Ben Tagg, Director of Steps Ministries in South Buffalo joined Eric Johns of The Buffalo Dream Center on the streets of Buffalo this week, raising awareness in their fight against poverty and homelessness in Buffalo. Johns has has made this an annual tradition for the lsst 12 years. Ben shares his experience in a special piece for THRiVE!,
By Benn Tagg, Director of Steps Ministries
So we’re sitting in Spot coffee. This is our living room for the week. I’m rolling with my friend Pastor Eric Johns from the Buffalo Dream Center (www.buffalodream center.org) sitting to my right leafing through his journal. He’s been in this voluntary homeless gig for 12 years now. Big respect to him. Year after year he sacrifices his thanksgiving week, usually a busy time for a Pastor, leaves his family at home and sleeps on the streets. He’s not trying to change the world in a week, but does this to shine a light on an issue that many don’t want to think about…homelessness. To my left playing backgammon are the other two of his companions for the week; Pastor Pat Fleming of Amherst Church of the Nazarene and Keith Cauley. Keith used to be homeless himself. He got out of prison in 1996 and shortly after that got a place in the Chippewa Hotel (only one step up from homeless I am told). That’s where Pastor Eric met him and offered to pray for him. Fourteen years later they are still friends and Keith joins Pastor Eric on the streets to ‘watch his back’.
We’ve been homeless now for 4 ½ hours and we’re already wet. A cold and dank rain accompanied us as we all met at the Buffalo Christian Center, on the corner of Pearl and Tupper, to begin our journey. Within minutes of the 11am start time news teams started pulling up. YNN, WKBW, 2 NEWS, WIVB, and the Buffalo News! Pastor Eric is used to this volume of publicity. He says that the media coverage of his homeless week is a major part of funding the boxes of love project. This project will provide 3500 needy families in Western New York with food and Christmas gifts for their children who otherwise may have nothing to open on Christmas Day. Despite the wave of good feedback Pastor Eric has received from both the homeless community and the secular media, he has had some criticism from a few churches. He tells a reporter from the Buffalo News, “It’s church people…the criticism has been that we’re just giving free handouts without any expectations of a changed life.” Pastor Eric passionately defends his vision saying that eleven months out of the year his church mentors and disciples the people. ‘Boxes of Love’ is a way of showing God’s unconditional love in a season in which giving does not need to have a reason. Pastor Pat chimes in saying, “It’s a toll-free bridge between the community and the church.”
From there we set out on the metro for our first destination…lunch! The press guys followed us to Durham Memorial A.M.E. church on the corner of Michigan and Eagle, where we ate for free. Pastor Eric describes this as the best soup kitchen in the city. The food was nothing special but the people there are providing a valuable service to the homeless of our city. One gal, Sharon, works in the area and volunteers there for her lunch break every day. The press wouldn’t leave us alone. We went to the fruit belt area of downtown to check out our accommodations for most of the week…under a bridge. When we got to the corner of Michigan and Cherry we took a peek under the 33 overpass where the group usually sleeps during the week of roughing it. To my surprise we found that some other people had obviously beat us to it. There were three semi-neatly made beds there. It was dark and wet and I could smell urine everywhere. We took some pictures and video footage up there, then we moved on. Tonight we will sleep in the Buffalo City Mission. At first my conscience wouldn’t let me take a bed that a real homeless person may be deprived of. Pastor Pat helped me by saying that the Staff actually like us being there and its important to go and hear people’s stories. Our next destination is a kitchen called “friends of the night” for dinner.
We’re in the living room again. It’s 7:30am. Last night was spent in the A dorm of the Buffalo City Mission (BCM). The BCM is a ray of hope to many homeless and drug addicted people in the city. I spoke with one staff member named Joshua. Just four years previous he had been living on the streets, with ‘the devil up his nostrils’. Desperate, he came to the BCM in 2007 and went through their 2 year men’s discipleship program. Now, at 47 years of age, he thanks God that he is clean and works to help men out of the same life he was living. We kicked into the BCM at 7pm sharp and were corralled into an hour long chapel service. After the service we lined up with about 50 guys to sign up for our beds, there was no luxury treatment for us!
They say that some of the greatest chess players in the world are homeless. So I decided to challenge a man named ‘seesaw’ to a game of chess. Seesaw’s one eye was more glassy than the other so he may have been partially sighted. He wore nothing but a pair of jeans and a blue bath robe (the room was very well heated). The scene from Star Wars: A New Hope where R2-D2 is playing a holographic chess-type game with Chewbacca came to mind as I out-smarted him twice. ‘let the Wookie win’! Beating seesaw was but the qualifier to get to play against Jim. He was very good and easily won the game. After that I headed to my bed and lumpy pillow in the dorm. I was on the top bunk. Sleeping in the BCM was interesting, the mattress was adequate, but I had trouble sleeping because of the unfamiliar surroundings. Waking up was a surreal experience. My sleepy eyes were ambushed as the bright overhead lights of the dorm come on at 6am when it’s still dark outside. It felt kind of like the feeling one gets when one outstays one’s welcome at the night club and the lights come on. I felt exposed. We trudged to Pastor Eric’s church to stash away our sleeping bags, then onto Spot coffee for breakfast and more backgammon. After only 24 hours it is beginning to dawn on me just how much freedom I take for granted in having a roof over my head and a bed to sleep in. Tonight we will be out under the bridge, exposed to the elements.
8:58am. Spot Coffee. So tired I’m practically sleep-walking. Last night was our first yet my last night actually on the street. We slept on large concrete blocks underneath the 33 overpass. I could hear Pastor Eric snoring from about 12:00am when we got into bed until morning. I remained awake most of the night. I was just slightly too tall for my sleeping bag so it was a constant toss up for me between a comfortable position, and warmth. Every time I let just a little crack open in the folds of the sleeping bag, the cold November wind would whip through and give me goose bumps . I kept checking my phone to see if I had slept. I didn’t until 4:30am.
Yesterday was jam-packed. In just over 48 hours I have heard so many stories. Some very moving, and some equally as outrageous and dubious. One thing that strikes me is that there is no stereotype cause for homelessness. It’s easy to label them all lazy or addicted or criminal, but the truth is there are complex stories and real lives behind each face. We met Ken in Spot coffee. You couldn’t tell he’d been at the BCM for two weeks. He was so clean and well dressed. At 30 years old he’s a man who came to a crisis, needed a turn around and now has big dreams. He is working and saving for his passion to create a car engine with the horsepower of a Mustang yet the engine size of a Suzuki motorbike.
The streets are not short of their academics, either. Alexander, who grew up in Soviet Russia, moved to America just over ten years ago. Now in his 70s he was taking me to school about the ideologies of Marx, Hitler, Stalin etc. A staunch Atheist by upbringing, he was not easily swayed by my talk of love. “What is love?” he asked me, shoveling another scoop of spaghetti into his mouth.
From the logical to the outrageous. John, at 23, claimed to have just graduated from high school, have 5 kids and plans to get married next year. The only thing that wasn’t hard to believe was that people don’t usually take him seriously. My heart went out to this guy, a short, skinny character with a high voice and scruffy beard. However much of his story was true or not, he seemed so helpless and in need of friendship and care. As we stood in line for the Hearts for the Homeless mobile soup kitchen I found out that I actually know three of his siblings. At around 9:30pm we went to set up our beds. It was here at the bridge that we met Tutrain (two-train). This Vietnamese man in his 40s had been living under the bridge, he said, for 3 ½ years and he seemed to run the place like a motel. He warmly greeted us and warned us which of the cubby holes had a leak when it rained. He was a very friendly man. With tears he told us of his birth to a Vietnamese prostitute and an American soldier. He was discarded at birth and thrown in a trash can. Another Vietnamese woman rescued him and raised him. We prayed for him last night to quit drinking and return to his family. His wife and two children live in Buffalo, and year after year beg him to return home. Alcohol, however, keeps him living like a troll under a bridge.