Wednesday, August 26, 2015

More Teen Challenge Stories

The following is another excerpt from my memoirs of working for 19 years at Phoenix Teen Challenge -- a ministry near and dear to my heart.

           I was looking forward to attending a Friday night church service, though. Every Friday night there was a regular church service followed by a meal served to the homeless. News of ministries and organizations that provided meals always spread rapidly throughout the community. The homeless walked from different locations to attend. We also sent a couple of busses to CASS – Central Arizona Shelter Services – to pick up the homeless every Friday night.
            Various churches and organizations volunteered to bring a prepared meal. They also served the meal and ministered in prayer or a listening ear to those attendees. It will always stand out in my mind as the epitome of a true servant heart to the less fortunate.
            Angel Rosa often had guest speakers for the Friday night, and I decided to go when Iverna Tompkins would be preaching. I had read several of her books, seen her on Christian television, and had heard glowing reports of her preaching and Bible teaching. I was excited, and just a tiny bit giddy with awe about getting to see and hear her. Her book How To Be Happy In No Man’s Land had ministered to me after my twenty-two year marriage ended in divorce. She had had a husband who left and divorced her.
            After leaving work that Friday, I went home to change clothes and grab a quick bite for dinner. Church had started by the time I arrived, so I slipped in and found a seat near the back. Eddie James, the Music Minister for Phoenix Inner City Church, was still leading. I loved his style of black gospel music. He was, and still is, a gifted, talented young man passionate about serving God through music.
            When Iverna stepped behind the pulpit, I leaned forward with expectation. Because I was seated in the back where most of the homeless sat, I soon discovered they could be very distracting. They shuffled, wiggled, talked to each other, and hollered out responses to the preaching. The constant commotion would be unnerving to many preachers, but Iverna never missed a beat. I don’t recall what she preached about, but I do remember being riveted by it – or as riveted as I could be with all the distractions.
            They’re not paying any attention at all. They’re only here to eat a meal afterwards. They don’t care about Jesus.  I felt sad as those thoughts ran through my mind. I could see the Teen Challenge students seated on the front row. They were paying avid attention, and taking notes. Taking notes was something they were required to do. Their notes were turned in to a staff member. Rehabilitation, as Teen Challenge viewed it, isn’t for the non-committed, or just-biding-my-time person.
            Surrounded by the disruptions, the thought came to me that if Jesus walked in at that moment, he would find great delight in sitting among these poor souls. In fact, it would be his preference for where to sit. Jesus would have probably smiled with compassion when one of the men waved his arms and yelled, “Uncle Sam took our jobs,” in response to Iverna saying that God would meet our needs.
            The outburst startled me, and I jerked, but neither Iverna nor anyone else seemed disturbed by it. I guess you just get used to it.
            When Iverna Tompkins asked that we all bow our head for prayer as she gave the altar call, I dutifully bowed my head. As she asked for those to come forward who wanted prayer or wanted to surrender their hearts and lives to the Lord, I was pleasantly surprised to hear the shuffling of bodies and the stampeding of feet.

            They were listening after all! They’re going to the altar. When I opened my eyes, I was disappointed to see only a couple of homeless people at the altar.  Most of those who responded to the altar call were a few church members and several students. The stampede I’d heard was the rush to get in line outside the dining hall for the meal. 

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Another Day At Teen Challenge

In keeping with this month's blog posts, here's another excerpt from my memoirs of working for 19 years at Phoenix Teen Challenge


            There were several homeless people – some called them street people – who frequented our doors.  It’s easy to label all such persons in this category as a certain stereotype – mental illness, drug and/or alcohol addictions, no desire to get off the streets, deviants – but some sincerely were caught up in situations beyond their control. Most, however, that were frequent visitors at Teen Challenge did fit into one of the mentioned stereotypes.
            There was the lady who came in at least once a week demanding food. The kitchen workers – and by kitchen workers, these were mostly students assigned to kitchen detail –  usually gave her a donut, or a piece of fruit. Our policy was that we didn’t give away food because it wasn’t always easy to provide meals for the students and live-in staff.
            If this lady didn’t like what they gave her, or if they had nothing to give her, she would curse, stomp off, slam doors, and occasionally throw something. I had finally given up on greeting her with a cheerful hello because she just snarled at me. I would simply smile politely if she looked my way.
            Summer heat in Phoenix is brutal, especially for those who worked or stayed outdoors. The homeless are particularly vulnerable. Many organizations such as the Salvation Army set up stations around the downtown area to give out cold bottled water.
            It was on one of those scorching days of temperatures over one hundred ten degrees that I had an encounter with this snarky woman.
            Using the restroom was not a simple task for me. I usually would page into someone else’s office and ask them to answer the phone for a few minutes, or snag an intern as he walked by. This particular day, I couldn’t rouse anyone to help me, and I had to go. Since the restrooms were located in the breezeway in front of my office door, I decided to make a mad dash.
            When I flung open the restroom door, there stood snarky lady. She was nude from the waist up, splashing water over her head and soaking her blouse and bra in the sink. Fire spit from her eyes as she let loose a stream of obscenities and kicked the door shut in my face.

            I stumbled backwards, my mouth agape, and slunk back into my office, only to have her slam my door open in a few minutes, hair and clothes dripping water, and call me a foul name. Although I was compassionate toward her need to cool off, I knew I would not want to run into her in a dark alley. 

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

A Day At Teen Challenge

In 2011 I retired after 19 years at Phoenix Teen Challenge. Since then, I fill in for a few weeks every summer while the director and his wife -- who replaced me at my position -- go on vacation. The ministry of Teen Challenge is dear to my heart. I started writing my memoirs of my time there, so for the next few weeks my blog will be excerpts from that memoir.

            I chuckled about Jeff’s remark regarding my boyfriend. Before I could think about it, though, I took several incoming calls. Once there was a lull, my thoughts went back to the elderly gentleman Jeff referred to as my boyfriend. I did have a boyfriend but that man definitely wasn’t him. The old fellow had come into the office several days prior. Being in the heart of downtown Phoenix, and because of the type of ministry we were, the homeless and indigent were frequent visitors. Some wanted help with their drug and alcohol addictions. Some wanted money, food or clothing. Some just wanted to cause trouble.
            This particular guy was older. I guessed he was about sixty, but life on the streets is harsh, so he could’ve been younger. He was obviously homeless. He wasn’t too dirty or smelly, but he was shabby, with unkempt hair and a day or two of growth on his face. He grinned from ear to ear, without a tooth to be seen, and said, “Good morning, sweetheart.”
            I stiffened. He looked harmless – I was sure I could beat him up if he attacked me. But I didn’t appreciate being addressed with a term of endearment, or the familiarity in his voice.
            “Can I help you?” I smiled but kept my voice aloof.
            “Yeah, beautiful lady, I need a pair of shoes. You guys got any shoes?” He then tried to raise his right foot to the window so that I could see his bare feet, but he lost his balance and almost toppled over.
            I tried not to giggle as his arms flailed around until he managed to grab the opening in front of my desk. Once he steadied himself, he looked at me, winked and cackled.
            I pushed the intercom button and summoned a staff member to the front office. Rob, a young intern, responded.
            “Hey, Rob, do we have a pair of shoes in the Blessing Room for this man?” I motioned to the still-grinning man. The Blessing Room was what we called the area where we stored extra clothing, shoes, and linens for the men who came to reside in Teen Challenge. Some men came in with not much more than the clothes on their back. Occasionally, we gave things to the homeless and indigent when we had an abundance.
            Rob left and returned with a pair of white buck shoes reminiscent of Pat Boone’s trademark shoes.
            The old gent tried them on. “Well, by golly, looky here. They fit perfect. Come on, look,” he said, motioning to me. “I look like that singer dude. Know who I mean?”
            “Pat Boone,” I replied, complimenting him on his newly acquired shoes. The younger generation would be unaware about a singer and actor named Pat Boone.
            Rob left, and I hoped the old gent would too, but he continued to talk to me while I ate an apple. “I sure am hungry,” he said, eying me like he thought I’d rush to the kitchen and whip him up a meal.
            “Uh, you want an apple? We can’t really give out food, but someone donated apples.”
            He opened his mouth, showing me his toothless gums. “Can’t eat it, darlin’.”
            So what did I do? I got an apple and peeled and sliced it for him – a Christ-like gesture, I’m sure, only he returned the next day declaring he was in love with me. “I’m gettin’ an inheritance, sweetheart. My dad left me a million bucks. I’m gonna pick you up in a limo and take you to the best restaurant in town and buy you anything you want. Anything!” He flashed his toothless grin and winked. 

            Of course, I didn’t believe he was inheriting a million dollars. Somehow I managed to turn him down without too much fuss from him. I saw him a few times after that when Teen Challenge did our regular Friday night outreach to the homeless. I tried to not make eye contact with him, but he never seemed to notice me. It did make an amusing story to tell.