My offering is a torn and used instant oatmeal box stuffed with goldfish, crackers, candy. This, passed from hand to hand, is in Park Hill, on the Northwest corner of City Park.
Any local paper is guaranteed these days to evoke fear, concern, and confusion on an incline in gang activity just a bit further North; the numbers don’t lie. 19 names are listed on the Denver homicide list on the 7Post’s website, and there are numerous articles with testimonies to what it has been like in the various neighborhoods and “territories” affected (Surging Gang Violence -the link here also includes a powerful video from a local pastor who preaches to the Cole neighborhood, one of the more highly affected areas.
Yet today, I don’t see that, and I don’t think John does either.
Following the last of my sessions on travel writing, I left our workshop with my laptop and keys in hand. A new wine bar was opening that evening, just off Colfax, but I bowed out of peer pressure from my writing acquaintances. Wine with writers breeds good stories to be sure, but so does exploring our city on foot. Plus, the sunshine was just too lovely not to enjoy.
I packed my car – good ole ‘Rhonda the Honda’ – and put my hair in a messy bun. Sniffing the fresh-lemon infused, spring air, I headed East, towards City Park. The largest urban park in Denver, it’s something like 300-plus acres. On site, it has the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, the Denver Zoo, and a large boathouse that hosts summer concert series so outdoors-enthusiasts can catch evening rays before the stars arrive.
With a multitude of storms the prior week, the soil was damp, but I was not deterred.
I began one of the park’s loops, passing joggers, kickball competitors, and cyclists as I gabbed incessantly with Jordana, my spunky, loyal, and comrade best friend from Hendrix. For something like 8 years we have been friends, and so talking comes smooth and easy.
I was close to finishing my first lap around the inset of the park when I passed an elderly couple laughing with an openly friendly homeless man on a green park bench. I smiled, waved, and continued. Approximately 10 feet later, I stopped immediately in my tracks. Trailing backwards – literally – I told Jordana I would have to call her back. I had thought to myself, “wow, how nice for people to be talking, to be laughing, with anybody at the park,” when a quick, clear, and definite command came through my mind. You can do that too. So, I did. Like a rope pulling me backwards, it was a moment that I know had been impressed upon me, is this what the Holy Spirit feels like?
“Hi there, I’m Heather.”
“Well hello, I’m John.”
“I was just passing by…and I saw y’all talking…smiling…I just felt like I needed to come over and say hi.”
He chuckles. “I’m so glad you did.”
Something else then pressed upon me further.
“Will you be here for a bit? For maybe…another 20 minutes or so?”
“I certainly can be. I will be right here.”
“I, uh, I have some food in my car that I would like to share, if that would be okay. Can I go get it and bring it right back? I promise, I won’t be long.”
Smiles. “Of course, I’m just enjoying this beautiful day.”
More curious than anything, I’m sure he stayed because he just had to see what this random girl was up to. He was headed somewhere himself; the large black trash bag with clothes supported what he would later tell me – he was laundromat bound.
John, 51, Denver native with family in the Bayou, used to be in a gang, once suffered a broken heart from a woman who left him, and is a fierce believer in God.
“I am blessed. Blessed beyond belief. I wake up every morning alive. It’s enough. You never know what God has for you; any day that you have life you can encounter anyone, anything…I sit here, I see people, and I know with great certainty that we are all called to be disciples of Jesus. You – me – this is what can make your heart good.”
He shared more as I handed the torn box full of random perishables over.
His grin was gangly but inviting. He hardly looked a day over 40, but his response to questions of age was simple, “you reflect the heart within you – it doesn’t matter the number of years you have lived”. I wanted to start taking notes right then and there as he spouted words of wisdom that genuinely seemed to be intricately pulled from his value system, world-view, and life story.
I sat with John for an unexpected amount of time, right as evening was entering between the rippling green leaves from the calm breeze of early summer. Dog walkers and other aimless nomads meandered by and inevitably turned their necks to catch a glimpse and prove their suspicions correct; yes, that old homeless man on the city curbs of North Denver is hanging out with a young girl from the ‘burbs. It shouldn’t warrant a glance, you know.
In fact, the reason, I think, I even stopped myself was because the two people ahead of me paved the way. They treated John like a human being – like an equal – that he is, and in turn, I felt it on my heart to do so too.
It’s not about romanticizing or idealizing nice people. Especially nice people who are homeless. That’s a dangerous road. John would be the first to stake claim to the mistakes he has made. He told me them. And that’s the kind of brutal honesty I think we are missing in the world. It’s the kind of honesty that I crave, that I seek, and that I hope that as a community, we can become more cognizant of. Openly honest people; that I suggest is really what I was drawn towards in this situation. John remarked in the early parts of our conversation,
“You see, it makes me sad. Hearing in the news and seeing our city like this. Park Hill is my home. Yet, I was in a gang when I was younger too. I was young, I was stupid. People want to be here, in Denver. What an incredible place to be. But violence can destroy. Money destroys too. The sooner people realize that money does not hold the power they think it does, they can be free…the only gang you will ever need is the disciples you have in your faith.”
I nodded and remarked with a firm, “amen,” and he pressed further,
“Heather, keep that open heart of yours. I see many people on these paths. Many are hardened, shut off from the world and from life…keep your heart open. You will see what God has for you.”
I sighed, not out of irritation, but out of extraordinary humility, out of deep surprise. I had handed this man a box of some items, in return he sat with me for an hour, sharing his faith, his testimony, and exhorting me at the age of 26. I wasn’t expecting that. Before I left he said one more thing,
“You go and do good. Be bold, but be safe.”
When Jesus says, therefore go and make disciples of all nations he maintains the authority. So, to do this, we must not only act, but see. Speak, but listen. And when you see the world as it is in heaven, go there, celebrate, and embrace this life. He will always reveal this, always show this, and always promote this.
I want to be a part of a “church” (in a larger sense) that shares, intimately listens to stories, and is unafraid to care for people who are persecuted, shamed, and full of fear. And just because we are doing this, doesn’t mean we don’t admit our own shortcomings, weaknesses, and mistakes. But in Him, we are free. When living from this place, you will sense a deeper kind of love.
I no longer want to be afraid of where I have felt this deeper sense of community; where I have felt it calling me to. Because, surely, I am with you always, to the very end of age (Matthew 28:20).