Thursday, March 21, 2019

Recent Adventures

Since some people aren't on Facebook, I'll occasionally gather together stories and photos and re-post them here. Apologies for the formatting glitches...


Sometimes we'll see such painful things on the streets, that I ask myself, "How did I get here doing this?" When I was younger in the faith--a "baby Christian"--I surrounded myself with the beautiful things of God: majestic vistas while mountain hiking, the sublime history of art and music of the Church, I enjoyed mystical works and deep peaceful prayer, and I helped raise our beautiful babies. Then God said it was time to emerge from this protected place, and go amongst the ugly things. But I was only leaving Jesus to find Jesus again in many of the poor, and I was bringing Jesus (hopefully) to many others. This last Sunday's walk brought much of this home.

We had many edifying conversations along SE 122nd (which I'll write about later), but the walk ended with a delightful homeless girl named "Adeline" amidst sloshing sewage. Adeline was playing outside her broken-down RV as her parents argued inside. The mother, Amanda, was shouting at her man, "I am so sick of this!" He was moving about frenetically without much purpose, probably on crystal meth. Our presence ended the conflict.

I learned Adeline was three, and began to empty my rolling cooler of anything that might delight her: a rosary, trail mix, candy canes, and a figurine from a Nativity set. We had found some smashed figurines along Springwater corridor months before, and I gathered them up. The figure of a shepherd boy holding a lamb was preserved, and so I gave it to Adeline. While Adeline's parents were in a bad state, Adeline was oblivious, full of the innocence and joy of a tiny child. (Thanks be to God.) She brought out a doll from the movie Frozen. It was the character "Anna", and so I began to sing, "Do you want to build a snowman?" I didn't get very far into the song before I was undone by tears. I had sung that song many times with my daughter at home, and I couldn't bear what I was seeing.

The father mentioned that they were about to be towed, and asked if we could help push the motor home to a different spot. We agreed, even though the RV smelled like raw sewage. We pushed and groaned and hoped the speeding cars wouldn't clip one of us. About every thirty feet a puddle of sewage would splash down as we pushed with all of our might. We got the job done but received little thanks. Adeline had gone inside and so there were no goodbyes.

I'll continue to pray for Adeline and her parents throughout the coming years. We know Jesus is Lord, that he has conquered, and that our true home is in Heaven. He has a perfect plan for every one of us, provided we come to Him like little children.

A Providential Encounter

About once a week I still walk solo. I also look for opportunities to witness as I go about my daily activities. Today had a marvelous moment thanks to Divine Providence. I was running errands to gather everything we would need to welcome a new Malamute/Husky puppy into our home (puppies are proof that God is good!). As I was driving away from Petsmart, I passed a 30ish homeless man delivering an angry monologue to himself. I listened: "People only care about themselves! Everyone is narcissistic! America has gone to Hell!" As the flow of traffic carried me away, I thought, "I'm going to circle back around and show him it's not all bad. I've got a trunk load of stuff I just bought at Costco."

I parked in the direction he was walking and hailed him. His anger immediately faded when I asked if he wanted free Gatorade and gloves. He said he had just given his gloves to a friend and had cold hands. I gave him an extra pair to also give away. I complimented him on the simple wooden cross he wore around his neck. I explained that my friends and I often walk further north helping the homeless. His name was "John" and he grew up nearby in the little town of Damascus. He lamented the increase in "meth crimes" for towns like Damascus. When I offered him a few cigarettes, he was buoyant, "Wow! Are you for real?" After that we settled in and had a good talk--including swapping stories about malamutes preferring to sleep on ice all Winter.

I regretted when I had to leave to pick up my daughter from school. John's day had dramatically changed thanks to God's grace and a little moxie on my part. We've all seen angry or disoriented homeless. Almost all of us just keep driving, and sometimes that is God's will. But other times we're called to step out, and exercise our Baptism as "new creations in Christ". So go boldly forth in peace and friendship, and be a "little Christ" to those whom God has put in your path. God's grace will surprise you.

Suffering with the Poor

On Saturday we walked after dark for three hours in the brutal cold along SE 82nd and 92nd. It was about 15 degrees after factoring in a cruel wind. Afterwards I reflected to myself, "You haven't really lived until you've walked around seeking out junkies on a bitter cold night."

The night was full of bonhomie and gallows humor. Our homeless friends love it when we are out there suffering alongside of them. One hobo regaled us with a lighthearted monologue on his rubber gloves, noting that they utterly failed in every type of weather, actually increasing his misery by trapping in moisture or cold. Later a young man rode up on a bike and told a funny tale: "People kept telling me I needed to hurry up because there were three monks wandering around giving away stuff. At first I ignored them. I thought everyone was just crazy or high, but here you are!" We got a good laugh at being described as monks.

Out in SE and NE we are spoiled by gratitude and many friends. It's not that way everywhere. The following day Nick and I were going to set out from the Cathedral in NW, but the first two people I met were not friendly. One of them, a grim young man in dark shades even spit on the Cathedral wall to make his point. So we drove down to Holy Rosary and had a spirit-filled adventure around that neighborhood. There, too, things started out ugly with an angry young African-American man named "G". But patience and charity prevailed on all sides, and we would later part amicably from G, even talking some theology on the intercession of the saints.

I'm grateful that we felt called to change locations, because we found our homeless friend Errol violently shivering in the shade under scanty covering. I begged him to go into the warm church, but he declined as always (he is very shy). He asked for blankets, and we managed to find two, including one donated from Fr. Dismas Sayre, OP. The highlight of the day was our long talk with Lisha, Scotte and Mike. They each in their own way had struggled with homelessness or alcoholism, but now were off the streets (or the bottle). Each of them were grateful to God, like little children, and they asked to walk with us in the future! Glory be to God.


We've known Lexi for a couple of years now (she's in the foreground of the photo). She's friendly, charismatic and tough, and so is the informal boss of homeless camps around NE 82nd. She also has a motherly heart. Last Summer she gathered up wild blackberries and cooked blackberry pancakes for everyone at a giant, sprawling camp off I-84. Lexi is also a heroin addict. She told me that her mom "has the same vice". She said she and her mother "are more like sisters"; they were even pregnant at the same time when Lexi was a teenager (she had a daughter).

Last January 5th Lexi briefly died from a heroin overdose. It was at her grandmother's house (where her mother usually stays). After injecting herself, she slowly drifted off and things slowed down until her heart stopped. Lexi felt herself leaving her body, light as a feather, and remembers a growing light. Then everything went dark and cold and she was back in her body thanks to paramedics. Her mom had discovered her and called 911. Lexi feels terrible for putting her mother and grandmother through that, and so she has stopped shooting-up. Lexi can't bear the thought of losing her mother, and the feeling is mutual. Lexi asked for one of our hoodies, and Jonathan gave up his.

Our hoodies have a giant photograph of Blessed Charles de Foucauld on the back. We entrust Lexi to his prayers, and always commend her to Jesus Christ. It would be a hard loss to lose Lexi.

Moved to Share

This ministry is remarkably weird and always full of the unexpected. If you're someone who likes to write, walking the streets as we do would furnish you with endless stories. We have plenty of stories from the last couple of weeks, but many of them are heart-wrenching and so I've remained silent. I'll share those stories later. For now I'd like to share two unlikely episodes of grace.

Yesterday we walked NE 82nd from 2-6pm. At one point we got separated into two groups, with Nick and Jonathan following far behind. We were heading back to the homeless camps after replenishing our supply of burgers, when a ten year old boy popped out of nowhere. He approached Jonathan and Nick and insisted that they share a pack of doughnuts that the boy had. It was very important to the boy that they accept his gift. Nick and Jonathan were baffled, if only because the experience had that weird quality one finds in the lives of the saints--as though the boy might be a heavenly visitor. A more likely scenario is that the boy had seen us earlier (or in past months) sharing our goods with the poor, and was just waiting for the opportunity to see us again and break bread (or doughnuts!) with us. Bless his impulsive heart.

Shortly before this episode, we were talking with many old street friends outside of JOIN. Nick and Jonathan met a new man, Daniel, and learned his life story. Daniel was an older African-American man who used to work at the Port of Portland. After he lost his job there, his life began to crumble. He developed severe diabetes. He had no feeling in his swollen feet and couldn't walk. He begged for water and some food. Jonathan asked to look at his feet, and massaged them. He rubbed his feet until they could move again. Then Nick and Jonathan rounded up a bunch of water and made a special trip to Wendy's for Daniel. Jonathan is the only person I know who would massage the feet of a homeless man. Perhaps that is why a boy mysteriously appeared with a gift of doughnuts.

The photo I've included is a kind of metaphor for our apostolate. If you look closely at our feet, the ground is strewn with syringes--with the needles still attached! The red, needle disposal bucket (marked "hazardous waste") is turned over and empty. Usually addicts are careful in disposing of used needles. The woman in the photo is Bree, a homeless woman we've known for over a year. She was following us from tent site to tent site, guiding us and sharing our friendship.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Merry Christmas!

I can think of no better way to say "Merry Christmas" than to share this story of hope and grace.  It's a story of Patrick, a local man, who was once living on the streets up by NE 82nd.  We played a small part in the story, thanks be to God. The first few times we saw Patrick on 82nd he just eyed Chris and I and continued on his bike. Then one day he stopped and declared, "I'm done with the streets. I've had enough." I knew that he meant it, and the next time we saw him I said to Meagan, "He won't be on the streets very long." Little did I know that God would use a medical emergency to get the job done. Please read Patrick's story. I pray that his story will be widely circulated. It will bring hope to many families who have sons and daughters on the streets.

Patrick, our friend.      Photo by The Catholic Sentinel

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

A Collage of Recent Photos

A Recent Adventure

Since the heady days of the great and fun Catholic blogs is basically over, we've reluctantly moved over to Facebook.  I posted this account on Facebook yesterday:

We had a wild and tumultuous weekend on the streets. At one point I turned to Shawn and observed, "We've seen a lot of reality in the last 24 hours." It started Saturday evening, when we walked NE 82nd in honor of the feast day of our spiritual patron, Blessed Charles de Foucauld. Our first "customer" was Thomas "Weedman". He came came running after us full of enthusiasm. He remembered us from months before, and was on hard times. He gratefully accepted wool socks, hand warmers, some food and drink, and asked for a rosary and prayer cards. Then he launched into a spiritual examination of his past, and told us of how he had gone down the wrong path by making his estranged wife his "idol" rather than God. He had clearly been raised a devout Christian, and was now gracing us with his testimony. It was a blessing to meet Thomas. 

Next we met Jessica who was juggling a heroin syringe as we loaded her with gifts. She apologized in embarrassment, and we promised to return soon with burgers from Burgervile. We had done a head-count of the homeless as we walked down 82nd, and Jesus always makes sure we buy enough burgers. On our way back to Jessica, we met "Free Bird", a very young woman who is also a heroin addict. She was doing far worse than when I'd seen her months before. Barely coherent, she had no shoes, and was wandering alone around Montavilla Park. She's a wisp of a girl, and she needs friends to keep her safe on the streets. Jessica was more lucid when we returned, and she told us of her trials, including a sexual assault on the streets and missing her children. Yet for all her pain. Jessica was not without hope. She remembered better times and better friends, and told us of her adventures in trying to become a Catholic. She even ventured she might become a religious sister one day. And why not? I wish we had sisters here who helped women like Jessica, and surely some of them could one day become sisters too.

We met other street friends that night, but I'll particularly cherish the long conversations with Shawn and Chris, my brothers in Christ. Men need quality time and conversation with other good men, even when the conversations become heated. We Catholic men are not without our passionate opinions!

The following afternoon we walked SE 82nd distributing hot dogs and other goods. We met many of our regulars, including Johnny, who heaps us with abuse when we won't give him $20 or a motel room. Well, I'd had enough of Johnny, and shouted him down before stomping off. Johnny is the rare addict who won't let any one in--even though we've known him for three years or so. Johnny never has a good word for anyone. Fortunately, Jonathan Gnibus and Nick El-Hajj stayed behind with Johnny even though I shouted for them to follow us. Last I saw, Jonathan was giving Johnny a prolonged hug--something I thought I'd never see. And it turns out, Jonathan finally got Johnny to open up, and explain where all his pain comes from. Not surprisingly, Johnny's anger begins with an evil babysitter doing some awful things to him. Blessed be God for Jonathan and for Johnny in that moment of grace.

The rest of us headed up to SE 92nd to a homeless camp. A new member of our crew, Stephen Tobusch, had shown up just as I shouted down Johnny. He had never walked with us before, and as we headed up to 92nd I apologetically explained that I had never yelled at any one in my five years walking the streets. Well, Stephen was about to witness another first for Urban Missionaries, for we would have to call an ambulance! 

Under one of the roads over Johnson Creek, I saw what looked like a very still body under a sleeping bag, or perhaps some gear that was stowed away. In any event, there was no response. So I climbed back out from the little ravine and under the cyclone fence. But my conscience bothered me, and my friends urged me to give it a second look. So I went back down, and this time I gently lifted the sleeping bag. Old man Randy was under there, soaking wet and smeared with vomit. He responded after a minute, and I ran off to get him some warm hot dogs and other goods. His hands were bloated to double their normal size, and he could barely move his body. He was grateful for the hot dogs, though he seemed to have hypothermia. He had been pushed or "rolled" into the creek the previous night, and tried to warm up by hiding in his sleeping bag with the same wet clothes. It wasn't working, and he wouldn't survive another 36 hours in the cold. I called 911 and the paramedics came. It took some time to get Randy up and out, but he gave us a warm smile from the gurney. Sadly, he also accused one of our long time young homeless friends of being the one who pushed him into the creek. Our young friend looked sad and guilty, so it appears to have been true.

At this point Jonathan and Nick finally joined us after spending the last hour with Johnny. We met and talked to many other people, including three young Christians who were also out befriending and helping the homeless. Thanks be to God! At this point we also met Billy, a man in his early 30s who was passionately thankful for our apostolate. Billy lives with his mom, and was passing by on his bike. As we talked, I thought he was starting to break into tears, and all of a sudden he sped-off! I was grateful when he returned ten minutes later, and we resumed our talk. He asked for all the literature we had, and said he wanted to join us at church. But then he began to have tears again, and sped-off. It seemed to me that Billy had once lived on the streets, and was grateful and touched by the love we have for those we meet. Clearly God was pouring out his tenderness on Billy that day. Glory be to God!

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

We're Finally On Facebook

Join us here on Facebook to follow our adventures and get updates and events.  I'll be posting several times a week on our comings and goings, as well as sharing photos and other good stuff.  I'll continue to post longer reflections on this blog.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Walking With The Church

In the past ten days we've been blessed to take part in a parish rosary walk and the Corpus Christi procession led by Archbishop Sample.  In each case, we brought up the rear with our rolling coolers, and periodically broke off to minister to those on the streets.  In each case, we eventually fell far behind as we sat with those whom God had put in our path.

The parish rosary walk was a four-hour trek along the boundaries of St. Stephen's parish.  There were around 60 participants of all ages, including Chris, Shawn, Jonathan, Meagan and myself.  Fr. Andersen asked me to surreptitiously plant St. Benedict medals at the four corners of the parish boundaries, and we were able to do so.  The parish neighborhood has dramatically gentrified, and it was a mild shock given our usual walking routes.  In fact, Portland is beginning to resemble the Bay Area in it's idolatry of "good living" (at least in the gentrified neighborhoods). The clean streets with countless new quirky and cool shops (I counted three gourmet ice cream stores) is a far cry from the more visceral lives of those we typically befriend.  And yet, our friends on the streets lead more "real" lives by daily confronting their own hunger, thirst and battle with demons.  For all that, most are not without hope and faith, and they are keenly aware of their lowliness before the good God.  That's not a bad place to be, even though most people count them as simply wretched.

Shawn and I under a Johnson Creek bridge that is the gateway to a homeless camp

Suffering is God's "ace card" in bringing us to him.  Through different forms of suffering, Jesus stripped me of my idolatry towards women, physical fitness and the life of the mind.  In suffering, many of us discover and acknowledge that "the wages of sin is death", and then we become converted to life in Jesus Christ.  Jeffrey James, a homeless alcoholic whom we met on the rosary walk, has arrived at this place.  He knows he is an alcoholic.  He has no delusions.  He takes pride in his landscaping background, and likes to plant flowers and clean the grounds where he stays.  He was raised Catholic at nearby St. Ignatius Parish, and was overjoyed at the rosary we gave him.  He was touched by our selfless acts, and kept calling us "saints".  Other than his overly generous compliments, he was very lucid.  That often comes from being homeless, because those who live on the streets have a lot of "down time" to take stock of their lives.

We also met two other men who have lots of time to consider who they are and what the world is all about.  Nico and Alan chased us down in their motorized wheelchairs.  They each have disabilities, and it is very difficult for Alan to speak. They are young men who spend long hours in hospitals and clinics and they use the time to take stock of things.  Unfortunately, their zeal for justice has brought them to Marxism, though their concern for the poor and vulnerable is sincere.  Chris and I talked to Nico and Alan for 45 minutes, sharing our reasons for conversion, and discussing the dislocations caused by capitalist market economies.  By the time our conversation had run it's course, we were hopelessly behind our group and had to hustle to make the parish barbecue.

The Corpus Christi procession began at the Cathedral and travelled down to the NW park blocks.  The crowd was impressive, numbering in the hundreds.  There were many priests, religious sisters and seminarians, and lay folk from many different countries.  It was a display of authentic Catholic piety, beauty and diversity.

Once again, we eventually fell far behind the main group, but we had many remarkable conversations and encounters.  I believe it was because Jesus Christ in the Eucharist prepared the the way before us.  We gave away four coolers worth of Gatorade, water, protein bars, socks, gloves and rosaries.  I would especially ask our readers to pray for two men.  The first, Michael, is a homeless addict in his early 50s.  His heart aches for God's mercy and divine life, but he doubts that God will forgive him for his squandered life.  Meagan and I sat with him and talked with him for some time.  Chris led a prayer over Michael as we all joined hands.  It was clear that Jesus had placed Michael in our path, and that our sweet Lord was calling him, heart speaking to heart.  He cried quiet tears even though he wasn't the type to cry.  I was gratified when we were able to greet Michael again on our way back to the Cathedral.  The other person I beg prayers for is Scotty.  Scotty was living in a doorway by the Cathedral.  He is a frail man in his early 50s who dresses like a woman.  He wears black stockings and brightly colored jewelry, but is badly unkempt.  Someone recently beat the tar out of him.  He reminded me of the Gospel story of the man beaten by robbers (that is, demons).  Christ is the Good Samaritan (according to the ancient Church Fathers) who takes pity on our woeful condition and restores us to health.  It tore my heart to see Scotty beaten and broken (physically and spiritually), and I wept when I got home.  Jesus has a radical solidarity with the beaten and broken.  Please pray for Scotty and Michael.

Meagan, Shawn, Dave, Chris and Nick

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Jessica's Story and Mine

Perhaps the greatest stumbling block to the Christian faith is to peacefully accept everything God puts in our lives, and to praise Him with a simple heart through trial and change.  Most of us get shipwrecked by questioning God's providence, and losing faith and hope (and finally, divine charity) amidst trial and suffering.  Jesus gives us, in His own life, the antidote to losing our way, and that is to empty ourselves out in the Desert or on the Cross, to become poor as He once did.  Jesus has spent the last six months or more showing me my poverty, and making me poorer still.  I think it's starting to work.  We resist it, especially us Americans, but eventually humility takes root in the soul for those who keep coming back to Christ.  Eventually we let God be God, and resign ourselves that we are just creatures, albeit His creation invited to "partake in His Divine Nature".  Glory be to God.

Looking back on the last 6-7 months, one episode stands out for signaling the Dark Night that was to come.  While a Dark Night is actually a necessary and blessed grace, I've often wondered, "How did I get to this point?"  Then I always come back to the person of Jessica.  Chris and I first met Jessica along SE 82nd about a year ago.  She was walking along by herself in tiny shorts and had a noticeable limp.  She gratefully accepted our Gatorade, and then explained that her leg was grotesquely swollen because whomever had given her the last hit of heroin was bad with a needle or there were too many impurities in the dope.  We saw her again the next week with a group of addicts, and she tested us by asking if we remembered her name.  Everyone was silent and expectant, as I fumbled about in my brain, but it seemed I would fail the test.  The mood began to fall fast.  Then I heard a subdued voice behind me say, "Jessica."  I turned and pointed triumphantly at Chris, "Yes, he's got it!"  Thank God for Chris!  From that point on we earned the trust of Jessica and the circle of addicts.  That was also the time we met Troy, the young Christian man who became homeless by choice. Troy always stayed close to Jessica and looked out for her, though since he was new to the streets, she had to look out for him, too.  It was easy to see why Troy had a soft spot for her: she was honest and an open book, and they were about the same age.  Please read about Troy here.

We always saw Jessica when we walked SE 82nd, and sometimes I would bring she and her friends Popeye's chicken or pizza.  Her leg began to get worse and then it slowly got better.  I gradually learned more of her story.  She was from Milwaukie, Oregon where it was "much harder to be homeless" due to police harassment, and so she was grateful to have found 82nd.  She had a four year old that she had left behind with her mother, and had no idea where the boy's father was at this point.  They had started out on meth and moved up to heroin.  She had never prostituted though she usually hung out with other users, where there was a lot of "sharing" (to use a euphemism).  Then something changed. Jessica got tired of "jonesing" for dope and decided to prostitute.

The first time I noticed this I was driving by with my little children and so I couldn't stop to talk with her.  My soul cried out in pain, "No!  I have to do something about this!"  Troy couldn't take it either, and so he left and I haven't see him since.  I saw Jessica again the next evening, grotesquely painted up with make-up, and with her swollen leg and all.  I raced home to drop off my children and grabbed my tunic and some money I had gotten from my ATM the evening before.  I put the tunic on while I drove and prayed that I would make it back in time.  I spotted her down by the cheap motels and found a place to park. She had disappeared from sight, and I searched about with determination, ignoring everyone around me. Then I saw her. She was about to drive off with a dope dealer in his early 50s.  I immediately recognized his type from my time in prison and before.  He had once been roguishly good looking, but it's a hard lifestyle.  He even had a "souped up" older model BMW that had seen better days.  Yeah, I knew what he was all about.  Jessica saw me, and asked in surprise, "What are you doing here?"  I instinctively held up the money, and said, "Looking for you."  Her eyes were sad. She pleaded, "Why didn't you come sooner?"  Then there was an opening in traffic and the dealer sped off.

I haven't seen Jessica since and that was over six months ago.  She probably became the live-in girlfriend of the dealer since she was young and clean enough to suit him.  That kind of thing is common enough.  Perhaps she has overdosed and died as have so many young people nowadays.  In any event, I can not save her, nor has God given me that mandate.  She is always in the loving gaze of the Father, and He has a perfect plan for her if only she'll accept His plan of salvation.  I'm positive that His plan does not involve me giving her money to subsidize her drug habit if only she won't prostitute.  I had not done that before and I have not thought of doing it since.  At the time I didn't care whether it was ethical or not, I just felt I HAD TO DO SOMETHING.  But it's not my world and I'm not in charge.  At the time I resented God for once more tearing out my heart and stomping on it.  I declared to God in the depths of my soul, "I can't do this! You're killing me!" From then on I started to walk the streets with a harder heart, with less innocence, with occasional swearing and a grim sense of humor.  Then the Dark Night began to fall right on time.

I've since understood that we are precisely called to open our hearts so that they are wounded.  We are called to open our hearts to our suffering brothers and sisters, just as Jesus exposes His pierced Sacred Heart.  It is a sacrifice pleasing to God, and it is sharing in His divine life.  It is also painful.

Here comes the pain...
Sometimes we are wounded by love and it is a beautiful thing.  Just the other day at the grocery store I ran into a neighbor I often see but have never spoken to.  She's a seventy year old Ukrainian immigrant woman who dresses like a peasant from the Old World.  Her son has Down syndrome, a perpetually twisted hand, and lives at home.  He likes to sweep the sidewalks and driveways.  He is well-looked after.  I made eye contact with the old woman and smiled.  She smiled back with the clear, pure eyes of the holy ones.  For an instant, her square, gray face became beautiful with divine life.  I looked away and began to weep from witnessing the divine beauty within this faithful mother.  I hid my tears from the public but I was grateful that my heart was now soft and open to God's ways, open to His Plan.  Glory be to God.