Power in the name

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

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 the darkness

The light shines in the darkness

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

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

Positive attitude

Positive attitude

I go walking along the freeway overpass on a rainy Monday afternoon looking for homeless people. There are a handful of tents lining the fence where the bike path and on-ramp meet. I met three people here last week and want to see if everyone is ok. This area was swept by the city and the folks that are left seem more isolated than usual. Ronald is on his way to take a shower and looks like he has stepped off the set of a Mad Max movie. He is carrying a giant backpack with smaller bags attached to it with bungee cords. I give him some water and granola bars, which he stuffs into his cargo pants. As he lumbers off, he tells me, “Things could be worse!” Trevor lives in a tent under the bike path and I hand him socks and water. I can’t hear him because of the freeway noise so we just smile at each other. Karen takes some survival items and, within seconds, has shimmied down the side of the freeway to her tent. All I can think about is my daughter and how dangerous life on the streets is for young women.

I travel down to the off-ramp and meet Gary. Gary is sitting in a wheelchair, in the rain, under a tree. His legs were amputated last year when he got frostbite from sleeping outside. He wants to get into stable housing, but it hasn’t seemed to work out yet. His friends tell me that he has a great attitude and never complains. Privately he confides in me that he gets a little depressed sometimes. I have absolutely no idea what to say or do. I can’t get him into housing, and I can’t take him home. So, I stand in the rain and try to encourage him. He knows all the resources and is a very gentle soul. My only plan is to come back tomorrow, stand in the rain, and talk to him again.

I come back to the freeway overpass and talk with Gary again. He is sitting in his wheelchair staring at the traffic. We chat and he tells me he has had a rough night. The rain and cold have left him hopeless and more depressed. He thanks me for the granola bars and says he needs to get inside. As he pushes his wheelchair back to a tent all I can do is pray for him. “Our Father in heaven, reveal who you are. Set the world right; Do what’s best — as above, so below.” (Matthew 6:9-10, MSG).

Michael Cox

Friendship, food, happiness, and health

Friendship, food, happiness, and health

Henry walked by and didn’t recognize me. I remind him that we prayed last week and tell him that I have some socks and PB&Js. “Oh yeah, I am starving.” It’s going to dip down into the low forties tonight and the homeless community is preparing. Henry sleeps in a doorway and feels safe except for when drug addicts try to rob him. I ask if there is anything I can keep in my prayers for him. “Friendship, food, happiness, and health!” I love praying with homeless people at the bus stop. It always makes God smile. The strange looks we get from people leaving CrossFit are equally delightful! I wonder what people think when they see me holding hands and praying with a person everyone is trying to avoid. Prayer communicates care. Henry walks across the street and yells a hearty thanks.

There are three of my friends are sitting on the sidewalk by Starbucks. Martin is a guitar player and I tune his acoustic that’s missing a string. He plays slide guitar with a travel size vodka bottle and we have an instant connection. He is nostalgic about past relationships, wishing he could go back in time. “If I knew then what I know now …” He spots Dorothy, my coworker’s puppy and I am instantly old news. Crawling over to Dorothy on his hands and knees they become fast friends. There is a gentleman lying on the ground. He is the drunkest I have ever seen anybody in my life. He looks like my friend Little Rabbit, but I’m not sure. His level of intoxication has altered everything, even his physical appearance. “Is that you, Little Rabbit?” It is and he’s overcome with shame and guilt. His addiction has set his plans for housing back again. We always pray when we chat, and this time is no different. Kneeling, I ask him what he would like prayer for. I put my hand on his shoulder and tell him that God loves him. That God loved him first and that there is no shame or guilt for those who are in Christ. He grabs my shoulder and squeezes. I think he assumed we were going to pray about the demon of booze tempting him, about the right path and good choices. The presence of God and his love are so thick you could eat it with a spoon. We all need to know the hope of God’s love. Little Rabbit already knows he needs to quit drinking.

My coworker introduces me to Dante. Dante is a sweet, soft-spoken man in his 60s. He has an interesting street hustle as a self-appointed doorman. He stands in front of a restaurant and opens the door for guests. Sometimes people give him a dollar. Everyone says thank you. I have some gloves and extra shirts in my bag, and he is appreciative. Our conversation turns to God, church, and baptism. He was baptized in Atlanta by Martin Luther King Jr.’s sister. Dante was forever changed when he heard God’s voice on the phone. He was in the hospital and heard a gospel song while he was on hold. The song’s lyrics were “I will always be with you and never forget you.” Our eyes get watery sharing with each other how God has changed our lives. He was shot at seven times at point blank range, walking away unharmed. My testimony about miraculous sobriety puts us on the same level. I tell him about how much I used to play the guitar at church. Without missing a beat Dante smiles and reminds me that “even God took a rest!” Preach, sir, preach. I ask him if he wants to pray. If he wants to pray for me. He doesn’t like to pray out loud, so I babble onward and upward. We part ways with a big hug, and I am overjoyed. I thank God for friendship, food, happiness, and health!

Michael Cox

Faith in uncertainty

Faith in uncertainty

I have talked with William a few times now. He is always sitting on the sidewalk by the grocery store. He is a talker and a manic one at that. The last time we talked he shared how his sister had helped him through his mental health crisis. She quit her job at a powerful law firm in New York so she could take care of him. She helped him finish school and get stable. He gushed nonstop about the sacrificial love of his sister. He is forever grateful and proud of himself for being able to pay her back with money he has earned over the years. “She doesn’t need money, and I could never really pay her back. It feels good to contribute what I can. It’s a way to show my thankfulness.” As we part ways, he thanks me for listening to him. He lets me know that listening has the power to bring much healing to people who are hurting.

Tonight, William is sitting in his spot reading books on prayer and theology. He is excited about the mystery of communicating with God. “If we have the ability to talk with God, we should take advantage of it!” I agree and listen to him share his heart. He tells me that faith in God doesn’t mean you know everything. It means that you have peace in the uncertainty of life. The mystery of God is supernatural joy in the midst of suffering. William stands up and begins to preach. “The Bible says Jesus is a healer, not a cure!” We talk about the reality of being healed and not cured of mental illness. “I have a few bad days a month. But, compared to ten years ago I am a walking miracle!”

Our attention turns to the ten-week-old puppy my fellow street minister has brought with us. The most powerful expression of God’s love may be a miniature Dotson. The puppy is in William’s lap and we’re all smiling from ear to ear. William tells me how there are all kinds of ways to pray. “You can kneel or stand. There are prayers of praise and grief. Prayers of blessing and gratitude!” Yes, William’s prayer is a conversation with God! I ask William if he wants to pray together. A polite and refreshing “No thank you” is his response. As we say our goodbyes William shares a parting blessing. “Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times and in every way. The Lord be with all of you.” (2 Thessalonians 3:16). Thank you, William, I receive your prayer of blessing!

Michael Cox

Breakfast with the ladies

Breakfast with the ladies

I had the best time eating breakfast with formerly homeless women on Sunday morning. I showed up to the shelter with a Starbucks to-go box of caffeinated goodness. My friend Sonja brought fresh fruit and made two tasty casseroles. It was pouring down rain and we were all happy to be indoors. Chatting about the merits of flavored nondairy creamer, the conversation turned to kids. The topic being discussed was not seeing your kids grow up and being separated from your family. Connie just met her seventeen-year-old son last month for the first time. Lilly had all three of her kids taken by the state. The undercurrent of shame and regret was palpable. While mistakes had been made in the past, the power of community began to unfold. The breakfast table was becoming a platform for encouragement and hope. “Your son will let you back into his life soon enough!” “Now that you have two years of sobriety things will keep getting better.” “It’s a good thing you filed a restraining order against your husband.” Shared suffering producing gracious support.

We try to watch the football game, but no one knows how to connect the laptop to the television. Heartfelt conversations are mingled with hilarious stories of carrying and birthing children. “That epidural is no joke.” “How do you expect me to push when I am almost unconscious!” “I was so fat when I was pregnant, I tripped and got stuck in the trunk of my car!” I make a dumb joke about leaving the toilet seat up. It’s better for me to listen.

When I get home and reflect on the morning, I am reminded of the story of Ruth from the Bible. A story of tragedy, loyalty, and restoration. Women who were widows and immigrants left to fend for themselves. Through their kindness and loyalty they experience the redemption of God. The women at the breakfast, like the women in the book of Ruth, boldly decide to transform loss into life by weeping together. By caring for each other, they are being transformed into women of noble character. “She is clothed with strength and dignity, and she laughs without fear of the future. When she speaks, her words are wise, and she gives instructions with kindness.” (Proverbs 31:25-26 NLT). Breakfast really is the most important meal of the day!

Michael Cox

Yelling speeches

Yelling speeches

When I first started doing “ministry,” I always felt like I wasn’t doing anything. One Easter, surrounded by homeless youth and a cross decorated with flowers, a staff person asked me if “I had brought the word.” I thought I had, but wondered if I should have brought it differently. Maybe sharing stories and meals isn’t powerful enough. Perhaps the problem was with my presentation. Yelling seems to be the preferred way of communicating the Gospel for many of the Lord’s anointed. Maybe pastors and evangelists think God is hard of hearing. In church I often thought, “Why are you yelling at me? I already believe all of this Bible stuff.”

Walking around the streets where homeless people live, you can usually find a few people yelling. Sometimes people are yelling about God. My approach has always been to get to know people. God is relational. Through conversation the hearts of people are revealed. We talk with Ronald in the park. He tells us where some pregnant women are staying by the freeway. “They could use some guys like you to talk with. You don’t give long speeches about God.” Pastor David offers him a cigarette. “Thanks, Mr. Cigarette Saint.”

A young man and his dog are spare changing by the grocery store. He shares wild stories of travel and adventure. He was prayed for by some faith healers in Los Angeles. “Hey, I’m up for anything. I felt some things lift off me when they prayed.” He thanks us for hanging out with him and listening.

We approach three people sitting on the sidewalk in front of a busy restaurant. A young woman begins to cry as she talks with Pastor Ben. She shares how she is tired of living on the street. Through tears of fear and sorrow she tells us that spiritual warfare is real. Her favorite verses are the ones from Ephesians. “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil (Eph 6:11).” Pastor Ben prays a quiet, calm and loving prayer of protection. Her friend tells me his favorite verse is from Revelations 14, The Lamb and the 144,000—“That is some epic shit!” We take turns reading the chapter out loud to each other. We are all sitting on the ground. I look like a Little League coach that has lost his way. After we pray, they ask me if I have a Bible. I have The Backpacker Bible and three pocket-sized New Testaments. “Do you want a burgundy or black New Testament or the full meal deal?” The Bibles are all received with excitement and joy. Jack tells me his favorite verse, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So, it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8). Bible studies on the street are the best.

As we’re packing up at the end of the night, a gentleman selling Real Change newspapers walks by. We chat and give him our last pair of socks and granola bar. He’s trying to make enough money to buy a tub of rainbow sherbet. We pray for him and it’s a great end to the night. As he’s walking away, he yells “Thanks for the prayers!” I hope he got some ice cream.

We get back to the office and there’s a woman in a wheelchair, with her friend, by the front door. She’s crying and incoherently trying to figure out how to get a van cab. She uses our phone to try to make arrangements. There are no van cabs at night. We part ways and it seems like her friend is going to help her. As I walk to my car she cries for help, “Michael!” Her friend has left her, it’s 11 p.m., and she’s homeless, alone, and in a wheelchair. I push her up the hill to the bus stop. She doesn’t want to get on the bus and doesn’t want to go stay with her friend. We pray and say our goodbyes. I pray that the Word is made flesh. That the provision and protection of God materialize in practical and meaningful ways for our friends living on the street. I hope I was able to bring the Word.

Michael Cox

You’re the only person I trust

You’re the only person I trust

At first glance, the park seems quiet. I look again and notice a group of men in matching blue shirts arguing with a group of homeless people. I wonder if it’s a church group assuming people living in the park don’t know the good news of Jesus. I keep moving and run into Isaac. He’s been barred from the church across the street and is upset. “They said I was using drugs on their property. Now I can’t sleep in their shelter or eat the free breakfast.” We talk about his drug use and his desire to be clean. “I don’t want to waste anybody’s time. If I go to treatment and relapse, then that would disappoint everyone trying to help me.” I offer my sage wisdom and declare the goodness of trying. “It takes an average of seven times for people with substance abuse disorders to be free of addiction.” He believes that meth works like Ritalin did when he was a kid. His grandmother kept increasing his dosage until he left home at fourteen. “Boom keeps me focused and alert.” We talk about his family. How alcohol destroyed his parents. How funny and wise his tribal ancestors were.

The people who live in the condominiums around the park where Isaac sleeps are being confrontational, accusing him of stealing. They have been videotaping him and his friends. Lots of yelling. “They are always threating me and act like they don’t get high or drunk in their homes.” People from all lifestyles like to justify their addictions by scapegoating other addicts.  Saying things like “At least I don’t smoke crack. I don’t shoot up and I never sold myself. I just have a few glasses of chardonnay after tennis with my book club.”

Isaac remembers his prescription for a skin infection is waiting for him to pick up, but he doesn’t have the money to pay for it. “I woke up with this huge ass spider bite on my leg. Maybe it was a family of spiders having a feast.” I offer to cover the prescription cost, and he accepts. Fifty-eight dollars seems like a small price to pay for abscess-free legs. We walk back from the drugstore to his pile of belongings and hug. “Thanks Mike, you’re the only person I can trust.” I leave, hoping Isaac takes his medicine. I am fearful that his leg will get infected and need to be amputated. “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you. In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can flesh do to me?” (Psalm 56:3-4, ESV)

Michael Cox