Set free

Set free

Diane got my number and called me while I was on vacation. She’s fleeing an abusive husband and is currently living in her car. She’s interested in housing and we agree to meet when I get back into town. We pray at the end of our conversation and she weeps. She’s already meeting with “real” case managers from other agencies to work on housing. I don’t know how helpful I will be. I don’t know the available resources, and there are huge waiting lists in Seattle for low-income subsidized apartments.

A few days later, I arrive at Starbucks early and spend the time praying and reading the Bible. The music in Starbucks is super annoying this afternoon. I like Brazilian music, but this is some weird espresso top 40 roast hybrid. Diane shows up on time and is the wonderful combination of street tough, kind, and vulnerable. We talk about family, alcoholism, and God. Pulling an “enhanced bottle of soda” out of her purse, she tells me that she has been sober for various lengths of times in the past. She is currently drinking. Prophetically, Diane declares, “I have all these friends who are Christian, but they are so rigid. Jesus always seems to be about breaking the rules to care for people.” I have just been reading the story in Luke of Jesus healing a woman who has been crippled for eighteen years, and I begin to share it with Diane. The religious leaders are mad because he performs the miraculous healing on the holy day in the holy space. In the story, Jesus makes it clear that the woman’s life is important and holy. She is a daughter of Abraham — a child of God. This woman is surprised with the presence of Jesus and her life is transformed. The scripture is moving and relevant to Diane and her situation. When I am done sharing, she hits me in the arm and begins to cry.

We fill out the housing application and walk back to her car. I realize later that she doesn’t have any income and won’t be eligible for the housing program. We pray in the parking lot and she prays a prayer of protection over me. She shows me the Bible her mom gave her when she was a teenager. She thanks me for our time, and tells me that God used me to help lighten the weight of her burdens. I leave realizing what God has called me to do. I have never been a “real” case manager. I have always prayed for those in crisis and trauma. For people to be set free from their infirmities. For people to be surprised by the presence of Jesus.

“When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” (Luke 13:12 NIV).

Michael Cox

Handshakes and fear

Handshakes and fear

I have been talking with Larry and his girlfriend Karen every Monday for a few months. They are always drunk. Sitting in their own little world on the same bench, they seem to never move. I wonder how they get booze if they never get up from the bench. They have always been kind and friendly to me. “Hey Mike, you out here doing your thing!” I love to hear them talk about their childhoods. What elementary school they went to. Bus rides they took. Teachers that gave them attention. I tell Larry he would be a good teacher or coach. He is patient and loves kids. He is moved by the encouragement—his favorite high school teacher told him the same thing. He asks me if I know why his feet are numb, telling me they have been tingly for a month. He lets me know that it started after his mom died. “She was my everything.” I offer my condolences and talk about my mom’s recent passing. We talk about stress and anxiety manifesting in the form of a physical ailments. I tell him that alcohol abuse can damage your body, affecting blood flow, organ function, etc. I share that the Holy Spirit sometimes speaks to us as a warm presence in our body. His tingly feet could be the Holy Ghost speaking to him! I ask if I can pray for him. He stretches out his hand and grips mine. It’s not a half-hearted hand grab. He is holding on for dear life. We pray and he shakes my hand again. I offer to take him to the hospital and give him my card. I hope he gets sober. I hope he doesn’t die from drinking himself to death. Hold Larry, God. “I cling to you; your right hand upholds me.” (Psalm 63:8, NIV).

Michael Cox

The body of Christ

The body of Christ

Sally, Jerry, and Maggie are on the sidewalk sleeping. It’s 10 p.m. and a beautiful, quiet night. They tell us things have calmed down since the meth users have left. Jerry is partially deaf from serving in the military. Multiple tours of duty overseas have left their mark. He can read lips and tells me how he escaped from prison eight years ago. I smile, knowing he is full of beans. It’s fun to indulge him, so I do. “Oh, wow, you really just walked out of prison—what an adventure!” As we talk, he is thrown into a violent seizure. His friends explain his history with epilepsy, and care for him by laying their bodies under him so he doesn’t get hurt. After five minutes, his seizure stops, and he’s worn out. I share how my son had epilepsy and Jerry’s face brightens. “Get your son a service dog.” “I did.” “What kind?” “Australian Shepherd.” Yay for dogs! Jerry puts on a bike helmet and we all fall silent. He tells us that if he hits his head again it will be fatal. It is so quiet you can hear the cockroaches tromping up the sidewalk. I begin to nod in affirmative comfort when Jerry bursts out laughing, “I’m kidding, you need to laugh; you all need to lighten up!” I howl and then he shushes me with his finger over his mouth.

I talk with Maggie who is drinking a beer, and has been clean from crack for eighteen months. She tells me she quit when she got married. Maggie asks for prayer. My coworker lays hands on Jerry’s head. We all bow our heads. Friends from the street come by on their bikes and say hi. With handshakes and hugs, I am welcomed and introduced! Nice to meet you too. You can’t survive without the healing power of community and relationships. Oh, the body of Christ. “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.” (1 Corinthians 12:12, ESV)

Michael Cox

Big Boss Sovereign

Big Boss Sovereign

I see my friend Alice sitting on a park bench. She is in deep conversation with a homeless man I have not met yet. I feel like I am interrupting, so I give them some space and talk with a group sitting nearby. After a few minutes, I make eye contact with Alice and am invited into their conversation. Alice has a black eye and a swollen lip. I have been praying for her leadership role in the homeless community. She wants to advocate for people on the streets and is active in the Lutheran church. She introduces me to her friend. “Michael helps people and does really good things.” I introduce myself and meet Kenny. After water and socks are distributed, the conversation turns to God. Kenny quickly pegs me as a Christian, takes a sip of beer, and begins to praise the Lord. “I am so thankful that I know the Lord. I am backsliding, but tomorrow I am going to turn it around!” Kenny explains how he grew up Baptist and Methodist. How he was filled with the Holy Ghost in his twenties and became Pentecostal. How he loves the Bible and the Word of God. I give him and Alice a Bible from my backpack. Emotionally, Kenny recites the first chapter of John from memory. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made (John 1:1-3).” “Oh, yes!” declares Kenny, “I love God. He is the Big Boss Sovereign!” I am amazed at his faith and listen as he shares scripture from the Psalms and the book of James. As we continue talking, Alice tells me that Kenny’s brother died yesterday. Kenny begins to sob, “He was hit by a car and died of an infection in the hospital.” James 5:13 comes to mind—­­­“Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray.” As I pray for Kenny, the presence of God begins to comfort and soothe his aching heart. Jesus walks with us through our suffering, carrying our burdens and healing our broken hearts. The death and violence that Alice and Kenny experience on the street cannot separate them from the love of God. Jesus really is the Big Boss Sovereign.

Michael Cox

Practicing perseverance

Practicing perseverance

I walk around until I see somebody who might need survival items. The first person takes a water and then hands it back to me. “No thanks I’m good.” It seems strange, but whatever. It is not as if I am running for Mr. Popularity. The second person I approach yells at me, “I don’t take stuff from white people.” Fair enough. Neither do I. I am starting to get discouraged. I see a man passed out on the sidewalk with an empty bottle of booze by his head. I check to see if he is ok. He yells at me and is apparently “All good.” I walk to the park and take a seat. I haven’t been rejected this much since high school. Maybe I need to pray more. Maybe God is keeping me out of harm’s way. Maybe I need to read the Word so I have some truth to offer people.

I open up my Bible app to the verse of the day. “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me — put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you (Philippians 4:9 NIV).” Huh, will I have the peace of God if I talk to people about Jesus? I sit down again across from a church that is having a free lunch. It’s well attended, and there is a medical van out front. Am I supposed to walk between the church and van with water and  socks? Maybe I should juggle or wear a cute outfit? I sit and pray, feeling like I did at all of my eighth grade dances. Will anyone dance with me? I get up and try again. I pass out some water and socks. No one wants to talk, a few people smile. The next three people don’t want to talk to me and seem offended that I even approached them. I decide to go through the park one more time. I walk up to a woman who points at her water bottle and “doesn’t need anything.” I see a group of folks I know and feel like I might be cool for a minute. I say hi, feeling less like a human and more like a handcart loaded with Kirkland brand water. Gary is friendly and tells me someone shaved his beard while he was sleeping. He is kidding and I am slow on the uptake. He thanks me and I walk back to the car.

 As I am leaving the park, I see a man rocking back in forth quietly under a tree. He was the first person I saw when I entered the park and I did not talk to him. I am not going to avoid him now. What do I have to lose? It has been one of the most awkward outreach experiences of my life. I approach cautiously as he seems disturbed and fragile. I offer water and socks. He smiles, and says, “Yes, that would be great.” We chat about the weather and I point out what a nice shady tree he has found to sit under. “You can’t be crabby sitting under a crab tree.” I laugh hard and tell my new friend he has made my day. He says, “You better shake my hand!” Of course! Put the love of Jesus into practice! Don’t be crabby! “Pray in the Spirit at all times and on every occasion. Stay alert and be persistent in your prayers for all believers everywhere (Ephesians 6:18 NLT).”

Michael Cox

Two double pump mochas

Two double pump mochas

I head off to the street with a backpack filled with water, socks, and granola bars. The first person I stop to talk with has no interest in me, or my backpack. If looks could kill I would be cremated ashes scattered over the sea of I hate you. Undeterred, I walk across the street. There I see two of my favorite things. Starbucks and homeless people. I have recently received a twenty-five dollar gift card to the coffee monster and am itching to use it. I introduce myself to Joe and David and we become fast friends. We know some of the same people and agree that sweeping homeless camps is unhelpful. They tell me how all of their clothes and belongings are now in a King County storage facility somewhere as a result of their camp being swept. “They come in with police and a giant dump truck. They give you twenty-six minutes to leave.” The conversation moves toward future hopes and goals. We talk about David’s family history of suicide and the street friends he has lost. David tells me that what I am doing is a good witness to the love of Christ. I am encouraged, especially after my previous exchange up the street. The kind words of homeless friends always refresh my soul. The sweetness of Christ dwelling among us. “Hey, I have a Starbucks gift card. Do you guys want anything?” Without hesitation, “Two double pump mochas please.” We go inside. Starbucks is warm and friendly. I am fond of the staff here in particular. They seem to know the homeless customers by name and treat them like regular people. We get our coffee and arrange to meet tomorrow. Joe wants to get into housing and needs I.D. I always loved getting Starbucks gift cards when I was a mail carrier. It is fun to bless people living on the streets with glamorous coffee. Sweet treats always lead to better conversations and practical case management. “How sweet your words taste to me; they are sweeter than honey (Psalm 119:103 NLT).”

Michael Cox

One ice pack, Aspirin, and chocolate milk

One ice pack, Aspirin, and chocolate milk

I met Carole in front of a nightclub on Broadway. An elderly woman in a walker/wheelchair with a hugely swollen black eye. “I was punched in the face by a man on the bus. The driver didn’t do anything.” She noticed the priest collar my outreach partner was wearing and asked, “Are you Catholic, Lutheran, or Presbyterian?” Whenever someone asks about faith matters, I assume faith matters.

”Can I pray for you?” I ask as I kneel down with my bad back, arthritic knee, and seemingly endless supply of socks, water, and granola bars. “Yes, please,” Carole says with all the faith and expectation of a long-suffering disciple of Christ. The sweetest part of praying for a homeless woman in her sixties with a black eye, is when she prays for me. “Thank you, Lord, for sending Michael, for your comfort and provision. Bless him and care for him.” Our time ends as I give her an ice pack and an Aspirin. “Hey!” she yells as I am walking away, “Michael means he who is like God!” I yell back, “Try telling that to my wife!”

I see Carole two days later. With open hands, she folds mine in to hers, closes her eyes and seems to pray silently. We make small talk about the weather and how much her eye must hurt. “Do you have any chocolate milk?” she asks with all the hope and charm of a child. “If I find some, I will be back,” I say. Rite Aid up the street has a glorious selection of Darigold beverages for $1.89, one of them being chocolate milk. I return with the holy nectar and Carole is elated. “It feels so good in my tummy!”

“If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:15-17, ESV).

Michael Cox