Bump on the Road

A couple Saturdays ago I was lamenting my current lack of hands-on ministry involvement. So when a musical friend emailed a couple hours later, asking if Janet and I would help him lead worship at a streetside memorial service for a homeless man in Santa Ana the following morning, it was hard to take seriously my usual excuses… why the idea is nice but the timing is bad, blah, blah. I’m so glad I fought them off and said yes. Because what I experienced was a window not only into the reality of the street but into the heart of the late Jeff Bump.

My friend received conflicting information about the gathering, whether it was a memorial or a normal outreach service put together by people from his suburban church. And when we arrived, there seemed to be as many volunteers ready to serve the free breakfast as there were partakers. This kind of drive-in program, seemingly not tied to some indigenous ongoing ministry, never excites me much.

And because of the conflicting information on the focus of the gathering, my friend decided to choose safe, contemporary worship songs from the suburban white church, many of which are lovely but not known to those attending.

So I admit I didn’t have a very good attitude when we arrived half an hour in advance to go through the songs together once… or so we thought. Turns out we had the wrong time and they needed us to start immediately! So we rushed to set up and jumped right in with barely a “Hail Mary” prayer for God’s Spirit. The small U-shaped asphalt patch where we met, accidently created by the windowless walls of three unfriendly buildings, opened onto a noisy street that competed effectively with our humble sound system.

We seemed more like a distraction than anything; most people simply stared or kept eating their breakfast. I felt about as relevant as a singing duck; a curiosity to be watched, not joined. Mercifully, the singing time ended and we could sit down. Personally, I was deflated and regretting that my excuses hadn’t won the argument the day before.

Then a Hispanic preacher got up and put his open Bible on the pulpit—an old pizza box which was duct-taped to a folding stand. He stood next to a dumpster protected by a chain-link fence and welcomed everyone. He read from his Bible and spoke for only a few minutes about his deceased friend Jeff Bump, and then invited those who knew Jeff to come and speak.

That’s when we had church.

One after another they came up to pay respects to a fellow resident of the streets. Jeff’s photo and a small American flag were taped to the bare wall behind us, the latter to acknowledge that Jeff was a veteran during the Vietnam conflict. He was only a few years older than me, though with his full white flowing beard framing kind but weary grey eyes, he could pass for my father.

A young woman stood to tell how Jeff would share anything he had. She told us Jeff would see her taking drugs with her boyfriend and encourage them to stop. But, she said after seriously losing her composure, he always added, “Even if you keep doing the drugs, I will always be your friend.” My heart fixed on her and I wondered: Would an ounce of that unconditional love years earlier from someone have changed her life’s trajectory?

An older man who was missing one arm said, “Jeff was no saint, but he was a good partner. On the streets, you gotta have a partner. He shared everything. He’d give you his last dime. I’d see him in the mornings having his favorite “wake-up”—vodka, and he even shared his wake-up. If you never been on the streets, you got no idea how generous that is. He was no saint, but he was generous; he even shared his wake-up.”

A toothless woman told us with tears that “Amazing Grace” was Jeff’s favorite song. She brought her oversized boom-box so she could play us the worst instrumental recording of the song I’ve ever heard. And while it played on, she shamelessly waved her raised hands in praise to the Lord who generously bestows grace on his children, not only to the broken but also to the cynical; praised be His name.

Then a guy introduced himself as Jeff’s best friend. He was the first “cleaned up” speaker we’d seen. He told us he’d lived with Jeff for two years on the streets, but Jeff was always telling him to quit drinking, even while Jeff continued to. Jeff always believed in me and in my future, he said. The man announced, “Well, I decided to believe Jeff. I’ve been sober 7 months now, and I’m gonna keep going to honor Jeff.”

He talked on about the hope Jeff had, how he brought out the best in others, how they would bed down together behind houses and drink and then talk about the Bible together for hours. How Jeff staked out a street location near a payphone, where he would see prostitutes and drug dealers all the time. And then he’d urge them “Don’t do it!”, probably at serious risk to himself. Maybe Janis Joplin knew someone like Jeff Bump when she sang the profound truth in “Me & Bobby McGee“: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” When there’s nothing you’re afraid to lose, you are thrillingly unshackled to do good. Jeff often used the little money and influence he had to make friends, to help others who needed it more than he did. Freedom.

Jeff’s best friend wasn’t done. He told us how their talks had transformed him, how Jeff had countered his friend’s spiritual procrastination with his own gritty faith, holding onto Jesus with his dirty nails dug in. He told the rest of us that he hopes he makes it into heaven, and he hopes he sees Jeff there. I guess after you’ve experienced the vulnerability of the streets, it’s easy to remember that even your eternal destiny is ultimately in God’s hands alone, not some Reformation theologian’s.

“Maybe you’ve been giving excuses and procrastinating too,” he continued in his humble storytelling style. “Well, Jeff would say ‘Don’t wait’, he wouldn’t want you to wait.” This speaker’s invitation to the Jesus Road, an invitation to those others already in the roads and on the streets, was one of most authentic evangelistic testimonies I’ve ever heard in my life. Here was brokenness speaking to brokenness, a beggar telling other beggars where he found bread. No one issuing guaranteed tickets to the Pearly Gates, but a humble invitation to walk a new Road that, God willing, might take you there.

When the sharing was over, our music team had the sense to get up and lead everyone in singing “Amazing Grace” together. Grace seemed even more amazing this day.

But lovely as those lyrics are, we might instead have sung words even more confessional, more street-wise, more reflective of Jeff, from Janis Joplin’s contemporary Kris Kristofferson:

Why Me Lord? –

What have I ever done to deserve even one of the pleasures I’ve known

Tell me Lord, what did I ever do to deserve loving you and the kindness you’ve shown

Lord help me Jesus I’ve wasted it so; Help me Jesus I know what I am

Now that I know that I needed you so; Help me Jesus, my soul’s in your hands

Try me Lord –

If you think there’s a way I can try to repay all I’ve taken from you

Maybe Lord I can show someone else what I’ve been through myself on my way back to you

Lord help me Jesus I’ve wasted it so; Help me Jesus I know what I am

Now that I know that I needed you so; Help me Jesus, my soul’s in your hands

Jesus my soul’s in your hands

Last evening at a church harvest party, I sang that song… and I dedicated it to Jeff Bump.

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