Archive for July, 2019

Jul-18-2019

Any Port In A Storm- Part 13 of STREET PILGRIMAGE

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My final night of living on the streets of New York City during my spiritual pilgrimage was spent desperately trying to sleep on the floor of the Port Authority Bus Terminal (see left). Like most nights that week, it seemed to go on forever and yet I could never get enough sleep. It was very difficult and like all the people struggling with homelessness surrounding me, I was willing to take any port in a storm…

Grunge And Glory
That day I been panhandling in front of Trump Tower on 5th Avenue. After I was done there I made my way to a quiet, hidden place just blocks away. It was a public, indoor seating area with bathrooms that most people don’t know exists in New York City. It was an oasis for someone like me who badly needed a warm place to rest after a long day on my feet. It was a clean, safe spot for a grungy guy like me to recharge.

Throughout my week on the streets I was diligently seeking God through prayer, listening and reading. I only brought a few items with me that week and one was a new book by Jack Deere titled, Even In Our Darkness. I had this book sitting in my home for a while, but hadn’t read it. I felt that God wanted me to bring it.

As I read the book that day, I strongly felt the presence of God. It was sort of an out-of-body experience. It’s hard to describe how it feels when you experience the Holy Spirit in such a powerful and tangible way. Although my body was achey and depleted from life on the streets, at this moment my body and emotions were overwhelmed with his pleasure and love. It felt like waves of pleasure rolling over me. By the way, although this has happened to me before, it doesn’t happen to me very often. I wish! It was an answer to my prayers for this week-long experience, because my ultimate goal for this pilgrimage was not to understand what the poor are going through (although that did happen), but to come closer than ever to Jesus. I believed that if I drew close to the poor, that I would invariably end up drawing closer to God himself. That is exactly what happened.

Jack Deere’s book was such a perfect companion to me that week. The book was both heart-wrenching and inspiring. In it, he described the story of his success as a leading scholar, popular speaker and author while also suffering through losing his son to suicide and his wife to alcoholism. It was a powerful tale of healing in the midst of tragedy. I had seen Jack Deere speak before and there was something disarming and warming about his genuineness and authenticity that drew me in like I was having an intimate coffee with a best friend. God was using this book to draw me into his heart. (Buy the book!)

Along with the book I was reading a lot of scripture every day from a Gideon Bible I had been given at the New York City Rescue Mission. That day, a few scriptures really stood out to me and were actually prophetic in my life:

“If you seek Him, He will be found by you.” 2 Chronicles 15:2

As I was seeking the Lord that week I was truly encountering his wisdom, vision, grace, mercy and power. I went on to read 2 Chronicles 16:9:

“The eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth to show himself strong on behalf of those whose heart is loyal to Him.”

This felt like a promise to me that God was going to provide everything needed to fulfill his vision for New York City Relief–not only finances to keep gas in The Relief Buses, put food into hungry people’s stomachs and give a working wage for our hard working staff, but the spiritual and emotional strength needed to overcome whatever obstacles might come our way. I felt God specifically tell me to partner with more churches to accomplish our mission. That is exactly what I ended up doing over the next year and experienced a lot of favor from churches ready to link arms and partner with us to bring love and grace to those experiencing homelessness. With the help of church partners we even produced a video highlighting the power of partnering with New York City Relief to transform the church and our friends on the streets.

IMG112Transient In Transit
In considering where I was going to spend my last night in New York City, I decided to use my new friend Jacques’ advice and sleep inside the Port Authority Bus Terminal where many people find shelter every night (see left). He taught me how to buy a cheap bus ticket so that the police wouldn’t at worst arrest me or at best kick me out of the bus station into the cold. It can get down into the 30’s at night in March. I decided to give Jacques a call to see if he would be at Port Authority himself that night. I had been alone for days, so it would be nice to see a friendly face. There was also more safety in having someone to watch my back in the middle of the night when bad things can happen. Fortunately, I got ahold of Jacques and we made plans to meet later.

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The Port Authority Bus Terminal (see left) is the largest in the United States and the busiest in the world by volume of traffic, serving about 8,000 buses and 225,000 people on an average weekday and more than 65 million people a year. How was I going to get a wink of sleep in such a busy public place and why would so many people experiencing homelessness choose to stay there at night?

Unfortunately, according to the NY Daily News (and many of my friends who have stayed in public city shelters) this is why,

“Rats, bedbugs and violence plague the city’s dysfunctional and overcrowded shelter system, built to house people temporarily but now straining under the weight of an expanding crisis. Nearly every homeless person the Daily News interviewed detailed stories of fighting, filth and widespread thievery at shelters. Some had even worse horror stories. Jermaine Williams, 39, a Brooklyn native who’s been homeless for a decade, said he was once awakened by a man masturbating in his face at the homeless shelter on Bedford Ave.

“Outside Penn Station Monday night, Charmain, 41, swore she would never return to a shelter. “I’m not going. They’re going to have to lock me up. The streets are a lot safer. I almost got raped (in a shelter)”, said the woman, who’s been homeless for a year.”

I arrived at Port Authority to find Jacques charging his phone at a charging station while his wife slept on the floor. He told me that his wife was bipolar and self-medicated with tobacco mixed with marijuana. If she didn’t smoke regularly she would flip out. He said even their doctor told him to just let her smoke. Jacques’ wife was stable enough most of the time to paint homes with him and they work regularly when it’s warmer out. She kept her face completely covered with fabric and I asked him if it was because they were religious. He said she just doesn’t want people looking at her. They have been together for 15 years, and married for 5.

Unlike most of the homeless I saw living in the transit stations, Jacques doesn’t drink. Jacques also told me he doesn’t panhandle because it would make his wife too sad. One time they fell asleep at Grand Central and woke up to lots of food and money that people had put down around them. He used the money to buy weed for his wife to keep her calm. Once, some guy even handed him a bottle of expensive whiskey. He doesn’t want to fall into the trap of using alcohol as a coping mechanism, so he gave it away to a homeless guy who was in turn ecstatic.

Not having a drinking problem helps Jacques gain favor with the police. As we were talking, the police came through waking everyone up. Before they could get to his wife, he headed them off to let them know that he was her husband. He woke her up, and as soon as the police left five minutes later, she laid back down and went to sleep.

A little ways down the terminal, I watched the police try to rouse a man. He would not wake up, so they physically picked him up by the arms and carried/dragged him out of the station. I wouldn’t sat that they were too rough–just doing their job. Left behind was a grey wool blanket, which I quickly snatched to use as a mat to sleep on. It was pure instinct, because I was imagining laying my head on the bare, hard floor all night.

Jacques couldn’t go downstairs yet to the Greyhound waiting area until his wife got up and went for a smoke. I was exhausted, so I headed downstairs alone. I put my mat down on the floor in the waiting area and began to read. A man asleep on the floor near me had his boots off and his feet smelled up the entire waiting area. I don’t mean that it smelled a little. It was like toxic fumes that would make your eyes water.

A bus passenger asked the man if he could put his boots back on, but he said they had gotten wet, so he had to let them dry out some. She, along with another passenger, relocated to some seats a little farther away to escape the feet fumes. Thankfully the man did eventually put his boots back on which helped tremendously. Honestly, I could have put with it, but it made everyone else nauseous.

I laid down on my mat, took off my own boots (no shame!), wrapped myself in my blanket and tried to fall asleep. I understood why the other man took off his boots and sympathized. My feet were hot, swollen and my boots were very uncomfortable to wear when trying to sleep. With all of the people around me, both homeless and travelers, it took a while. Even though it was late, there were a lot of people in the Greyhound waiting area. Regularly, loud announcements blasted over the PA system informing people of travel information. I finally fell asleep around 12:30am. At 1:30am the cleaning crew and police woke everyone up so that they could sweep and mop the floor. I stood along with everyone else watching them clean and waiting for our opportunity to get back into the passenger waiting area and catch more sleep.

Port Authority

I did finally pass out, but at 5:15am I woke up needing to go to the bathroom. After that I could not fall asleep again, so I headed upstairs and bought a coffee at Dunkin’ donuts with a gift card that someone on the street had given me while I was panhandling. Boy, was I thankful for that coffee.

As difficult as it was to sleep in Port Authority that night, I reflected that it was actually better than some of the other places I had stayed at which were run by the city of New York like The Main Chance drop-in center. No wonder some people opted to sleep on the hard cement floor here in this busy hub. All of the people who had laid on the floor next to me that night were refugees from who knows what kind of crisis and disaster in their lives. Joining their ranks was eye opening and reminded me once again of how Jesus joined our ranks and chose to align himself with us, despite our many flaws.

Many countries around the world struggle with abject poverty and homelessness. It is more difficult to understand how such a wealthy country like America can fail to help our most vulnerable citizens. I see this as an enormous opportunity for the American Church (big C!) to take our place as those who would come not in judgment, but in compassion to help lift up the broken and the burdened of our society.

I hope that I can be a friend to the downtrodden, the way that Jacques was to me. I hope that I can be Jesus to others the way that Jacques was to me. So often, God doesn’t call the qualified, he qualifies the called. It took sleeping in Port Authority to see that even clearer. You and I can be a port in the storm, whom others can run to in time of crisis. Like Jesus, we can speak peace and command that storm to be still. “Port Authority” has taken on a whole new meaning to me. We have been authorized and commissioned by Jesus to be a place of refuge for those in trouble.

Stay tuned for part 14 of my STREET PILGRIMAGE series titled, The Final Stretch.


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