Some hard, cold nights…
One of our Voices, Liz, shares the story of her humble ministry that loves the homeless and one man’s redemption due to her efforts
Our ministry takes place in where pretty much everyone recognizes as the most dangerous and depressing part of San Francisco. We’re not the only ones who do what we do, but are one of many such groups of people who care about the homeless poor, the profoundly addicted, and the sick who frequent Boeddeker Park in the neighborhood called, “The Tenderloin.” When we refer to this place at the corner of Jones and Eddy Streets as “the park,” forbid yourself the mental image of a nice place to bring the kids on a sunny afternoon. There are a couple of drooping trees, a patch of sparse grass, and a worn basketball court. But you’re just as apt to run across a used needle as an empty bottle of the cheapest wine sold in a nearby liquor store (the kind of store with the grate in front through which they pass the product to their already inebriated customers).
We’ve been going to Boeddeker Park for over 20 years with food, donated used clothing, the warmth of God’s love expressed in our smiles and the Gospel of Jesus declared unapologetically. My late husband Edmond began the ministry soon after his radical conversion to Jesus. Edmond had been a heroin addict and a frequent flyer in this very park for many years. He got so changed by Jesus that there was no place he wouldn’t go, and no one he wouldn’t tell about what God had done. He couldn’t eat in a restaurant without telling a patron or server about the Lord. Everyone at the gym knew Ed from his incessant efforts to convince them to get what he got from repenting of his past life and turning to Christ for forgiveness.
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Ed felt it was his duty to share the good news with everyone he could. He did it not only one-on-one, but also passionately preached to the gathered crowds that came to the park for the food and the clothing. His raspy voice boomed over the small speakers we carried back and forth from our garage about ten times a month. Beyond the souls he spoke directly to in the park, many over the years have testified that from the open windows of their slum-apartments in nearby high rises they could hear his bold preaching. Some even have come into the park in search of the preacher-man who had repeatedly regaled them with straight talk about a God who saves and heals. “I’ve heard you many times, and I want you to know I’ve been taking your words to heart. I want what you got!” “I used to wish you’d just shut the *** up. But now I’m here for prayer. I’m messed up, and I want to get right!”
Don’t get me wrong, not everyone we come into contact with in the park is exactly happy to see us or to listen to our message. They’ll come for the free lunch, some socks, and maybe a tooth brush, but as far as an interest in our God or his Bible – no. We’ve been spit on, cussed out, mocked, and threatened. We don’t take it personally, because we know our Jesus was treated with even less respect and sorely persecuted. He warned us that it would be so among us, and that we shouldn’t be surprised. We count ourselves blessed to have the privilege of doing God’s will in such an unpleasant place week after week.
Among the many that we’ve had the opportunity to see Jesus change, the story about George stands out in my mind. He was a “hopeless” alcoholic that attended our outdoor services many times. As I recall, it was sometime in 2007, and George was drunker than usual. Like a surprisingly large number of people in the park, he’s a veteran from the Vietnam war. A lot of these brave vets come back all jammed up on the inside and hooked on one substance or another (or any combination of such substances). George was a particularly messed up guy. He was hurting on the inside and it showed on the outside.
He came into the park one day and reported that he’d come into some money. As I recall, it was a large amount for one of our friends who live mostly on the street. This isn’t always good news to my ears: that an addict has money to burn. You hope he’ll use it to get clean, get established, and get out of the Tenderloin. But I feared that George like so many, would do just the opposite, and blow it all in a week-long binge or lose it to thieves or prostitutes. When I didn’t see him for a month and then two and then over a year went by when George was “absent” from our street church, I began to speculate that he’d died under the influence or at the hand of a pimp. I guess I’ve seen so many “go” that way over the years that I may have given into some self-protective negativity and cynicism.
A year and a half had gone by, and still from time to time I wondered what ever happened to our friend George. One day before our church service in the park began, a clean-shaven man approached me. “Do you know who I am? Do you recognize me?” he said, clear-eyed and noticeably happy. “George?” I asked with shock. “That’s me!” he said proudly. I noticed a large ring of keys on hanging from one side and a cell phone in its holster on the other. The smell of cheap wine was decidedly absent. We hugged, and when stepped back for another look, I burst out, “Wow, what happened to you?!”
He told me how he’d used that money that he’d been given to get an apartment, some clothes, and then a job. (You’d be surprised how hard it is for a homeless person to get a job when they go to an interview in old and dirty clothes, and don’t have an address to put on the application.) He’d gotten a job working for a priest chauffeuring. I didn’t know that priests had chauffeurs. But this one apparently loves street people and has access to resources with which he goes from place to place distributing money, counsel, and love. Most importantly, George said he’d been making “good choices,” the best of which he said was to “put down the bottle and the pipe and pick up God!” Then he pointed to our bag lunches that were ready for distribution to the people in the park that day, and said, “When I see those bags it brings tears to my eyes. I remember how those lunches got me through some hard, cold nights when I had nothin’.” Tears now streaked both of our faces as we hugged a second time. I had the impetus to continue.