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

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