The community dinner church has many strengths. Adaptability defines the Spirit-Filled mobile meal. During these times of social distancing and quarantine we are more pared-down than usual. Serving warm meals in to-go boxes from the back of my car sometimes feels transactional. I miss gathering around tables and sharing the Christ story. I don’t miss washing all the table linens. Pouring cups of coffee in the parking lot has become my main task. Sometimes the spout gets stuck which gives me more time to make corny small talk with under-caffeinated homeless people. It has taken Larry six weeks to accept the fact that I really don’t have any cream and sugar.
Last week a woman was pushing her newborn in a stroller past my one-beverage barista station. I offered food and coffee which she happily accepted. Another woman with a newborn walking by offered to give her a box of diapers and wipes. It seemed like a whirlwind of blessing was in our midst. While she is waiting for the bus, I encourage her to take some more food for later. My friend Ben noticed she was limping and offered to pray for her. She cries and bows her head saying, “I was wondering why I got off at this bus stop.” She asks for prayer for her back and her boyfriend, who is struggling with addiction. We pray and the healing presence of God fills the street, turning the bus shelter into the grandest of cathedrals. She cries some more, and I offer up some church clichés about divine appointments and sacred space. My churchy lingo resonates with her because God knows how to have church.
Later that night my friend Melinda comes by and says she needs to thank me. She says her hip feels better and that she knows I did a sneak attack prayer on her last week. “I woke up the next day and my hip felt great. I wondered why you walked all the way up the alley just to ask how my hip was feeling!” She says she is a heathen atheist. I tell her that God loves her and that I am considered a heathen in most circles as well. We pray for her tax issues and hopes for employment. “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom (2 Corinthians 3:17 NRSV).”
My buddy Chris is always walking around barefoot. Inevitably, someone asks him if he needs socks or shoes. People usually ask in horror, as if he is unaware that his feet are naked on the nasty downtown pavement. I imagine him looking at his feet in shocked surprise and answering, “Holy guacamole, why am I barefoot?” When he isn’t barefoot, he likes to wear sandals. They are made of rope and look like something from ancient Mesopotamia. I looked them up on Amazon and they retail for thirty-eight dollars.
Two of my formerly homeless friends have died this week from the coronavirus. I open our Community Dinner with a solemn prayer of thanksgiving for life. Two guys are preparing to fight in the parking lot and quickly de-escalate. Chris strolls up, and he is barefoot. Several Dinner Church guests ask him the usual questions. Aren’t your feet cold? Don’t they hurt? He is smiley and tells them that his feet are getting nice and hard for summer. I ask him if we can light a match on the bottom of his soles. He laughs and gets another cup of coffee, telling me how he gave his sandals to someone who needed them! While we chat, another fight breaks out in the parking lot. I am able to redirect the “tough guy” to the bus stop. Peace prevails.
Chris and his biblical feet are quite thought provoking. I am reminded of the armor of God from Ephesians 6. “Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace (Ephesians 6:14-15 ESV).” We are praying for peace and life in this time of death and sickness. Hopefully, I’m as prepared as my buddy Chris!
I met Amanda a few weeks ago at the Community Dinner. She was getting over food poisoning and politely declined the meal. The next week we talk, and she’s feeling much better. It’s Holy Week and our conversation is about the death and resurrection of Christ, who “Being found in human form … humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:8).” She refers to me as “Father” because of my collar and thinks I’m offended when I tell her that I’m a reverend. I’m not offended, and we continue to talk. She tells me I should try reading the Gnostic gospels of Mary and Thomas. Amanda believes Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. Again, she worries I might be offended—this time with her theology. Instead, I just listen. Our conversation is delightful. Amanda shares about her abusive ex -boyfriend. He was arrested and is now in prison. She can finally leave the women’s shelter and go back home!
Amanda asks me for prayer but doesn’t want me to pray with her. She says she doesn’t have the experience of intimacy with God other people seem to have. I tell her about Jesus being God in human form and how we can pray to him. How hope is a person and his name is Jesus. I encourage her to read the Psalms. She smiles and says, “I love Psalm 116.” I read it out loud and pray for her. She tells me how cathartic it was to talk to me, another human. I hope she realizes she can talk to God. Thank you, Jesus, for loving humans through other humans. For using us to reveal your power and glory. “Who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. (Philippians 2:6–7).”
What if poverty made life embarrassing, inconvenient, and dangerous? My friend Donna knows the answer to this question. Sitting on the sidewalk eating pasta and salad, we chat about the weather and our dogs. Because of social distancing and business closures, downtown is quiet. The street feels like our living room, familiar and intimate. Donna likes the meal and thanks me profusely. She’s an artist and gives me one of her paintings in appreciation. She tells me a few times that she’s having female problems. It takes me a while to realize that she is talking about menstruation. After an hour of eating and chatting, she provides me with gracious clarity, “Outreach workers hardly ever have tampons and it’s embarrassing to ask.” We arrange to meet at the drug store in two hours.
Later that night, Donna, her dog, and her boyfriend are in front of Rite Aid. A friend of mine has given me some money to help people in need. I also have a pair of work boots in my car that I promised her boyfriend a few months ago. He goes to my car with the dog and my co-worker Ben. Donna and I go to the feminine hygiene section. As we look for tampons, Donna tells me all about her fear of being murdered. She’s involved in prostitution and believes she’s being followed by a drug cartel. She regrets talking to the police and worries she will disappear like her friend. She’s pretty frenzied, and I have no idea how to respond. I offer to help her talk with the police if she feels threatened or connect her to a shelter that helps women fleeing abuse. She knows all the resources and doesn’t trust them. After she picks the cheapest box of tampons, we pray. We bow our heads and I let a third-level-open-heaven prayer of protection loose. We pray against paranoia and violence. We thank God that nothing can separate us from his love. We have church in Rite Aid! She thanks me for the prayer and tells me that she prays all the time for everything. We hug and I think God will protect us from the coronavirus. The Rite Aid staff are irritated and are trying to close the store. I ask Donna if she wants a Snickers bar. They are two for three dollars, and they’re the jumbo size! She’s confused at the offer of candy and says thanks. I guess I’m trying to make buying tampons fun. We meet up with her family out in front of the store and Donna asks me if I want one of the Snickers bars. “Let joy be your continual feast. Make your life a prayer. And in the midst of everything be always giving thanks, for this is God’s perfect plan for you in Christ Jesus (I Thessalonians 6:16-18, TPT).”
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