Archive for November, 2009

November 27, 2009

A Thanksgiving to Remember

I received a wonderful gift this Thanksgiving. My wife suggested that we have a Thanksgiving meal for those I serve. I said sure, without thinking. Then I started thinking it through and thought, “Oh, my! What have I gotten myself into. This is going to be so much work!” However, it was weeks away, so I just brushed it aside. I had plenty of projects between now and then for Street Youth Ministry.

Finally, the Thanksgiving meal came to the top of my to-do list. I got permission from the Congregational Church of Austin (I’m commissioned by Covenant Presbyterian Church) because it’s right in the heart of the area I minister in. I scored a big turkey on sale at HEB. Someone donated a boxed meal for 6. I figured I’d be cooking all evening long on Wednesday. Things were progressing. I invited people to come through facebook.

Then something wonderful changed. A woman called up and said, “I want to do a turkey for you. I want to smoke it because that will make handling it easy for you. And I’m sending homemade macaroni and cheese.” You can’t imagine how much weight lifted from my shoulders knowing I didn’t have to roast a turkey Thursday morning! And with that first offer, amazing things happened. Suddenly people were bringing stuffing, gravy, pies, sweet potatoes, cranberries, casseroles, drinks. In truth, I didn’t make a single item for our Thanksgiving feast. On the evening before, Lifeworks called and said they had leftovers from a meal and were leaving them in a refrigerator at the Congregational Church for me. Now we had had, more turkey, cranberries, pies and more.

I rustled chaffing dishes from my home church. I borrowed tables and chairs from another church. I took a CD player so we’d have tunes. My wife brought games, a puzzle, and dominoes. I went down at 12:30 to heat up the food in a nearby kitchen I had access to. A few people who had told me they would come to help arrived. I put them to work setting up tables and chairs. The event was to start a 2pm, and by that time we had it mostly set up. A few clients had begun to arrive.

Downtown was completely quiet. It’s rather magical. There is no pressure, no body hurrying anywhere. No traffic noise. No construction noise. Nothing. I walked the street to invite clients. I found them sitting on the sidewalk. They were carefree with no crowds pushing back. The received the invitation with great appreciation.

By the time I got back, the lawn was full of people! They were sitting at tables playing puzzles. They were standing making crafts (an edible turkey). They were filling in post cards to send home to friends or family. They were playing dominoes. They were making a group poster of things they are thankful for. And they were filling plates with the feast that had been provided.

They were clients, friends, and family. All mixed together. Some friends came by only to show support on their way to family events. Some stayed for the afternoon to hang out with street kids.

I was so content to sit back and watch it all. I took it all in. It was an amazing gift for me. I was higher than anything I can imagine. Better than any drug could ever be!

The point of the day was to provide a safe and welcome place for the street dependent young people to hang out. I wanted to capitalize on the quite of the day and create an almost traditional, family-oriented Thanksgiving experience. It was not about the food or addressing immediate hunger, although some of that happened. I wasn’t sure that this goal would come across, but I really hoped it would.

The kids got it! They totally understood. One guy said, “Terry, I’ve been to 3 feedings this week. But this is the first time I’ve felt like family all week. Thank you.” Another said, “This is so great. It feels so much like family.”

They created a wall of thanksgiving. Here are some quotes

Today I’m thankful for:
for my family, friends, and dog.
my mom
my baby
my wife
peace, love, and happiness
my dad
keepin‘ it real

I’m so thankful for my wife who had the wonderful idea to have this Thanksgiving dinner, for my family who patiently gave their Thanksgiving to see the day realized, for the many friends and supporters who prayed, cooked, gave, and attended, and for the many young people God has put in my life.

When I got home, I was able to write down by name 40 people who attended, so I figure about 50 came. And I was able to to list at least 26 friends and supporters who attended! At least 5 more provided food but couldn’t attend. What a blessed great day. And what a blessing.

More photos can be found on the SYM FaceBook fan page. Please join today if you haven’t already!

November 22, 2009


I had a weird but noteworthy experience that I didn’t write about 3 weeks ago. Today I’m going to share it because it has come to a more complete resolution. Perhaps I should not write about it, because it includes a negative image. I ask you to focus on the transformative potential of the story and not on the negative situation. And I ask you remember that this is one person out of 600 that I have met and ministered to this year alone….

About three weeks ago, on a Friday, I was doing my usual outreach on Guadalupe. I had sandwiches from a dear volunteer who always makes homemade bread, home roasted meats, and really good things for the kids. I had seen during the week already that there was an unusual number of kids on the street, so I anticipated seeing lots of people. I was a little nervous about doing a good job that day for some reason.

I love going to the “Drag.” It’s sort of like that old TV show, “Cheers. “It’s a place where everybody knows my name” and where we’re all glad to see one another. However, the “Drag” was different this Friday. It just seemed full of negative energy. There was a football game the next day and lots of college students were already drinking and partying. And there were lots of new travelling kids in town, which I think sometimes puts the “local” kids into a somewhat defensive posture. And something must have happened downtown which had driven a lot of older folks who don’t normally hang out on the Drag into my beat. These older folks are definitely not my ministry target, but I do treat them humanely and even take care of the older folks who frequent the Drag. I can name all these things that were wrong with Friday in retrospect, but all I knew that day was things weren’t right.

Thankfully, I started my outreach on the far end of the street. I ran into almost no one I knew well. My regular folks just weren’t around. Perhaps I should have taken a clue from that. I did meet lots of new and kind travelling kids. They loved getting the sandwiches and socks and getting an introduction to me. (And I’ve remained in contact with many of them for weeks as they check out Austin.)

However, when I got to the end of my route, a place I typically hang out for quite a while, things turned ugly. There were a number of people there but I didn’t know them. And they had been drinking heavily. They weren’t many of my ministry target folks in the crowd, although there were a few mixed in. One guy, “Mike,” didn’t like the taste of the homemade bread (and probably was suffering from other things that day, too) and spit it out. He called it poison and strew his food all over the sidewalk in a big scene. Me and others got onto him for making a big mess on the sidewalk, because it causes friction with the church who let us all sit there on their steps. Another guy took exception to my asking Mike to clean that up. He said, “You have no right to come here and judge him. You’re poisoning him in a different way. Poisoning him with judgement.” He, too, had been drinking a lot. I spent some time talking with this second person and ironed things out.

I sat there a while longer and finished talking one ministry client who had come by. I decided it was time to leave. I got up. Mike decided to take further exception to me. He said, “You sit here and make people kiss your ass to get a sandwich. Why don’t you just leave your stuff and go.” I was in the process of leaving, so I figured he’d be happy. However, I already had the bags of food and socks in my hands and planned to walk around a bit more to give the rest away.

He grabbed them and dumped them all over the sidewalk. He stomped on some of the boxes of cookies. He tore a Bible in half. He threw some apples. He made a huge mess.

Many people left, and some of the people watching scrambled to pick up everything and returned it to the bags. I supposed I should have left right away, also, but I didn’t want to leave all that litter everywhere. So I waited as they finished picking up. Then I took the bags to go. Mike grabbed hold of the bags, me with the handles and him with the other end. We went round in a circle a couple of times as he pulled them. He raised his fist to hit me. I let go and he went sprawling across the steps, bags in his lap. I just walked away at that point. Perhaps I should have walked already, but it had all happened so fast.

I now looked back over my shoulder to decide if I was walking away or running. Mike was still on the ground. Some regular ministry clients had just appeared from nowhere and come running around the corner. One was obviously in Mike’s face about what he had done. So I walked. I heard the sirens of police cars. I figured some passers by must have 911 on my behalf. I still don’t know if that was related or just coincidence.

I disappeared for a while to think. I reviewed that I had done and not done. I am trained to work with unstable and potentially dangerous people every day. I have skills to help them remain calm and in control, but obviously staying in control is their choice and responsibility. After reviewing, I concluded that I had done very little wrong, just one or two things I would chance if given the chance. I took little solace in that. I thought about Mike. He’s an older guy and he had too much to drink. From his perspective, he had reacted badly to someone (me), especially a Christian, doing relational ministry and would have preferred impersonal help or no help. I wondered what about his life and his circumstances caused him to act as he had. And now, I was quite sure, he had been beaten by people for attacking me. The chain of hurt and violence just seemed to much to bear.

After some time, I returned to the streets, still agitated. People had been looking for me. They ran up to me, “Are you OK? Did you get hurt?” I assured them I was shaken but fine and that the incident would not change my ministry. I overheard one vendors saying something about “turning the other cheek.” After letting these folks express concern for me a while longer, I went home. I was very thankful to God for his protection that day, for the protection of ministry clients, and for the concern of the street community who knows me.

That next week, my heart did race a little faster when I saw someone I didn’t know. I was still nervous even from the event. The next Friday in outreach, I was escorted by one of my clients. A tough client. One of the ones who had come around the corner. He didn’t call it escorting me, but I don’t know what else to call it. He had never hung out all day with me before. (And I took the opportunity to share the Gospel with him, of course.) He assured me that Mike would never raise his hand to me again. Naturally, I was sorry for what I knew had happened to Mike in retribution for his behavior. They call is “street justice.”

Another week passed. I saw Mike. Even though I knew we needed to reconcile for both our own good, I didn’t go to where he was. He seemed fine, but I just wasn’t ready to talk with him. I saw Mike again one evening a few days later. He actually asked me for spare change. He didn’t recognize me in the twilight or after drinking. I didn’t say anything.

This Friday while doing outreach, I was completely at ease again. I was with a group of about 8 kids in a vacant storefront, some new and some regular clients. We were having a good time talking about how they had fared through the storm the night before. Suddenly, Mike appeared out of nowhere and in my face! I wondered, “What now?”

Mike said, “I’m so sorry about what I did. I’ve been beaten twice for what I did because people have so much respect for you and what you do. I just didn’t know. I’m sorry.” I was very surprised and said the only thing I could thing of, “That’s OK. Thank you for telling me.” He went to sit at the back of the corner where we were.

Mike got up again and said, “I am very sorry. Do you forgive me?” I had taken some time to think this time. I said, “Of course. I really appreciate you telling me how you feel now. I made a couple of mistakes that night, too. I hope you’ll forgive me for that as well.” Mike didn’t seem convinced. He held out his arms, and asked again, “Do you forgive me? Can I give you a hug?” I answered by leaning toward him and giving him a big hug.

Mike still would not take anything from me that day in the way of food or help, but he did talk with me. I look forward to seeing him again. Perhaps he will one day understand the prodigal love of the Father and how he can turn all the hurt in his life over to Him.

P.S. I am rarely in danger or in fear, but personal safety is always a prayer request that I give to me prayer team. (Twice in 18 months have I ever felt in danger.) I have training in intervention and street safety, and I am constantly learning to trust my instincts more and more. However, this is a stark reminder that anyone who lives on the street also has the capacity for violence. No amount of training can put me in control. This is one reason I ask volunteers to never work alone with homeless. Always team up. Even now, please remember how I started this. This story is one of the redemptive potential of a relationship. It is not a story about all homelessness. Almost all the homeless young people I know are kind and respectful almost all the time.

November 13, 2009

The Courage to Seek Help

I have several clients now who have sought help. I admire them very much. It takes courage to figure out that one needs help and to be willing to seek it.

“Jeff” came to me. He had been working on some issues about healthy dating and relationships. However, over time he was becoming sad and depressed. He lives on the street. He is far from home where he has friends and relatives. Day by day, he seemed to seek deeper into despair. His despair looked like going back and forth between anger and sadness… intense action and inaction. One day he even talked about suicide with me. And then one day he disappeared.

I had become a little too attached to Jeff. His disappearing really worried me. I looked for him in person. I looked online for him. But in the end, I could only pray for him. More on Jeff later.

Another client, “Tom” uses a drug that creates chemical dependency. And he craves it regularly. However, he doesn’t want to live enslaved to the drug. “This is no way to live,” he says to me on an almost daily basis. I have given him the numbers to call to get assessed and into rehab. And I have prayed frequently with him for the cravings to ceased. Slowly he has come to the point of making the phone call. At first, it was just asking for the number day after day. Then it was calling but hanging up. Then it was leaving a message but no number. Finally, he made the call and talked to a person. I stood by him as he explained to the caring lady on the other end where he was and what he is doing. He now has an appointment for assessment and evaluation.

“I was afraid,” he said before when I asked why not make the call today. “I feel better… so much better,” he said after making the appointment. “I know, I know!” I said. “You have been working up to this moment for a while, now. I’m very proud of you for knowing what you need and asking for it. This is something that I would pray for everyone, to know what they need and to be willing to ask for it.” We prayed together in praise for what had happened and what will happen. We again asked for the craving to go away as well as for the help to break the chemical dependency.

Back to Jeff. I saw Jeff about three weeks later. He ha checked himself the very night of our last discussion into a mental health treatment center. He had advocated for himself and gotten the right medicines. He told me, “I’m so much better now. I just wasn’t able to think straight back then. Now maybe I can keep working on my life with a straight head.”

Both of these young street men have great courage. How many of us want to come face to face with the fact that we need help? We all do, of course. We need help from one another to make it through the day. We need help from our heavenly Father for provision and wisdom. And most importantly, we all need grace from Jesus to wash each of us clean from our sins. We all sin. Big sin, little sin. Visible sin, hidden sin. It all is the same in that it separates us from God. And only the grace provided by Jesus can bring us back to the Father. And we need the courage to realize this and to ask for it.

For some of us, that courage was probably not as much courage as Jeff or Tom needed to call out for help. However, for many, asking for the grace of Jesus is just as scary as what Jeff and Tom are doing. These people imagine that they have gone too far astray, done too many things, indulged in too many ugly actions to ever be taken back. If they only knew how unfit we all are without Jesus’ grace. If course, they are wrong. For these people who feel so far, I pray extraordinary courage to face Jesus and ask, “Please come to me now. Please extend your grace to me. I want to get to know you personally and see you moving in my life.” The courage to be dependent is something we all need.

November 13, 2009


November 5, 2009

The Desire of Addiction

I have many street friends who struggled or struggle with addiction. They all talk about the same thing: the unceasing desire for whatever it is that they use. Kicking the physical addiction is something that almost every one of them has done more than once, but making the desire go away just doesn’t seem to be man’s work. Here are snapshots of conversations I have had in the last week about the desire of addiction:

One friend, “Walter,” had a recent scrape with the law and got off very light with several months jail time. He is not a believer but is tolerant. He has experienced things in church that have pushed him away from Christ. In a discussion about his future, he told me, “I just don’t know what would make me happy. If I could find that, I could probably quit [his drug]. I’ve tried lots of things… living normally, a house, a job, a church. But nothing made me happy. And I always have this desire for [the drug.] It haunts me always.” I asked, “How can I pray for you today?” He answered, “Pray for me to want the desire to go away. Right now, I just don’t.”

Another friend, “Bailey,” suffers withdrawal every day because he can’t afford as much [drug] as he needs. He has done many bad things to get the money for drugs in the past, but he hates that and knows it will end badly if he continues. He is trying to leave it behind. But the desire is still strong in him. He calls me or sees me almost every day. You can see that he wants to be better in his face. But when he talks about any plan to bet better, you hear that he wants to do it by himself, without rehab and without submission to God’s authority. Bailey is a believer, but his own will is strong and rebellious for the moment.

We pray together, usually on the street and without bowing our heads, looking eye to eye. In prayer, I sometimes speak for him when he doesn’t know what to say and watch his eyes to see if I’m speaking the truth: “God. We’re gathered here, two believers. So we know that you are here. You stand with us. God, Bailey is hurting. He wants things that are not good for him. He wants them so bad. Lord, Bailey is angry with you. He doesn’t understand why this is happening to him. He doesn’t understand why his enemies, real and drug-based, surround him and taunt him and threaten to destroy him. He doesn’t feel your comfort and your love. Oh God… it hurts so much.”

I paused and said, “I’m putting words into your mouth. Do you want to say something different?” He chokes out, “No. You’ve hit it on the head. That’s exactly how I feel, and I don’t know what to do.” I continue, “God, you’ve heard it from Bailey. Your son Jesus knows exactly what it feels like to be tempted in this way. And Jesus knows exactly Bailey’s pain because He bore it in the Garden and on the cross. We beg for mercy and forgiveness.”

I said to Bailey, “Now here comes the important part. Pay attention.” “Lord, Bailey is hurt and angry, and he’s being honest with you now. BUT… you are God. You are Lord. You alone are sovereign. Take this addiction away. Take the desire away. We will wait for You. We will wait for Your healing. We will wait for Your time. We know You have plans for Bailey to prosper him and not harm him. We thank You, God, for his recovery in the future. We thank You for standing with us now.”

I told Bailey, “We more or less just prayed a Psalm that is very old, a Psalm of pain and anger. It’s OK to be honest with God about how you feel. You don’t have to clean-up, sober-up, or fancy-up to talk with God.” He said, “I feel better now. Thank you so much for helping me to pray.”

Yet another friend, “Sam,” is addicted to pills. He is ashamed and knows it hurts him and his family. And yet the desire is there, and he just can’t quit. I approached him on the street at a time when he was in a place very similar to Bailey. I recently checked up on him. Rather than have me pray for him, he said, “I feel like praying right now. Will you pray with me?” He bowed his head and took my hand on the Drag. “Father, I thank you for everything you give me every day. I thank you for food and clothes. I thank you for friends. I thank you for your protection. I want you to remove the desire for pills from me. I want to stop but I can’t do it alone. Help me.”

Joey” is one friend who is recovering for more than 15 years of addiction. He’s homeless even today, although he couch surfs and goes to school. He has no money for rent or food, but he’s a strong believer. He recently told me, “After 15 years of praying for God to take the craving for [my drug] away, he finally did it. It’s simply gone now. I just woke up one morning this summer and realized that it was gone. And it hasn’t come back.”

Another friend, “Thomas” says: “I’ve worked the [twelve] steps for many years. But this time, God took away the desire. I’ve been sober now for [120] days and the desire for [drugs] is just gone. That He took this away so quickly is amazing. I think, ‘Wow! He must have good plans for me if He did this for me so quickly.'” Thomas is couch surfing and has a job and can afford to eat. He’s looking for a low cost apartment now as the next step!

People can remove themselves from the drug. But only God can take away the desire. Please God, walk with people who are addicted today. Help them to know that they cannot get well on their own. Help them to submit to your authority and to ask you to take away the desire. Thank you for their recovery, Lord. Amen.