I began to prepare to go to the park. I had recently purchased an old box van, the type you would expect to see delivering packages for UPS. I used what little money I had to build bunks in the back, to sleep six, and bolted a BBQ grill to the back bumper. Now with the tent loaded up, tanks full of gas, and insurance paid through the end of the month, I headed to Campbell Creek Park.
That first day, I lit a fire in the grill and shared what little food I had with the people there. By the end of the night when those who had homes had gone, I invited those who remained to sleep in the van. We found a quiet place to park for the night and returned the next morning and again lit a fire in the grill. This became the pattern that continued for the next two months.
Not knowing where the next meal would come from, I was relieved when someone from a nearby apartment brought us a silver salmon, which we cooked on the BBQ grill. One of the first members of the crew was Samuel Davis; he took on the duty of cook and faithfully carried that responsibility. As we ate that salmon, I looked at Sam and remarked, “We could really use some pots and pans.” He replied, “Yea, and some charcoal briquettes.” What a surprise it was when someone pulled into the parking lot not too long later and shouting out, yelled, “Anybody want some pots and pans?” He had a brand new set of stainless steel cookware, including a large pot, a kettle, skillet, and sauce pan. And when he saw that we had a BBQ grill, he returned with two bags of briquettes. We were both amazed at God’s provision. My faith was building, and it was the beginning of seeing God’s open display of provision in my life.
The smoke from the fire became a beacon, attracting the attention of the homeless people in the area. It also caught the attention of those living nearby. People in the neighborhood began bringing food to put on the grill or to throw in the pot. Some of those eating with us would bring food to contribute, and some community members got involved by bringing regular additions to the soup pot. The food was flowing, money was donated for gas, even the insurance for the van was paid, all given freely, everything coming unsolicited as we never asked or made any need known. Dozens of people were now eating with us every day, and every night we had a full van load of those who had nowhere better to sleep. Somehow we always had plenty, with just a cup or two of soup left at the end of the day, every day starting afresh, not knowing where the next meal would come from.
Our crew was growing, and I had determined from the beginning that I would not turn anyone away, so it was with great concern when James Crowley showed up. He seemed larger than life, and I felt more than a little intimidated when he arrived. I first saw him step in front of the van with a case of beer in hand. Setting it at his feet and yelling out, he shouted, “I’ve got a case of beer and a pocket full of moneeyyy!” I was sure hoping he had somewhere to sleep. Later that night when he seemed to have disappeared, I hurriedly gathered the crew, intent on getting out of the park before he returned. Much to my dismay, he returned flagging us down as we were trying to make our getaway. James joined us that night. He became a new member of the crew, and in the process, became my trusted and faithful friend.
The police had become more and more concerned with our activities in the park, and began to make some small effort to shut us down. I was informed that it was illegal to feed the homeless without a permit, and that a permit would be impossible without a commercial grade kitchen. I told them that it is common to have cookouts in the park and that I intended to continue doing so. They told me that if I did not desist immediately, I would be arrested. I responded with all due respect, giving them no reason to fault me other than my refusal to comply. They were bluffing, and although they continued to pressure me to stop feeding, no arrest was made. It was the first time that I became aware that police were allowed to lie. In fact, I later learned that they had a name for it, calling it Tactical Deception.
The nearby Rescue Mission soup kitchen had instituted a zero-tolerance policy toward alcohol, giving breathalyzer tests at the door. As a result, we had a lot of drunk people eating with us. In fact, I was the only sober one in the group of men now sleeping in the van, however, they still managed to faithfully and diligently assist in all duties necessary to keep our little soup kitchen on wheels operating.
One of the men who joined our crew was Avelin Waghiyi, known to us simply as Grandpa. Grandpa had claimed title of Navigator, and when present rode shotgun whenever we traveled. Grandpa was self-described as a panhandler, and would often return with beer or food for all of us. One time, returning with a bag full of beer, he said, “Grandpa’s so poor because he has so many grandchildren.” Avelin was a hardcore alcoholic, the only time I ever saw him sober over the years, was after some occasional arrest. My love for him became as that for a father.
Another man who joined our crew was William Peacock. William took on the duty of keeping the fire going. He made his post to be at the back corner of the van, next to the fire; he seldom left that spot. There developed some tension between William and the rest of the crew, and finally things came to a head. I was asked by some of the men to kick William out of the van. I called for a meeting where all of us would sit down and discuss the issue. I tried to explain to everyone that I had determined not to turn anyone away and that I did not want to deviate from that approach. But the crew was adamant that he must go; everyone had agreed. Not knowing what else to do, I told the men that if William must go, then so must I. That night William and I huddled under a blanket on the back porch of a nearby church. It was a cold night and we suffered through it together. The next morning, we returned to the van and by the grace of God, the crew welcomed him back. The result of that night was that I gained the respect and friendship of William, who up to that point had been quite reserved to accept me. William became my new friend and over the coming years our friendship would prove to be solid.
Winter was setting in, and so far, the van had been sufficient and we had not yet found the need or opportunity to set up the tent. However, it was getting quite cold in the van. On one particularly cold night, having not nearly enough blankets, I pulled into the Rescue Mission to ask for blankets. Due to their zero-tolerance policy, they would only give me one thin blanket, since the other men could not pass their breathalyzer. In disgust, I dropped the blanket at their feet and walked out. I told God that I would not eat there again as long as he fed me in other ways, and only if I had not eaten in at least three days. God’s hand was never short, and I never again ate at the Rescue Mission. The next day, cold as it was, I spent the entire day out front holding a sign, reading, “Zero-Tolerance Kills”
The cold weather set in and the van was so iced up that it would no longer start, we were stuck in the parking lot of a building near the park with no way of moving it. That would be the end of our soup kitchen and mobile bunk house. By then, most of those frequenting the park had stopped coming, and God’s timing was to be clearly seen, the cycle of events coming to an end. The police came by one day and told me that we would need to move the van or risk having it towed. I asked him how much time we had and he gave me 48 hours. By the end of that time, I had not been able to have the van moved and had no idea what to do. That evening a security guard stopped by and explained that he was in charge of the property that we were on and told me that we would need to leave, but that he could give us another 48 hours. On the last day, William Peacock received his first social security check, he got an apartment and the whole crew moved in with him, and he paid for the van to be towed to Beier’s auto shop.
James and Samuel helped me set up camp in Campbell Creek Park, not far from the parking lot. Pitching the tent in plain sight from the road, where it would become a haven through the coldest months of that winter. Some people would spend only a few nights there until they had made other arrangements, while others would become regular guests. The police were not happy about our camp. Where as other camps were hidden from view, ours was in plain sight. It was as the police officer had told me, my tent was set in the middle of the park and there was nothing the police could do about it. The law was on our side, however, the police were not easily dissuaded and they would eventually find a way around their own law. Ironic that those entrusted with the enforcement of the law would themselves freely violate it. One day, returning to camp, we were surprised to find it was taped off with No Trespassing signs. It had been condemned. There was a notice sighting a failure to comply with building codes, having not obtained a building permit and for not having running water. Making a trip to the Department of Code Enforcement, proved unfruitful, and by the next day the tent had conveniently burnt down and the remains quickly cleared out. This segment of events had now concluded its purpose, the heart of winter now past.