Chapter OneTWENTY MINUTES
PAST THE WORLD
Real punches aren't as sharp and clean as Hollywood
makes them out to be. They're much deeper, thicker. If
you happen to hear them from close-up, the sound
doesn't give you a rush of adrenaline. It makes your stomach
The punches, screams, cursing, and kicking we witnessed
that night in the park were real. The blood was real, too. It was
another cold night in San Francisco .
I had walked against the wind over to where Sam was sitting,
his back up to the concrete and brick wall that circles the
planter at the Haight Street entrance to Golden Gate Park. All
I'd had to eat that day was a ninety-nine-cent hamburger, and
it sat uncomfortably in my stomach. I groaned, stretched, and
sat down next to Sam, rubbing my hands together to try to get
some feeling back in my fingers.
"You know you're cold when you're fingers are too stiff to
play the guitar," Sam said.
He had laid his guitar carefully across some dead flowers
in the planter behind us. Fog billowed high above us, and every
now and then, a cold gust pushed trash and dust into our
faces. The air was rank with the stench of alcohol, cigarettes,
body odor, and joints. Even with the wind it was sickening.
Nearby, six street people played quarters, a game in which
the person throwing a quarter closest to the wall but not
touching it took everyone else's quarters. It was a good way to
pass the time and make a little cash.
One of the girls threw a quarter that clanked sharply
against the wall. A horrible throw. She let out a string of
curses, then ambled over to a heavily tattooed guy leaning
against a cast iron fence and smoking a joint. She kissed him,
not seeming to notice that she was interrupting his conversation
with the man next to him.
"Can I have a quarter, baby?" she pleaded, looking into
"Sure," he growled. He reached into his pocket and pulled
out two dirty quarters.
The girl snatched them and ran back to the game, ready
for the next round.
"You'll pay me back later," he yelled after her.
"You bet I will," the girl said with a wry smile in his direction.
A fresh gust of wet wind pushed me further into my
filthy sweatshirt. San Francisco cold is weird-heavy and penetrating.
Two months earlier on the streets of Washington,
D.C., Sam and I couldn't do enough to escape the heat.
Sam was talking. "There is this mountain back home we
used to hike up early in the mornings just to watch the sunrise.
One time we wanted to play worship music up there, so
we carried a guitar all the way to the top. But when we got
there, no one could play it because we were all so cold."
Sam looked deeper into Golden Gate Park, stretching
away from us for two miles to the Pacific Ocean. "Man. Seems
like such a long time ago."
"Yep, sure does," I said, my own thoughts turning back to
take comfort in familiar wonderings: My family would probably
be sitting down to eat dinner together, while my friends
back at school might be heading out to watch a movie.
"It sure does," I said again.
That's when the chaos hit.
"Who you think you are? You piece of .!" Marco, the
undisputed leader of the gang at the mouth of the park, was
screaming at a guy in front of him. Then with all eyes on him,
Marco slammed both fists into the guy's chest, forcing all the
air out of the man with a sickening whoosh and knocking him
Instantly the park erupted with screams and profanity as
everyone seemingly rushed to join the fight. The coin tossers
next to us ran to join in, too, the last throw spinning
unheeded until it clinked to a stop.
Within seconds, about twenty guys were throwing
punches, kicking, yelling, cursing, and tearing wildly at each
other. Dogs barked and snarled. And thirty or so other park
people, many of them drunk and staggering, gathered around
In the center of it all, Marco was pulling on one end of his
victim while the man's friends were pulling from the other.
Allies of Marco saw their opportunity and set about to pound
the defenseless man's face or plant steel-toed boots in his gut.
When blood started dripping onto the cement, the brawl
seemed to get more feverish. "Take him in! Take him in!"
someone yelled. They wanted to drag their prey deeper into
the park, away from the cops or any passerby who might try
to spoil their fun.
By now, Sam and I were standing, looking around for a
squad car-for any sign that this wouldn't end with a dead
man in Golden Gate Park. Nothing.
"We probably need to get out of here," I mumbled. Sam
As we picked up our stuff and shuffled off, the brawl
shifted further into the park. All I could think to do was
pray-and wonder again what Sam and I had been thinking
when we decided to step out of our comfortable world . and
A FLICKER OF LIGHTNING
The idea had dropped into my brain one Sunday morning
while I sat in church. The pastor was delivering a powerful sermon
about living the Christian life. The gist of it was, "Be the
Christian you say you are."
Suddenly I was shocked to realize that I had just driven
twenty minutes past the world that needed me to be the
Christian I say I am, in order to hear a sermon entitled "Be the
Christian you say you are." Soon I would drive back past that
same world to the privilege of my comfortable life on campus
at a Christian college.
Thinking ahead to my next week, I knew several things
would happen. I knew I'd hear more lectures about being a
caring Christian or living a godly life. I'd read more books
about who God is and about what the world needs now. I'd
spend more time late at night down at a coffee shop with my
friends kicking around ultimate questions and finely delivered
opinions about the world.
Then I'd jump into my warm bed and turn out the light.
Another day gone.
But we were created to be and to do, not merely to discuss.
The hypocrisy in my life troubled me. No, I wasn't in the
grip of rampant sin, but at the same time, for the life of me I
couldn't find a connecting thread of radical, living obedience
between what I said about my world and how I lived in it. Sure,
I claimed that Christ was my stronghold, my peace, my sustenance,
my joy. But I did all that from the safety of my
comfortable upper-middle-class life. I never really had to put
my claims to the test.
I sat there in church struggling to remember a time when
I'd actually needed to lean fully on Christ rather than on my
own abilities. Not much came to mind. What was Paul's statement
in Philippians? "I have learned what it means to be
content in all circumstances, whether with everything or with
nothing" (Philippians 4:11-12).
The idea came instantly-like the flash of a camera or a
flicker of lightning. It left me breathless, and it changed my
life. What if I stepped out of my comfortable life with nothing but
God and put my faith to the test alongside of those who live with
nothing every day?
The picture that came with that question was of me
homeless and hungry on the streets of an American city.
Hard on the heels of the idea came the questions: What
if I didn't actually believe the things I argued with so much
certainty? What, for example, if I didn't truly believe that
Christ is my identity, my strength, my hope? Or worse, what
if I leaped in faith, but God didn't catch me? My mind
And then there were the practical questions. Could I survive
on the streets? How much did I really want to learn to be
content always with nothing? What would my friends think?
What would my parents think? My pastors? My professors?
Would I be okay? What if I got sick? What if I starved? What
if I got beat up? What if I froze?
What if I'm wrong?
Am I crazy?
Will I die?
But already, I had decided. I walked out of church that
morning seized by a big idea, assaulted by dozens of questions,
and sure that I had heard deep in my heart a still, small
voice saying, "Follow Me."
"Why Would You Want to Do That?"
Of course, what my idea might actually require took a while
to sink in. I would have to put the rest of my life on hold,
leave school, and sign up for months of risk, rejection, and
plain old misery. There aren't too many brochures for that
kind of thing.
I started with my family. When I called to give them my
long, excited ramble, I heard only silence on the other end.
Then a few expressions of stunned disbelief.
"Why would you want to do that?" my dad asked.
Determined to hear him out, I asked him to explain what
He did. "Why would you want to leave school, leave your
friends, leave your family, leave your life, and do this? Why
would you put your mother and me through the stress, confusion,
and worry? Why would you jeopardize all that you've
worked so hard for, all that we've paid for, all that you have to
look forward to-for this?"
Each of his questions hit home. I thought for a moment.
"Well," I said finally, "that's sort of complicated. I believe I
must. I don't know for certain yet that I will do this, I still
have a lot of people to talk with. But I believe that it is something
I must do."
I would be heading home for the summer in a couple of
months at which time my parents said we could discuss this
crazy idea a little more. We agreed to talk about it face-to-face.
It would be a hard conversation.
I plunged into researching homelessness on the streets of
America. I read firsthand accounts, sociological studies, autobiographies
of people who had given their lives to work with
the homeless and addicted.
Even at first glance, the scope of homelessness in America
was much worse than I'd imagined. According to the National
Coalition for the Homeless, in the United States, more than
3.5 million people experience homelessness during any given
year. That means that more than one percent of our population
this year will be eating out of trash cans and sleeping
Soon I was meeting every month with the director of the
Santa Barbara Rescue Mission. Then I began volunteering at
the mission twice a week to learn more about the men and
women who came through its doors.
Over the next year, I probably looked like any other college
student-studying hard, playing hard, juggling classes and
work. But all the while I kept pushing on my crazy idea. To
my surprise, at every turn and with every conversation, the
idea was only confirmed. Even people who should have been
telling me no encouraged me to press on.
THE COUNSEL OF FRIENDS
One day I sat in the office of the president of the Denver
Rescue Mission, laying out my thoughts. I figured if anyone
would know enough to tell me to turn back, he'd be the one.
But after he thought for a while, he looked up at me, puzzled
by what he was about to say.
"I can't believe I'm saying this," he said, "but I think your
idea is a good one. And I have a feeling that it is very important
for you to do this. It will be dangerous, of course, and
there are no guarantees. But if you plan well, you can succeed.
And you certainly won't come back the same person."
I walked out of his office convinced for the first time that
what I wanted to happen actually would happen. And something
else-an invitation to begin my journey by checking in
to his facility just like any other transient off the street.
About this time I also became convinced that I needed
some kind of advisory group that would give me guidance
and hold me accountable. Proverbs 15:22 says, "Plans fail for
lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed." I
wanted to be wise, and to succeed, and more than that, I
wanted to bring glory to the Lord in everything this idea
entailed. So I began praying that God would lead me to the
It didn't take long to develop a list of men who had been,
and still were, having a significant impact on my life as a
Christian: my campus pastor, my youth pastor, two rescue mission
presidents, a close friend from Oregon, and a professor.
Each man I talked to responded positively to my proposal and
agreed to mentor and advise me.
With their help, I began putting a travel plan together.
After considering a lot of alternatives, we settled on six cities:
Denver; Washington, D.C.; Portland; San Francisco; Phoenix;
and San Diego. These cities seemed representative of the
American urban homeless scene as well as being places where
I would have a backup personal contact of some kind in case
My advisers also helped me fine-tune my overall purpose.
We boiled it down to three objectives:
1. To better understand the life of the homeless
in America, and to see firsthand how the
church is responding to their needs.
2. To encourage others to "live out loud" for Christ
in whatever ways God is asking them to.
3. To learn personally what it means to depend on
Christ for my daily physical needs, and to experience
contentment and confidence in Him.
Then there was the issue of companionship. Jesus sent His
disciples out two-by-two-a model that seemed right for my
new undertaking as well. Besides, I wanted a traveling partner.
I pictured long, lonely nights huddled in a stairwell. I
worried about attacks. Another person would make everything
But a traveling partner turned out to be hard to come by.
Some friends I approached didn't catch the vision. Others
couldn't take time off from school or work. Three months
before I was to depart on the streets, it looked as though I
would be going alone. And then I met Sam Purvis.
At six-foot-three or so, Sam was big-about the same size
as me, which was an added bonus. Two big guys are much less
likely to get messed with on the streets. He was easygoing and
he needed a haircut. Right away, I saw possibilities.
Sam had gone to the University of Oklahoma for a semester
but was taking a semester off. He happened to be on my
campus, and heard through the grapevine about my proposed
journey. The more we talked, the more interested he became
in joining me. I was encouraged by Sam's excitement about
the trip and passion for serving the Lord. Although we only
had a few conversations, I felt a real connection and unity in
our hearts and vision.
We agreed to take two weeks to think and pray about it,
and for Sam to meet with his mentor and pastor back in his
Oregon hometown. Two Saturday's later, during a two-hour
telephone conversation, Sam and I struck a deal.
Sam and I decided we would be gone for five months. We
would begin at the rescue mission in Denver, then travel to
and live on the streets of Washington, D.C.; Portland; San
Francisco; Phoenix; and San Diego.
From the start, Sam and I understood that we would not
actually be homeless. We'd only be travelers through this
underworld of need-privileged visitors, really, because any
time we wished, we could leave the streets and come home.
Most people on the streets have no such option.
Yet, as truly as we could, Sam and I wanted to experience
homelessness. That meant, among other things, that we'd
carry only the bare essentials, taking no cell phones, credit
cards, or extra clothes. We would survive as most other men
and women on the streets do-panhandling for money, eating
at rescue missions or out of garbage cans, and sleeping outside
or in shelters.
We would take only what we could carry. Our clothing
for the five months would consist of a pair of boxers, a pair of
shorts, a pair of jeans, a T-shirt, and a sweatshirt. Add books
and journals, and a couple of battered guitars to support our
panhandling, and that was it.
We would keep our background and purpose a secret
because if a person or an organization knew we were choosing
to be homeless, their response to us would be different. As
much as possible, we wanted to experience the real thing.
We'd travel by Greyhound Bus, using our panhandling
earnings to buy fare between cities. But because we wanted to
spend our time homeless in the cities rather than stuck on a
bus for two weeks crossing the country, we made two exceptions:
we would fly between Denver and Washington, D.C.,
and between D.C. and Portland.