One wintry morning in 2015 a volunteer leader arrived to set up for Birkenhead Baptist Church’s mainly music. To her surprise she found a man sleeping in an old van behind the church. Rather than sending him on his way she made him a cup of tea. Rob Markley tells us about the unforeseen ripple effect of that one kind act.
Bruce was a hard-working carpenter who took great pride in his craft. But his work life came to an abrupt end when a fall down a lift shaft broke his hip. The many subsequent years of constant pain caused by his injuries crushed his spirit.
As a sickness beneficiary, Bruce could not afford a private rental, so he moved into a dilapidated van with his elderly dog, Bud. The vehicle was not roadworthy and police would move him on when he parked in reserves. “Maybe,” he thought, “a church would be a safe place to park for a while?”
Standing in the gap
Some might have panicked at discovering a stranger parked up on church property, especially when a crowd of mainly music children was soon to arrive. Fortunately for Bruce, our volunteer saw the man, not the inconvenience. After talking to him and offering him a cup of tea, she then introduced him to me.
We said he could stay on site until he could find alternative accommodation. He and Bud ended up living behind Birkenhead Baptist Church for more than a year. He used our bathroom and kitchen facilities, and the church community provided him with blankets and food parcels. The church office also became Bruce’s de facto mailing address and message service.
When Prime Minister John Key suggested homeless people seek help from Work and Income, I contacted the government agency to advocate for Bruce.
I also did some advocating of a different kind. One day Bruce had taken his van out to go to the chemist. He’d not gone far before the police pulled him over. One of the church people was driving past the scene at the time and they called me to tell me what was happening. I hightailed it around the corner and sweet-talked the police into not seizing the van but letting him take it back to church.
When a local newspaper did a front-page write-up about Bruce’s homelessness in March 2016, the part of the story that particularly touched people was Bud. A lot of dog lovers rang up offering Bud, and Bruce, short-term accommodation. They really missed the point!
However, from that publicity, someone offered the church the loan of an old campervan. Bruce was able to sit up, even stand, in the campervan, instead of having to lie down all the time like he’d had to do in the van. He had power from the church and lighting. It was the half-step back into normalcy that he needed.
A miracle unfolds
Meanwhile something wonderful was happening in Bruce’s life. God was freeing something in him and was watching over him. Bruce attended an Alpha course at church. One day he got up the courage to ask me if I’d baptise him. “Of course I will!” I said.
Forty-eight hours later, Housing New Zealand called to say they had a place for Bruce. I tell you, homeless single men in their 50s, especially those with a dog, never get state houses. Never! God had been waiting for Bruce to take that step.
Bruce wasn’t sure he wanted to leave the church, but the step up to the camper had prepared him. We baptised him two weeks later and he moved into his new home the following day. It was a miracle of timing!
Growing in faith
Sometimes Bruce would come to our prayer meetings. When he prayed it was so down-to-earth and real, like he was just talking to a friend, which he was. I specifically recall one time when he was quite dejected and asked God for help. An old acquaintance unexpectedly turned up that same day and gave Bruce some money and food.
Bruce loved the church band and the music we played. There was a moment when he thought about picking up his old guitar again and playing with them. But some days he wouldn’t make it to the Sunday morning service. He told me, “Sometimes I just can’t be bothered and I think I’ll just sleep some more, but that afternoon I really miss it. I realise the Devil doesn’t want me to go, but I’m not going to listen to that anymore.” Oh, that others would be as wise as Bruce.
Bruce died on the morning of 15 September 2018, just shy of his 57th birthday. He had stage four emphysema and had recently had a stroke. At the end, Bruce passed into the hands of the Lord while in the arms of those he loved. His funeral was held at Birkenhead Baptist and Bud is now being taken care of by family.
Bruce was a kind and happy man. He held no bitterness about him; he was generous to a fault. In his last years he found a faith in a Lord God who loves and cares, and in whom we all must put our hope.
And Bruce’s step towards that faith began with a simple cup of tea.
Story: Rob Markley
Rob is the pastor at Birkenhead Baptist Church. He says, “It’s often assumed that Auckland’s North Shore is all ‘middle‑class prosperity’, but Birkenhead Baptist is a place of support and restoration for many in the community struggling with a diverse range of issues. In fact the church itself is often weighed down by these things but God has always been faithful, providing and resourcing his church for his work in people’s lives.”
- A thought to ponder: “Christian leadership—in the home, the church, and elsewhere—is not for those clawing for honor and recognition, but for those most ready to fall to their knees and be inconvenienced by the needs of others.” (“True Leadership Is Sacrifice, Not Privilege,” David Mathis: desiringGod, desiringgod.org/articles/true-leadership-is-sacrifice-not-privilege.)
- Starting with the mainly music volunteer and her simple act of providing a listening ear and a cup of tea, the faith community at Birkenhead Baptist provided ongoing practical, spiritual and emotional support to Bruce. How willing are you to offer the gift of compassion to others?