In the mid-section of her ordinary life, my friend Denie, whom I’ve known since before we were old enough to vote, felt what she described as a call of God to minister to the homeless. She wasn’t sure what that meant for her life, but she was full of faith and unction that she had received a bonafide assignment from the Holy Spirit. She began volunteering at the city shelter. but within six months she realized that it wasn’t working out. “I don’t mean to sound like what they’re doing isn’t good, because it is, but it doesn’t feel personal to me. These poor people come in day in and day out and they just push them along like cattle. I can’t do that.” And so, she was back to square one. If the Almighty had given her marching orders to demonstrate His love and compassion towards the homeless— and she wholeheartedly believed he had—then she felt certain that there must be a better way.
On an ordinary Saturday, full of the same faith and unction that got her up and out the door to volunteer at the shelter, Denie and her trusty blue truck, headed to another place she knew she’d find the city’s homeless: The Park. With a bag of bologna and cheese sandwiches and bottles of water, she slowly made her way around the shady grassed areas where men and women lounged from the summer heat. “You hungry?” she’d ask with an almost nonchalant detached tone in her voice. This was her way of going in low, gentle attempts at connecting to the most invisible citizens of Boise, Idaho.
Week after week she kept this up. About this time my good friend Ken Loyd was headed to Boise for an event. Ken launched a church for homeless people in Portland, Oregon, a mere seven-hour drive from Boise and where my family and I make our home. I told Denie about Ken, how he was the same as her. “He’s been going downtown for years,” I said, “handing out socks, food and lots of conversation. He’s the guy you wanna talk to.” Then, I told Ken about Denie. “You gotta meet her Ken. You guys are the same.”
The two did meet and though they both are on the quiet side, Denie tells me they managed to have a meaningful conversation, one that helped her find her way as a rookie on the frontlines of street ministry from Ken, the older, wiser veteran. After Ken got back from Boise I asked him about his impression of Denie and what she was doing in the park. “In all the years of people I have talked to, not many get what I’m about. But Denie gets it. She’s like me and I think she’ll be fine.”
What they share in common in ethos and practice is a determination to meet people right where they are in the gritty sub-culture of American homelessness. One starting point was the word homeless …neither Ken nor Denie liked to use it.
“Homeless means loser in our society. It means you’ve failed. But I don’t see failures. I see friends. These are my friends who live outside and I love them and they love me,” says Ken who at sixty-plus in years with his snow-white spiky hair and tattoos scattered on both arms looks more like a pirate than a minister. “I do nothing special by just paying attention and listening.” My friend Denie said the same kind of things. She was already forming this ministry approach when I connected her to Ken who affirmed her. “He told me to go slow, to start off by just sitting and watching and hanging out in the park since I’m the one coming into their home,” she said.
So Denie kept it up, mostly by herself. She’d bring a few sandwiches each Saturday and just hang out in the park. Every week. Every Saturday. While other women grocery shopped and gardened, Denie hung out with street sleepers. Weeks turned into months and before long The Park Guys, as she liked to call them, were rushing up to help her unload her truck. The guys had names and histories and Denie knew all their stories.
Her consistency in coming to the park each week meant that word had spread through Boise’s homeless network. More people were showing up each week. Within a year a hundred people or more were being served by Denie’s homespun cooking who had graduated from sandwiches to hot meals like soup and pasta. With this kind of success, if you can call it that, she also attracted attention from cowboy types who were gunning to get their preach on. “That’s not how we do it down here,” she’d tell each newbie who was itching to have an audience. “Talk to people one on one. Get to know them. Ask them questions. Listen. But no preaching.” Denie had learned, like Ken, that most people who live outside can smell a bait and switch game a mile away. When Christians show up willing to give away food or other goods, but have an agenda to convert the hell-bound sinner, those who live outside pick up this scent of disingenuous conversation as you and I do when the telemarketer’s voice purrs over the line, “I just need a moment of your time.”
One young graduate of seminary somehow caught wind of Denie and began showing up at the park. She was open to his help, but nervous about how gung-ho he acted. He was lacking humility, she decided, but she figured he’d catch on soon enough and be alright. Unfortunately he soon thought of the park as his ministry and Denie as a womanly helper who had opened the door for him. She set the record straight quick. He never came back.
A couple of summers ago I was in Boise with my good friend Vivian and together we helped Denie and the small team of people who had made spaghetti and meatballs for the park people. Denie walked around, checking in on everybody, saying hey to regulars and introducing herself to newcomers. The Idaho sky blazed blue from above as people feasted on food and laughter. It felt like a family picnic.
A couple of weeks ago my church helped out with a meal for HOMEpdx. We met outside under the Hawthorne Bridge where the church meets each week to share friendship, food and humanity with those who live outside. I met one older man who’s a Viet Nam vet, a kind but at times scattered soul who loves to create origami art for friends. One moment he was talking about getting more paper for art, the next he was suddenly telling me about the guys who died in his unit in the Viet Nam war. I let him ramble. Then I preached the love of Jesus to him the way Denie and Ken showed me how to: I just listened as he told his story.
I got an email from Ken today. I told him I was writing an article about him and Denie that emphasized his guiding wisdom being a beacon for my friend when she first started to venture to the park in her early days. Ken quickly dismantled this idea. “Denie has shown me about sticking to the task of love in the face of trial and sorrow. She has demonstrated a quiet authority while bowing low. I’m trying to copy that. I think I’ve learned more from her than from anyone else in the “biz”.” These two undoubtedly share a mutual admiration for one another as there are not many urban missionaries who have blazed the kind of trail which they have.
A few years ago I would not have accepted what Ken and Denie do as legitimate gospel-centered ministry. I would have wanted to know why they don’t preach a clear cut appeal for people to get saved; it would have bothered me that there is too much camaraderie and not nearly enough discipleship. I would have asked, ‘Where’s the fruit?” In doing so, I would have missed the point that if God hangs out with the broken hearted and the poor like the Holy Scriptures say, then Ken and Denie are following in their Father’s footsteps.
Denie still gets challenged from time to time by those who feel that she’s not doing enough (imagine!). She hangs on, though, to the heart of her mission which has always been to find and love the forgotten castaways. She comforts herself that even if others don’t recognize the worth of what she’s doing, there’s a pirate in Portland who does. “Ken is the person who came along side and understood that by just loving and accepting our friends’ right where they were was the greatest example of God’s love we could show anyone.”
That’s a helluva sermon for a non-preaching preacher-woman like Denie to spread each week in the park…To which I say, Amen and amen.