"Big Rich's" Street Ministry

Excerpt of An Interview by Jessika Lucas February 6, 1999
"Big Rich" talks a little about himself, Ministering to the Homeless, AA


Big Rich: "Before I share about the Ministry and what the Lord has called me to do, I've got to share a little about my background.
In 1967 they released me from the Air Force after seven and some half years, 31 months of it in Nam as a combat medic. At the time I was two people. I was a big, bad Vietnam Vet who could take on the world. Inside I was a very scared little boy who didn't know where I was and I couldn't let anybody see that.
When I got out of the service, I didn't even feel at home with my family anymore. So I left and ended up in the streets of San Francisco. I started hanging out with some other people like me which mostly were bikers. Angels and some of these other people were around. I got accepted by them. I didn't have to prove myself or anything, just accepted. I ended up dealing drugs, packing a piece and the whole thing.
At the time, I also got involved with a group called the Diggers, which were a group that just helped feed people every day in the park. We used to cook and take the food to anyplace we could. There were those who would let us use their kitchen in the Height. We would take the food down to the park with some blankets and stuff and people would come and eat. When we use to do this every day at lunchtime, a little old couple used to come down and they used to sit on the grass and bring a pot of beans with them. They just looked around, and, I love people, and there was a Light about them I couldn't understand.
I started seeing a little bit of this Light in the Haight. Nevertheless, I saw a lot coming from these people while seeing a little bit of this Light in the Haight. I got inquisitive about them, and I followed them home one day to a little church. He ended up coming out of the church and introducing himself. He was Father Leon Harris, an Episcopal Priest who, I became very fond of. He let us use his church to bake bread and give it to people and he let us use his whole kitchen.
At the time I was running a little drop-in Center for teenage runaways because these kids who were on the street - you get music. You heard that maybe they need a place where its safe so we opened a little room in the church. The kids could come, sit, talk and not get hassled or anything. Then eventually, it ended up being called "huckleberries", a place for runaways. We had a very important program and I think it is still in existence there. I was in on the start of it.
At the time I was very strung out and Father Harris wanted to help. I was really sick. He used to come up and put his arm around my shoulder and say "When you are ready to help yourself, the Lord's there and I'm there. It used to blow me away because you could feel his love, but I wasn't ready for it."
Jessika: "Well, why were you sick?"
Big Rich: "Drugs!"
Jessika: "Oh."
Big Rich: "This went on and every time I get messed up and it would be Father Harris smiling, saying, 'I care.' "
"At the time I was really turned off by the Jesus People because there were all kinds of them around the Haight and they'd get you and they'd chase you. They would literally chase you down the street to try to take you to some corner of a store front where they could preach at you. I use to just run away and leave them people far behind and have fun at playing games with them.
I guess I use to get stoned and go up to play games with the "Jesus People." Well, one night, I was out on the street and I ran into two young men who were wearing clerics. There was such a Light about them. I was doing LSD at the time. I looked at them and there was Light, It was real and I knew it was real. It was not just a phony thing cause of the drugs. It was something real with these guys."
Jessika: "And, who were they?"
Big Rich: "Ah! Richard?"
Big Rich: "And uh?"
Jessika: "Swanson?"
Big Rich: "I think the other one was Swanson!"
Jessika: "Hmmmm."
Big Rich: "And, I remember. I ended up following them. They got on a bus and rode back down to Steiner Street. I got on my Harley and followed them down there. Pulled up between Steiner Street (Holy Order of MANS) and he (unknown) saw me and I come over and started talking to him, you know, I'd ask them questions. They wouldn't give me any answers. And I saw this light and there was something there.
So after five, ten minutes talking with them one of the Brothers came up to me and says it's dinner. I said, 'I'll go' and I just walked in there with them. They did not invite me. I just walked in and sat at the table. I was really hungry and I was on drugs anyway so food was there. I just started digging in.
Well, suddenly the room got really hushed [and everyone stood up]. I didn't even look up, but felt a Presence come in the room. They (Mother Ruth and Father Paul Blighton) came out and sat and when they sat, everybody in the room sat.
Then I heard this voice 'Who's your guest?' Brother Richard.
The other one looks up and says 'This is Apache! He's one of the bikers up the street. We met him today and he kinda followed us home.'
At that moment I looked up and saw Father Paul for the first time and there was such a Light about him. I was so, I was straight, it was, I was clean! He says 'That's better!' He says 'We'll talk after dinner.'
I went in after dinner, I went into the Chapel, prayed and during the process of praying, Father Paul came and laid his hands on my shoulders.
He says, 'Your all right, your home.'
It was the first time in my life I experienced the Light. I don't know if I truly went through Illumination that night or not, off and on for quite awhile. He started it.
I was honored to study under Father Paul. He was a sensitive, beautiful, human being and understood people. One of the things he told me was that I was a Member of the Order, but I would not always be around this Order. Meaning the one in San Francisco [The Holy Order of MANS]. That I would leave it and come back. That's how it happened.
As far as what's happened since then, I was a Southern Baptist Youth Minister in an all black church in Lawton, Oklahoma, which is another story altogether. I was an Episcopal Church Monk in Denver, Colorado and worked in the Order of the Holy Family there. I was part of many street ministries with different Christian groups all over the country learning what they were doing.
The last twenty years, I've lived mainly in the San Jose area. I was going to become a Franciscan back in 1980, but it ended up I hitched hiked here from Reno, Nevada where I was working at the MGM Grand. I was a cook at a motel. I came down here because I wanted to get to know my family again.
I was living on the streets downtown when I met a gentleman who had a rooming house that was taken over by street gangs and he couldn't do anything. He asked me if I could come and kind of manage it for him and he'd give me a place to live. So, I took it!
I ended up running all the gang members out of the place with a baseball bat, but then after that I just started walking the streets at night and I'd run into runaway kids, run into young prostitutes, guys just out of prison and share with them and guys who had problems drinking and you'd just start talking with them at night.
I met this young gentleman who was a parolee and he says you ought to go down and meet this minister down at the church because she is really interested in street ministry. So I went down and I met Marty ..... who was a very beautiful Methodist Minister who when she talked with me for about fifteen minutes she says 'Can I walk with you some night?' because I had a regular route, I walked around. It was Jack In The Box, right there on Third... we'd walk down through all the bar area and we'd walk over and go through the Greyhound Bus station, round a couple of other places and make a complete loop downtown. We talked with some of the young women down there and stuff. So she started doing the work on a regular basis. She came out with me and walked.
In the process, we met another Minister who was running a ministry at that time in downtown San Jose called Urban Ministry. He invited me to come in and he was bringing people in from different churches explaining what his ministry was doing downtown with the mentally ill. Another thing. And he asked me if I would come down and explain my ministry to one of these groups.
So I came down and was talking with him and there was a very beautiful young lady right in the front row who beamed in on everything I said. And afterwards she said 'Can I walk with you.' Her name was Edith and she ended walking with me for a year. She wanted to be a Roman Nun.
One night out at King and Story, which used to be a very wild area, lot of low riders and stuff... we would go out there and help the police by transporting the kids home for them...she looked at me one night about one thirty in the morning and said 'I'm not going to be a nun.' And I says, you going to marry me? She says 'Yes!' Four months later we were married. Happily married.
Christ is in our lives and we know that. We have problems like any other married couple but we are able to turn them over to God and He works a lot of it out. We've been married close to eighteen years now. I have very beautiful children. Shannon's going to be sixteen and Kenny is thirteen, Patrick is twelve, Brian is ten and Devon is eight. And they fill a lot in my life. The last few years, I'm learning to be a father. I didn't used to be a father.
I have still been much involved in the street ministry and brought different kids at home with us at different times. In our little motel room we've got right now, we sometimes have ten kids staying overnight with us. But it's what the Lord wants us to do. I'm really called to the street ministry. I see a lot of people in this country. They go to church on Sunday mornings and it's like their going to be entertained. They are like going to watch the minister give a sermon and everything else and they go home and think that's Christianity. Well, it isn't Christianity.
Everybody is called to ministry. And I don't care if the youngest person or senior adult in a church, all have a ministry. If they just really begin to listen to God and see where He wants you to go and what He wants you to do. I enjoy street ministry, I enjoy working with people with drug and alcohol problems beginning to help pull their lives together and go from there. I'm working on two projects right now, one is to get the night ministry going in Santa Cruz and another is a campground for homeless families.
We're working with some other people to help us write a proposal for that. And we hope we have room for twenty families that can begin to get their lives together by using it. One of the main reasons a lot of this isn't happing right now is we're still living in a motel and haven't been able to find a place to live over there. Housing is really tight in the Santa Cruz area. We don't have a lot of money, so that kind of straps us."
Jessika: "How much is it?"
Big Rich: "Well, a three or four bedroom house is about twelve hundred bucks a month. And right now we can go about nine hundred to a thousand. So... but it's changing and we're getting better. Edith, my wife Edith, works at a place called Americor. She has learned organic gardening and she likes it and there are teams with Americor and they go into the schools and they teach kids how to organic garden and she enjoys that. And between her salary and my disability we've been able to keep things going. But it's still very rough. We have very little to spare. This is a lot why the ministry isn't going over there. When it opens up we'll be there. I'd love the chance to train any person who is really called to the street ministry.
They can get a hold of me through the Order [Gnostic Order of Christ] and I'll see what I can do to help you get into it and be involved in it. Eventually, I hope I'll be able to train some people in street ministry. Because, street ministry is a lot different than carrying a bible down the street and preaching. Street ministry is being in it and giving of yourself in a way that is mainly a listening ear. And, a lot of people don't know how to do that. They don't know how to listen to the streets."
Jessika: "Can you share a little bit about the street ministry, the Nightwatch you did here in San Jose?"
Big Rich: "Nightwatch started out with Marley .... and I walking the streets at night. And we developed a team of people. We were on the streets seven nights a week, nine at night till four in the morning. We were at a couple of coffee houses, we fed a lot of people. Any place there was a need. One of the things we did from 1972-73 or so... we had a thing called Tent City here and I was very helpful in starting Tent City."
Jessika: "Weren't you training people up in San Francisco or churches here how to do street ministry?"
Big Rich: "There's a very good friend of mine, he's still my friend, guy by the name of Dick. I first met him and he was going to a Methodist Church. He had gone to a seminary when he was younger ... I met him and got told (inner voice) 'take him out with you!'
It took me six months to get him to come out with me. He not only heard from me, he heard from Marley and some other people that the street ministry was worth it. He always thought the street ministry was all they were doing was preaching at people and handing out tracts. But he came out and walked with me one night. He said 'I'm just going to go out with you for a couple of hours, see what I want, and then I'm going to leave.'
Well, he ended up walking with me one night, we got in about four in the morning and he called me about ten the next morning and said, 'can I go back out with you?' There is a way of being on the streets and being aware of people and them aware of you. And accepting you as a part of their community and not somebody down here trying to take care, it's hard to put in words, your one of them, one of the street people. Your one of the people out there and they trust you. And it grows. This is how I help people get started.
To me, a long time ago, I heard, I think it was from Father Paul, and he said, 'You got to know your ministry like your own back yard. In other words you got to know where it is and what it is. And, a lot of people still don't know, and they have been ministers for years.' Is this answering your question?"
Jessika: "Yes. So how long did the night watch last here?"
Big Rich: "Six years."
Jessika: "Six years. And, how come it fell apart. What happened?"
Big Rich: "Finances, mainly."
Jessika: "Finances?"
Big Rich: "And people, after five years, the town started to change. The downtown didn't need us out there. Dick, who I told you about, who was President of my Board, decided he was going to go back to school. Marley was moving on to something else. And the time, it was the time when Edith and I had Shannon and Katie and we were struggling financially so it kind of just got laid aside. We just stopped doing it. I think it was the right time for it [when we did it]. I don't think it would go in downtown San Jose now."
Jessika: "Do you see a need for it in Santa Cruz?"
Big Rich: "Yes. We have fourteen year old kids doing heroine. We have very large traffic on the streets at night. A lot of different kinds of people. What I want to do is get a small office, put a couple of couches with a coffee pot in the center and I want to recruit some people from AA.
And any other people who are interested in walking in teams one team a night and have the locks open and just let people, hey!... if you got a problem either with drugs or alcohol, got any other problem, we're there. Kinda give them a place where people can come and know that they are not going to be kicked out of the place because they haven't got money."
Jessika: "Can you share a little about your disability. What your disabilities are?"
Big Rich: "Well, I'm a diabetic. And because of that I've got bad circulation in my legs and I can't stand for long, I used to be a cook, well, I can't stand for eight hours anymore. But, I can get up and walk around, talk and everything else."
Jessika: "Don't you have some disabilities from Vietnam?"
Big Rich: "Yeah! I got shot a couple of times."
Jessika: "Ummm. I thought you had sleep apnea?"
Big Rich: "Oh, I do have that."
Jessika: "And, what's that like?"
Big Rich: "Sometimes I can't sleep at night. And, I'm up all night. It's my, I enjoy being up and it's my time to be around. Sleep apnea isn't from Vietnam. Because of my size and my diabetes and other things that are there. I can handle it. But I can't work a regular eight work out..."
Jessika: "OK. So, have you contacted any ministers over in Santa Cruz?"
Big Rich: "Yep! Right now I attend weekly their Episcopal Church. And, Steve, the Pastor there has really accepted me and the ministries that I can do. Some of the other churches know what we do over there. Santa Cruz is a very funny town. I notice it in other towns too but particularly in Santa Cruz. There's different ministries and they all got it. They don't want anybody taking it away from them. So you kind of walk in kinda slow... That's what I'm doing over there. There is what they call the Upstreet Mission over there that does a lot of feeding and this kind of thing. But it turns off more people than it turns on. The Pentecostal approach."
Jessika: "Your role involving A.A., how did that start? Can you tell us a little about that?"
Big Rich: "Well, I've been a member of AA for thirty-one years."
Jessika: "Thirty- one years!"
Big Rich: "Father Leon Harris. When I finally went to him and said 'What do mean by, – when you drive around and the Lord's there and you are there and if He needs you.... ?' "
He said, 'Do you really want to clean up?'And I go Yeah!'
He said 'Come back to my house about seven o'clock'
And on his desk he had two books. He had the Bible and he had the book of AA. He talked a little bit and then he opened up the Bible to Luke 15. And I was raised in the Roman Church and I must have heard the parable of the prodigal son a million times. But he shared with me that night in the way that I understood it. I was that prodigal son. And I just wasted my life and everything in it.
What I had to do is open up my hands and totally go to God the Father and say Lord change my life, I'm tired of what I've been doing and I can't handle it anymore.
Then he picked up the book of AA, that I never heard before and (something) the twelve steps of AA. And he says 'There's a meeting going to start in fifteen minutes, do you want to go?' And I went. And it was a start. It was a start for me to look spiritually inside myself.
Then came the Order of the Holy Family in Denver which I got more into meditation and more into learning about myself and opening up to the Light. I could probably stop going to AA, wouldn't miss it, but too many young new people may be hearing my story. Might help them stay with it and clean up their lives?... "

Bio | "Big Rich" Memorial Poem | Interview