Peacemaking Starts with, “Hello.”

20131018-111246.jpgI interrupted my conversation with the new director of a local house of recovery in the South Bronx because I heard a commotion outside. I jumped through the front door of the Relief Bus to see two men staring each-other down with a woman between them caught in a spider’s web of tension and betrayal.

The man closest to me was new. I had never seen him at the Relief Bus before. He was easily 6 feet 4 with dark skin, short hair, wearing a blue winter vest and a scowl on his face. He was extremely drunk.

The other man was someone I’ve known for years. Significantly shorter, lighter skinned, jeans and a sweatshirt, Luis was a coiled spring just waiting for an excuse to explode on the much larger man who stood just paces away.

And then there was Mary.

Mary has been coming to the Relief Bus as far back as 2010. A Caucasian woman in her early fifties, she spent time in a partner rehab program upstate, but who for the last 5 years has seemed perpetually wired to self-destruct, be it through alcohol or men. This Saturday afternoon on Brook Ave was no exception.

I approached Luis first.

“What’s going on, here?” I placed myself directly between the bullets these men were staring at each other like a red light at a busy intersection.

“He’s drunk. He’s trying to take Mary down with him, so he’s going to take a walk or he’s going to get hurt.”

“Alright, let me see what I can do, just be cool.” I turned to look up into the face of the man I didn’t know, but in one second I realized he had absolutely no interest in acknowledging my presence, let alone heeding my advice. I turned back to Luis.

“Look, man. You know me. You know this cannot happen here. You know what we are about. So what has to happen for this to go away?”

“She needs to come with me and he needs to walk away.”

I sarcastically thought to myself, “Oh? Is that all?” I turned to Mary. “Mary, are you okay? What do you want to do?”

Mary took the hands of the intoxicated giant and pleaded with him, “Tony, the people at this bus are my good friends. I’m going to go get my stuff and I’ll meet you later.”

“Meet me at the liquor store,” he slurred.

“No. I’ll meet you here, with these church people. They are my friends.”

“No. Meet me at the liquor store. If he tries anything I’ll get my cousin and we’ll…” As he said this he started to try to get closer to Luis.

I stood my ground.

The light was still red.

Mary tried again, “Tony, I’m just going for my stuff. I’ll meet you here.” It was at this moment that I realized she was lying to him. She didn’t want to be with him. She wanted to be with Luis. For better or worse, her history with Luis was triumphing over her present with Tony.

“Okay… Meet me at the liquor store. That’s where I’ll be.”

“Tony, these people are here to help. You should talk to them.” She gave his hands one more squeeze and walked away. Miraculously Tony did an about-face and walked in the opposite direction.

He had no interest in talking to me. For a second I thought he might, but I quickly realized he wasn’t walking back for soup, he was walking back to the liquor store.

I’m convinced that the only reason that situation didn’t escalate into bloodshed is because of the relationship I was able to leverage with Mary and Luis. The conversations we’ve had, the prayers we’ve prayed, and the consistency with which we’ve served are like bricks that form the foundation of peace.

People seem surprised that we don’t often have violence break out at the Relief Bus locations. They figure the people we serve are volatile and the neighborhoods on edge: a recipe for disaster.

But what I’ve noticed in the 4+ years of doing this is that people will, more often than not, demonstrate whatever level of grace they have received.

I’ve witnessed a man who is hard wired for survival and self-defense receive a punch to the face and simply reply with, “the Relief Bus saved your a** today.” Folks we serve treat our outreaches as sacred space. There are obviously exceptions, but again, usually the exceptions are perpetrated by people who don’t know us well enough to know what we give and what we ask.

We go above and beyond to treat every man or woman who comes to the Bus as the children of God that they are. We use words like, “sir” and “m’am.” We apologize for being in the way. We ask for permission before we pray. We invite, we don’t demand.

We are creating a culture of humanity in a population that is too often treated as an “issue” or a “problem.”

We are only able to communicate the value of peace in a war torn world when we, as followers of the Prince of Peace, demonstrate consistently, and methodically, the substance that we proclaim.

Our message is only as effective as our relationships are strong. Peacemaking starts with, “hello.”

Grace and Peace,



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The Visible and the Invisible

Hands photo

There are two populations living in NYC: the Visible and the Invisible.

The Visible move like a river at flood stage between the towering trees of economic development and fashion. They move with intention and direction, guided by the downward momentum of train schedules, dinner appointments, and show times. The Visible blanket sidewalks and subways, unintentionally, sometimes intentionally, pushing the Invisible into the shadows. Like a broken tree branch floating on the tides of time and space, the Invisible are crushed beneath the waves of progress.

The Invisible live beneath the trees, either in small communities of 2 to 5 people or completely alone. They live off of the fruit that falls to the ground but doesn’t get swept away by the undertow of profit and productivity. The Invisible plant themselves against structures they can hold onto for stability. They stay geographically consistent because survival is not a philosophy to live by, but a necessity to live for. Moving away from the anchor upon which they are tied could literally mean drowning or starving to death, so the Invisible hang on for dear life.

Many of the Invisible were once part of the river, racing from north to south, from point A to point B. But now they have been cast off by circumstance and hopelessness: stagnate.

The Invisible are camouflaged by the bark of cement and glass. The Visible step over them, around them, and through them without any awareness beyond the subtle change in direction or pace that is required to adapt to the “obstacle” they only felt for a second before the mighty river has its way.

I am one of the Visible.



I have somewhere to be and a deadline to get there. I am not suffocated by the pressure and the pace; I am sustained by it. I can pillage the trees for my sustenance without fear or trepidation.

I am blinded by my own visibility.

Too often the only way for the Invisible to move from the shadows is for one of the Visible to choose to fight the flow of the river and stand side-by-side with those that are unseen.

Too often, the only way for the Invisible to become Visible is for one of the Visible to trade his place for hers.

Grace and Peace,





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The Relief Bus was parked 50 feet away. I was asked to follow one of the guys who smokes K2 away from the high traffic area so we could talk about his situation in a more “private” setting (“Private” being some place he could keep smoking and still not be overheard by anyone interested in his business).

He asked me about the best way to get into rehab. He smokes crack, K2, and drinks. But he wanted to visit his kids, so rehab seemed like a good first step.

I agreed.

But as we spoke another guy from his community of mountain climbers got my attention and said he wanted to talk to me too.

It was just that kind of day.

I made a few calls for David, but he wasn’t quite ready to go at that moment and his insurance was going to force him to wait until Monday. I prayed for him. I found his friend.

“What’s going on, man?”

He was short, light skin, with a beard, rags for clothes, and dirt under his fingernails. He was as high as the peak that shares its name with the drug of choice that’s sweeping the nation.

“It’s complicated,” he said. He dropped his voice to a whisper and continued. “I’m from Argentina. I came to this country illegally; I have no papers. I was a drug addict in Argentina and when I came here I started using dope. I don’t know what to do. I have no family. Everyone who knew me before has died.” Tears started to flood his eyes.

“How much do you use-a-day?” I asked.

“When I have money, I can use up to a bundle. But today I robbed my boss to buy enough to get me through. I’m starting to get very sick.” He continued. “I hate my life. I hate myself for not being there with my family in Argentina. My mother died, and I wasn’t there. I feel so guilty. Sometimes I want to die.”

“Listen to me. Do you know what we are celebrating tomorrow?”

“Easter.” Maybe not as high as I thought.

“Yes. Tomorrow we celebrate resurrection. Life conquering death. Jesus died on the cross so that you and I can rise from the dead too! There is hope! I know a place that will detox you from heroin with no papers and no insurance, but you will have to make it until Monday.”

His tears were now streaming down his cheeks as he fell into my chest shaking.

“Thank you. Thank you.”

“I’ll tell you how to get there, but you will need to find a way. Can you do that?”

“Yes. Yes.”

I wrote him a referral with step by step instructions. As I gave him the paper I told him, “this year we can celebrate your resurrection too!”

Grace and Peace,



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The One that Got Away

NYCskyline3Serving at New York City Relief is bigger than me. It’s bigger than you. It’s bigger than New York City, New Jersey, and the United States of America. Every time we have the privilege of walking the streets in search of lonely people who desperately matter to God, we are participating in a cosmic search party that started when humans first started running.

The narrative of scripture is consistent: God loves his children. God’s children run and hide. God pursues the one that got away.

“This is my story.
This is my song.
Praising my Savior, all the day long.”

In Genesis Adam and Eve betrayed their very nature, by trying to become like God in a way that they were never meant to be “like God.” They ran. They hid. God pursued. He’s been pursuing ever since.

God set apart a people that would be a blessing “to all nations.” The story of Israel, from Abraham, to Moses, to David, to Isaiah, is the same: God loves his children. God’s children run and hide. God pursues His children.

“This is my story.
This is my song.
Praising my Savior, all the day long.”

Then God doubled-down in his pursuit. For thousands of years He was sending messengers: prophets, judges, and kings, as ambassadors and spokespeople to track down his wayward kids. But then the story changes: God himself walks the streets in the person of Jesus.

Jesus touches people and makes them well. He speaks life into dead bodies. He speaks hope into hopeless hearts. God is so desperate to find his children, all His children, that he will stop at nothing to find the one that got away.

“This is my story.
This is my song.
Praising my Savior, all the day long.”

But Jesus is interested in finding more than one lost generation. The story goes that He died to find the lost children that were hiding where no one could ever go looking for them. This cosmic search party is not limited to the dimmensions of time and space.

Jesus came back from the dead, bringing with him a multitude of those who would be found.

“This is my story.
This is my song.
Praising my Savior, all the day long.”

From start to finish the Bible tells the story of a God who refuses to sit back and wait for people to “get it together.” 

From beginning to end we see a God who doesn’t assume that we will just “figure it out.” 

From the first page to the last page, God sends out messengers of hope, redemption, & restoration to the hopeless, forgotten, & broken, culminating in the person of Jesus literally going to the grave to make sure that no one gets left behind. 

So today I have the privilege of serving with New York City Relief. But it’s bigger than me. It’s bigger than you. It’s bigger than New York City, New Jersey, and even the United States of America. God is still out there tipping over furniture, ducking into subway stations, waving down complete strangers, all in the hope of finding the one that got away.

Grace and Peace,

Josiah Haken


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A Winning Lottery Ticket

200162_10150152565506458_35473056457_8280517_5570350_nHe was walking quickly past me, but something about him grabbed my attention. I don’t know if it was the camouflage jacket, the weathered face, or just a moment of divine intervention.

“Hey, my friend, how are you doing today?” Sometimes the simplest introductions work the best.

“I’m fine… This is my first time here. What is happening?”

“Wow, it’s your first time? Well, we are giving away free soup, hot chocolate, we have socks, and hygiene kits as well. All free.”


I walked him over to the serving window and got him a hot chocolate. We chatted about this and that. He told me he was homeless. He said he had served in the Marines. He did one tour, then when he came home, he volunteered to go back for a second.

“My wife thought I was crazy. She divorced me…” He started crying. “I don’t know why I’m even telling you this.”

“It’s good, man. Tears can be really good.” I put my hand on his shoulder as he cried. He told me he ended up doing three tours. He told me he did terrible things. He saw his friends killed in front of him. He said that what he saw filled him with anger and hatred.

“That’s why I kept volunteering to go back. I did terrible things. I was rebellious. I wanted to avenge my friends. I did terrible things.” He was silent for a long time, then he said,”Do you think that’s why I’m homeless? Is God punishing me for what I’ve done?”

I’ve been working with the New York City Relief and leading outreaches with the Relief Bus for over 4 years now. So many folks in the street have been told by their families, neighbors, churches, and friends that they deserve to live in the street; they brought this on themselves.

In our desperate attempt to find meaning in the worst that life has to offer we end up ascribing fault and blame on God’s behalf. We need to blame someone. Ever since we ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, we’ve made the tragic assumption that knowledge is the same as understanding.

“No. God is not punishing you. In fact, I believe, that the cross is proof that not only will God forgive you, but that God has already forgiven you. There is nothing you have done, are doing, will do, or could do, that could make God love you any less than He does at this very moment.” Tears ran down his cheeks. “I want to show you something.” I ran into the Relief Bus and grabbed a Bible.

“I want you to have this. But I want to read you something first.” I opened it to John 3:16 and read out loud,

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life…” 

He interrupted me. “How did I know you were going to read that verse?” He was laughing through his tears now.

“Because everyone knows that verse.” I replied. But that’s not the main verse I wanted you to hear. Listen to what comes next:

‘For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.’

“So many people think that God is up in heaven just waiting to smite anyone who steps out of line. They turn the story of Jesus into a message about judgment and punishment instead of mercy and grace. Remember the murderer who was crucified next to Jesus? There were 3 crosses on that hill. Two for guilty men and one for an innocent God. One of the guilty ones said to Jesus, ‘remember me when you come into your Kingdom.’ And Jesus replied, ‘truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.'”

His bloodshot, puffy eyes were locked in on mine.

“So the question is not whether or not God is punishing you, or even if you have been forgiven. The question is, will you walk away from this spot, having received that forgiveness? It’s sort of like a winning lottery ticket. It’s only worth anything if you cash it in. God has already forgiven you. He is not angry at you. He is not annoyed with you. He is not even disappointed in you. You’ve won the lottery for crying out loud! Now you just need to cash in your winning ticket and receive the gift of forgiveness that Jesus won for you. It’s not a magic trick. It’s reality. The weight of your mistakes and my mistakes is too heavy for anyone but Jesus to carry. He doesn’t want you to drag that around anymore.”

He hugged me. Like one of those long, uncomfortable hugs that leaves you wondering if he is ever going to let go.

I prayed for him and he walked away.

So what about you? Are you living under a judgment that was lifted 2000 years ago? Maybe nobody has ever told you that your horrible pain is not evidence of God’s divine wrath for mistakes you’ve made along the way. Maybe you grew up thinking that John 3:16 is where the story ends and since you struggle to cognitively assent to the narrative you’ve been given about Jesus, you might not belong in the elite “whoever believes in him club.”

Jesus didn’t come into the world to condemn you, but to save you. To save you from the lie that you aren’t enough. To save you from the lie that you are too far gone. To save you from the lie that your past will determine your future. Don’t walk away carrying the weight of mistakes that you were never meant to carry. You’re holding a winning lottery ticket. Now all you’ve got to do is cash it in.

Grace and Peace,



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hakens_dec2014_046Have you ever jumped into an icy swimming pool after sitting in a hot tub for thirty minutes? You know that feeling of shock as your nerves explode in transition from hot to cold? Every now and then the feeling of gratitude hits my system just like that.

For the last three weeks we’ve had the honor of hosting a writer from the online magazine called World Next Door ( Today she had a flight to catch at 6:30 am which means she would have to be at Newark Airport by 5:30 am. I volunteered to give her a ride because knowing my two kids, there was a 50/50 chance that I would be up anyway.

Sure enough 4 am arrived and my son started making noise.

I got up.

I started a podcast and walked outside. It was raining. Not a fierce rain like we had where I grew up in West Africa, this was a misty rain like I stepped into a cloud that was crying.

I picked Sarah up and took her to the airport. As I merged into the lane of traffic exiting the airport, it was like I had jumped out of the hot tub and was falling into a cold swimming pool of gratitude in slow motion.

It was still dark out and I had too much time before work to head back to the office so I decided to go back home and lay down on the couch in my living room. It struck me that I have a house with heat just sitting there, waiting for me should I ever have an hour to kill and nowhere to be.

My roof works. The rain that saturates everything outside is powerless against the shingles intentionally and meticulously installed to keep the people and the contents of my house dry.

It occurred to me that there is a couch with soft pillows inside this warm dry house, which at this hour would inevitably be reserved just for me.

I went to the store yesterday and got some coffee. I have french vanilla creamer in the fridge. There is cereal and milk there too. Just sitting. Waiting for my signal.

My kids are upstairs. Eden is probably curled up in a ball with her Goofy and Mickey Mouse stuffed animals close by. Ahron turned one last week. As of this morning, they are both healthy and strong. Making my life challenging by getting smarter and more creatively rebellious and destructive every day.

Chelsea is upstairs too. Hopefully she is asleep. She agreed to marry me ten years ago this month. Neither of us had any clue what that meant or what we had in store. But yet, to her credit, we are still best friends.

The downside to having a functional nervous system is that the human body will inevitably adapt to changes in temperature. I can already feel my senses adjusting to the gratitude that I felt fifteen minutes ago as I drove from the airport to my house.

But yet, I want those of you who read this to know that you are being used by God to make moments like this morning possible. I can’t begin to say “thank you” enough for loving my family so well. I can’t even list all the times we were living without any clue how the math was going to add up and someone randomly sent us a check. I can’t even list all the necessities we have as a direct result of one, or many, of you guys simply deciding to make it happen. Everything from our children’s winter clothes, to the oven we cook with, to the house that we get to call home, and everything else in between.

I tell people a lot that living on the financial support and generosity of folks like you isn’t very different than just getting a paycheck from a company or organization every two weeks, except that we don’t even have the option of living under the illusion of self-sufficiency.

Your job, your house, your food, your family, and everything else, come from the same place that ours do. It says in James 1:17 that “every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.”

There’s a reason the Church is referred to as the “Body of Christ.” Sometimes people think that God isn’t real because He is invisible. Well, let me just tell you, our family has seen Him. Every day that we wake up indoors gives us a glimpse of the divine. We see His hands, His feet, His eyes. We see and feel His love every day that we wake up and have food to feed our children.

We’ve seen his body; we see you.

Thank you, and Merry Christmas,



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A Sacred Act of Worship

chelsea422_26When Jose approached me I stifled a laugh. He was a big guy, at least 6 foot 2, and easily weighing 250 pounds. He wore a sweater that looked like it belonged to his grandmother and he had dress slacks on that didn’t match anything else, least of all the crocodile skin shoes that were 2 sizes two big.

In very broken English he said the one thing that his appearance had already communicated loud and clear, “I need clothes.”

I went ahead and assumed that he preferred Spanish so I answered, “lo siento, no tenemos ropa, pero, podemos hablar y es posible que podamos enviarle un lugar para conseguir algo (I’m sorry, we don’t have clothes, but we can talk and it’s posible that we can tell you where you can get something).

We went into the office area of the front of the Relief Bus and sat down. He was so appreciative that I understood Spanish.

He told me that he had gotten out of jail the day before after serving a 6 year sentence. That night he stayed at one of the New York City shelters that we hear so much about. His first stop after being released was a clothing store where he spent all the money he had in the world on a pair of boots, jeans, and a hoodie. He placed these items beside his bed at the shelter and when he woke up they were gone.

Fresh out of jail, with all of his earthly possessions in the wind, he approached a security guard to report the theft. He told me that this particular security guard was wearing a different pair of shoes than he had started his shift with the night before and that his new footwear looked remarkably like the shoes he had put beside his bed.

Livid with frustration, barefoot, and wearing nothing but his underwear and an undershirt, he went to the office of the supervisor and told him that one of the security guards had stolen his stuff. He received no compassion. The supervisor directed him to a clothing donation room where all he found that he could physically fit into were the clothes he was wearing at that moment.

Now, we tell volunteers all the time that one of the main priorities of our organization is to “love the person in front of you.” We also believe that the mandate of Isaiah 58 to “clothe the naked” is not just a cherry on top of our theological sunday. This is why we give out new socks and toiletry kits. On the other hand, we specifically choose NOT to give away miscellaneous clothing for a reason: our goal is to connect people to local resources and often times programs that offer clothes to the needy and naked also offer the chance at a new life through advocacy and rehabilitation. The other reason is that our mobile outreach doesn’t lend itself to sorting, washing, and distributing clothing in a safe and productive manner.

In this case I felt God telling me to make an exception.

I talked to the co-leader of the outreach that day and told him that I was going to take Jose shopping. We went around the corner to a local sporting goods store and did just that. He had gained a lot of weight in prison and didn’t have a clue what size he was. He tried on everything. He looked for the cheapest prices (which is very doable when you’re shopping in the South Bronx). The first style of hoodie he really wanted had a busted zipper. But instead of just trying a different one, Jose spent 10 minutes trying to fix it. Finally, he put it back and tried a different version of the same style and once again the zipper broke. He took it to the back of the store where the employees seemed to all be furiously trying to repair and sort random articles of clothing. He told them the zipper was broken and they took it and started working on it.

We shopped some more.

I should probably mention, and my wife can vouch for this, that I hate shopping. But there was something sacred about that time. There was something beautiful about Jose wearing his woman’s sweater and crocodile skin shoes trying on new hoodies and pants that made him feel human again.

When he had finally selected his clothes, we paid and we started to head for the exit.

“Now we need to get you some boots.”

“Really?” His face lit up like a Christmas tree.

And for the first time ever, I wasn’t rushing to get out of a store. We went downstairs, found the shoe section, and started all over again.

We walked out of the store and he had all of his new stuff in bags.

He held them close.

We went to a local Burger King so that he could put on his new clothes.

We walked back to the Relief Bus and he couldn’t stop thanking me.

“Listen, I should be thanking you,” I said. “God is the one who told me to get you some new clothes. The only reason I CAN do this is because God provides. It’s all his stuff anyway. He wanted you to experience His love today. God has not forgotten you.”

When we got back to the Relief Bus, Jose immediately picked up our trash picker and started cleaning up the entire block. He worked with us the rest of the day. The following Saturday he came back and served with us again for another 4 hours doing whatever was needed, including some much needed Spanish translations for the prayers that we offer up on behalf of our guests.

Then he was gone.

4 months later I was back in the South Bronx doing the same thing we do every week: trying to love the person in front of me.

I heard a car horn and I turned around to see a utility van double-parked beside the Relief Bus with a driver furiously gesturing for my attention. Being the eternal optimist, I assumed he wanted us to move the Bus or complain about the crowd that our outreach had created on the sidewalk, so I approached with caution.

Then I saw him.

Jose was sitting in the driver’s seat looking fit, well-dressed, and all smiles.

“I’ve got a job making $20 an hour! I have a nice place and it’s thanks to YOU!”

I pointed up at the sky, and said, “hermano, all I did was get you some clothes. You and God worked out the rest.”

Sometimes even shopping can be a sacred act of worship… sometimes.

Grace and Peace,



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The Pastor & the “F*ck-up.”

I was sitting down on the sidewalk of Brook Ave in the South Bronx last Saturday. My great friend Steve Buczkowski had brought me one of our folding chairs so I could rest my leg while maintaining a panoramic view of the Relief Bus outreach and simultaneously accomplishing some measure of obedience to my surgeon who, in no uncertain terms, told me to avoid going out to the street where I had injured my knee one month prior (in his words, I’m an “altruistic do-gooder” who may not be able to refrain from re-injuring myself… It wasn’t a compliment).

I had just sat down when a slightly inebriated man named Ramon walked up to Steve and asked him if Outreach Team Leader, Sean Ballentine was around.

“No. He’s at the other location today, but Josiah is here.” He gestured in my direction.
“Sean is my good, good friend.” Ramon replied. He was visibly disappointed but he followed Steve over to me nonetheless.

“What’s going on, man? I’m Josiah, what’s your name?”
“Ramon. I know Sean. I love Sean. He is my friend.”
“Sean is a great guy, but he’s in Harlem today. I’d like to be your friend too!”

Then he said it: “I’m a f*ck-up.”
“We all are, man. That’s kind of the point. If we weren’t all ‘f*ck-ups’ we wouldn’t need Jesus, would we? But why do you say that?”

He pointed at his large plastic McDonald’s cup that was sitting against the wall filled with an auburn colored liquid. He explained how he intended to finish his beer, even though we could tell he was deeply ashamed of that fact.

We asked if we could pray for him.

He said yes.

We prayed.

Steve then asked him if he would pray. He wasn’t asking him to pray the “sinner’s prayer” or say anything specific. Steve was just suggesting he re-establish contact with the God who made him and loves him. Like many folks we serve in the street, the idea of someone volunteering at the Relief Bus asking him, someone being served at the Relief Bus, to pray caught him off guard. But he agreed.

We held hands.

“Lord, I am desperate. You know I am a sinner. You know without you, I have nothing. I’m sorry for being a ‘f*ck-up.’ I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I know I’m a sinner. I’m sorry.” He finished and wiped tears from his eyes.

“Ramon, I want to read you a story from the Bible. Can I do that? I really feel God wants you to know something.”

He agreed.

I pulled out my phone and found Luke 18:9-14. I took some poetic license with the text and read to him.

“To some who were confident of their own goodness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this story: ‘Two men went to church and prayed, one a Pastor and the other a drunk. The Pastor stood up at the pulpit and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, murderers, junkies—or even like this drunk. I volunteer and give a tenth of all I get to the less fortunate.’

“But the drunk stood at the very back. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his fists and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

“Ramon, based on what you just prayed, I’m telling you with the authority of Jesus Christ and the scriptures that you are going to walk away from this bus forgiven and justified by God. Be at peace, my friend.”

I hugged him.

Grace and Peace,



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“Josiah, come quickly.” Nancy, a volunteer who was in the back of the Relief Bus distributing hygiene kits and socks, was gesturing for my attention. I stopped playing my famous “Soup Song” and followed her up the steps into the Relief Bus. An athletic, 40 something, Hispanic man was in the back of the bus telling Kevin, the other volunteer who was back there, what his most urgent prayer request was.

“I’ve been using for so long and I need a program so badly!” His voice was quivering. His body language was desperate. “Please, please pray that God would save me!”

“Hey man, my name is Josiah. I work here, bro, and I want you to know that God led you to the right place.” I told him we had an office in the front of the bus and that I would love to hear his story. I thanked Nancy for doing exactly what we train volunteers to do, and we walked around to the front of the bus.

As soon as we sat down, his story came fast and heavy. He was a man who needed someone to understand. His name was Joe. He was from Puerto Rico. He started using opiates at a young age and had been using ever since. He fell in love with a woman who challenged him to stop using. She was a drug counselor with 11 years clean. She loved him. One day they were arguing because he wanted to get high and she told him, “maybe someone has to die for you to realize what’s at stake.” She left the building they were staying in and was hit by a car.

Joe, like many other people we serve in the street, has Medicaid. But it is restricted to a certain hospital, which means he can only get treatment at that specific location. The problem is that this hospital doesn’t offer any medical detox. So to get into a detox he needs a letter from said hospital to be approved somewhere else. Joe had been in 3 different detoxes over the last 7 days. Each time he failed to either stay because people were actively using in the detox, he wasn’t receiving enough medicine to counteract the withdrawal, or he ended up not getting approved by the insurance company. He was at the end of himself.

“I know what’s at stake, I can’t keep going on like this!” He showed me the puncture marks in his forearms where he had stuck himself with needles, shooting heroin into his system. He told me that he shoplifts items like shampoo and soap to buy just enough dope to get through another day. Like many heroin addicts, he doesn’t even use to get high anymore. He uses to get “straight.” He uses to stave off the agony of withdrawal.

As I listened to him, I realized there really wasn’t much I could do. I couldn’t fix his Medicaid restriction. I could probably get him into a detox but he wanted a 28 day program which would make it challenging. Then he said this: “I don’t know if the next batch will be my last. I don’t know if God gave me all the chances I have and now I’m on my own. But now, I’m going to be quiet and listen to what you have to say.”

I looked him in the eye and said, “no matter what you’ve done, are doing, or will ever do, I need you to hear me when I tell you that God does not give up on his children. God does not give up on his children. Do you hear me? God does not give up on his children.”

I said it three times. In that moment, I didn’t have any answers, all I had to offer him was hope. It was Saturday, he was determined to get into a detox and rehab that he had already been accepted into, he just needed the letter from the hospital his insurance was restricted to and that wouldn’t happen until Monday. He needed 48 hours. Someone had given him their dose of methadone that morning before coming to the Relief Bus, so he was probably ok until later that day, but after that who knows?

I said it again, “God does not give up on his children.” We walked through a couple different scenarios, but we landed right where we took off, he needed to make it to Monday.

“Do you have a Bible?” I asked.

“No. I told you, I sold everything.”

“Well, let me give you this.” I gave him a gospel of John and a booklet with verses specifically chosen to encourage people struggling with addiction. “When you start to feel that pull, open this up, and call out to God. He’s going to get you through to Monday.”

I prayed for him. I prayed a candid, honest, raw, and desperate prayer because no other prayer would have been appropriate in that setting. When I said “amen,” he looked at me with tears in his eyes.

“I’m going to make it to Monday.”

Grace and Peace,



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God Wants to Give You a New Name

haken12_21*I listened to a message by Greg Boyd out of St. Paul, MN from 2002 called Knowing Your Name that changed my life. Last Sunday I was asked to speak at the Walter Hoving Home in Garrison, NY and I felt very strongly that this message is the word that God wanted me to share. I got permission from Greg to use a lot of his material, but I also wanted to post my message transcript on my blog for anyone who, either hasn’t heard the original message, or the one that I delivered on Sunday. Enjoy.

I’ve worked at New York City Relief for almost 4 years now. As many of you know we drive a retrofitted school bus into struggling neighborhoods with the goal of bringing hope to folks who are hopeless by offering a free delicious meal and new socks, while building relationships and connecting people to resources and programs that could change everything.

Every Friday and Saturday we park on E 125th street and Park Ave, right underneath the Metro North train tracks. This specific spot is across the street from the largest methadone clinic in NYC. We are 2 blocks away from Marcus Garvey Park, which has been in the papers over the years for being the setting of, at best suspicious, and at worst, criminal activity. This also happens to be the location where a shuttle drops people off who are staying at probably the worst, most dangerous, most drug-infested shelter for single men in NYC: the Ward’s Island shelter. To make things more interesting, for many years the hotel that is on the corner functioned as an hourly hotel that was frequented by men and women who struggled with addiction and who would make a few dollars by “renting” a room for a short period of time. So needless to say, this spot can be pretty interesting, even from 10 am – 2 pm when the Relief Bus serves.

I was there a few years back when one of our guests started having an interesting conversation with another guy who had also come by for some famous Relief Bus soup. The one guy, probably around 35-40 years old, maybe 225 pounds of muscle, was making a public service announcement about the other dude, who was maybe 55-65 and probably 150 pounds soaking wet. The announcement went something along the lines of, “do you see this guy? Don’t trust him. Last night I saw him leaning up against a police car talking to the cops!”

Now I was relatively new at the time and didn’t quite understand what he was saying. The older gentleman, however, knew exactly what was being communicated. The younger, bigger guy was calling him a “snitch.” He was naming him as someone who couldn’t be trusted and should therefore live in isolation from the community. He was naming him a “rat.” A “narc.” A “punk.” Knowing this, the old guy proceeded to punch the younger, larger man in the face.

I was literally standing next to the guy who was punched so I immediately started trying to talk him down. I pleaded with him to let it go. To take it somewhere else. To ignore the punch he had just received. To turn the other cheek. Surprisingly, he agreed! He said to his assailant, “the Relief Bus just saved your a**.”

He started to walk away when the older, smaller guy decided he hadn’t made himself clear: he hit him again. The big guy started trembling a little bit. I could see his restraint quickly wearing off. I tried to get the one doing the punching to move on before he ended up seriously injured or worse.

No chance.

He swung again and managed to land a 3rd blow on the bigger, younger man.


Before I knew what was happening, he had picked the old guy up, threw him against the bus, and then had him on the sidewalk, slamming his head into the cement. While I was trying to figure out how to dial 911 with my new smart/idiot phone, Sean Ballentine, one of our outreach leaders who was just volunteering at the time, leaped out of the serving window and pulled the big guy off of the older dude before he killed him. Then the big guy ran off before the cops arrived.

I didn’t know that by warning the general public that this old guy talked to the police, the younger, bigger guy was effectively naming him a “snitch.” A “rat.” I didn’t know he was actually labeling him with a name that would follow him around wherever he went and could actually determine his ability to function and even live within his community. Knowing what was at stake, the old guy had 2 options:

– do nothing and potentially risk being mistrusted or even ostracized by everyone he depended on for friendship, community, and even drugs, for passively affirming the name he was being given,

– OR risk getting seriously maimed or injured by putting his reputation on the line and attacking the larger, younger, stronger man giving him this new name.

See, in our culture we all have names that are given to us by our parents, like Josiah, Sean, Rebecca, Erika, etc… But these names don’t really mean anything. They are not significant because they don’t define who we are. What is a “Rebecca” anyway? I’m willing to bet, my name, Josiah, doesn’t carry weight for any of you. Why should it? It’s a tag. A hook to grab my attention. It is a series of consonants and vowels that when spoken together indicates someone’s reference to me.

The name Josiah does NOT epitomize my essence. It doesn’t communicate a message or an allegiance. It doesn’t designate me or allocate me into a certain group or belief system. My name does NOT define me.

But Josiah isn’t my ONLY name. We all have names that we carry with us without even realizing it. Just like our parents gave us a tag or a title, growing up we all were given names that are significantly more powerful. We all carry around old names, and old identities, that not only catch our attention, but that determine the very trajectory of our lives. We all have name-tags written on the surface of our hearts and minds that affect everything we do, say, and believe.

Just like the names we were given by our parents, these names were also given to us by other people. The name “snitch” is not a name that this older gentleman was willing to receive.

For those of you who don’t know, I was raised in Yaounde, Cameroon. That’s literally in the armpit of Africa. My parents were missionaries and so we spent the bulk of the first 15 years of my life over there. Now in Cameroon, there really wasn’t a whole lot to do but play outside in the heat and go to school. The one national TV channel they had would only start showing ANY programming at around 6 pm. So when we moved to Pennsylvania when I was in 5th grade, I was shocked to find cable TV that provided endless entertainment for hours and hours on end.

I also should mention that we moved to Hershey, Pennsylvania. In addition to the endless TV options, I was also amazed to find the joy of chocolate and Reeses’ Penutbutter cups. Combining these two realities, over the course of my 5th grade in Hershey I managed to gain a lot of weight. My family moved back to Cameroon when I was in 7th grade and I’ll never forget my first conversation with the gentleman who had guarded our house when I was in Cameroon prior to my two year, chocolatey, TV marathon. I walked up to him and I said, “hi, Earnest!” And I kid you not, he replied, “Joe, you are too fat!”

Now, I’m sure that those 5 words in his mind were meant to be funny, polite, and endearing. But in my mind, I had just been named. No longer was I “Joe” or “Josiah.” I was now and forever there-after, “too fat.”

From that day on, I went on a rampage and played basketball every day for hours and hours without eating hardly anything. Every time I met someone new, I heard his words in my head, and I assumed that even if they didn’t say it, that’s what they were thinking. I had been named. Even though I grew a foot over the next two years, I still weighed 10 pounds lighter than I had been when I moved back to Cameroon. Throughout high school I was determined to exercise and work out constantly. But even with my rigorous athleticism, I remember looking at my prom pictures, and then even my wedding pictures, and only seeing “too fat” staring back at me.

So what about you? What’s your name? I don’t mean Sue, Betty, or Frank. I mean, what sentences, comments, or titles have you allowed to define your essence? What identity is written on the name-tag of your heart?

Maybe it was that 4th grade kid on the bus who called you ugly when you were in 3rd grade.

Maybe it was your mom, humiliating you in front of all your friends by telling them about how you wet the bed.

Maybe a boyfriend named you, “slut” or “whore” when he got bored with you.

Maybe your dad named you, “useless” or “stupid” because you weren’t the son or daughter he expected you to be.

What names, what identities, are you walking around with today?

We all have them. We all allow others to define us with their judgments and their words or criticism. We all surrender our lives to the prophesies spoken over us by insecure, abusive, and most importantly, FINITE human beings.

I’ve got good news for all of us: the IN-FINITE God who spoke the earth into motion and put the stars in the sky, wants to give you a new name!

It says in Genesis 17:1-5

1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless. 2 I will confirm my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.” 3 Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, 4 “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. 5 No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations.

In Matthew 16:13-19

13 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” 14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 

And in Isaiah 62:2-4

2 The nations will see your righteousness, and all kings your glory; you will be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will bestow. 3 You will be a crown of splendor in the LORD’s hand, a royal diadem in the hand of your God. 4 No longer will they call you Deserted, or name your land Desolate. But you will be called Hephzibah “one who delights the LORD.”

The good news is that God wants to give you a NEW name! He knows the names that you and I have been given, but that boyfriend or girlfriend does not have the authority to name you. Not even your earthly parents have the authority to really name you, that is reserved for your Creator alone.

Hear God telling you that “no longer will they call you Deserted, but you will be called Hephzibah, which means ‘one who delights the Lord.’” God takes delight in you. God adores you. Hear him tell you that whatever name you were given by some twerp on the school bus is canceled. It is no more.

Have you ever noticed how in the Bible the Church is referred to as the “bride” of Christ?

In ancient cultures, and even in our culture up until very recently, when two people get married, what does the bride do? She takes the name of her husband. If you have given your life to Jesus, you are a part of his bride. Jesus has given you his name. He has exchanged all those lies that were spoken over us, and he says, “you are a new creation.”

No longer are you called, “useless!” You are called “chosen by God for great works in Christ Jesus.”

No longer are you called “whore!” You are called “radiant bride of Christ!”

No longer are you called “guilty!” In Christ Jesus you are now called “forgiven!”

No longer are you called “ugly!” God is the only one who defines beauty, and he doesn’t make junk! Your new name is “beautiful! Flawless! Ravishing!”

My name is not, “too fat!” I am called, “beautiful” by my heavenly husband. My name is “attractive!” My name is “called by God to bring hope to the lost.”

The only being in the entire universe that has the authority to name you, to name me, is our God. And hear me when I say, He has given you a new name!

I’ve talked to so many people who have accepted Jesus Christ as Savior, declared allegiance to him, and even accepted his forgiveness, but still struggle with the pull of destructive behavior. Then we read things like in John 8, where Jesus says:

34 “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. 35 Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.

And we say, “why am I not free?” Why do I still struggle with temptation? Why do I feel the pull of my flesh and my sin?

I’m convinced the problem is that while God has given you and I new names and new identities, our brains have trouble keeping up. Our brains are still wired to respond and identify with the old names. Our brains don’t line up with the new reality because the default programming is still in place.

It says in Romans 12:2

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.

In the same way it always takes time for a new bride to get used to being called by her husband’s name. Have you ever noticed that? But a bride’s ability to get used to responding to her new name does not change the FACT that her name has been changed. It would make no sense for a new bride to think that she is less married, or to question her relationship to her husband, simply because she still turns her head when she hears someone say her old name. It takes practice. It takes time. It takes a daily decision to renew our minds so that we can be transformed. It takes a marriage for the reality of a wedding to become the NEW default setting in our minds.

Some people need to stop questioning their salvation based on the struggle in their minds with old patterns and old identities. If there’s a struggle it is precisely because you have been given a new name and your brain is fighting the transformation process. God says we are to be transformed by the “renewing of our minds.” The process of following Jesus always starts with a wedding ceremony. It starts when someone says, “I do” to Jesus and receives forgiveness and wholeness by choosing to surrender the old identity for the new one that God offers us.

Maybe you’ve never done that. Maybe you have been processing all this God-stuff with cynicism and fear. Maybe you think that your past some how excludes you from the family of God. Jesus died on a roman torture device, and was raised from the dead 3 days later, so that your past could no longer be held against you by the enemy of our souls. Your past, your mistakes, your screw ups, even your doubts, and your fears, do not negate the marriage proposal that Jesus is offering you right now. God wants to marry you. He wants to give you a new name. He wants to give you his name. Will you say yes?

But God doesn’t want to only give you His name for the sake of paper-work or legalities. God wants you to start identifying with the new name that He has given you. When you look in the mirror, you need to see the new name that God has given you starring back. When someone calls you by the old name, you need to just keep on walking. Because that old name is not who you are anymore. That old name is gone forever, and the only name that is left is the family name: the name of Jesus.

God wants to give you a new name. Once you say, “yes,” to Him, it’s time to start being transformed by renewing your mind day in and day out by waking up and remembering who you really are.

Grace and Peace,

Josiah Haken


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