More of Steven's thoughts as he goes deeper into the wonderful journey of the street retreat.
Day 2- Morning
After a later than expected wake up call by the security guard at the church we slept at last night, I spent an hour or so hanging out with my three new friends at the gazebo at Woolrich Park. It was a great chance to hear Ronnie’s story in more detail. Ronnie is a 24 year old African American with three years towards a Forensic’s major at Texas A&M. He seems the most grounded of all the people I have met so far. This could be due to the relatively short period that he has been homeless. He isn’t addicted to drugs and didn’t so much as light a cigarette in the 16 or so hours I spent with him. His friends say he doesn’t even drink. This is in marked contrast to Angelo who lights up, on average, every ten minutes.
Ronnie is the first veteran of the Iraqi war I have ever met. He served on a medical surgeon team in Fallujah where he participated in several s operations, mostly involving soldiers who lost limbs in battle. Unlike the cadavers that he worked with at A&M, cutting into these living bodies, writhing with emotion did not sit well with him. But when his term ended he nevertheless reenlisted because, where else was he going to go? Toward the end of his term, he developed a thyroid condition that caused him to lose about 65 pounds. The Army thought this was the result of PT at first, but when testing made it clear that he had a medical abnormality, he was prevented from staying in Iraq.
Upon returning home, he did not have the option of staying at any relative’s homes. His greatest ambition is to finish college and become a forensic scientist, determining the cause of death of homicides. The problem is, though he is qualified for the GI Bill, the military will not release any money or grants to him unless he can show proof of permanent address. Without access to family, or friends, Ronnie became homeless. He joined forces with Angelo and Jennifer about 4 months ago, determining that they would work together toward housing and success – a set-up probably similar to the kind of team-oriented unit he experienced in the military; certainly the living conditions could not be any more Spartan. This unit is strong and motivated but even after four months of looking, Ronnie has not been able to get a lasting job, the first step toward his goal.
After saying goodbye to these new friends (giving them my number so that we might meet again in the future), a few of the other retreaters and I headed Eastward toward Angel House, a Baptist Church that serves as one of the only permanent coffee sources for the men like me who are addicted to the stuff. Though the supply is abundant the window is short (30 minutes) and we arrived just after they ran out. This was because, on the way, our gang ran into a pleasant distraction. A couple of young dred-lock laden bohemians were dancing on Congress Avenue at 6th street to beats on one of the guys’ laptops. It was an open-invitation dance party that was too much fun to pass by. After a couple of jigs, we began to talk. These guys first met at the Rainbow Festival which was last held in a National Forrest of New Mexico. After meeting there, each felt individually called by God to come to Austin. They rediscovered each other when they arrived. Together, they dance for God as a witness to the “goodness of their Lord and Savior”. One of them was miraculously freed from a drug addiction 8 months ago and told us his testimony. Before we left for breakfast, we held hands at the intersection and prayed a prayer of blessing on our new friend’s ministry. It would have been fun to dance off down the street but, alas, the batteries had run out on the laptop.
Day 2- Afternoon
After the sadness descended on us from the lack of coffee in our immediate future, our hearts were immediately brightened as several of the other homeless hanging out at Angel House gave us pastries that they had wrapped up for later. As an aside, if I haven’t mentioned it before, the generosity of men and women on the street is truly awe inspiring. It seems evident to me that the less you have, the easier it is to give some away.
We stuck nearby to the house and also lunched on the property (being sure to get there in plenty of time to get some this time). Afterward, our group split up and I met up with Alan while meandering north on an aimless time-killing jaunt. We shared stories of the morning and the evening before, and I moved on in search of God.
The afternoon was full of walking for me. Not sure what I was looking for, I walked most of the way from E. Caesar Chavez to 26th Street on the drag and then back down to near 11th. It felt strangely good to stretch my legs and to experience life as an invisible person. I was barely noticed by any but other homeless people who I tried to talk with as often as it seemed welcome.
At 3pm our group rejoined together and talked through our first full day on the streets. I loved hearing everyone’s stories. Afterward, Stubbs BBQ and Mobile Loaves’ partnered at Woolrich Park in serving the first leg of the “Feed the World” tour to raise awareness about hunger and poverty in America. The park was packed with people waiting to get their Stubbs sandwich. While awaiting the truck’s disbursement, a fellow on the team and I sat down and talked with Jerry, who, it turns out, was the third person I met who had recently contemplated or attempted suicide. At near 50 years of age, Jerry lives alone in a camp so remote in the Texas Hill Country that in three years, it has never been disrupted in any way. He is trained in multiple specialist trades but also has several felony charges against him, most from a mentally unstable wife that has come in and out of his life for the last five years. As such, he can’t get a job. Talking with Jerry made me feel ashamed of a recent bout of depression I felt only a few days before. Here is a guy who is being aged out of the career market, has no body for manual labor, and who is completely alone, though coping with thousands of others in similar circumstances. Together they form a silent, heavily burdened horde, who has ambition but no clear sense of direction; seemingly living in the ‘day to day’ so that the’ week to week’ is not too overwhelming.
Day 2- Evening
After the dinner feast, I decided it was time to truly cut ties with everyone. I alerted Alan that I was going on a walkabout and would see him tomorrow. My gut said to travel South so, after a brief restroom stop at the downtown library, I headed for Congress and the pedestrian river to South Austin. Near Congress and 5th, with the intention of catching a bus down SoCo in pursuit of what God wanted me to experience for the night, I felt the distinct call to turn back. One of the guys with us on the trip owned a tract of land on Congress and suggested that it might make a good location for a Downtown community garden. I knew I should go and check this property out before the sun went down. And so I headed north. The empty, grass-covered, lot looks on 11 Street with a clear view of the Capital grounds. It is not large and doesn’t get good sun, but would be a beautiful garden location. Walking around the area, I noticed two men sitting down in the shade. One country-western looking young man was playing a guitar and an old man I who looked homeless was listening. I walked around and pondered the garden’s potential, squeezing the dirt as an impromptu soil test in my hand. All the while, I listened to the music. While pondering one of the historical markers I heard the singer proclaim, “and this is a song about Jesus.” Listening closely at this point, I knew where I was meant to spend my evening.
After the song was concluded, I asked if it was ok to join their group. Upon closer inspection, I recognized the older man. With a thick long gray beard and a soft but commanding voice, he reminded me of John Muir or some prophet out of the Old Testament. As many times as I had seen him, he always seemed to look at me with a “knowing” look. The singer could not have been any more different. He looked young, childish even. He wore the sort of country western wear that spoke of the discount section of a small town western store. Jake was the singer and Josiah was the older fellow.
Jake played ballads, hymns, and folk songs from Woodie Guthrie, to Cash, to several that he had written himself. After a few minutes, I thought I was witnessing an old musical Tent Revival with an audience of one man. Jake had his Bible out and would talk through what he liked about a song and then cut to a Biblical passage that echoed his thought. Josiah would tune in with a correction or to echo Jake’s thought, adding his own rumination. After several songs, it became apparent I wasn’t watching an old school revival but the theological reflections through music of two old friends. The two men had met nine years before through their mutual acquaintances with Duane Severance, known to most as Austin’s Pastor to the Homeless. Duane earned his place in Austin sparring musically with Lesley on the corner of 6th and Congress. Lesley would throw accusations and Duane would return with a song and quiet word from the Bible. Duane passed away a few weeks ago from a car accident- way too young. Lesley was also in an accident recently and barely survived. Josiah observed how ironic it was that God would choose to take one and leave the other. Perhaps it was injustice he noted, or perhaps God’s mercy in giving Lesley a chance to get right before his time to face his maker truly does come.
Nearly two hours elapsed over songs, scripture, edification, and correction. I left well blessed and received much encouragement to pursue the community garden at the sight. God prepared a church for me tonight, made of body, heart, and memory. It was a beautiful time of grace and peace.
I left to wander south. I pondered some of the Bible scriptures that Jake tossed out at Jo’s Coffee, where I was generously provided with a bit sustenance for my breakfast, free of charge. Walking a bit, I found an abandoned church nearby that seems a safe and quiet place for me to make my bed. I gathered some cardboard from behind a few local businesses so the cold ground will not wake me. A plywood board will guard my bed from the street’s view. I think I will sleep in deep rest tonight.
*note: names have been changed