In the late 1980s, I had entered the city of Santa Cruz as a newly-minted student at Bethany Bible College. I knew it was my duty to bring Christ to others. We were required to do a semester of student service every year. It even went on our transcripts, and could bar us from graduation. But I was not sure how I would choose this.
I was a young guy with strong values. I thought I knew who I was. I grew up in a small community, with a close-knit family. Security was important, and friendship. Tolerance and compassion was my list by default since those concepts were in the Bible, right? And I should be unafraid to step outside my comfort zone.
Our college had a few dozen student-run ministries and community outreach teams.
I tried the Boys’ Home, where bad teens were placed on long buses the color of milkweed, and made to fight fires. They wore orange jumpsuits. We shared a meal together, someone preached a sermon. I tried to make a connection with a few of these kids. Tried a little too hard, maybe. I overshared, telling some story about the time I did something-or-other back home in Oregon. My companion just looked at me in a way that said, all in one stare “You’re not my friend. I don’t want to know jack about you. I’m just here for a break in the monotony of minimum-security prison life.” I felt an immediate sense of foolishness and kept my mouth shut. I never went back.
The Pajaro Rescue Mission Children’s ministry seemed safe. Every Saturday morning, we went home to home, and picked up a bunch of children in the college’s wood panel station wagon. They were all from Spanish-speaking families. I played the old upright piano at the Rescue Mission and we sang some songs, ate a snack, had a little Bible lesson, and made a sort of craft. Then we would run around in the gravel parking lot and play soccer. The only real danger was messing up my Spanish (apparently “how many anuses do you have?” sounds remarkably similar to “How old are you?”) and getting mucus in my hair during long sessions of piggy back rides. I stuck with that one for most of a year.
And then there was the Santa Cruz street ministry.
It was run by Paul Zarkas, a brawny, thick browed Greek fellow who knew his way around a pool table. His goal was to bring soup, sandwiches and coffee to the homeless folks, and if the opportunity presented itself, lead them to a greater understanding of the Lord Jesus. He was a good leader with a good smile, bearing the name of an Apostle. What could possibly go wrong?
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, California deinstitutionalized all but the most dangerous psychiatric cases in the states. And those people sought shelter in warmer climates like the Pacific Avenue in Santa Cruz, where the air is scented of both tolerance and salty bay air, or Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, where the anarchy and liberal tendencies march the streets hand in hand.
And so, we ministers-to-be all met in the chapel after dinner, where we prayed for 30 minutes, to be an effective witness for the homeless people of Santa Cruz. Then we loaded soup in a big stainless aluminum pot, and several trays of sandwiches, into the same wood panel station wagon, and took the 7 mile trip to the Pacific Garden Mall. We set up our free dinner near the clocktower.
That night was the first time I saw him. I don’t know his name.
He stomped through the town. His Chthulu-black beard and nightmare hair made the Santa Cruz night even blacker. I knew his soul gasped under the influence of a demon, like a dying fish pulled from a river. For everything in the universe, his eyes were the wrong kind of blue. He had madness in his voice, like sandstone was lodged in his throat. His old canvas army jacket announced him to be a soldier from the wrong war, in the wrong place, in the wrong time. Even his hands were demonic, knuckles bulging white and angry with too much cartilage. He carried a mutilated wooden guitar like a four stringed battle axe, and assaulted shoppers and residents with an occasional untuned strum. He punctuated every sentence, even the ones he hadn’t uttered, with gestures that proclaimed, without using any words, “To hell with this. And that. And you. All of this! All of this.”
I was scared of him. I could feel his glare, even though it never actually landed on me. I was told by a certain professor that I had a quite sensitive aura. It was purple, he explained. Maybe purple auras allowed people to smell demonic presence because I could certainly smell him. When he approached the cluster of us folks serving up the food, I excused myself.
I found a corner of the park to pray in the Spirit against the demonic forces, and continued praying in that corner until the need to pee drove out all other thoughts.
I asked a guy with a soup ladle where the bathroom was, and got an eyeroll for my trouble.
I was overheard. “Where you going to pee around here?” Asked a mostly-bald homeless guy. He wore several layers of clothing, and the outer one was a filthy blue nylon tracksuit. He smelled like nicotine, and feces, and too many nights sleeping in cardboard shelter under the San Lorenzo River bridge. But his smirk was still fully operational.
“I don’t know. Maybe that gelato place will let me.”
“Hmph. Good luck. They don’t let nobody use their bathroom. I know. Just go back there. Between the two buildings,” he leered.
“But that’s breaking the law,” I explained, because I knew so much about such things.
“Sometimes there’s a higher law. Law of nature,” he explained right back, because he, too, knew so much about such things.
He pointed me toward the best place on Pacific Avenue to pee. And so I did my thing in the alley right near Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting Company. I was fairly certain a half dozen police would tackle me to the ground, but nothing happened.
I was startled to see he’d followed me down the alley. “See? That wasn’t so terrible now, was it?” When I’d zipped up, I felt quite a bit better. I was a little more cheerful as I made my back to the soup line.
And then, the demon-possessed squid-bearded guitar man approached me. I knew I was a single glare from madness or death, and I involuntarily started a silent prayer as he drew closer.
Of course, he just said “Hey, do you think I could have one of those?” I handed him a sandwich. He tore into it like a wolverine and asked “Think I can have another?” So I gave him another.
“Thanks,” He said. And then he turned, and walked down Pacific Avenue toward the beach, or the bridge he slept under, or the tree he favors when putting his guitar way out of tune.
Maybe it was the sharing of food. Or maybe it was the fact that I had disregarded municipal statutes and peed in a manly way between two Santa Cruz businesses. Possibly it was because I had finally met the guy with the scary blue eyes. It was most likely a combination of all three.
But whatever the reason, I didn’t feel so scared of him anymore. I never went back with Paul to feed the homeless: I had certainly not discovered my preferred way of ministering to others. But whenever I saw him stalking the streets of Santa Cruz on my occasional trips to the Pacific Avenue bookstores and coffee shops, I felt like I’d secured some sort of personal victory. The stupider part of me wanted to swagger up to him and say “Hey! Remember me? I gave you two sandwiches instead of one, that one time. And I peed in an alley just like a hobo!”
But that would be entirely wrong. And I doubt they would recall my presence anyway. Still, almost 30 years later, I certainly remember them. And I guess in the end, that, and not being afraid of what you don’t know, is the important thing to hold onto.