“This guy had just gotten out of jail and was trying to sell me this gun, and then all of a sudden, he turned it on me!” David knows it is a good story and is having fun with it. “He tried to tie up me and my friend and take my van, but I broke free. He chased me around the house with the gun, but my friend just sat there and did nothing to stop him!” I realize I am smiling when I should be horrified, but David continues on, laughing. “He and I struggled with the gun and that’s when he shot off a chunk of my ear, and so he finally tied us up and took my van. But can you believe it – he came back in and asked me how to remove this wooden board in my van before he stole it!”
David is in a wheelchair. He tells his stories about the dangers of roofing work in Detroit and Ohio, about his jail time for selling drugs, and that he came to Austin because he heard there was work. When I ask him if he was injured here, he laughs and stands up. ‘FOR DISPOSAL – DO NOT REUSE’ is written with permanent ink on the seat. “I found it by a dumpster next to a hospital, and I use it to wheel around my stuff.” He adds with a smirk and a twinkle in his eye, “It’s also the only way I can sit downtown where the police don’t tell me to move on.”
On the other side of David is his friend, John. He listens quietly with his back to an I-35 overpass column while David does most of the talking, but his few words surprise me with their clarity. He is probably in his mid-50s and has spent most of his life in Utah, but has come to Austin to get help at the VA. When David leaves for a few minutes, I learn that John had once owned his own home improvement business, was trained as a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer and had helped corporations with their Y2K IT issues, but he had been laid off shortly after 911. His wife had left him a few years ago and he has very little contact with his kids or grandkids. “I’ve put most of it behind me,” he says, not quite looking at me in the eye. He takes the Sunday devotional I am holding on Isaiah 44 and asks me if Isaiah is the one who heals by putting mud in someone’s eye. I tell him that this passage was written to people in exile in a distant country, dislocated from their homes and families.
The speaker had begun his message, but David wants to talk to me about what he is reading in the Bible. He pulls out a massive paperback NKJV Study Bible with a number of bookmarks and turns to James 5:19-20, reading slowly: ‘Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins.’ David wants to make sure I can hear him over the speaker, so he raises his voice to explain the passage. “This means that God loves you, but he will send you to hell if you continue to do wrong. You can’t be like the Catholics and say, ‘I’m saved, I can go out and party and get drunk whenever I want to,’ cause God will send you to hell.”
About this time, I discover that Jodi (my wife) is getting cold from the biting wind under the bridge, so I give her the fleece I am wearing. Without hesitating, David opens his suitcase and gives me his blanket so I can stay warm. I mention to him that God’s love for him is the reason not to do wrong, and he quickly turns to his bookmark at Romans 8:38: “For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
David then tells me of a time early on in his life that he had a vision of God – in the middle of a drug trip. “I was telling everyone I knew about God… I know that the Holy Spirit is in me, but it’s so hard to do right,” he says with exasperation. “I know what I want to do, but I keep doing wrong!” So we flip back a page in his Bible to Romans 7:15: “For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do.” He stops mid-verse and blurts out, “Hey, that’s like me!”
Before I moved back to Austin last May, I lived in a neighborhood of Vancouver, BC where I saw homeless people every day. I arrived at Church Under the Bridge on Sunday morning thinking I had pretty good theology about the poor, but it had been a very long time since I had sat down with someone living on the street to hear their story. As I listened, my arrogance and concealed sense of superiority were confronted, I realized that their stories were not so distant from mine, and I witnessed the power of the Holy Spirit already at work in the lives of men who desperately need him. Even in the midst of such brokenness, they were kind and generous, giving out smokes to strangers who asked for them. They asked me about my work and my marriage. I was cold and they clothed me. When David read Psalm 140 to me, it was clear that he understood the power of the temptations he faced and the need for God’s grace in the midst of it:
4 Keep me, O LORD, from the hands of the wicked;
Preserve me from violent men,
Who have purposed to make my steps stumble.
5 The proud have hidden a snare for me, and cords;
They have spread a net by the wayside;
They have set traps for me. Selah
6 I said to the LORD: “You are my God;
Hear the voice of my supplications, O LORD.
7 O GOD the Lord, the strength of my salvation,
You have covered my head in the day of battle.
8 Do not grant, O LORD, the desires of the wicked;
Do not further his wicked scheme,
Lest they be exalted. Selah
12 I know that the LORD will maintain
The cause of the afflicted,
And justice for the poor.
13 Surely the righteous shall give thanks to Your name;
The upright shall dwell in Your presence.