A couple Saturdays ago I was lamenting my current lack of local, hands-on ministry involvement. So when a musician friend e-mailed a couple hours later to ask if Janet and I would help him lead worship at a street-side 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 off the excuses and said yes. Because I experienced not only a window into the reality of the street but into the heart of the late Jeff Bump.
My musician friend had received conflicting information about the gathering, and wasn’t clear whether it was a memorial or a normal outreach service put together by people from his suburban church. 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 programming, seemingly not tied to any ongoing local ministry, never excites me much.
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 unknown to those attending.
I admit I didn’t have a very good attitude when we arrived half an hour in advance to quickly rehearse the songs—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, unfortunately 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 regretted that my excuses hadn’t won the argument the day before.
Then a street-savvy preacher got up and put his open Bible on the pulpit: an old pizza box duct-taped to a folding stand. He stood next to a Dumpster protected by a chainlink fence and welcomed everyone. After he read from his Bible and spoke for just a few minutes about his deceased friend Jeff Bump, he 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 Vietnam veteran. He was only a couple years older than me, though with his full, white, flowing beard and kind but weary grey eyes, he could easily have passed for my father’s contemporary.
A young woman stood to tell how Jeff would share anything he had. How 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 latched onto her and I wondered: Would an ounce of that unconditional love from someone years earlier 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 drink—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’d ever heard. While it played on, she waved her raised hands, without shame, 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 drink. “Jeff always believed in me and in my future,” he said. Then he announced, “Well, I decided to believe Jeff. I’ve been sober seven 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 a steady stream of prostitutes and drug dealers. And he’d urge them, “Don’t do it!” probably at serious risk to himself. Maybe Kris Kristofferson knew someone like Jeff Bump when he wrote the profound truth in “Me and 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 what 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 fingernails dug in. That he hopes he makes it into heaven, and he hopes to see 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 who were already in the roads and on the streets, was one of most authentic evangelistic testimonies I’ve ever heard. Here was brokenness speaking to brokenness, a beggar telling other beggars where he’d found bread. No one issuing guaranteed tickets through the pearly gates, just a humble invitation to walk a new road that, God willing, might take you there.
When the sharing was over, our music team had enough sense to get up and lead everyone in “Amazing Grace.” Grace seemed even more amazing that day.
But lovely as those lyrics are, we might have sung words even more confessional, more street-wise, more reflective of Jeff, from another Kris Kristofferson gem, “Why 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
The next evening, at a church harvest party, I sang that song … and I dedicated it to Jeff Bump.
Excerpted from: Reflections from Afar: Unexpected Blessings for Those Who “Have” from Those Who Don’t — https://www.amazon.com/dp/B06XCDG16F