Archive for January, 2010

January 29, 2010

A Simple Memorial

Street Youth Ministry had the privilege of saying goodbye to a client on January 15, 2010. He died January 10 in the early morning. It was the last day of our severely cold weather. He had been cared for each night by the SYM Cold Weather Response teams. He had engaged in more than usual amounts of conversation with me.

About 15 people gathered in the cold rain under a tree frequented by street youth in the West Campus area. It was sort of like being in a TV show… us gathered together in the cold to say goodbye and the rain coming down hard all around us.
The service began with a country western song. Billy liked country western songs. “The Simple Things” by Randy  Travis opened the memorial service. Billy liked the simple things in life. He had to. It’s all he had. The people gathered together celebrated his life by sharing memories of Billy:
  • He would share anything with me that he had.
  • He would wake me up at 6 in the morning like it was nothing and just start talking to me.
  • He loved to sing. He’d be singing that song we just heard over and over if he were here now.
  • I personally never knew if Billy would be angry or good with me. It was different every day. But I looked forward to seeing him and giving it a shot. It meant a lot to me when he would say, “You do all right by me.”
After everyone had a chance to remember the good times with Billy, the folks assembled to remember Billy listened to a more poignant Randy Travis song, “A Place to Hang My Hat.” After the song, I asked what people would miss. Everyone admitted that Billy wasn’t always easy to get along with. I, too, never knew whether Billy would greet me with anger or cheer.  They said:
  • I’ll miss his frankness.
  • I’ll miss long talks with him at night. He knew his Bible and loved to talk about it.
  • I’ll miss him telling me I didn’t do right, shouldn’t get his help anymore, and then walk away telling me he left me a beer hidden behind such and such a bush.
  • Personally, I looked forward to seeing Billy. I will be seeing him out the corner of my eye for a long time. I never knew if he’d be happy to see me or not, but I always wanted to find out.
Then we listened to Amazing Grace by Amy Grant. The lines “My chains are gone… I’ve been set free” hung around us as we sat in silence. Billy suffered from seizures much of his life. He was unable to maintain his medication regime much of the time. They became more serious the last year of his life. Unfortunately, his seizures looked a lot like overdosing from heroine. Billy was often mis-accused of being high when he was really walking around with a seizure in progress. The paramedics often warned Billy that he had to seek help immediately when this happened. Billy sought self medication much of the time as well. All of this made Billy very angry.

I asked those present to celebrate what Billy believed in. He was now right where he always longed to me… sitting in heaven in the crowds that surround his Lord and Savior. And he’s no longer angry. He’s no longer tortured by seizures and the need to self-medicate. Billy has a Savior who understands human existence, even difficult trials like Billy went through. We shared the Gospel that Billy believed in and celebrated its good news.
After the memorial, we shared sandwiches and cookies and hot chocolate provided by SYM volunteers out of the back of my pick-up. Most gathered there knew Billy. Some liked him very much, but some came more out of respect for him than like. Some came not because they knew Billy but to honor a fallen member of the street community. Several volunteers from SYM came or sent their condolences because even they had been impacted by serving Billy on different occasions.


As we left, it seemed the only sign of the memorial were flowers and a photo lying at the base of the tree in the rain. However, a little bit later, one street youth remarked, “No one has ever done that for one of us before. You know, it really feels good to say good-bye like that. Thank you.” The effects of the memorial were more lasting than the photo left behind. This community needs to be loved. It longs; it hurts; it grieves. It also hopes; it also celebrates; it also loves.

The truth is, I did the memorial as much for me as for the street youth. I will miss Billy for a long while. I am so grateful that he could know the Lord. And I pray that Billy has finally found the peace and home that he longed for.
January 21, 2010

A Chain of Caring

In our cold weather response recently, I noticed something unusual. It was a series of very simple events that impressed me as being quite unlikely…

On the first night, a young man, 28, came to me and complained that he needed to go to the hospital to get his hands looked at. They seemed infected and swollen. I have worked with the young man off and on for a couple of years. I told him I would take him when I was finished. He said that he also needed someone to wait and pick him up. I couldn’t do that because I had to get home to someone in my own family who was feeling sick and told him. So he said he would take care of it himself.
On the next night, we served a lot of folks. I didn’t see the man. We gave out just about every hat, coat, and glove that we had that night. The next day, I gathered up every coat, hat, and glove I could find. Volunteers purchased all the gloves in local thrift shops for SYM. Neighbors cleaned out their cold weather stashes and donated extras. It was awesome. A few of the items were funky… some outlandish stocking caps that would either be very popular or laughed at and never touched. And I noticed one ridiculously large pair of gloves–sort of like Mickey Mouse gloves, except brown. I laughed and almost threw them in the trash. But I didn’t.
During the next night, we served a lot of folks again. We gave out brand new sleeping bags and lots of used bags and blankets.  There were two volunteers that night, a couple that I have known since first coming to Austin more than 25 years ago. They were great, interacting with people and helping them find just what they needed on the truck. We were near the end of our time that night, a little bit tired having served everyone. Just then, the young man came up again!
He had two bandaged hands and couldn’t really move them. They had done some type of surgery to deal with his infections. He had just gotten out of the hospital. He hadn’t been out in the cold the previous nights so he didn’t have much in the way of cold weather gear. Amazingly, the volunteer couple rummaged in the truck and found one more brand new sleeping bag hidden under some blankets for him.  And they found a hat for him that he liked from among all the leftovers. They got him hot chocolate and gently placed it between his bandaged hands. As he sipped it, they lovingly asked, “Is there anything else we can do for you?” He replied, “I really need some gloves. My hands are cold.” They all soon realized that there was no way he could put on gloves. However, the volunteer remembered seeing those ridiculously huge gloves. Soon the volunteers were gently pulling those gloves over his wounded hands. “Does this hurt?” they asked. “No… it’s OK.” “Are they feeling warmer?”  “Yes… they’re getting better now.” It was so cool to watch the man and the volunteer interacting as they got those over-sized gloves over his bandaged hands.
With all this, the young man and the volunteers soon realized he couldn’t carry the sleeping bag with his two hands without hurting himself. Again, the volunteers swung into quick action. They made a sling from a couple of scarves. They tied them into the sleeping bag and soon had the bad hanging across the man’s shoulders.
I couldn’t stand it any more. I had to point out to the volunteers and the young man how unlikely this all was. “Why had I received these ridiculous gloves if not specifically for the young man’s hands tonight? How was it that everyone overlooked the brand new sleeping bag if not to save if for the young man’s late arrival? God had specifically provided for him tonight. Did he see it?” And he did. He confirmed that he was a believer and he knew God was taking care of him through Street Youth Ministry and through the volunteers.
The young man died two nights later of a brain seizure. He had been plagued by seizures since becoming an adolescent, and they had been coming more regularly over the past year. Medications were no longer controlling them. When I notified the volunteers of his death, they told me that had talked about the young man ever since their encounter with him that night.
It was indeed an unlikely set of events that led to this homeless man being cared for so well the last few days of his life and having such a profound effect on volunteers and on me. Thanks to all who helped make a difference to this man and to all those served through donations, prayer, and volunteering.
January 18, 2010

Serving in the Cold Under Watchful Eyes

Street Youth Ministry recently held a cold weather response because we had four days of freezing cold weather in Austin. That may sound insignificant to readers in northern areas, but we are not used to it and it was bitterly cold. The kind of cold that sometimes takes the lives of street-dependent people.

So I organized the SYM volunteers and supporters to respond. And respond they did! It was incredible. You can read about the response on our website at under Events. However, I want to relate something that I learned one of those nights.

It was the second night of the response. I had pulled my truck up the University of Baptist church steps, one of the places I commonly meet folks. And quite a few street youth had come by to meet me and get hot chocolate, sandwiches and snacks and to look through my cold weather gear to outfit themselves for what was going to be one of the coldest nights in Austin since years past. They took sleeping bags, blankets, coats, sweaters, socks, scarves, gloves, and all sorts of items. And they were polite and cordial. We talked and checked in with one another. I met a few new people and everything was just swell. I so love what I do.
In addition to the street youth, a number of older folks came by. Some I recognized and many I didn’t. That’s OK. I helped them out, too. However, on this evening a lot of older folks were coming by. Suddenly I realized they were coming from a food pantry down the street that often serves about 250 people! Many of the clients of the food pantry are not street-dependent but are working poor. They drive in from all over the Austin region to receive several bags of groceries, a good meal, and other care. It’s a great program operated by the coalition of Mica 6 churches. However, many of them were now coming to my truck.
Perhaps it was my imagination, but they seemed kind of “grabby” and they took a lot, much more than the average street youth. And they didn’t seem interested in a relationship with me. It felt like the opening moments of a wild and crazy garage sale. I gritted my teeth and stepped back a bit. I had to make a quick decision about what to do. Should I withdraw? Limit people on how much they took? I was leaning toward stepping in to say something.
I heard a voice in my head. It was the voice of Howard Butt, and the line I came came from one of his “Our Daily Work” broadcasts.  It said, “If you want to be a servant, you have to expect to be treated like one, too!” I was convicted by this memory. I stopped and reconsidered my next actions.
These working poor are not my target audience, although they obviously have needs. They are not the center of my calling, although someone obviously needs to serve them. They don’t peak my passion, although I know people who feel deeply about helping such dear folks. But I needed to serve them nevertheless and now! So I put on a smile and went to work serving hot chocolate. I reminded myself that I had already served all my street youth and these folks needed the support too. They just about emptied the truck completely!
After about an hour, the flow of people pretty much stopped. I walked over to the steps and had a seat and drank a bottle of water, the first break I’d had in quite a while. I heard a voice from beside me in the dark. It was one of my street youth from under his bundle of blankets. His name was “Joseph.” He’s a tough and independent guy. His dog was asleep at his feet. He’s a survivor, an experienced outdoorsman, and seems to pretty much need no help at all. Joseph really surprised me with what he said next.
Joseph said, “That was good.” I said, “What? What are you talking about?” He responded, “You served all those people. That was good.” I shot back, “You watched all that? I thought you were sleeping!” He continued, “I’ve been all over the country and have seen lots of street youth workers. Most won’t help older people… won’t do what you did. But you did. That was good.” I was shocked that he had been watching.
I then confessed to him that it hadn’t been easy. “My passion lies in helping young people like you, but I had to make the decision tonight to help these folks also. I almost went the other way. But that just wouldn’t have been right tonight. I know there are people out there perfectly shaped to work with these folks, just as I am perfectly shaped to work with street-dependent youth. God is amazing how he shapes us all for service in unique ways. Someday you’ll find exactly what you want to do, also.” Joseph listened and simply said, “You’re actions tonight speak volumes about you and what you believe. I respect that.”
Joseph and I finished up and I left feeling at great peace that night. I pray that all readers and all clients  find their calling and passions. I count myself very lucky to have found mine.