The often long road we walk alongside youth
One distinctive thing about the ministry at Cup of Cool Water is that reconciliation is central to what God has called us to do in the lives of youth experiencing homelessness. This is so central that a few years ago we changed our mission statement from “Empowering youth who are homeless to become whole hearted followers of Christ and to exit street life.” To “Walking alongside youth who are homeless on their journey of reconciliation with themselves, God and society.”
We decided to make the change because we see in the lives of the youth that there is a disconnect between who God created them to be and how they see themselves. If you grew up in the evangelical church, or have been around evangelicals enough, you probably heard the gospel begin with the statement that “I am a sinner in need of a savior.” Of course, this is true, but for the youth we see on a daily basis at Cup, this is all too obvious and in many cases, the youth don’t see it as a problem. We start from a different perspective. For the youth we serve, many of whom are at rock bottom, the truth that we start with is that they are created in the image of God, very good, loved by God exactly where they are at.
There are times where the stars align and we can express this to a youth and they hear it and receive it with joy, but more often than not, we get to express this truth in the way we treat each and every person who walks through our door.
About four years ago, I met Matt. He had a certain volatility about him that you only see in people who have experienced an immense amount of pain. When I met him for the first time, he looked me in the eye and said, “fuck you, get the fuck out of my face.” He was high and drunk and I had to kick him out of the drop-in center. Some version of this happened every time we saw Matt for the first year or two that we knew him. I’m not sure we ever saw him sober during that time.
Every time we kicked him out of the drop-in center, we would have a conversation with him that we have with every youth we kick out, whether for a day, a week or a month. This is the reconciliation conversation. When the person comes back after their ban period, we welcome them back with open arms, but we make sure of at least three things. In that conversation: 1) we make sure that they can restate to us what happened that led to us kicking them out. 2) make sure that they take ownership of their actions. 3) They agree to make an effort to not repeat their behavior.
This process of reconciliation is possible for a few reasons, one is that we have an environment of respect and love and we believe that love has boundaries. We often intervene in conversations or behaviors in the drop-in center that don’t demonstrate respect or love. The other main reason we are able to have these conversations is because the youth who spend time in the drop-in center want to be there. We can leverage this and we can begin the process of reconciliation as a result.
Back to Matt; I knew him for about two years before I had what I would consider a respectful conversation with him. I was honestly shocked. He started dating a sweet girl we have known at Cup for nearly a decade. When they dated, he was motivated to make major changes in his life. He asked me if I would help him get his ID. I had been through this process before and getting an ID for someone who hasn’t had one before can range from a mild headache of a process, to nearly impossible. In his case, he has on the “nearly impossible” side of the spectrum. He was born in Colorado and had never had an ID there, he somehow had an ID from another state and he had managed to set up his benefits to get food stamps when he first moved to Spokane before he lost the ID that he did have. This meant that in order to get an ID, we would have to make dozens of phone calls, jump through hoops, write checks on his behalf and call in favors to have a notary notarize a document.
The benefit in rushing around having frustrating dizzying requirements was that we spent a lot of time together. Over the course of about a month, we spent probably 15 hours of time one on one working through this and as a result, we started to build mutual respect. Around the time we had finally finished all the paperwork Matt and his girlfriend broke up and he turned to drinking. He was constantly drunk for at least 2 weeks and he would get into fights nearly every day during that time and he had almost no memory of them. His friends would usually tell him about it the next day and even through the numbing effects of the alcohol he could feel the pain of his broken, bleeding and bruised knuckles.
Matt ended up in the county jail because of one of these fights and I almost immediately started sending him letters. This is something we love to do at Cup (and we are doing it now as well) because when someone is in jail, they have time to think, but almost more importantly than someone being reflective is that to send someone a letter is a tremendous act of love and for those who I have written in jail, there is a real bond of brotherly love between us. While he was in jail, he had a moment of clarity. He wanted to follow Jesus. Over the course of the next few months, I was blessed with the honor of seeing how God was revealing himself to Matt.
When he was released, there was a short period where he wanted to get his life straight, but it wasn’t long before his old associations brought him right back to where he was before he was in jail. He was heading down a dangerous path. He started complaining about pains in his kidneys and hand but wouldn’t go to the doctor. By the grace of God, he got into another relationship. I say that it is an act of grace because Matt does so much better when he is able to channel his energy into a relationship rather than violence. He did well for a few months, but turned back to the booze when his girlfriend got pregnant then decided to have an abortion. This brought him to an all-time low and he nearly drank himself to death.
Do you sense a pattern here? Through all of this we spent time with him, mostly in the drop-in center, building respect and showing him love. God bless our volunteers who showed him nothing but love while at times being verbally accosted or even threatened by him. Before the “Stay home, stay healthy” order, two of our volunteers had to kick him out because he was talking about a fight he had and was belligerent due to being staggeringly drunk. They asked him and another youth to leave the drop-in center because their behavior was negatively impacting the environment. They eventually left, but broke a window on the way out. One thing that is important to note here is that even in the worst moments of the drop-in center, none of our volunteers have ever been harmed by a youth. We have had a few broken items, but I whole heartedly believe that there is enough respect among the youth we serve that violence toward a staff member or volunteer has never been a realistic option for any of our youth.
This brings us up to the present moment with Matt. We are still in relationship with him and we want to continue to be people who speak life and love to him and to walk with him on his journey of reconciliation. Not every story ends in the way we would like it to, but by the grace of God, his journey is not over yet.