The Twenty Second of April

The early morning sun lasers through closed blinds. I am awake and alive––thank you God! I get dressed quickly, skipping the shower, skipping the mirror––my hair is fine, it’s fine!––skipping breakfast, skipping everything because I’m ready to go, ready to get out, excited to see people. Ready to see friends. 

I call Leon. “Leon, I have too much to do today, would you like to do it all with me? Yes, he says, I’ll roll with you. Leon spent years homeless, has only recently gotten off the streets. So he knows what’s up. I pick him up and we go visit Harley. For about 48 hours this past weekend I thought Harley was dead. We knock on Harley’s door. He answers. He’s not wearing a shirt. A tube dangles from his stomach. His throat is swollen from the cancer he refuses to treat. His skin is greying, and I feel that I should rescue this man from himself––this Harley who spent years living in the woods, making candles, laughing with me, refusing to wear pants even on the coldest days because he said it hurt his knees––but I know I can’t rescue him. I know he’s made up his mind. He’s dying. It’s over. 

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"I want to die with all my parts" he says, and Leon laughs. I don’t really get the joke, though, so I just stand in the doorway and look at the cancer in his throat––and I swear I see it spread, the little cancerous particles move from his throat into his head, expanding, hardening, establishing cancerous colonies, cities, taking over his body. I know that one day I will arrive at Harley’s apartment on 7th Street and he will not answer the door, and I will smell something I should not smell––the smell of blood having stopped flowing, of skin sinking. I expect this to happen soon. 

Before I leave, I pray for Harley. Leon and Harley bow their heads, and I realize I have no idea what to say to God. I stammer through words. I am praying for healing, praying for God’s will, praying for everything I can think of. Give him peace, God, I say, establish your presence in this place, I say, because Harley has strange beliefs about God. We have had a million discussions about God, and still the beliefs are strange. So I pray for those to go away, fly away, and for the truth of Jesus to establish itself in Harley’s heart.

Next Leon and I go to Regina’s room. Regina lives in an old hotel that is falling apart. 

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The photographs look bad, but they don’t capture the reality of Regina’s home. Mold crawls along the walls, emitting an odor that crawls into your mouth and establishes itself in your throat, and then you begin to cough, and cough, and you feel like you may be dying, like you may have come into contact with some sort of plague. There is no running water. Regina has a bucket. A bucket. She takes her bucket outside and fills it up with water and, yes, now she can use the bathroom. Her apartment is worse than sleeping in a tent. Worse than homelessness. It is killing her. The mold, the odor, the black plague that is no doubt hiding in the walls, the asbestos, the whatever else that is surely lurking in her room, waiting to attack her. 

"Let’s go," Leon and I say to Regina. So we go. We are in the car, we are riding, talking, doing what friends do. 

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Together we visit several other people. I watch as Leon and Regina minister to each other and to the people we meet with. They encourage people, lift them up, offer to pray for them. It’s beautiful. We visit a tent community in the woods. We visit friends on State line. We visit Central Mall and my laughter echoes through the entire length of the mall as I watch Leon and Regina sit in the massage chairs.

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Leon keeps telling the chair to stop messing with his booty. He’s saying this out loud, and I cannot stop laughing. His entire belly is shaking, his eyes popping out of his head, and he’s saying whoo, whoo, whoo, leave the booty alone! Regina just smiles. A big smile. A beautiful smile. I should marry this chair, she laughs. She’s had men problems. Lots of men problems, and this chair, she says, will be nice to her, massage her every night. Everyone is laughing. We are always laughing. I love these people. They are my best friends.

We eat lunch with my family––my mom, nieces, nephew, and my wife and two little girls. We eat chicken. Regina is done with her food before Leon and I have even started. It’s awesome. We get cookies. We walk around the mall. We do whatever. 

And then it’s over. Leon and I drop Regina off at her room. I drop Leon off. And I am driving home, the clock not yet at 1:30, and all I can do is thank Jesus for community, for His presence, for His promises, and beg Him to establish Himself in the lives at the camps, on the streets, wandering, waiting for what’s next.

Eleven Years Ago at the Broken Hotel

It’s 2003. I am a brand new believer. I feel the electricity of faith buzzing through my veins. It’s a stuffy summer afternoon in a small baptist church. The preacher approaches the podium. 

"A homeless man just called," the preacher says. "He needs help. If you’d like to help, come see me."

Before I realize what I’m doing, I’m standing near the front of the sanctuary speaking with the pastor. “I’ll go,” I say. I am ill prepared. I have not yet memorized the correct scriptures. I am unsure of how it all works, but I believe! I believe so I go because I’m hoping––I am not sure, but I’m hoping!––that whatever is happening inside of me will manifest itself purely, coherently. 

"He’s in a hotel across town," the preacher says. He hands me the room number and name of the man. In a daze, I walk out of the church into the parking lot. The world becomes a blur, white noise I am somehow floating through. I keep telling myself to turn around, to go back into the sanctuary and grab an older man, someone who understands how this all works. 

I turn the car stereo as loud as it will go and roll down the windows as I move down the interstate. I am singing a Chris Tomlin song, attempting to memorize the lyrics thinking  maybe I could give the lyrics to this homeless man. I have never even met a homeless man! EVER! What do you say to a man without a home? I mean, i’ve seen them on the television, and they are strung out, their lips cracked and bleeding, needles emerging from their arms, and they are dangerous! Probably carrying knives. A loaded gun, possibly. You never know. I am in danger. I should call the cops. This man is going to kill me. I am being unwise!

Calm down, I tell myself. I pray. It’s more of a whine. God, do something, okay? Okay? Good. I have no idea. Okay? So just go ahead and be with the man, and when I get there, you know, just do something. Okay?

I pull into the parking lot of the dilapidated hotel. There’s something happening in my chest, a loud pounding, and I momentarily wonder if I’m having a heart-attack. At 21 years old? Oh no. I’m dying. Wait. No, I’m okay, I’m okay. I’m just nervous. I laugh. I slap my steering wheel and inhale deeply. Here I go. I’m going, God. I’m going.

The motel has a smell, an odor of stagnate things, unmoving. Walking down the sidewalk, the single window to each room becomes something like a photograph into a world I did not know existed––a world of brokenness, of alcoholism, drugs, prostitution, empty eyes and lifeless movements. Up ahead I see a group of well-dressed men standing outside a room. They look out of place. As I approach, I realize it’s the room of the homeless man. The men in suits are from my church.

Oh, this will be good! This man, whoever he is, whatever his problems are, no matter how big, how wide, how deep––we will share with him some news that is bigger! Wider! Deeper! Soon this homeless man will be drowning in a love he never thought possible! 

One of the men in suits nods at me and smiles. I stand beside him and look into the room where several other men in suits are standing. The homeless man is sitting on the bed with his head in his hands. His back shakes rhythmically as tears drip through his fingers. He’s broke. He’s literally broke. I hear the men in suits say something, but it doesn’t sound right. I am not hearing correctly. 

Crushed beer cans are strewn across the room. Cigarette butts lay scattered across the decaying bedside table. What’s that smell? Marijuana? I think so, but I’m not sure. 

But the man is sobbing. He’s asking for help. He’s begging for help. We need to hug him. Let’s all huddle around and hug him. Let’s pray for him. I look at the men in suits. They are talking again.

"We can’t help until you clean up," I hear a man say. Something in my spirit says no, that’s not right, is it? I am new at this, so what do I know? But Jesus––isn’t Jesus the one that changes people? Shouldn’t we be telling him about the Jesus that resurrects lives? That heals brokenness? Shouldn’t we mention Jesus?

We don’t mention Jesus. We lay out some conditions. You do that, the men in suits say, and we will do this. You get better, and we will help you. Get off the drugs, and we will spend time with you. Get off the alcohol, and we will invite you into our lives. 

Eleven years later and I still wonder about that homeless man. I’d like to give him a hug and tell him Jesus loves him.

Laughter at Golden Corral

They haven’t eaten in a while. Where do you want to go? Golden Corral, they say. Of course! Golden Corral is the restaurant choice of the streets. So we are at Golden Corral and we are laughing. Really laughing because he piles so much food on his plate––mountains of it! heaps of it! hilarious amounts of it! We wonder––how much food can you pile on one plate? We laugh about this. People are starring but we don’t mind. It becomes a contest. Who can pile their food the highest? It will be the official Golden Corral contest. We will have medals made. Take photographs. We are laughing like children, just a couple of friends acting foolish. And that’s the beauty of ministry––when it is a manifestation of your relationship with the Lord, it looks a lot like friends acting foolish, friends having a good time, very natural and organic. We don’t need systems or programs! We don’t need budgets! We’ve got each other and Golden Corral and laughter and Jesus is alive.

Donald’s McDonald UPDATE

Last week I posted a story about my friend Donald. Donald is homeless and has lived in the woods for most of his life. When I take him out to eat, I tell him he can choose to go anywhere––ANYWHERE! And he always only wants McDonald’s. Says it’s his favorite. 

So I thought it would be cool to start gathering McDonald’s gift cards for Donald. He didn’t ask me for the gift cards. He’s never asked me for anything––even though I constantly ask him what he needs. “I’m good,” he likes to say.

After about a week of gathering these McDonald’s gift cards from generous folks, I have 25 gift cards. And more coming.

When I get to about 50, I am going to carry the gift cards out to Donald’s camp and film his reaction. He will probably hate the camera, but he loves me (and I love him!) and he will be so pumped about the gift cards he may not notice.

I love this type of stuff. Such simple ministry. Loving people. Surprising them. All of it so relational and good. 

The Wall

On the state line of Texas and Arkansas, in and abandoned lot between a fast food restaurant and gas station, we are trying to figure things out.

"You need a hotel?" I ask. Yeah, the girl says. When I see girls on the street, I’m always trying to figure out how to get them off. "What about the dog?" Cheap hotels rarely allow dogs, unless you pay a surcharge. So we are trying to figure this out, because the girl doesn’t want to give up the dog, even if it means being on the street.

"Put it in your bag," a drunk man says. The one wearing all black in the photograph. "I’m serious," he says, waiving his beer around. "Unzip your bag, put the dog in, hush hush little puppy, and you’re in."

We look at him. Is he serious? Yes, we can see, he is serious. “No, wait, wait, this, do this––tie him to this tree.” We look around for a tree. There is no tree. The only tree is one hundred yards away, but he’s not pointing at that tree. “You tie him to this tree, check in the hotel, get yourselves nice and situated, maybe a bath, enjoy your time away from the pup, then come back out here––I’ll watch pup while you’re gone––and bring pup inside the hotel room––hush hush little pup––and everyone is happy.”

None of us has words for this man, who is being completely serious, with his staggering stance, his second (or third?) forty ounce in his hand, his speech so terribly slurred with alcohol that I feel intoxicated just listening to them. 

The girl with the dog shakes her head. “No,” she says.
"No," I say. 
"Nah," another man says. 
"Why not?" the drunk man says. 
"Dogs bark," I say, and everyone agrees. 

Though I only spend a day or two a week with this community of men and women living life on the street, I suspect that everyday brings with it similar difficult discussions. 

I love those people.

Donald!

This is Donald. I love Donald. He’s been living in the woods for most of his life. I go out to his camp––down by the railroad tracks, through the woods, duck under a few tattered American flags he’s hung from trees, spin through some bamboo (bamboo? In Texas?) and I see a clearing. Two big tents surrounding a few weathered chairs and a fire pit made of large rocks and broken cinderblocks. 

"Donald!" I yell. I hear rustling in the tent. He’s sleeping. He wakes up. I ask him about lunch. He says McDonald’s. No Donald, I say, I’ll take you anywhere. Anywhere! The town is yours, my friend! For the next hour it is yours! I laugh but he’s just nodding. "McDonald’s," he says with a slight smile. 

So we go McDonald’s. He doesn’t even want to get out. Drive through, he says. I’ll eat at the camp. 

He’s never asked me for anything. In all the years he’s been living in the woods, living homeless, living alone, no family, very few friends, spending most of his days sitting around a dying fire (it’s always dying!) He has needs. But he doesn’t ask. 

Here’s the idea––we shower Donald with McDonald gift cards. This is what he loves, he says––to wake up and walk to the nearest McDonald’s and get coffee and a burger. This is the dream. So we are going to get him gift cards! So many of them! Enough for a lifetime (maybe? maybe just some, but a lifetime would be awesome, right?) 

I’ve got 4 so far. I want to arrive at his camp and dump them at his feet. I want to watch them cascade out of a duffle bag like gold or something. I want to see his face. I will film it all! I will film his face! It’ll be a beautiful face!

This is relational ministry. Loving people, believing God is present, praying, praying, hanging out, going to McDonald’s, sitting around the campfire and laughing and nodding and having nothing to say so saying nothing and being present beneath the afternoon sun on a Spring day, together, okay, feeling okay.

So We Go

The phone rings––someone is lonely, suicidal, thinking of getting a gun. I’m finished with this, she says. But we talk and pray and feel something like peace. Then a text message from someone else––I’m in the hospital, he says. My lungs. There’s black mold in his dilapidated apartment, crawling along the edges of the room, reaching down. We talk and pray and think about how to get him out. How? We don’t know, but we figure it out. The phone rings again––I’m hungry, nothing feels right. Again––do you have some water? We need water. Phone, again––I’m on crack, he says. I can’t get off crack. Can you help me? I want help. I need help. We talk and pray and talk and pray. We are unsure of what to do, of how to help, but we move forward, loving, praying, believing in something bigger, trying to figure it all out. There are moments when I’m sure I’ll break, when it will all topple over and crush me, but somehow (I know exactly how!) I stand––wobbly, maybe––but I stand, because I’m on the shoulders of a Creator who is strong enough to carry the burden. So we go! go! go!

Kneeling behind the camera, I’m trying to keep quiet, but how? He’s crying in front of the camera, some heavy, black memory rising through him, and as the words make their way out, they cut, they get stuck in his throat, and his body threatens to swallow them––threatens to put the words back where they’ve been for centuries. Back into a corner, back into his body, back into his past where they spread like cancer, infecting the very idea he has of himself. 

Hurts like hell, he says. 

I feel my knees shaking. i can hear my heart beat, feel the thump of it press against my ribcage. I can’t look at him. I can’t watch him. This moment is too much, too big, and I can’t hold it. I’m afraid I’ll drop it, spill it on the floor, make a mess of it. 

He pauses. He’s fighting. His head is telling him to put the words back, that they belong inside, in their corner. His head tells him the words are safe there. He’s hearing voices, all of them shouting at him no, no, no! You cannot give this man your memories! What? Do you think you can escape them? Do you think by sharing them you will feel relief? Silly man! Stupid man! 

But he’s fighting. Tears emerge from the corners of his eyes. He bites his lip. 

You’re too old for this! You’re nearly 50! And you’re crying in front of a camera? Crying about your story? The voices don’t stop. They never stop. They keep talking, shouting, laughing, condemning. 

He pushes. Pushes the words back up his chest into his throat. He pauses again, inhales, widens his eyes hoping to stop the tears, but they come anyways. His eyes narrow, and he pushes again. The words move through his throat into his mouth. They are there, on his tongue, the weight of them too heavy, he decides, to keep inside.

And he speaks. He speaks, and he’s lighter. He looks new, brighter, somehow more alive. This cancer inside of him––these memories locked away––he’s attached them to words and given them to the world. They are no longer in control of him. He’s beat them. He is no longer defined by them. 

And I kneel behind the camera. I listen. I try to be quiet, because the audio recording picks up any of my movement, but how I can be quiet? How can one be quiet in the presence of restoration? Of healing?

So we laugh, we celebrate, we fly, we fly, we fly.

I’ll share more information about this story project with all of you in the near future. For now, celebrate. 

Last weekend I had the privilege of spending time with Jerry, a man who spent forty years spiraling through a life of addiction and brokenness. I won’t tell you the story––watch the video––but a friend of mine and I wanted to make a short film about Jerry’s story to help him with the next phase of his life.

Jerry has spent the better part of his adult life living on the street. Until recently. He woke up one morning and decided he’d had enough. My friend took him in and allowed him to stay at a shelter he operates outside of town. 

When I arrived at the shelter last Sunday to shoot the film, it was completely dark except for a small lamp hovering over a desk in the back of the room. Jerry was sitting at the desk taking notes, with various bibles and notebooks spread out over the desk. 

It was one of the coolest images I’d ever seen. 

The rest is history. 

On Friday night, as I was standing near a fire with a few others at an event hosted by the Texarkana Homeless Coalition, a man approached me.
"Hey buddy," he said with a soft voice. His face was round and covered with thick white hair. "I’m almost done reading your book."
He looked familiar, but I’m terrible with names. 
"What’s your name again?" I said.
"Steve," he said, then he started laughing. "I like that part where you’re running from the camps. That was in Kansas City, right?"
"Yeah, yeah it was," I say.
"I can just imagine you and that guy jumping over the fence and running near the river. I thought that was great!"
Steve spent ten minutes telling me how much he loved my book and how great he thought it was. The man made me blush. 
Heaven knows how unsure of myself I can be. I don’t like to admit it, but I need constant encouragement. I spend a lot of time feeling lonely, and like what I do matters very little. But Steve, a homeless man living near the railroad tracks, restored my deflated spirit.
Does it matter that Steve doesn’t have a home? That he lives in a tent in a patch of trees? No. He’s human. He’s no different than you are me. So why mention it?
For you.
Because there is an unfair stigma attached to men and women experiencing homelessness––that they are unable to develop friendships, that they only take and never give. 
I’m a broken man. I battle anxiety. I sometimes drown in loneliness and the feeling of worthlessness. For years I’ve begged God to restore me, to send people who believe in me, who will pour into me, who will love me and deal with all of my strangeness and silliness. 
And God has. It just looks different than I thought it would.
Men and women have emerged from tents tucked away in woods, out from under tarps hanging in sparse patches of trees, from abandoned buildings and makeshift shelters and decrepit cars with slashed tires, and they’ve gathered around me, embraced me, listened to me and believed in me and prayed for me and loved me. They constantly remind me that I am their friend and that they cherish our time together. They are 1 Corinthians 13 personified. They encourage me and build me up (1 Thessalonians 5:11).
These men and women may have very little, but they give everything.
ZoomInfo
Camera

iPhone 5

ISO

320

Aperture

f/2.4

Exposure

1/20th

Focal Length

4mm

On Friday night, as I was standing near a fire with a few others at an event hosted by the Texarkana Homeless Coalition, a man approached me.

"Hey buddy," he said with a soft voice. His face was round and covered with thick white hair. "I’m almost done reading your book."

He looked familiar, but I’m terrible with names. 

"What’s your name again?" I said.

"Steve," he said, then he started laughing. "I like that part where you’re running from the camps. That was in Kansas City, right?"

"Yeah, yeah it was," I say.

"I can just imagine you and that guy jumping over the fence and running near the river. I thought that was great!"

Steve spent ten minutes telling me how much he loved my book and how great he thought it was. The man made me blush. 

Heaven knows how unsure of myself I can be. I don’t like to admit it, but I need constant encouragement. I spend a lot of time feeling lonely, and like what I do matters very little. But Steve, a homeless man living near the railroad tracks, restored my deflated spirit.

Does it matter that Steve doesn’t have a home? That he lives in a tent in a patch of trees? No. He’s human. He’s no different than you are me. So why mention it?

For you.

Because there is an unfair stigma attached to men and women experiencing homelessness––that they are unable to develop friendships, that they only take and never give. 

I’m a broken man. I battle anxiety. I sometimes drown in loneliness and the feeling of worthlessness. For years I’ve begged God to restore me, to send people who believe in me, who will pour into me, who will love me and deal with all of my strangeness and silliness. 

And God has. It just looks different than I thought it would.

Men and women have emerged from tents tucked away in woods, out from under tarps hanging in sparse patches of trees, from abandoned buildings and makeshift shelters and decrepit cars with slashed tires, and they’ve gathered around me, embraced me, listened to me and believed in me and prayed for me and loved me. They constantly remind me that I am their friend and that they cherish our time together. They are 1 Corinthians 13 personified. They encourage me and build me up (1 Thessalonians 5:11).

These men and women may have very little, but they give everything.