One of the most important skills I’ve developed over the 25 plus years I’ve been involved in this work, is the ability to take a strong punch from life’s circumstances. I took a couple of them last week. A friend that I had shared about in a previous blog, who I ministered to for 10 years had finally sobered up, took a job, and was doing very well until he fell back into drug use, and fell off the wagon, so to speak. That is hard to take, especially when you see so much hope and promise in someone. But I won’t give up. He is again in my sites and in my prayers.
Another friend, Brennan Harvey, better known to all of us in Pasadena as Johnny Redbone, died last week of cancer. I worked 10 years with Johnny, but was never able to help him get off of the mean streets. Johnny did not get off of the streets until he entered the hospital this Fall, but he is off the streets now, and at rest, I believe, in the arms of our Loving Lord.
I saw real heart change happen in Johnny’s life, even if his circumstances did not change and his addictions did not cease. When I met him, he angrily called me, “White Boy!”, and told me that “you took our land!” Johnny was Navajo, from Southern Arizona, and I remember defending myself by holding out my tan arms and sharing with him that my Great Grandmother was Cherokee. That did not quell his anger at first. When I visited him in the hospital just a few weeks ago, his attitude had changed completely. He called me “Pastor Andy” as we prayed together.
There were some challenging, even humorous times. I remember Johnny telling me that he had just been in court for public drinking. He shared that the judge reminded him that this was his 76th Public drinking charge! Johnny answered, “Judge, every evening the folks in the houses around the neighborhood have a beer after dinner, and just because I don’t have a house to have a beer in, I get arrested!
I saw evidence of heart change over the years, in Johnny’s heart, and in mine. One night, on Maundy Thursday, I was serving up front at church, and feeling some pressure to do things right on this Holy Night. I watched Johnny walk in the back of the church, intoxicated, and I panicked! What kind of scene would come of this! I forgot all about my role as Pastor of Community Outreach, as advocate for people experiencing homelessness, about James Chapter 2:
James 2:2-5 (ESV)
2 For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in,
3 and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,”
4 have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
5 Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?
Fortunately, my friend Randy saw Johnny’s predicament, made room for him in his aisle, and sat with Johnny throughout the evening service. Randy lived out James chapter 2!
After the service, Johnny arrived on my front porch adjacent to the church, and sat with me. “That was the most beautiful thing I have ever witnessed!” said Johnny. My heart melted with a mixture of thanks and shame. Thanks for Johnny’s response to the Gospel message, and shame at my panic.
That Sunday evening at our weekly bible study, Johnny prayed a prayer, “Oh Great Spirit, I am not the man I want to be! Help me become the man you want me to be!”
From that night on, Johnny no longer referred to me as White Boy, but as Pastor Andy, and it was always said with love.
The last time I saw Johnny outside the hospital, he was waiting at the end of my driveway with a friend, Otis. “Pastor Andy, I am hungry! Do you have anything to eat?” I quickly made 4 ham sandwiches, grabbed some crackers, cookies, and soft drinks, and gave them to my friends. I gave Johnny a hug, with tears in my eyes, and told him how glad I was to see him.
I imagine that as Johnny passed from death into eternal life, he was greeted by our Loving Savior, Jesus Christ, who hugged him at the entrance and said, “Johnny, welcome! I am so glad to see you!