My friend Bob Starkey died last week, and we will say goodbye to him tomorrow. Bob was the first homeless man who ever called me his friend, something I count as a great blessing. Here’s an excerpt from a book I wrote called An Evangelical Social Gospel, where I tell a bit of Bob’s story.
I have a friend named Bob. Bob is a homeless man who has been an alcoholic for about a decade. He lives in a tent back in the woods under a bridge in town. Bob had a hard life and experienced a lot of pain & death when he was growing up. As an adult, he was in the armed forces and fought in Somalia. He saw some terrible things happen to his friends. As a result of these traumatic experiences, Bob has post-traumatic stress disorder. His way of coping has been to drink himself into a coma pretty much every day for a decade. He lost his job and his family. He wound up living in the woods, drinking away every penny he had.
Bob is my friend because two members of my church, Jim and Jennifer, started going to feed him and a bunch of other homeless people twice a week. They work with an organization in Kansas City called Uplift. Uplift takes food and provisions to the hard-core homeless. These are the people who cannot come into the shelters because they are typically still using some sort of substance and living in a self-destructive pattern. They cannot come to ministries and shelters because they are too addicted and destructive. They couldn’t come to church, so my friends took the church to them in the form of hot food and clothing. That is missional behavior.
Over several years of involvement, Jim and Jennifer came to be friends with Bob. They prayed with him when he needed prayer and they talked with him about God and why they were feeding him each week. After awhile, Bob began asking them if they could bring him to church. So, they started doing so. Pretty soon there were a couple others asking as well, so they brought them, too. Each week Jim or Jennifer, or someone else from our church will drive downtown – a 30 minute drive each way – and pick up Bob and a few of his friends and bring them to a place called Redemption. Here they are welcomed as Christ and invited to participate in the body of Christ.
One day Bob stopped drinking. He just stopped. Nobody talked to him about it, nobody asked him to. He just did it cold turkey. When we asked him why, he told us about a time in our church service just a few weeks earlier, when Jim had shared about dealing with his own past addictions. Jim simply witnessed to the redemptive power of Jesus, his pursuit of the Kingdom of God, and how it he had experienced healing in his own life. It was this healing which prompted him to serve the homeless in the first place. As I write this, Bob has been sober for four months. I don’t know if he’ll remain like this, or if he’ll ever make it off the streets, but I know that Bob is experiencing redemption today. He is being drawn up into the mission of God, and he makes our church a holy place every time he walks through the doors.
This is how mission works. Bob is being healed because the church was breathed out by God and went to find Bob. Then Bob was breathed back into God’s lungs with us and is being healed not by the words we say, but by the presence of God in his church. Bob receives the body and blood of Jesus each and every week and it is healing him from the inside out. Our church is no great shakes. We are not that innovative and we are small. Nobody will sponsor leadership events to try and see how we are doing things in order to copy us. But we are participating in God’s redemption. We are fighting back the darkness because of the way we organize our common life together. Each week God breathes us into his lungs and shapes and forms us. God infuses us with his presence and then sends us out in the world as salt and light. We bear witness to God’s redemption all week long in our homes, neighborhoods, workplaces, and anywhere we go. Then he draws us back into his lungs the next week, and on it goes.
Bob stayed sober until he died last week. After Bob’s death I wrote just a few words about what he meant to me:
For the past couple of years I’d go pick Bob up for church just about every single week. It was one of my favorite things about Sunday morning. We’d ride together in the car, stop at Quick shop for some Coke (Bob drank Coke like no person I’ve ever met), then head to the church. It was a short time, 10-15 minutes tops. But it happened nearly every Sunday and I really came to count on it. I will miss his laughter & the way he’d get so intense when he told a story. I used to love to wind him up about some social issue going on in the news, just so I could listen to him go to town about it. Nothing was better when you got him laughing, really belly laughing, it was like he was a little kid trapped in a grown man’s body. I will miss the conversations we had going. I think it will be a long time before a Sunday without going to get Bob will feel normal again
Bob was convinced that God spoke to him. I used to tell him that I believed that God could speak to him, but he probably ought to clear some of what he said with the rest of us. He would just laugh, “Oh, I know!”
Bob used to say that he’d been through so much, he had no idea how or why he was still alive. “But I am,” he’d say. He wondered why he was still around and what God was trying to do through him. He agonized over this, “Isn’t there something good for me to do?” I would tell him over and over that he was so important to our church, that just his presence with us gave us hope – that he made us believe in miracles, because he was a walking miracle.
I will be ever grateful for my friend Bob, ever thankful to have known him. I am sorry that he is gone, but I say goodbye believing that he will be made whole again one day.