Street Stories

Weblog of Seattle minister to the homeless Rick Reynolds, Operation Nightwatch

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Location: Seattle, Washington, United States

Caring for human beings seems like the best use of my time, homeless or not.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Overton Berry, 1936 - 2020

 Longtime jazz pianist Overton Berry died this week. Of course there's a Nightwatch connection.

I was called by an out-of-town friend. They were worried about their friend. She was in crisis. She was off her meds. She had come to Virginia Mason hospital. But I had no idea how I was going to find her. She wasn't a patient in the hospital. She was just visiting.

But I dutifully showed up. And I literally opened the door, and there she was, coming out! What are the chances. She was on a manic high, and told me "Let's go over to the Sorrento. My friend Overton Berry is playing!" 

{Of course she was out of her mind. This is not an uncommon occurrence for someone being manic.}

We walked the two blocks to the lounge, me in my clerical collar and jeans, she in a conservative dark dress. She ordered a gin and tonic, I had a diet Coke.

Overton Berry was playing - piano jazz, with his bass player and drummer. It was fantastic. "He's my friend!" she kept reminding me between things.

Well, by golly, Overton finishes his set, comes over and sits with us. You could have knocked me over with a feather.

There were a few more moments over the next week when the mania kicked in - she stayed at our house for a night, never came back for her suitcase, which we finally returned to her through a mutual friend. Just another night on the street. But I became a fan of Overton Berry, and I was sad to learn of his passing today.  There are lots of songs on YouTube. 

Rest in Peace

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Easter and The Virus

In Jerusalem, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is locked for the first time since the Black Plague in 1349. Oh, it has been shut up for a few days here and there – as a protest or a short-term war response. But this is the first time the doors have been locked, indefinitely, in more than six centuries. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is, of course, the traditional site of Jesus’ burial, the location of the Resurrection. It is closed, and will stay closed, in the face of the international pandemic. The shopkeepers will not be able to sell their cheesy knick-knacks to thousands of Christian tourists absent this year.
This closure of a holy place accompanies the closure of church buildings around the world. And not just churches, but mosques, A.A. meeting halls, synagogues, and temples of all types are shuttered.
So, Christians will forgo the passing of the peace, the instructions to “greet one another with a holy kiss.” In fact, in an abundance of love and caution, we will worship in spirit and in truth, apart from each other this Easter.
That first Easter was not so great either, just to remind you.
There was not one single ham dinner served that first Easter. No White House Easter Egg Roll, no bunnies, no Peeps, no candy eggs. Chocolate wasn’t even a thing. There was not a single note played by a single pipe of the 3,944 pipes of a Flentrop cathedral organ. No choirs. No priests in robes, no Easter cantatas, no grand oratorios, no parades, or frilly dresses or fancy hats. There was not a single offering taken, and though it may shock you, none of Jesus’ followers had communion that first Easter Sunday. Nary an Easter lily would have been present.
Which is to say, we will be fine. Christ is risen! And the response, via Zoom: “He is risen indeed.”
Before Covid-19, many lifetimes ago, I would enter my church and look across the fence and see the priest for the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of St. Nicholas. He would wave, and I would say “Christos voskrese!” and he would respond, with a smile, “Voistinu voskrese!”
It may be a bit different this year, but that’s the wonderful thing about Easter. It’s always different anyway. Different Sundays, different styles, different traditions, different languages and cultures. The fact is, God did something new. And something new will happen this year, and we do not have to be infecting each other to recognize this differentness. Because our entire celebration is grounded in this one fact: In Christ, God did something the world had never seen before. And if this year feels foreign or strange, that’s okay. The resurrection is not something we can do anything about one way or another anyway. The resurrection of Jesus, and our resurrection is about the surrender of human agency at its very core. We are powerless in the face of death. We cannot raise ourselves. There is nothing we can do, but proclaim, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” And the power of death that still holds sway for the moment is put on notice that it is on shaky ground.
COVID-19 does not have the final word. Thanks be to God.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

How things change

Two months ago she was sleeping in her car.

Six months ago she was in homeless camp.

A year ago she was in a transitional housing program.

"Despair" reaches a point where you can't even recognize that the tide has turned, and things are starting to go your way. She couldn't work because of health problems, truck problems, personal problems. How can you even go to work when you don't have access to a shower, or a real bed to sleep in? And all of this happens while the skies are pouring down on you.

But now.

But now, today, her big problem was hanging her television on the wall of her very own apartment. There was no light, and her stuff littered this brand new apartment in a brand new building. Just in time for the brand new year.

Grant wisdom and strength.

Friday, November 22, 2019

In the cave

I was at Roman Miller's funeral service yesterday. Very inspirational. A story was told by his brother-in-law.

They were young guys in a group of people who were exploring a cave system in the Ozarks. Roman and his brother-in-law decided to go on, while the others were done. The two were crawling along a tight passage and the brother-in-law got stuck.

At this point in the story, I remembered a similar situation, many years ago, at Craters of the Moon National Monument in southern Idaho. Vast tunnels of cooled lava become interesting caves to explore, At certain points there were "passages" where we could squeeze through, wriggling on our stomachs for an indeterminate distance, and eventually we'd pop out - hopefully -- into a larger space, where we could stand up. I remember being pressed pretty tightly in absolute pitch black darkness. Flashlights were of little use because there frankly wasn't anything to see. My skinny little teenage son was considerably more comfortable than I was at that moment, with my, ahem, barrel chest and middle age waistline.

So Roman and his brother-in-law were in this tight passage, in the dark, only the brother-in law couldn't wriggle his way forward or backward. And Roman was right behind him.

I'm hyperventilating thinking about it.

Roman started pushing on his BIL's feet, and he was able to lever himself ahead with that help. Roman then pulled on the foot to bring himself forward. And so they extricated themselves and stood up in a vast vaulted cavern, a place where the flashlights would matter.

It's a good metaphor for a redemptive life. We don't have perfect sight along the way. We find ourselves stuck at times. But we have the opportunity to spur one-another into a better place.

We need those moments, especially in tough times. With God's help, and the encouragement of others facing the darkness with us, we can stand together in a new and better place. We need each other.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Too funny

Theological question came up. "Catholics like a crucifix, reminds them of Christ's suffering, Lutherans like a plain cross, reminds them of the resurrection. Which is better for dealing with vampires?"

A good fight

We are like boxers,
You and I
Battered, bloody in our corner
One eye puffed closed
All sweat and spit and tears.

The battle is not over
We wait for the bell that
Calls us back to it.
But for these moments in the corner
There is rest for the soul.
Coach to trainee
Whispers encouragement
The fight is not lost,
Take a breath.
You are tougher than you think

You can take a punch
It staggers you
Only for a moment
You wipe the tears and sweat from your eye
And leap back flailing
Not a punch in anger
But the gentle blows of love,
Joy peace patience kindness
Goodness, gentleness, faithfulness
And perhaps the trickiest finesse move of all
Self control.

Through every round shouts of encouragement –
Because there is a trainer who cares for you
And a Manager who loves perfectly well.

“There’s no quit in this one”
a confident voice comes to you
low, through the raucous din.
You bob, you weave, you fall back,
Up again in a moment.
No quit. Not this time.
Accusers at ringside jeer
“Nothin’ left! Give it up!”

You go on.
You won’t quit.
You fight a good fight.

Ruby Label - Rest in Peace

The earth spins around. Sunrise. Sunset. We build. We tear down. We build, and tear down again.

The Skid Road of the 1960s is barely discernible any more. The Skid Road Community Council is gone. The First Avenue Service Center is gone. Eskimo Sam gave way to Gooey Duck Frank to another guy who's name has not yet become memorable.

Our civic memory is short-lived. Not many people remember Ruby Label - a fixture at his pawn shop on First Avenue. There is a clip from a movie about Nightwatch that was filmed in 1970. It shows Ruby Label sitting with one of the Skid Road denizens of that time. He says something like "This is Robert. He's a human being!" and every time I see that clip I tear up.

Ruby Label (Reuben Label) 1918 - 2014 עליו השלום.

The Messiah Returns. Visit #394

May 20, 2004, Nightwatch got a visit from a diminutive Asian guy. He wasn't homeless, but somehow he knew about us. He was helping an elderly African American women get into shelter. At that time he said "I know it may sound strange, but I'm the Messiah."

Well, hmm. "Maybe you're a disciple?" He decided that would do.

This launched a long-time friendship. I got to know his family. I helped him with various projects. I assisted him when his mental health problems led to homelessness. And though he's moved out of the neighborhood, I still see him on a fairly regular basis.

You've probably seen him too, in his wild costumes around town. Yesterday he was dressed up in a combination of Chicago Cubs gear, and the Stay-Puff marshmallow man from Ghost Busters.

It was entertaining watching people do a double take as he walked around Starbucks and the Lake Forest Park Town Center.

Being with the Messiah is a good reminder that the thread between being homeless and not being homeless can be very thin. There are plenty of people with mental health issues who are not homeless, and who have drug and alcohol issues but aren't homeless. The central problem is expensive housing, and poverty.

Getting people inside will help stabilize all our homeless friends.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018


Apparently some folks in local government came to see one of the homeless programs after hours. It must have shook them. Some funding has been restored. It wasn’t our program, so I won’t name them.

There’s something about looking into the faces of the people being served – old, physically worn, disabled, broken. This will clear bureaucratic fog, to meet some homeless people at 10:30 at night.

Tell us what to tell homeless people at the end of the night at Operation Nightwatch when there is no more shelter in the city. “Where can I go?” they ask us, as we hand them a blanket and a bus ticket.

It’s a question I’ve been asking for 20 years, and still don’t have a response. Why should anyone be sleeping outside when we have buildings empty and heated overnight? Inconvenient?

Too bad.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Some things are easier to fix than others

I was talking with a homeless friend recently. She didn’t want pepperoni pizza – so I was curious. “Vegetarian?” No, she said. Sore teeth. Yikes. And she just started a job this week – not easy to do when you’re sleeping on a mat in a wet tent.

Have you got a plan for dealing with your teeth? Not yet.

Hey Pastor Rick you got any bus tickets? “No,” I say, “but maybe we got some back at Nightwatch. Sometimes people give us some that aren’t restricted.”

I’m standing there in the cold night air, a drop of water dripping down my back every so often.

Give her your Orca card.  Okay, that’s good. Here’s my bus pass – it has about $35 on it. You can get to work and back for a week with that. That problem is solved.

Write down what’s going on with your teeth and I’ll check with my dentist. Maybe she can do something for you.

I can’t imagine living in a tent. I can’t imagine commuting from the suburbs for an entry level job. I can’t imagine living with tooth pain without an end in sight.

But, dang it. I can do something about the commute problem. Dental work and housing are next.