Lessons from the Street
By Pastor Rick Reynolds

Lisa's Hand
Church is Where You Find It
Herchel's Agreement
Under the Freeway
Lisa's Hand
Third Avenue in Seattle's Belltown neighborhood. It's 11:00p.m. on a Thursday night. As I walk along I greet people - the homeless people leaving Nightwatch on their way to shelter, the students out for a lark, the drug dealers in the shadows. From a block away I can see a woman walking in the street, adjusting her clothing provocatively.
Eyes straight ahead. I don't need to see that.
"Hey," she hollers. "Are you really a minister?"
I stop dead in my tracks, the hair on my neck standing straight up. "Yes, I'm really a minister."
The woman crosses over to me, shifts her beer into her other hand, and reaches out for mine. "I'm going to ask you to do something strange."
I was REALLY concerned now. "What do you want?"
Not letting go of my hand, she said, "Would you pray for me?"
"I don't think that's strange at all. What's your name?"
I stood on the sidewalk holding Lisa's hand, her hard hand, a hand which didn't want to let go. I prayed a short prayer for her healing and comfort and protection in Jesus' name.
Her hard hand just didn't want to let go, like a poor swimmer at summer camp, who reaches the deep water and finds that rope across the middle of the pool, the way of safety for swimmers like me. When I was a kid I would hang onto that rope and pull my way along to the side of the pool.
I will never forget Lisa's hand in mine, finding safety for the moment.
My morning started with a thud. A phone call came to my office, with the terrible news. My friend Dick Shipe had been riding his motorcycle to work, and was accidentally killed at a stop sign.
Shock and sadness were with me through the day, as I prepared for the evening onslaught of homeless people coming to Operation Nightwatch, seeking food, shelter, blankets. I did not want to be there on this particular night. I wanted to be home, with my loved ones close by.
Which is why I had no patience for Richard that night.
Richard was one of the irritating few among the homeless people Nightwatch served. He was loud, brash, provoking fights. He was also bright, which I found irritating on another level. He could certainly live better than this.
So on the night Dick Shipe died, I . . . well, I snapped. Richard was out in front of Nightwatch with his friends, making someone's life miserable, picking a fight.
I marched outside and stuck my finger in Richard's face. "What makes you do the things you do?" I screeched.
He pulled me aside from his buddies on the sidewalk, and in confidential tones revealed his pain. "Father Rick" {we can never get these guys to get the subtle distinctions -ed.} "I'm dying of testicular cancer, and I don't want to go into a hospital. I want to die a man, on the street."
I apologized for getting in his face in front of his friends, and explained about my friend's death.
Richard put his hands on my shoulders - and I realized how much taller he was than me. "I want to say a prayer for you."
So I stood with Richard's hands on my shoulders as he prayed for all those folks touched by my friend's death. Amazing moment.
Church is Where You Find It
Dolly was a regular in one of the many bars that used to line the downtown streets.
She was a mess - regular drunk, lots of men moving through her life. Finally one night she ran into me. I'm a regular in the same bar.
Now this place doesn't have much to recommend it to anyone. Lots of booze moves through; the lowest street drunks are welcome. If you come in after checks come out, it is as bad as you might imagine. Loud, smoky, violent, and grubby. My kind of place.
"Father, what are you doing here?" Dolly asked.
"Well, we haven't seen you in church lately, so now we're coming to you," I replied with my usual twinkle.
Dolly sat down and poured out her life story - abuse, neglect, alcoholism, poverty, violence. Children taken away, abandoned by men. She wept as she asked if I would pray for her.
Understand, this place is not what you would call conducive to prayer. There were drunks laughing at the bar, rock & roll on the jukebox, darts flying and pool balls clicking. Thinking about my nice quiet (safe) and dark office, I responded, "Sure I'll pray for you."
"I mean right now!" Dolly said as she grabbed my hand. So I prayed, and as I prayed, I realized that God was every bit as much in "Barney's Bar" as in our cathedrals; and if we don't believe it we might as well get out of the business.
We were done, right? No. Dolly called her friend over. "HEY, we're going to say the 'Our Father' {again, on the street the distinctions between Catholic & Protestant just don't seem to matter so much - the Lord's Prayer, trespasses, debts. Who really cares? They're praying! -ed.}.
Holding hands around the table we three prayed together, a wonderful benediction on the evening. God was there!
Herchel's Agreement
He'd been homeless 17 years when I met him - a wiry, tough little guy, a face battered by the elements and too much wine. But I noticed he always seemed pretty together, and when I asked him, he produced a 12 year AA medal. That was Herchel.
Well, we had a problem at Operation Nightwatch. Our homeless shelter dispatch function had mushroomed from serving 50 people every night to 150 or more on some nights. People were desperate for shelter, and soon learned that the earlier you came to stand in line, the better shot you had at finding a shelter mat someplace.
One hundred fifty homeless people standing in line is not a pretty sight.
I figured we could do like they did at Sears when I worked there in college - little numbered tickets. We could pass out the numbers, then homeless people could simply come back when we opened at 10:00 p.m. No lines, right?
So, how should we pass out the numbers? Herchel stepped forward. "I can do it."
I looked at him doubtfully. "You've got to be here at 2:00 in the afternoon, you're going to stand in our doorway for eight hours passing out these numbered tickets." No problem. Sure.
The next day Herchel showed up right at 2:00 p.m. The next day, the same thing happened. Whew. We had a winner. Number one went right in his pocket, but he deserved it.
Herchel did his job every day, eight hours a day, seven days a week, for almost two years, never late, never a problem. What a worker!
He swept and mopped for us when we needed it. He started picking up trash in the neighborhood after the ticket program changed.
When Operation Nightwatch bought a small apartment building in 1999, Herchel was the first person we moved in. He continued to help out even though he was no longer homeless - until health problems took their toll.
"Herchel, you've probably done more for homeless people in Seattle than anyone I know - keeping them from having to stand in line for all those hours, making sure the neighborhood was clean so neighbors didn't mind us too much. Why have you done all this work?"
To say that Herchel was not eloquent would be a gross understatement. He shuffled around a little in his chair, looking at the floor. "I made an agreement with God." That was his answer. "I made an agreement with God."
Let all our agreements be so well carried out.
Under the Freeway
There are more people sleeping under I-5 in Seattle than in any one shelter in the city.
I have seen beautiful little cabins built under the roadway. Carpet on the dirt, furniture, kitchen counter, shelves carved into the hillside, lined with cans of food. People living in tents. Latrines dug, garbage collected.
One of the fun things I get to do is to introduce new priests and ministers to my world. I love going someplace rough. Colorful. A little scary. Just to see what they're made of.
Which would explain why I was stumbling along underneath I-5 at 11:00 one night, new street minister in tow.
We stood along the steep slope of Capitol Hill, the roar of traffic above us, looking out at views of Lake Union and Queen Anne. I pointed out the homeless campers all around us, and up the hill above us one of the tarped areas started shaking and quaking. A head popped out, and a body started running down the dusty incline, totally out of control.
"What have I got myself into now?" I wondered to myself, and edged into a little bit of ambient light.
This crazed fellow landed at our feet. "You're ministers!" he exclaimed. "I go to church!" This young man had been struggling with his sanity, was living under the freeway waiting for his mental health disability to be determined. There was a burst of air when it became apparent that we weren't going to be attacked, and I realized it was me exhaling.
I thought of the 139th Psalm:
"If I ascend to heaven, Thou art there;
If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, Thou art there."
If I make my bed under the freeway, God is there too. We (meaning those of us who think we're ok because we live in a house or apartment) tend to forget that God is present wherever we go, and loves us despite our trying constantly to depend on our own resources to survive.

For more Lessons from the Street, visit Pastor Rick's Blog at:


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