The Rev. Rick Cole of Capital Christian Center rode light rail back to his Rosemont megachurch Saturday and delivered a sermon based on his experiences living on Sacramento streets for two weeks to raise money for the area’s winter shelter program.
He arrived ready to preach at the church’s Saturday evening service still wearing the dark hooded sweatshirt, black baseball cap and jeans he’d had on for days. He smelled ripe. His face was covered in scraggly stubble. And he struggled to keep his emotions in check as the tension and exhaustion of two weeks sleeping in an alley, and wondering where his next meal would come from, drained away.
By the time he walked onto the church’s stage, the counter on his website, revonthestreet.com, showed that his effort had raised more than $144,000 toward the $300,000 needed to fund Winter Sanctuary. The program buses homeless men and women to churches and temples on cold, rainy nights, feeds them warm meals and offers them help getting off the streets. It replaced a county-run shelter program that ended because of budget cuts.
Cole told his congregation that he’d started his unusual effort mainly to raise money but that the experience had changed his attitudes toward homeless people and altered his world view in ways he was still trying to understand. Even after meeting his initial fundraising goal of $100,000 on Monday, Cole chose to live homelessly for the next week because he felt compelled to complete the experience, he said.
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“I couldn’t leave,” he said, knowing he had more to learn. And for truly homeless people, “they can’t see any end in sight. I could do just a few more days.”
Spending day after day in Cesar Chavez Plaza, a popular gathering spot for homeless people, Cole said he realized he had simply ignored the “hurting” people in the park before.
“I’ve walked through that park with a latte in my hand, (heading to meetings at) City Hall,” he said. “I can’t remember a soul. They were not on my radar. For 14 days, I saw them. I sat with them.”
“I’ve begun to see the value in every person,” he said later in his sermon. “Every soul matters, even the crazy ones.”
He urged his listeners to take actions to give such people hope. “God in his spirit is out there in the streets,” he said.
Cole heads one of the region’s largest congregations, with more than 4,000 members, and Saturday’s service drew a packed house. Attendees gave the pastor a standing ovation when he took the stage and repeatedly cheered him during his sermon as he choked back tears.
“We love you!” one person shouted. Another called out, “Welcome home!”
On Saturday, Cole awoke in the alley where he’d been sleeping for most of the nights since leaving his pulpit Sept. 28 and riding light rail to downtown Sacramento. He got lunch from a church group that was handing out free food in the park. Then he went to Sacramento Public Library on I Street to compose his thoughts for Saturday’s service.
Later, about 5 p.m., he boarded light rail at St. Rose of Lima Park at Seventh and K streets with church member Tom Platina, his companion through much of his journey. Platina, a former West Sacramento police officer, runs Capital Christian’s winter shelter.
“We’ve been waiting for this moment to go home, see our families and sleep in a bed,” Platina said.
The two were joined on different nights by supporters, including Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, who slept beside Cole on a riverbank, and Jacoby Shaddix, lead singer of the rock band Papa Roach and a Capital Christian member. Cole’s grown sons also kept him company for a night or two.
“I never stayed by myself,” the pastor said, but he still found the nights a nerve-racking ordeal. “At night it feels dark and it feels lonely … and crazy things go on.”
Cole said he wanted to walk back into his church right off the street, without cleaning up or changing into one of his tailored suits.
“I have a bathroom in my office,” he said. “I might brush my teeth.”
Waiting for the train, he said, “I feel like a different person on the end of this journey. I hope I can open the eyes of others. I feel more compassionate in my heart for people I’ve ignored. I don’t want to lose the value of this experience.”
During his sermon he urged his audience to no longer dismiss homeless people as mentally ill, alcoholics or people who prefer living outdoors. Instead of criticizing them for not working and living off other people’s tax dollars, he said, “We need to get off our high, stinky religious horse.”
Then he said he was looking forward to a good meal, and that a church member had baked him an apple pie.
“Let’s eat,” he said.
Call The Bee’s Hudson Sangree, (916) 321-1191.