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

Resurrection and toast

Resurrection and toast

It was pouring down rain and no one wanted to talk to me. There is a lot to deal with living in a tent on a church parking lot. How long will it rain? When will my stuff dry out? Why is Reverend Michael standing here with a toaster? The residents had mentioned that a toaster would be a nice addition to their kitchen supplies. “We always get day old bagels and bread donated. It would be better if they were toasted.” The toaster, six loaves of fresh bread, Country Crock spread, and my mostly charming personality help to brighten a wet and dreary day. However, bad weather is stressful for the homeless community. The current need is always the most pressing. Standing in awkward early morning silence, trying to force conversation, I finish my toast and say my goodbyes. The campers are preoccupied with tarps and puddle management. “Thanks for the toast, Mike­­. Thanks for being nice to us, one love!” I walk away feeling like an intruder and an imposter. I am not homeless, and can keep all of my belongings safe and dry. I can also make toast anytime I want. As my self-loathing begins to spin out of control, I can hear camp resurrection take place. Campers yelling, “Anybody want toast? Oh, we have toast — I’ll take some toast!” Praise the Lord!

Manna from heaven, the bread of angels, is not hidden from those who receive it. Jesus says “I am the bread of life: whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst (John 6:35, ESV).” I show up in the rain with a toaster! We can all learn to receive the grace of God. Thanks for being nice to me. For receiving me and my toast!

Michael Cox

Bathing in the spray park

Bathing in the spray park

It’s ten in the morning and Fred is shirtless, bathing in the spray park. Surrounded by toddlers in swim diapers and soccer dads, no one seems bothered by a homeless man’s shampoo horns. It’s easy to pretend homeless people don’t exist.

I walk over and Fred recognizes me. I sit down, complain about my back, and we talk for an hour. He talks with me as if we have been friends for years. This is our first conversation. He has been traveling around the state and got new shoes from a Baptist church in Everett. His converse low tops didn’t have laces and they were messing with his feet. “People started staring on the bus, so I kept moving from seat to seat. I go to the Emergency room to get my brain fixed. I stay in the park because I like to be outside with God.” After talking about his favorite lakes to fish in, he asks me about my health. “Are you disabled?” I have a strained back muscle and the expression on my face reveals that I am in pain. “How is your knee?” Fred remembers from the beginning of our conversation that I had knee surgery a few years ago. He talks about his dad’s knee problems from working manual labor jobs. We bond and reflect over memories of hard work and Motrin.

We were having a real conversation and listening to each other, as people dependent on God and on the mercy of strangers. The vulnerability I experienced by being physically weak due to injury was profoundly humbling. The way Fred and the homeless community continue to welcome the awkward, hobbled Reverend fulfills the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (James 2:8, ESV). If we do that, we are doing well. Well done, Fred. “God has chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the Kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him” (James 2:5, ESV).

Michael Cox

Food bank consistency

Food bank consistency

I have been taking folks from a homeless camp to the food bank. It is close enough by bus, but quite a struggle if you’re elderly, homeless, and disabled. Tonya has a severe disability that causes her tremendous pain. Jasmine has a disability that requires a cane. We chat about ending up homeless while working two jobs. We pull up to the food bank and I offer to stand in line and help carry the groceries. Tonya and Jasmine are relieved. They will be able to get more food and it’s nice not to have to ask for assistance. We talk about a group of elderly women who go to food banks, cut in line, and then try to resell food. Seems like a Seinfeld episode—but it’s true! While in line, Tonya and Jasmine talk about how awful it is when Christians speak in tongues and pray for their healing. “This one guy starts babbling about how my leg is going to grow two inches.” I share my experiences with high-octane healing church services. We talk about the mystery of healing and statements like “God’s not sick, so you’re not sick.” We talk about how God’s care for the condition of the heart more than appearances. I tell Tonya that I can see the Spirit of God in her, and that her attitude is a sign of great faith. She chokes up, “Thanks, I didn’t think anyone noticed I knew the Lord.”

We shop for groceries. Canned food is heavy. By the time we’re done, I have four giant bags of groceries and three watermelons. Tonya and Jasmine are giddy. They have enough food for the next week. I make the first trip to my car and come back for the giant watermelons. As I am picking up one of the melons, another woman comes over and grabs one. “Oh, excuse me, that’s my watermelon,” Tonya says graciously. The woman doesn’t respond. Are we being victimized by the older lady food bank mafia? Smiling, the stranger helps me carry the last melon to my car! The food bank community is amazing!

Back at camp, I help carry the food bank booty back to the residents’ tents. Tonya apologizes for the mess and says she is still decorating. It’s maybe the sweetest morning I have ever had. Helping two elderly, homeless women with disabilities go from a tent encampment go to the food bank. “When you enter a town and are received, eat what they set before you, heal anyone who is sick, and tell them, ‘God’s kingdom is right on your doorstep’” (Luke 10:8-9,The Message).

Michael Cox

Crying “Nobody cares”

Crying “Nobody cares”

I have talked with Gary three times in the park where he sleeps. He is always upset and anxious. He does not have a phone and is unable to talk with his kid. Everyone steals his stuff. He is frustrated about his stolen art supplies. He stays with the group that steals from him because it is safer than being alone on the street. He became homeless after he lost his job taking care of his terminally ill mother. With tears in his eyes Gary laments, “Everyone knows where to sleep except me.” He is exhausted and overwhelmed.

I have no idea what to do or say to Gary. Should I buy him art supplies? Should I tell him God has plans to prosper him, plans for welfare and not evil, to give him a future and a hope (Jeremiah 29:17)? I offer a dumb observation about how the police do not seem to prioritize homeless camp sweeps. With more crying, Gary mutters, “We are not at the top of anybody’s priority list. Everyone thinks we are murderers and rapists.” I stand in awkward silence hoping for some solution for Gary’s suffering to appear. He thanks me for listening and talking to him, for the PB&Js and granola bars. I thank him for sharing his story and ask if he wants me to pray for him. He politely suggests I pray for him before I go to sleep.

I am praying for Gary and his anxiety. “Therefore, I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing” (Matthew 5:25, ESV). Easier said than done. Praying life over Gary.

Michael Cox