One Tuesday Night
Alumnus Ministers to a Congregation of the Homeless
ON ANY GIVEN NIGHT, about 7,300 homeless people sleep in downtown Seattle. Operation Nightwatch, an outreach center based in a 1909 storefront near the train station, serves late-night dinners to an average of 130 and tries to find them shelter beds.
Rick Reynolds began as a volunteer at Operation Nightwatch two decades ago, while he was a student at Seattle’s branch of Fuller Seminary. The Free Methodist chaplain and 1976 graduate of Seattle Pacific University now directs the downtown ministry.
During the day, Reynolds organizes scores of volunteers, accepts truckloads of donations such as bread and carpeting, and manages two upstairs floors of apartment rooms reserved for seniors and handicapped residents. At least one night a week, including this particular Tuesday, Reynolds roams the downtown area, stopping at bars and freeway underpasses to talk with people.
“This is my church,” he says, nodding to the dozens of men lining up outside for dinner.
Foxes have dens, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to call his own.
Upstairs in the apartment hallway, Reynolds says he needs to check in on Herchel, a man with Huntington’s disease, a degenerative brain disorder. Reynolds knocks on the man’s door, and when it opens, heat and cigarette smoke swirl out from the bedroom-sized apartment. The floor is taken up with a mattress, a dresser and a few belongings.
Herchel has lived here since Nightwatch bought the building three years ago. He’s been a dedicated volunteer, sweeping and cleaning the center. Before that, he was homeless for 17 years.
“Aren’t you hot in here?” Reynolds asks. “You gotta get some air in here; it’s too stuffy. Let’s turn this fan on. Are you drinking enough water? You sure? Because when it’s hot like this, you have to drink a lot of water. You taking your medicine? You want me to get you anything at the store? You sure?”
Al talks with Reynolds outside Operation Nightwatch before dinner is served. “Lots of these guys have social and job skills,” says Reynolds. “They’re just cycling through. Some are families who are in crisis, or they’ve just moved to the area, looking for a place to live.”
Government sources pay only 5 percent of the center’s annual budget, which in 1994 was $75,000. Today, with the storefront building’s upkeep and so many people to serve, the budget is $375,000.
“We have to pay for shelter for these guys out of our budget,” Reynolds says. “We’re supported mainly by private donations. Most donors pay about $25 to $100 a month. Interdenominational groups do fund-raisers for us and serve the meals, because we have no budget for food.”
Neighbors used to complain about people hanging around outside Operation Nightwatch before dinner. Some of the homeless people were standing in line for five hours to make sure they got a shelter pass. Now 9:00 p.m. is the earliest time to get in line. Those who stood in line last night but didn’t get a place to stay get first dibs tonight.
As evening fell, [Jesus’] disciples came to him and said, “... Send away these crowds now, so that they can go into the villages and buy themselves food.”
“There’s no need for them to go away,” returned Jesus. “You give them something to eat!”
Glenn stands in line for a late dinner. He is from Port Angeles, where he used to clean toilets. When he first got to Seattle, Glenn had a bag of clothes. That was three months ago, but he walked away for a minute and the bag was gone.
He wonders what’s for dinner. “Pasta sounds good. But I can hardly keep my eyes open.” He asks for a hug. When he gets one, he says, “Thanks.” After a while he says he wants to cry but doesn’t know why.
“Don’t take my picture!” one young man tells the Response photographer. “The last time my picture was taken from the satellite at Westlake Park, it melted the plasma out of my body.” Someone standing nearby says, “You’re nuts.” The young man says, “Don’t judge.”
About 30 percent of the people served at Nightwatch are mentally ill. Reynolds says, “If they go up to Harborview [Medical Center] voluntarily, they get a pill and get sent onto the street again. That’s not going to cure anybody.” In these cases, he says, the health care system is just not working.
When you give a feast, invite the poor. … They cannot pay you back. But God will bless you and reward you. …”
While some of the people hold hands in a circle, Reynolds gives a short prayer: “God, be present here tonight …” and people file in for dinner and coffee.
Tonight 121 people show up, nine fewer than average. No families are here, although three families came the night before. Sometimes, especially in the cold winter months when shelter space is at a premium, Reynolds must turn away dozens of people. Priority is given to women, men over age 50, and families with children. Once inside, they can watch TV, while away some hours, and get a pass for shelter for the night.
A downtown United Methodist church basement serves as a makeshift nightly shelter for some of Seattle’s homeless. Reynolds makes a point to talk with Matthew, a worker there. “You gotta visit these shelter workers,” says Reynolds. “They get nine bucks an hour, no benefits, and there’s tons of stress.” Without enough shelter beds to go around, well over 1,000 people sleep somewhere outside every night.
A large number of … disreputable folk came in and joined [Jesus] and his disciples. For there
were many such people among his followers.
Bruce, an alcoholic, talks with Reynolds at a bar in Belltown. A prostitute soon joins the conversation. Reynolds goes onto the streets of Seattle carrying out what he calls “a ministry of presence.” He and 10 other chaplains connected with Operation Nightwatch spend time each week “visiting bars, hanging out, not giving out tracts, just being available,” Reynolds says.
“I wear a [minister’s] collar so people will come up to me on the street,” he explains. “If I wore a suit and tie, nobody would talk to me. This way, they know what I am.”
One guy at the bar doesn’t know exactly what Reynolds is, but he’s curious. He asks someone sitting nearby, “What is that guy, a priest or a rabbi or what?”
Later, Reynolds hears about the man’s comment and belatedly replies, “I’m a what.”
Back at the center, a few guys still hang around drinking coffee. Some clean up and serve others drifting in. “Our mission is to get people to be as self-reliant as possible,” says Reynolds, “to bring them up to the top level of their abilities. For some people, that means they get a job that pays decent wages, quit smoking a pack a day and have enough to pay rent and get off the street like they wanted to. For other people, it’s all they can do to drag themselves down to Nightwatch to get some food. We serve all of them.”
For years, Seattle Pacific students have volunteered here, cooking meals and handing out passes for shelters. “We survive on SPU volunteers,” says Reynolds.
Past volunteer Stephanie Kelly ’91 remembers what she learned there: “Serving at Nightwatch means honoring a person’s dignity, because it’s embarrassing to have to ask for food and a place to stay.”
Sun Juon, a Korean man, had polio when he was young, so he walks with crutches. With the buzz of the TV in the background, he’s just about the last one in the place. Reynolds sits across from him: “Do you have a place to stay tonight? We could get you a place to stay, if you’d like. It’s no problem. Here’s a pass. This is for a shelter across town. Would you like a ride over there? I could drive you. Are you sure you want to take the bus? Because I’ve got my car right out here. I can take you there. It’s no big deal.” After a few more minutes of gentle argument, they go outside together, and Sun Juon gets into Reynolds’ car.
“Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and give you food? ... When did we see you a stranger and make you welcome?”
“I assure you that whatever you did for the humblest of my brothers, you did for me.”
— BY MARGARET D. SMITH
— PHOTOS BY MIKE SIEGEL
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