His name was Bert, a Native American from the Duwamish (The Dkhw’Duw’Absh) tribe whose home was the streets of Seattle. The year was 1980 and I was a bright-eyed nineteen year-old Evangelical sitting across from Bert and his friend, Clyde, all ready to share the Gospel with these two poor, homeless guys. My agenda was clear: I needed to share the gospel and make sure these folks got saved.
What actually unfolded was quite different than what I had planned. As I talked (I wasn’t really into asking questions other than those scripted by the goal), they both politely nodded in agreement. Every once in a while either Bert or Clyde would chime in with a bit of relevant gospel. Over several weekly visits, tucked into my monologue as minor interruptions to the script, I would completely miss these little gems of wisdom.
Then, one night, God showed up. As I was flinging Bible verses around like a good sower scatters seed (so I thought), Bert pulled out his well-worn Bible, opened it up, and began to teach me. Staring at me with his one good eye, Bert proceeded to rattle off an entire passage of scripture, the one open in front of him, without looking at it once. I was dumbfounded… literally!
The truth of the matter was that God had been showing up for weeks, but I was unable, or unwilling, to listen. Whether Bert and Clyde knew it or not, God was using them to save me, not the other way around. Both of them had a very deep faith. Both of them were rich in wisdom. And I had written both of them off as old homeless guys who needed saving.
Perhaps one of the biggest challenges to listening are our prejudices and preconceived notions. When you amplify that with privilege and arrogance, our ears can become as stopped up as a toilet at a bad fast-food joint. At the time, I really had no idea how full of it I was.
As God plunged my ear canals and I began to be able to hear, Bert educated me not only about the Bible but also about the challenges of being a Duwamish Indian, a tribe unrecognized by the Federal government.
I learned that these “lazy, drunk Indians”, as they were often stereotyped, were actually very proud Native Americans robbed of their home while their culture, and very existence, were daily assaulted by the forces of assimilation and “economic progress”. (The city of Seattle is named after one of the Dkhw’Duw’Absh Chiefs, Chief Si’ah, the first signatory of the 1855 Treaty of Point Elliot which ceeded their lands for the very benefits they are denied today). Although he never said it, my whole middle-class-white-American Evangelical approach was more a symptom of that oppression than of the unfettered grace of God.
Still reeling from the shattering of my dominant views, I listened as Clyde began to unfold the story of his life. For several decades Clyde was a faithful employee of a flour mill in South Seattle. Then one day, in his late 50s, he was suddenly laid off. Searching for work but finding none, Clyde eventually lost his housing and landed on the street. He spent his days with Bert in the library reading and, to this date, is probably one of the most well-read people I’ve ever met.
I did not go to the streets of Seattle to hear; I went to speak. I did not go to the streets of Seattle to see, but to confirm what I had already preconceived in my mind. Bert and Clyde shattered the darkness shrouding my heart and mind. God used them to unstop my ears and to open my eyes. Over the past 35 years I have continued to be involved in the lives of the unhoused, or should I say, we’ve been involved in each other’s lives. Thanks to these two prophets of God, this has largely been a partnership with, rather than a ministry to, or for, those living outside.
I still see through a glass darkly and my ears still are partially clogged. To think differently would be to deny Clyde and Bert’s ministry to me. But they have taught me to listen, to be more aware, and to recognize that, in the many voices around me every day, there are prophets still speaking, calling us forward, and readily available to those who have ears to hear.
- Can you think of a time when God broke through your own prejudice or preconceived notions to help you to see and hear more fully?
- Can you identify one or two areas in your life where you still have trouble hearing and seeing?
This post was originally featured on Godspace, at that time the blog for Mustard Seed Associates where Andy worked for nine years. Be sure to check out Christine Sine's Godspacelight blog featuring more of Andy's writings as well as writers from around the world exploring many aspects of Christian spirituality.