Soon after Amanda and I moved to Pensacola, I saw a guy wearing an army green jacket, apparently homeless, pushing a wheelchair down the sidewalk on 9th Avenue. The wheelchair was occupied by an older woman who was holding a large bag. For the next few months, I would see this same duo on Palafox, near Cordova Mall, or strolling along Cervantes.
Later in December, when our church at First Baptist hosted our annual Homeless Luncheon, I noticed the guy, the wheelchair, the woman, and the bag, as they entered Chipley Hall. It was my chance to meet them, finally. When I greeted the guy, he looked confused and anxious, as though he thought I was going to ask him to leave. He reluctantly told me his name was Steve, and that was about it. The woman did not give me her name, but we made sure that she and Steve received a hot meal, and they left shortly thereafter. Although we offered backpacks, clothing, jackets, and blankets at no charge, I don’t remember that Steve took anything.
For the next few months, when I would see Steve here and there on the street, I wondered about his background, and was curious as to whether the woman was a friend or relative. I’m not sure where they stayed at night, but I assumed that they slept under the interstate bridge. The homeless population in Pensacola skyrocketed after Hurricane Katrina, so keeping up with Steve or any of our homeless friends became more challenging, and street life in Pensacola became more competitive.
I made it a point to learn the names of many of our homeless friends, often listening to their stories, guiding them toward resources, or just sharing a word of prayer or encouragement with them. The following spring, I stopped seeing Steve or his friend on the street. I feared the worst, supposing he could have suffered a dismal fate, or become lost in the turbulent sea of transient life.
Six-to-eight-months later, as I was driving back to the office via 9th Avenue after making visits at Sacred Heart hospital, I saw a wheelchair and a familiar green army jacket. It was Steve pushing the wheelchair down the sidewalk, but this time the chair was occupied only by the large black garbage bag that contained all of Steve’s earthly possessions. The woman was not there. Elated to see that Steve was safe, I whipped into the Krispy Kreme parking lot and approached him as he was traveling his usual route into town. When I called his name he looked up, seemed to remember that I was from the church, but he didn’t remember my name and was still reluctant to talk. When I asked about “the woman,” he said, “What woman? I don’t know a woman.” When I asked where he had been, he only said, “Hospital” and walked away. I encouraged him to come by the church for coffee on Sunday morning, but I got no response. We never heard a word about the female amputee or her whereabouts again, and even later, when Steve gained much greater clarity, he did not recall the woman who once occupied the wheelchair.
A couple of weeks later, I was surprised but pleased when Steve showed up for coffee around 8 a.m. on Sunday morning. He had pushed his wheelchair with the bulky bag containing all his belongings indoors as though it was his trusted companion. He finally but reluctantly agreed to leave the wheelchair just outside the door, as one of our greeters promised to watch it for him. And that was the first of many Sundays that Steve came to church.
Steve usually attended the Early Service, sat in the Atrium during Sunday School, and attended the Mid-morning Service as well. Since First Baptist is an extraordinarily caring and friendly community, and a church better skilled than most to welcome and minister to the homeless, many folks were speaking to Steve, but he would only nod and occasionally tell someone his name was Steve, careful to keep his distance. I feared he would be overwhelmed and not come back.
When I say “attended,” I use the word loosely. Steve would find a seat, move to another seat about five minutes later, go the restroom, return to his seat, and move again. Simply because his constant movement was a distraction to many in the congregation, a couple of us kindly encouraged Steve to go to the restroom before the service, and we tried to explain the importance of finding a seat and staying there so that he could take in all the service. It wasn’t a demand from us, as much as it was a gentle orientation to church life, intended to enrich Steve’s social and spiritual awareness. However, once again, after our huddle I feared he would not come back.
But come back he did. Every time the doors were opened. Steve started coming on Wednesday nights. Someone would usually offer to buy his meal, but Steve often had money and insisted on paying for his own plate. He was still distant, slow to speak, and at times disoriented, but he seemed to know that church was a safe place, so he began conversing a little more around the dinner table. On Wednesday nights, he began learning a few names of other church members, and almost everyone in the church knew Steve’s name. Many wanted to help but getting information from Steve was like prying a fish from an osprey’s talons.
One Wednesday, shortly after winter arrived, a heavy freeze was in the forecast and the temperature was already in the 30’s at church time. Yet, here came Steve, from under the bridge, up the sidewalk with his trusty bag and wheelchair, and into Chipley Hall. Since the temperatures were expected to drop into the teens overnight, with the possibility of a light snow and ice, we knew we couldn’t let Steve sleep in the cold. But even my suggestion that we take him to a shelter or safe place was met with suspicion and high anxiety. After arguing with him for a few minutes, our associate minister, Ross Lankford, and I, convinced Steve that he might not survive the night in the cold, and he reluctantly agreed to let us transport him to Waterfront Mission.
The next dilemma was getting his wheelchair and bag into my car. When Ross and I tried to extract the large bag from the wheelchair, we discovered that it had been there so long, it had almost “grown attached.” Second, the moment we touched the bag, Steve almost attacked us, reacting much like a mother bear when someone approached her cub. Once again, Ross and I had a serious conversation with Steve, in the cold parking lot, about how his safety was our priority. I think he finally understood our intentions and allowed us to put the bag in the back seat, the chair in the trunk, and Steve in the front seat.
Later I would learn from Steve’s mother that, when Steve was a young man, his father dropped Steve off at a hotel with a bag of clothes and said, “You are on your own.” Shortly thereafter, Steve’s father took his own life. With no place to call home, and disconnected from his mother, Steve had begun lugging this bag, containing his meager possessions and his mixed memories, with him everywhere and didn’t want to let the bag out of his sight.
On this cold evening, as we were en route to Waterfront Mission, for some reason, Steve talked to me more than he had spoken since I had first met him. He told me that his mother lived in Colorado, that he hadn’t seen her in years but talked to her on the phone occasionally, and that he had a sister but didn’t know for sure where she was. He told me that he was not afraid to live on the street and that most of the homeless looked out for each other, except for the bullies, which he avoided. He assured me that he wasn’t currently “drinking or on drugs,” although I had not asked. For a few brief moments, a different personality shined through. When I dropped Steve off at the shelter, he thanked me, but there was no touching. Steve bristled when anyone tried to touch him or shake his hand. However, I sensed that a slow and gradual transformation was taking place.
Al Smith, one of our many servant-hearted members, recalls seeing Steve for the first time in 2010. Later in 2013, Al met Steve at a 5th Sunday cookout. Soon after that, Al began trying to encourage and assist Steve. After getting to know a little more about Steve’s circumstances, Al wanted to talk with me about Steve. Al had been visiting with Steve at our mission center, Samaritan Hands, and Al had the crazy idea that he might be able to get Steve a place to live and a job. Even though I was highly concerned for Steve and our homeless friends, I suppose I had grown a little crusty and less optimistic. I cautioned Al not to get his hopes up and even said to Al that Steve might be one whose potential was being maximized by our trying to keep him safe and well-fed. Not to be discouraged, Al pursued assistance for Steve proactively and aggressively. And I am so glad he did.
Al took Steve to 90 Works, an organization that assists our transient friends by evaluating vocational skills, observing their potential, and assessing benefits and resources available to them. Over the next few weeks, we discovered in a medical evaluation that Steve has been diagnosed a paranoid-schizophrenic, and that he had not been taking his medicine appropriately. We also discovered that Steve was entitled to benefits that he had not yet accessed. To summarize, after a brief hospital stay where Steve’s medicine was evaluated and administered correctly, Steve had a new lease on life. Al, with the help of 90 Works, found Steve a place to live. Steve had a new wardrobe, and when Steve returned to church, he had a new disposition, a cheerful countenance, and demonstrated a higher intellect and remarkably upgraded social skills.
After giving myself an internal reprimand, “Oh, ye of little faith,” I joined the congregation in celebrating Steve’s extreme makeover. He learned names quickly. He wanted to find a place to serve, and he chose Samaritan Hands, the ministry that had helped him. A short time later he got involved in Kairos, a ministry to inmates. Steve was also invited by 90 Works to share his story at one of their major events, and this homeless guy who wouldn’t say much other than his name when we first met, stood in front of dozens of people and spoke articulately about his journey.
In 2015, between our worship services, the church hosted a surprise reception in the Atrium for me and my wife for our 10th anniversary. Steve was the last one in the receiving line. When I put out my hand to shake his hand, he put down his cake, and gave me a bear hug as he said, “I just want to thank you for being my pastor.” As Steve walked away, I stood there wiping away tears of gratitude for Steve (even as I am doing as I write these words), for his new lease on life, and for the privilege of serving the kind of congregation that notices, cares, and goes the extra mile for the Steves of the world. And for servant-hearted folks like Al and Martha Smith, Bill Farris, Tim Milstead, Quoc Vuong, Barbara Shows, my wife Amanda, and others who saw potential in Steve despite his transient dilemma. I continue to be grateful for Samaritan Hands, Waterfront Mission, 90 Works, and Lakeview Center for the encouragement, care, and resources they provided to Steve. And I am thankful for the seeds of grace that are planted when the church is busy being the church.
A few weeks later, Steve asked to join the church. He thought he had been baptized earlier in life but couldn’t clearly remember much other than “I believed then and I still do.” He officially joined in November of 2015, although we claimed him as one of our own long before that. The next year he approached Ross and said I want to be baptized so that “I have a baptism to remember, and so that others will know what I believe.” Steve was baptized in September of 2016.
Over the past few years, Steve continued to come to church almost every time the doors are opened. Almost everybody knew Steve. He became sort of a fixture at First Baptist, the “poster child” for caring ministry, one who reminded us to care even when we don’t see the immediate fruit of our caring.
We were all stunned and saddened to learn that Steve did not wake up on Thursday morning. He likely died in his sleep in his apartment due to complications with diabetes. After hearing of Steve’s unexpected passing, it occurred to me that many of the folks around First Baptist these days don’t remember the wheelchair. They never saw the big black bag. They never met the forgotten woman who occupied that wheelchair 13 years ago. And they would never believe that Steve was once quiet, anxious, and “untouchable.” They will only remember the new Steve: 30 pounds heavier, friendly and outgoing, often wearing a Crimson Tide shirt, and being among the first to welcome new members to First Baptist, even as others generously and proactively welcomed him a few years ago.
Now, as I think about our journey with Steve, I am processing the things we learned. When Steve first came to church, I remember thinking ever so naively that there are some things Steve can learn from us. And I do think Steve learned several things and his life was enriched by being a beloved member of our church family. But more importantly, I think we as a congregation learned much more from Steve than he learned from us.
Among the many lessons Steve taught us, let me highlight a few that are already influencing and shaping the way we do ministry:
• Effective Christian ministry requires the engagement of the head and the heart. Our faith is at its best when we are caring for the least of these. But effective ministry for the least of these requires compassion and accountability. When dealing with the homeless, be “wise as serpents and gentle as doves.” Unconditional love and tough love are tenacious teammates.
• Everyone has a story that shapes their lives, and we are not privy to all the details of that story. Be careful not to judge or stereotype others. Be slow to criticize those in whose shoes you have not walked, or in this case, those whose wheelchair you have not pushed.
• There are many reasons for homelessness, and we can’t fix them all. But we can offer grace, opportunity, and resources to as many as possible.
• Life is messy but grace in not intimidated by the messiness of life. Progress in ministry comes in baby steps, not by leaps and bounds.
• The source of our joy comes not from wealth, fame or accomplishment. Our joy comes from being accepted unconditionally into God’s family, a family that is extraordinarily welcoming and redemptive.
I am not sure whether our church was a band of angels sent to Steve in his time of need, or whether Steve came to us as an “angel unaware” who brought out the best in us. But I am sure, and thankful, that both happened.
Farewell, my friend. Until we meet again.
(Barry Howard is the retired senior minister at First Baptist Church of Pensacola. He currently serves as a Leadership Coach with the Center for Healthy Churches and is a board member of The Baptist Center for Ethics.)