from sharing in his suffering (Philippians 3:10). Prayer on the street with Rhonda and my homeless friends is a sharing of shame, humiliation, and resurrection. And it’s in this sharing that transformation and healing begins to take place.
— Michael Cox
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