The first time I saw him he was lying on the grass in his own vomit.
We had started the “Park Ministry” a few months before. “The Young & the Rest of Us” Sabbath School class had accepted the challenge to do some kind of outreach together. Now we were taking turns preparing a hot meal and sack lunches and handing them out to people on Sabbath afternoons. We set up at Locomotive Park by the bridge that crosses the Columbia River from Wenatchee to East Wenatchee, Washington in the heart of apple-growing country.
There he lay, oblivious to what was going on around him, pants wet from having too many beers. He couldn’t even accept a plate of food or a sack lunch.
We learned that his name was Wally. He had been homeless fourteen years, sleeping under the bridge or down by the river, living on government subsidy and handouts when he was sober enough to accept them.
All the street people seemed to know him. One time when we were serving, Johnny said with slurred speech, “You think I’ve got a drinking problem.” No one had said anything about it but a desire to justify himself was obvious. “Well I’m not as bad as he is,” he said, pointing to Wally, lying on the ground again.
Over the next two years the Park Ministry teams faithfully prepared food every Sabbath afternoon, through summer heat or winter snows. They offered food, friendship and short worship services for whoever showed up at Locomotive Park, feeding anywhere from seven to sixty men and sometimes women.
Then I took my mission trip to India. It was November 2001. When I returned someone asked me “Have you heard what happened to Wally?”
“No, did he die?”
“No, he’s sober!”
“How did that happen?” Here I was, a pastor, questioning the power of God. Shame on me.
“They sent him to detox for the umpteenth time. But this time he said, ‘If there are people who keep on loving me the way I am then maybe there really is a God who loves me too.’ When they led him through the program he asked God for help instead of just going through the motions. Now he’s sober!”
The next time I saw Wally he was clean, shaved, combed and smiling. He said, “Yes, God really has been good to me.” He started telling all his street friends and anyone who would listen how wonderful God is. He accepted rides to church on Sabbath morning. He picked up free literature in the church lobby and passed it out all over town the following week. He joined the New Members & Visitors Sabbath School Class. Gayle Lasher, the teacher, and her husband Rod, had been through some rough times in their own lives before being baptized a few years before and adopted Wally in a special way as their own family member.
A few months later Wally was tobacco free. Not long after that he actually moved into an apartment. “I’m afraid I might be claustrophobic but I’ll try it,” he said. He invited a few friends and church members to the apartment dedication where we read from the Bible, sang a few songs, shared a few testimonies and committed all future activities in the apartment to God. We asked Him to use it as a light in the neighborhood. Wally was beaming.
Wally had never learned to read but he had a hunger for the word of God. He decided God could help him learn, even though he was in his mid fifties. Wouldn’t you know it, he started with the King James Version of the Bible! Within a few months he was able to read clearly but slowly and with a reverence we all could learn from.
In March 2002 Wally attended an evangelistic week of prayer we had at church and made his decision to be baptized and unite with the Seventh-day Adventist church. On a Sabbath afternoon in May, Wally and two others waded into the cold water of Lake Chelan and were baptized. That morning in church when he gave his testimony he said, “I’ve done a lot of wrong things in my life. I’ve served a lot of time for some of them. But this afternoon they will all be washed away by Jesus when I get baptized. It’s been twenty-two years since I talked with my family. I tried to find them and tell them what Jesus is doing in my life but I couldn’t find any of them. So now you are my family,” he said as he gestured toward the congregation.
The members continued to welcome Wally into their hearts and homes. One Sabbath when he sat down to Sabbath lunch with the Steinberg family he started to cry.
“What’s wrong, Wally?” Charles asked.
“I can’t remember when was the last time I ate a meal with a family with plates and silverware. It’s just so wonderful!”
While visiting on another Sabbath afternoon he noticed two tables of stone with the Ten Commandments carved in them. He carefully traced the words with his finger, reading each one aloud. He began to weep again. “I’ve broken ever single one of these. But my Jesus has forgiven me. I sure do love Him.
In April 2004 our newly planted church on the south side of town held an evangelistic series. Wally knew that this was his best opportunity to invite Shirley to some meetings since she lived in the neighborhood. Shirley was the grown daughter of one of Wally’s old drinking buddies who had disappeared a few months before. Shirley had watched the changes in Wally’s life and knew she wanted what he had. She came with Wally every night the first week. Then Wally had to go into the hospital again with heart problems but Shirley kept coming to the meetings. On the last Sabbath Shirley was baptized. After the baptism several of the members rushed over to the hospital ICU to tell Wally the good news. That was the last thing Wally was ever told. Less than five minutes later he fell asleep in Jesus, his body unable to keep up with the bad habits of his old life.
The local newspaper ran a story about Wally that week and mentioned the time and place of the funeral. The next Sabbath afternoon the church was full with members and a town full of people who had known Wally. At the open microphone the primary care physician’s assistant spoke of watching Wally begin a new life two years before. Shirley told of her new commitment to the Lord because of Wally’s witness. A city librarian told of Wally coming in regularly and sharing his love for Jesus. She signed up requesting Bible studies. I told about how the service would be totally different if it had taken place three years before. But now we could know that someday soon, when Jesus broke through the sky that “the dead in Christ,” including Wally, “would rise first, then those of us who are alive and remain would be caught up together with them to meet the Lord in the air, and we would be with the Lord forever.” (1st Thessalonians 4:16-17).
Through the years our congregation had been known for being fairly affluent. God saw that we needed to reach out to the down and out. We needed to see the power of God at work in the “worst alcoholic in the valley.” We needed Wally as much as he needed us. And we can hardly wait to see Wally on resurrection morning!
This article was published in the Adventist Review Magazine August 21, 2008.