Lessons learned from Bo, Ricky, Coyote and Barbara
February 9, 2022
By: Brian Mateer, Associate Director of Missional Engagement
About ten years ago I was working as a youth leader at First UMC in a small town in southwest Virginia. I was introduced to a youth-led ministry that provided community meals in a local park. A primary goal of the ministry is to give leadership responsibilities to youth and provide opportunities to meet and interact with people unlike them. Sounds simple, right. That’s because it is.
Since the ministry focused and emphasized relationship building, adolescents were having rich conversations with strangers who became friends. One afternoon, an older gentleman left a picnic table where he had finished his seasoned bowl of chili and said, “That is the best conversation I have had in years!” I turned to see who he was talking to, and it was a middle school girl.
Lesson 1-Relationship is the foundation of any effective ministry.
While our youth were breaking bread with the community, I was also having conversations and building relationships. Since our church was in “uptown” people from the community started dropping by my office unannounced. Initially, this was distracting and at times annoying when I was busy or had “important ministry” work to be done. I learned to be present and recognize this ministry in front of me.
Lesson 2-Never be too busy to have meaningful conversations with those in your midst.
One afternoon I was sitting at my desk preparing for bible study when Bo poked his head in. We exchanged pleasantries and shortly after Bo launched into all the people that were missing from the community meal that really needed it. He rattled off a list of names and I inquired why they “needed it.” He proceeded to tell me they were all experiencing homelessness while leaving out he was also unhoused.
Lesson 3-Homelessness happens in all communities and is not JUST an urban problem
Naively, I told him I didn’t know we had people in our small-town experiencing homelessness. For the next couple hours, we drove around town, and he introduced me to people living on the street, in tents, in cars, in a family-owned condemned house (Bo’s living situation), on people’s couches and in motels. The places we visited were on the same route I drove by every single day.
Lesson 4-Being unhoused does not ONLY refer to people sleeping on a park bench.
At some point during the drive, Bo, the now self-proclaimed “Tour Guide of the Homeless” told me to pull into the McDonald’s parking lot. I figured he was hungry as we would share meals together on occasion. When we entered the restaurant, he walked right over and sat down beside a man sitting in the corner. He introduced me to Ricky who had a long white Santa-like beard. Turns out, nobody seemed to know where Ricky stayed at night, including Bo. He was often at McDonalds where he drank coffee all day and washed out his clothes in the bathroom sink. Ricky was anti-government and chose to “live off the grid”.
Lesson 5-For a variety of reasons, some people choose to live unhoused.
(Time to Retire the Word ‘Homeless’ and Opt for ‘Housless’ or ‘Unhoused’ Instead?).
I liked Ricky because he was unlike anyone I had ever met. Before long, he was another unannounced guest to my office. He would stay for hours, sometimes sharing stories, sometimes watching me work, asking me “What are you doing now?” and the rest of the time playing a guitar that sat in my office I still intend to learn how to play someday. Ricky was an incredible guitar player.
Lesson 6-People experiencing homelessness are regular people with hopes, dreams, talents, and stories to tell.
Every time I offered to help Ricky he would grin and say “I don’t need your help. I got money.” Maybe he did.
The only time Ricky accepted any help is when he asked for an extra pair of socks. “When you wash one in the sink it’s good to have a dry pair to change. Especially when you walk as much as I do.” (Consider hosting a Socktober drive this year and donate to a local shelter)
Lesson 7-One of the best things you can give to a person experiencing homelessness is a pair clean, white, athletic socks.
On the last stop of our “tour” we pulled into the public library parking lot and proceeded to drive around back. There I met Coyote and Barbara for the first time. I learned they slept on a carboard box near the library dumpster. This shook me because it was less than a hundred yards to the church. I could look out my office and see the library. Immediately, my mind raced to understand why I had not realized this or noticed them before.
Coyote was VERY protective of Barbara and suspicious of me. It took a while to build a relationship with them. I learned later Barbara suffered from MS and was part of why Coyote was so protective.
One day the weather forecast was calling for a wintery mix and I walked down to talk with Coyote and Barbara. Our community had a winter warming shelter when the temperature dropped below 32 degrees. I offered to set them up at the shelter, but they refused to go because they separated the men and women if they were not married (see lesson 5). We made sure they had enough blankets for the night, and I went to check on them the next morning with sausage biscuits and hot coffee from Biscuitville.
Somehow, the gesture of coffee and biscuits allowed them to trust me. They never missed a community meal after, always helping to set up and cleanup. They were also regular guests to my office. They loved the youth, calling them “their kids” and eventually they were married at our church with some of the “kids” in attendance. This is still a highlight of my time in ministry.
Lesson 8-Young people are especially equipped for this type of relationship ministry.
We also learned hard lessons along the way, and it was messy. There were stories of substance abuse, mental health disorders, sex offenders, fights, arrests, theft, and we had to bar several people from attending the community meals. Also, we found out not everyone wanted our help, and they especially did not want the conversations. They were just there for the food. That was okay too. Parents and church members were uncomfortable with what we were doing. Some folks in the community felt like we were “enabling” homelessness by helping.
Lesson 9-This is not for everyone.
Impacted by the experiences I was having, the people I met and the new knowledge I gained, I began feeling the call from God to fulltime mission ministry. It set me on the unlikely path of moving from Virginia to Charlotte, NC in 2014. The lessons I learned informed how I approach ministry and interact with people.
Lesson 10-Mission ministry can lead to a new call, changed perspectives and life altering life paths.
The community meals continued for a while after I left but eventually fizzled out. Bo was able to get disability payments and moved into his own home. He still calls me on occasion. Barbara died from MS not long after they were married, and Coyote went into a dark tailspin of alcohol abuse and spent some time in prison. I never heard from Ricky again and for all I know he is still living off the grid.
There were many other people and even more stories. We learned their names, shared in joy and heartbreak, wins and losses and celebrations, and grief. We shared stories of our own experience. We created the ministry expecting to give to others yet received so much more in return.
The names used in this writing were changed to protect the identity of those mentioned in the stories except for Bo and Coyote. Both are nicknames, and neither would tell me why they wanted me to not use their given names.