The first time I met Patricia she was throwing a garbage can at some construction workers. They had thrown her stuff away and she was not going to let that happen. She told me that she had housing but hated it. “It might as well be county jail. You can’t have visitors in your room and are required to attend meetings. It’s not a home.” The second time I talked with Patricia, the Vicar from the Episcopal church was walking by. Apparently, Patricia damaged the Vicars car. “I’m really sorry about what I did to your car. I’m better now and back on my meds.” Every time I talk with Patricia, she gets mad and then calms down. Extreme outbursts may be her personality strength and her primary method of survival.
This morning I am with a group of public health nurses in front of the library. The nurses are offering hepatitis vaccinations and flu shots. I introduce my homeless friends to the nurses and it’s a big success. The coronavirus has made everyone interested in health care. My friend Patricia sees me and is mad. She can’t get any clothes from the church clothing bank. Her clothes are wet, and she isn’t having it. “I am going to break a window and get some clothes. Why don’t you use your pastoral, collar authority and make some calls?” I listen and agree with most of what she is saying. I explain how the church didn’t want to close, how they were overwhelmed by increased demand and staffing shortages. Patricia understands why the elderly church volunteers had to take a break. “They don’t want to get sick and die helping us. I don’t blame them.”
The feeding program will open tomorrow along with the clothing room. No windows were broken, and Patricia continues to survive with her strengths. A church group is handing out breakfast and Patricia is mad. Yelling, “The church steals from people and oppresses the poor.” Patricia’s friend threatens to punch her for hassling the church people. Extreme outbursts follow, “I will put hands on you. I don’t give a crap.”
Patricia tells me that she is polytheistic and believes Mary was raped by the Holy Spirit. We discuss theology and I am interested in her views. I have never heard that the immaculate conception wasn’t consensual. The Bible story portrays Mary as brave and courageous while Joseph is scared. Patricia wants to know why I am not offended by the idea of rape and the nativity. I tell her that I would rather have a conversation than argue over the virgin birth. She looks bewildered and peaceful. She tells me that she loves me and walks across the street to yell at her friend who previously threatened her. I love you too Patricia. “Heart–shattered lives ready for love don’t for a moment escape God’s notice (Isaiah 51:17).” Michael Cox
The first week of street ministry with social distancing was challenging. How do you minister to people on the street and avoid contact with people? Monday evening, I went to Pike Place Market. There were a few shop vendors open for business. Some were closing their booths and looking quite worried. The only people downtown were homeless people. One of the community dinners was passing out to-go boxes, so that’s where I went. I talked with my friend Carl who was barefoot. He gave his sandals to a friend and said, “I have another pair of sandals in my backpack!” His bare feet reminded me that homeless people have big hearts and lots to worry about. I prayed with Micah, who asked for a closer relationship with Jesus. “I need help. I need to be grounded. Being homeless is like being in a constant war for survival.” His mental health issues seem to make him forget that he knows me.
Tuesday, we served one hundred meals on the street without congregating. We had worship music in the parking lot. Larry was mad that we didn’t have cream and sugar for the coffee. He yelled, “This is bullshit!” and threw his coffee in the street. He’s always kind of cranky. I brought fifteen leftovers to a tiny house village. Renee said that she and her husband could split one. People on the street survive by sharing.
On Wednesday, everything was closed. Where can homeless people wash their hands and go to the bathroom? Matthew told me he went to the hospital to wash up. Mental health effects physical and spiritual health. Terry thinks he is immune to the coronavirus because he only has six percent human DNA. “Alien life forms aren’t at risk in a pandemic.” The part time and seasonal work that homeless people do has all ended. People can’t charge their phones because the library is closed.
Thursday, one of the homeless encampments I visit had a big sign up that said Wash Your Hands. We still brought pizza and I was accused of being a cop. I met a transgender woman who asked me if I was praying for us. We talked about the love of Christ shining on the good and the bad. She shared how she survived threats of murder while sleeping in her car. Being born intersexed contributed to her addiction. She told me how she was all alone one day and a person out of nowhere offered to help her get on suboxone to treat her dependence on opioids. “It was like an angel of the Lord came and saved me. That’s how I know God is real!”
Friday, I prayed online and with my coworkers. I walked to two hospitals and prayed. I walked to a chapel at the University and prayed there as well. Please pray for people living on the streets. “Therefore let all the faithful pray to you while you may be found; surely the rising of the mighty waters will not reach them (Psalms 32:6 NIV).” Michael Cox
My boss told me I needed to start wearing a clerical collar. I had been wondering about the future of my outreach outfit and took our conversation as a sign. I ordered three clergy shirts and hit the streets. The reaction has been fascinating. Overall, the collar seems to communicate that prayer is available. People living in tents by the freeway have asked me to pray against demonic activity in their camp. “Thank you for your time, Father. Thanks for being here!” is the most common response. The idea that the church would show up on the street seems to rattle everyone’s theological cage. “What about the role of laity in the church? What about the priesthood of all believers?” “Are you a real pastor?” “Thanks for showing up!”
People living on the street understand what the collar means. They understand that I’m not a case manager. I’m not a city worker tracking treatment outcomes. I’m not a cop. They can look out of their tent or up from the sidewalk and ask, “What church are you from?” The collar is an invitation to participate in the kingdom of God.
Monday night I prayed with four people. Alex wanted healing prayer for his back. “It feels better. Thanks for praying, Father!” Terrance grabbed my hand and yelled through a mouth full of booze, “Bless me, pastor!” Jerry and I prayed for healing, finances, and peace on the steps of the bookstore. Donnie told me to pray as I felt led.
Donnie is someone I have known for twenty years. I met him when he was a kid. He is in his thirties now and in rough shape. He sleeps in the park often with no shoes. Tonight is the first time he has seen me in the collar. He is sitting in a parking lot staring obsessively at a five-dollar bill. I offer greetings and salutations and he does the same. He looks at my collar and grins from ear to ear. “Very nice, very nice.” I ask him what he thinks of my new look. “I approve, I approve, very good!” Thank Donnie! “You are coming to Christ, who is the living cornerstone of God’s temple. He was rejected by people, but he was chosen by God for great honor ( 1 Peter 2:4, NLT).” — Michael Cox
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