Andy Michael, Urban Centers Philadelphia Director
“Will you please help me…help me find God?” This was the desperate plea of a man named Nick whom I met at McPherson Square (commonly referred to as “Needle Park”) while leading a team at the Urban Center during our homeless ministry. As a part of our evangelism training and ministry experiences, “Needle Park” is one of the areas we often visit to share the love of Christ in a very real and tangible way. We choose this particular area because of the high volume of homelessness, drug usage, and thus hopelessness. Typically, we arrive at the park wielding meals to share, water to drink, and an ear to listen. We share our food and water, talk and pray with those we meet, and share about a God who loves them. Offering the hope only Jesus can give to those we meet is a common practice at the Urban Center and on this particular evening at McPherson Square, that offer and all of its life-changing implications was acted upon.
I remember with crystal clear vision, seeing Nick kind of linger around the table we had set up for food distribution. He was a young man, likely in his late 20’s, well-done tattoos adorned his arms, neck, and face. He dressed modernly in a tank top, shorts, and a backward ball cap. By all outward appearances, Nick appeared to be a healthy individual– except he wasn’t. The first time Nick came through our line a student and I handed him food and water. With a warm smile, the student looked him in the eyes and said, “here you go.” As I handed him water, I asked, “How are you, brother?” He didn’t really answer me, but kept his head down and mumbled a “thank-you” as he continued on. Our food line was getting pretty busy at this point with many people lining up to receive food, but since I was on the end of our line, I could still see Nick out of the corner of my eye, never moving too far from us.
Finally, after some time the line died down. I looked around our tables to see if there was anyone else that had not yet received food or was willing to talk and there was Nick, leaning up against some stairs. We locked eyes and he motioned for me to come over to him. I complied and as I approached him, I again blurted out my traditional greeting, “What’s up brother, how are you, my man?” But this time without hesitation, Nick looked up at me with worried eyes and in a soft trembling voice as if desperate for his life, uttered these words, “Will you help me…help me find God?”
He was shaking a little and even crying a bit. I was a little taken aback at how direct and blunt Nick was. Very often at the Urban Center and in Christian circles we will talk about the need for God to be known among those who don’t know Him. For the sake of time, I will define in part, meeting that need through what we call evangelism. So “doing the work of an evangelist” is telling those that don’t know about God, about God. The practices and strategies used, however, are where churches, religions, denominations, preachers, pastors, and every other variation of a Jesus follower may have different strategies. With that being said, very few of those strategies prepare for a person who just simply says, “Ok, yes! Help me find God!” No one just comes out and says that right!? They do if they’re desperate.
I told Nick I would help him and he began telling me his story. By his own admission, he told me he knew he was not living the “right kind of life.” That he was using drugs at an excessive rate and even lived in this park because of it. He said he had tried everything to stop: rehab, detox, AA, and on and on. He told me he felt trapped but also felt like there was something (or someone) telling him he should get out. He told me he knew he should get out of the life he was living, but he also knew he wasn’t strong enough on his own. He said he believed in God, but didn’t know much about Him, or if He could help him. Nick was a man fighting for his own life. The realities of the physical dependencies of drug addiction and the social demands of his living environment had created a personal prison for him and he was begging me for a way out.
Not being able to personally relate to his exact circumstances I was a little nervous about what to say next, but nonetheless completely heartbroken at Nick’s life and his desperation to change. So, I did what I usually do when I’m nervous and need strength, I prayed. I told Nick, “I’m willing to try to help you, but first, can we pray?” And so, we did. I remember calling out to God and asking Him to give Nick the strength he needed to step out of his circumstances and begin to change his life. I looked at Nick and said, “I can help you, but you have to be willing.” He looked directly at me with his hand still on my shoulder from praying, and said, “OK.”
It meant, calling my co-worker, Rob, who would walk me through the steps of what that looked like to try to get someone into one of our partner drug rehab programs. It meant, calling the director of a rehab facility and telling him about the situation. It meant, that director talking with Nick on the phone and walking him through the steps he could take. It meant, offering to give Nick a ride to the detox center. It meant, we could help him, but Nick had to be willing to act now. After the phone conversation that Nick had, he was visibly scared and began looking around. We were still passing out food at this point and it was getting late. I told Nick if he was willing, we could take him to a detox center and then get him into the rehab center we know that also teaches the Bible. He again said, “OK.”
Nick still seemed a little antsy and I told him I’d give him a few moments to decide. I went back to my team and continued passing out food where I could still see Nick, who eventually walked away. My coworker and friend Rob, told me that was likely to happen. That often when we offer to help those at the park, they are not ready at that moment, and sadly that life has too strong of a hold on them. I got on the phone to break the sad news to the rehab director when all of a sudden, here comes Nick! He walked up to me and said, “I’m ready.”
I hugged him and this time it was my turn to simply say, “OK.” I checked in with the team and made arrangements for the visiting youth pastor and me to take him to the detox center. Everyone was on board. I checked back with Nick and told him, “We can take you.” He looked around longingly and I noticed he kept looking over to a pile of his belongings. He nervously paced back to the area, and then returned almost in a panic. I said again, “Nick, we can take you in our car, but you have to go now.”
With that, Nick looked at me again and with tears in his eyes said, “OK.”
We got in the car and started driving. Nick started crying, saying he knew how hard detox was going to be and that he had just left behind all his belongings and his entire life back at that park. He was scared…terrified, so we prayed again. After about a fifteen-minute drive while praying and telling Nick how much God loves him and how He wants a better life for him, we arrived. We got to the detox center and I jumped out to see how to proceed next (as I had never done this before). Much to my surprise, there were two workers already standing outside the doors. I greeted them and informed them of the situation.
The three of us approached the car with Nick in the backseat, his head in his hands. I tapped on the window and opened up the door. The detox employees began asking Nick many questions about what exactly was in his system and what was not. It got to the point where Nick was overwhelmed and confused and the two workers began arguing amongst themselves even. Nick, now even more flustered, seemed unwilling to step out of the car and follow through with the process. He closed the door and put his head back down. I went around to the other side and opened the door. I heard Nick saying, “I can’t do this!” I leaned into the other side of the backseat and put my hand on his shoulder and said, “Hey brother, can we pray again?” He stepped out on my side of the car. We prayed and I poured my heart out to God. As I said, “amen,” Nick bear-hugged me with both arms saying, “THANK-YOU!” With both of us now in tears, I told him that he can do this, that God loves him, and that I do too. With that, he turned and was able to have a coherent conversation with the workers, which led to him getting admitted into the detox center. I got back in the car with the youth pastor and we made our way back to the Urban Center, completely in awe of the power of God.
I never saw Nick again after that. I was sad not to see him at the rehab house near the Urban Center, but I was glad not to ever see him at the park again the rest of the summer. I am choosing to believe that God will continue to work in his life and guide his path. I am continuing to pray for Nick and that he will walk with the Lord and the hope that set him free that night in the park, will forever free him from the life that once imprisoned him. This is the power, the hope, and the freedom that Jesus offers. I did not save or rescue Nick that night. I simply met him where he was and offered him hope by praying with him– at the park when he was looking for a way out, in the car when he was looking for a way forward, and at the detox center when he was afraid to press on. Those incremental steps are a testament to the work God wants to do in all of us, to continue guiding our paths towards Him. They are a reminder of the relentless pursuit that God has for us, that we would know of His deep love for us. No matter where we are, no matter how far away we feel from Him, no matter what we have done, He still offers us hope found in Him!