It is a cold winter evening in Seattle. A light rain is falling on my beanie, on my shoulders. Grey clouds fill the sky. Loud horns and unapologetic sirens envelope the soundscape. I can barely hear myself think. There is hardly an inch between people on the sidewalk. Somehow, there seems to be no space at all between the cars on the street. I love busy street life and downtown living but today was the kind of day that made me want to just get away –catch a plane headed to a sunny island in Hawaii or Costa Rica. I wanted to soak up the sun on a quiet beach, sink my toes in the sand, maybe read a Stephan King novel and have a good scare.
Still, I walk the streets of downtown. I have research to do and, eventually, a dissertation to write.
As I move between people on the sidewalk, I run into a man named Sky. We are in front of Dick’s. I trust you know the burger joint. Sky is a young adult experiencing homelessness. He and I had been talking about getting coffee, so I ask Sky if he might want to grab a cup and chat someplace quiet. ‘I’d like that,’ he says, ‘but I need to get well first. Do you want to come to Needle Hill?’
For Sky, “getting well” has a particular meaning. It might not be what you expect. Sky is addicted to heroin. He tells me that heroin addiction is a medical condition that, right now, anyway, he can only treat with more heroin. Sky hates his heroin addiction, but he feels trapped and afraid that he’ll never get out of it. ‘Anymore,’ Sky tells me, ‘I don’t even get high.’ Now Sky uses heroin—or “black,” as it’s called on the streets—just to keep the agonizing, excruciating, maddening symptoms of withdrawal at bay. That’s why Sky calls using heroin ‘getting well’ as opposed to ‘getting high.’
I tell Sky that’ll I’ll go with him to Needle Hill. I actually feel honored that he trusts me enough to bring me into the underground drug culture. But I am also afraid. Needle Hill is not a safe place. Stepping onto Needle Hill is like stepping onto another planet. It’s like getting off of a plane and being in warm and quiet Hawaii instead of cold and busy Seattle. It’s like going to bed one night when everything is okay and then waking up and suddenly the world has COVID-19.
The suffering on Needle Hill is palatable. Everywhere there are human bodies bleeding, bleeding for healing. There is violence. Last week, two men died on Needle Hill by gunshot. They don’t keep record of how many people have died of an overdose or the less visible but more pervasive forms of structural violence. It is called Needle Hill because people buy heroin there and because of how many used needles are on the ground. If you are not extremely careful, you could easily step on a used needle. Or sit on one.
Sky and I ride a bus from downtown Seattle to Chinatown. We walk a few blocks and reach Needle Hill. We walk through tents and gravel and needles. ‘Wait here,’ Sky says. Sky walks away from me. He goes out of sight. I stand alone on Needle Hill and people start looking at me kinda funny. I gulp nervously and, for a moment, regret coming here. Though I dress to “pass” as a person experiencing homeless, not everyone is convinced. Some can see clearly that I am a “housie”: that is, someone who’s lucky enough to live inside where it’s warm. And safe. Maybe it was only a minute, but it felt like ten hours before Sky came back. ‘Thanks for waiting,’ he said. ‘Let’s go to my tent and talk.’
Sky and I walk through Needle Hill. Finally, we reach his tent. It is one blue tent in a sea of blue tents. ‘Have a seat,’ Sky says. ‘Make yourself at home.’ Sky realizes that he doesn’t have any more “cleans,” which means clean needles he can use to shoot heroin with. Sky looks down at his feet. He finds a used needle. Sky reaches into his backpack and pulls out a piece of cotton, a spoon, and a lighter. He lights the lighter and places the black on the spoon. He puts the flame underneath his spoon. And I watch the black transform.
‘So,’ he says, ‘let’s talk. You are studying spirituality, right?’ ‘Yeah,’ I say, ‘I am trying to understand how people on the streets think about spirituality – and practice spirituality, if they have one.’ ‘Let me be honest with you,’ Sky says. ‘I am not a very spiritual person. So, I don’t think I’ll be much help. There are a lot of spiritual people out here, as I am sure you know,’ he says, ‘but I am not one of them.’ Sky tells me that he used to have a relationship with God, but now he’s not so sure God exists. ‘I don’t know,’ Sky says, ‘maybe there is a God. If there is a God,’ he goes on, ‘he’s probably like a cruel and ignorant and spoiled little kid with an ant farm. It,’ Sky says, ‘is like we’re his ant farm.’ Sky laughs. ‘It’s like sometimes he shakes us up once in a while just to mess with us. It’s not a nice thought,’ Sky says, ‘but it’s genuinely how I feel.’
The heroin is warm enough now. ‘Cooked,’ Sky says. I watch Sky pull the heroin into the needle. I watch as he searches for a vein. I watch as he finds a vein and shoots the heroin into his body. I watch as the heroin moves through his body. I watch as Sky’s suffering stops and a kind of peace moves through him. I listen as Sky thanks me for being present with him, just hanging out. He slurs his words saying thank you for not judging me. ‘It almost helps me feel human again,’ he says.
‘By the way,’ Sky says, as he leans toward me and begins to nod off on my shoulder, ‘what do you think about God?’ Sky slips into sleep and I wonder about how many young adults experiencing homelessness told me that God, if God exists, is like a crazy alien or a spoiled child or a real but negligent and aloof creator.
I call her Constantine. She and I talk almost every day. I call her Constantine, but you might call her the Spokane River.
It might seem silly, and a little bit crazy, but I befriended Constantine. I also asked Constantine to become my teacher. I asked Constantine to become my friend and teacher because I think it’s important to have friends and teachers in the nonhuman world. Living beings in the nonhuman world love us and teach us how to care for ourselves, one another, the world. They help us understand that everything is connected and, whether we realize it or not, in conversation.
Constantine and I talk about a lot of things. We talk about our histories, for example. I tell her that I once had a dog named Snoop like the rapper Snoop Doggie Dog. I learn from the signs in a park next to Constantine that she used to provide food and fun to the Native Americans who once slept beside her, whose sleeping places and sacred land were stolen in the name of money and bad religion. We also talk about our wounds, Constantine and me. I tell her about the abuse I experienced as a child. I imagine that she tells me about some of the wounded people that have jumped into her from the Monroe Street Bridge – and drown – and I wonder how many wounded humans she has held inside her over the years. We also talk about what we love, our joys. I think about a time an older homeless gentleman on the bridge told me that Constantine has saved his life thousands of times. He told me that he just dips his face into Constantine when it’s warm enough and how, even on his worst days, he emerges from Constantine feeling like a new person. I tell her about all of you, how it brings me joy to hear your joys and see them living in you. I imagine—and let me stress that my conversation with Constantine is both real and a work of my imagination (lest you pick up your phone and start calling for a doctor …)—that she told me to tell you that it brings her joy to hear about your joy from me. She told me to bring a few rocks here today to say thank you, thank you for your joy.
Asking Constantine about God
Lately I have been talking to Constantine about God. I told Constantine what Sky said about God on Needle Hill and how it made me hurt, hurt to know someone thinks of God like that, experiences cosmic abandonment, that a hurting person is not aware that there is a divine river of goodness and care forever running in their soul. I told Constantine how hard it is to talk about God. How God is bigger than the word God or any word we might associate with the word God. How talking about God can feel like listening to a beautiful orchestra going on in the dark and which maybe you can’t hear but you still know is making the most wonderful sound. It’s like 1 Corinthians 13, I say: how see God now as in a mirror, dimly.
Yesterday I watched small snowflakes fall onto Constantine. They disappeared, immediately, and, in the process, actually became Constantine.
‘I don’t know,’ I said to Constantine. ‘What do you think about God?’
At first, it was a like busy Seattle evening in my mind. I heard nothing but noise. Then I took a breath and asked Constantine if I could toss my thoughts into her. ‘Of course,’ she said. I let Constantine carry my thoughts away, carry them away until we were sitting together in silence, until we were ready to talk about God.
Peace. I felt peace. A peace beyond understanding, a peace that is never sold out at the grocery store. Peace is what I think Constantine said about God. In that moment, I felt like one of Jesus’ disciples when he came to them on the water, battled by the waves in the storm, in a boat that might sink, in the dark, when they were desperate for food for tummy and spirit, when they were petrified, and when Jesus told them to fear not, to have courage, to be at peace. To get in the boat of peace, the boat that will always remain, to remain in the boat of peace when it is scary, and there find yourself in the arms of Christ, safe in the storm.
From where I sat, which was under the Maple Street Bridge, Constantine was moving quickly. So, I queried the pace of peace, how it moves in the world. There are times in which it is standing still. Peace is like a person that greets us quietly on a Sunday morning. Peace lives at the door like Bill or Pam or Wade or Linda or any other of our peaceful greeters.
A block away, Constantine is very still. Hardly moving. Like a slow poke you might want to honk at. There are other times, however, in which Constantine moves fiercely. Now is one of them. As I query the pace of peace, I imagine that she says: ‘the peace of God moves fiercely, too. It’s like a strong, moving river that calls us into places of fear and places of pain and places of violence, calls us into peace to bring peace even become peace.
Maybe we should always ask what the heck a Quaker is. And maybe we will always get different answers. But maybe there is one answer that will remain constant: a Quaker is someone who befriends peace to become peace. The peace of Christ, the presence of eternity that lives wildly, freely in the present. And teaches us that peace is not a commodity you can buy, a doctrine you can etch into a permanent stone, that peace is not a weapon used to win an argument or gain power over another, that peace can only be understood by letting go and being grasped—being held by the gentle, humble, empowering silence of loving always and knowing only sometimes in the dark.
I named her Constantine because she reminds me of God, because she invites me into peace to become more like God for a fearful world, for a world that can trust that there is a constant peace. A boat at your shore. A boat you can always get in. No matter what. Whether you’re on Needle Hill, whether you’re in rehab, whether you’re moons away from the sun and where you want to be, whether Mother Time is about to click-clock you into Her Arms, whether the world is fretting over and suffering from a disease called COVID-19.
Peace is here. It is real. Let’s get in the river. Let’s get in and bring peace to the world and to the people that most need it.
That, anyway, is what Constantine told me about God. What might God be saying to you this morning?
This message was given by Paul Blankenship during Sunday worship service on March 15, 2020. It was the same Sunday we learned that Sunday worship has now been canceled until further notice because of the COVID-19 outbreak.