Share Your Story: Amy Ukleja
A couple weeks ago, I was walking by the beach when I heard a drunken sounding growl. Saw a man on a grassy knoll calling after his pitbull, who was chasing a ball. His voice softened and he called after her again. Summit, my 1-year-old son, was taken with the dog, so we stopped nearby to watch. The man said Hi and introduced the dog. He looked nicely dressed, almost like a pensioner, but with a slight limp, a slur and brown-stained homeless hands.
He told us the dog was a gift from the Mojave desert 8 months ago. We talked some more about how hung over he was, how hard it was to survive on the streets. He sleeps by the beach bathroom where gang members hang out. They’d given him a street name he didn’t want because he’d had to fight to survive. I could see gentleness, goodness, the desire for purity in him—in the way he treated the dog, my son Summit.
I offered to pray for him, maybe for his hangover? “No,” he said, “I got another can over there. Pray for my life. That I can keep surviving. You don’t know how hard it is. You wouldn’t believe the things that happen out here.” He grabbed hold of both my hands then and closed his eyes. I prayed into the good I saw in him, that gentleness, his desire for peace. I asked that God would fight for him and protect him. And I think I prayed for more of God’s people, good people. He responded with, "When there were two sets of footprints in the sand, You walked with me. Where there was one, You carried me." He opened his eyes and was so grateful.
“You don’t know how happy you’ve made me.” He truly did look at peace and joyful. “And,” he added excitedly, “my hangover’s gone!”
“You wouldn’t believe what I’ve been through,” he continued. “I have bullet holes in me, stab wounds. My brother and sister died and I don’t know if my mom is still alive.”
I offered to let him try her on my phone. It just rang, but he felt hopeful that was a good sign. He asked if I could try that number every once in a while and if she answered, to tell her, “Bill’s alright.”
I told him I would. It didn’t feel like the most earth-shattering encounter, but I could tell it meant the world to him. It’s hard to walk away sometimes though, wondering what will come of everything. What I did know is that God was doing something. He IS breaking strongholds. He IS freeing captives. He has such a heart for the vulnerable. And I felt so privileged to be included in what He’s doing, in these small acts of kindness. Touching someone’s hands. Offering prayer. Offering the little I have—a snack, my phone, AAA card (other stories).
A few weeks later, at church we were praying for families to be restored. I had the sense that maybe it was time to check on Bill and see if he’d like to call his mom. I’d gotten ahold of her to pass on the message; offered to help her get in touch with him. “No,” she said, “that’s okay. As long as I know he’s alright…”
So I went down to the beach again, at least to give the good news she was alive. I didn’t see him there, or his dog, but I saw his stuff. And what looked to be two gang members hanging out by the bathroom. I thought of Jon’s prayer training about the scarecrow—where we see things that would typically scare us away, that’s often where the most abundance is for harvest. But I kind of shrugged it off, thinking, I’m not going to risk that.
But then another thought came, a more recent word about Elisha and his servant being surrounded by an army, defeat seeming imminent. Elisha prayed for God to open his servant’s eyes—around the army was an even greater army of angels! God was fighting for them. Victory was already theirs.
Again, I thought, Yes, good, something to remember for later. And walked on—out to the sand, hung out for a little bit, then back by that bathroom, hoping Bill had returned. As I came around the side the guys were on, one of them said, “Good morning.” I returned the greeting and ventured, “Have you guys seen Bill?”
“Oh yeah,” the same guy answered, “he’s probably up around 7-11 with his dog.”
“Okay, thank you.” Something about him made me pause and add, “How are you today?”
“Just trying to stay happy. I always try to be happy, be around happy people.” He said.
“Oh yeah?” I asked further, as he walked closer to explain.
“Yeah, like good happy people. Not the kind that get happy killin’ people or anything like that.” He said with a laugh but also serious.
We introduced ourselves—he was Charles. “Hey, I pray. Would you like me to pray for you? Like for more good people in your life?” I offered.
“Yeah, I’d like that.”
I had him open his hands in a posture of receiving and prayed a simple prayer asking for more of the Holy Spirit, more of the things of God. Protection. He nodded his head especially when I prayed for good work, good people, good activities to do through the day. And I prayed for his freedom, that he would see the open doors and walk through.
Afterwards, he was grateful, but also looking around, either because that was his job or because he was expecting people to come. I had the sense to not linger but as I walked away and up the hill back towards home, I saw a passion flower I’d picked on the way there, thinking I’d give it to Bill. I was already a ways up when I thought, I think that’s for Charles. And, Jesus is the Way. The way is not always forward. And then, Love is the most powerful thing there is.
So I headed back down the hill and around to the bathroom again where Charles and his friend were hanging out. I felt more than a little awkward walking up to two gang members offering a flower but that’s what I did.
I said, “Hey, I picked this earlier and I think I’m supposed to give it to you. It has all these parts that represent Jesus.”
His friend seemed either indifferent or avoidant, not looking at or acknowledging me, but Charles took the flower, looking at it closely and said, “Oh wow. That’s amazing.” He kept looking at it, twirling it around, smiling. “I’m gonna keep it forever,” he added.
“Love is the most powerful force there is. More powerful than hate, fear, anger,” I told him as we parted. I wondered if that was as much for his friend as for him.
Walking back up the hill, I prayed for protection and God’s power and glory over Charles and his friend too. I remember just feeling his vulnerability, his desire for goodness, and wanting God to protect it, surround it, increase it. There is comfort in knowing that He has been with him all along, trusting He will continue this work into which I’d just caught a glimpse.
Later as I was reflecting, I realized what it was all about. I thought I was going back to that beach bathroom for Bill, but God had bigger plans. He’s taking back territory. Every time I’ve walked by that bathroom, it’s had some shady looking guy, usually with a bike, just hanging out by the entrance. And it’s just felt very dark and oppressive there.
Something started with Bill and then expanded to Charles, and I have faith that it’s gonna keep happening because it’s bigger than me. I’ve since met Charles’ friend. Joshua. This time, he looked me straight in the eye and offered a firm handshake. Bill introduced him as “one of the ‘good ones’.” His name had echoes of Jericho in it, and since then, I’ve taken many more prayer walks. To take back the neighborhood, to speak God’s freedom over the captives. We live downtown and there’s so much brokenness, poverty, addiction.
It’s beyond my ability to think, plan, or even imagine what God’s doing. The path forward is not always straight, or even forward for that matter. The Way is Jesus. And I’m following Him now, His whispers. And I believe these little acts of obedience—offering prayer, a handshake, a flower to a gang member, can open up whole worlds of reconciliation, restoration, and beauty.