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Portland, Oregon

‘Heaven can wait’

By Kirk Noonan

Pioneer Square in downtown Portland is bustling. Teens, in a large circle, kick a beanbag-like ball back and forth in a game called hackey-sack. Classical music, from hidden speakers, flutters among the babble of the city. At a nearby Starbucks coffeehouse, urbane couples sip steaming cups of mocha java. Many others, on the sidewalk, smoke cigarettes, read magazines or chat as they wait for a light-rail train.

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The Square, as locals call it, is an entire block that was turned into an amphitheater. Here, concerts, festivals and protests take place. Beneath the glow of old-style street lamps I approach two teen boys who are smoking cigarettes and striking a "don’t mess with us" pose. Before I can introduce myself, another teen points at me and says to the two teens, "Watch out, man. He’s 5-0," street lingo for "He’s a cop." The teens look me up and down, curse, then stomp off — leaving a trail of smoke.

A few blocks away from Pioneer Square where there are no bright lights, lattes or classical music, I meet three young panhandlers on a dark corner. As I introduce myself, two grab their bags and leave. Only one, who goes by the nickname Traveler, agrees to talk.

"I have freedom, man," says Traveler, explaining why he lives on the streets. "I’m not tied down to a specific place or job. I can go and do whatever I want."

Traveler, 22, wears layers of clothing that include two ponchos, a leather vest with tassels and an overcoat. His corduroy hat covers his brow and nearly conceals his tired eyes. Wisps of stringy facial hair dangle from his smooth face. He has lived on the streets for four years; and in that time, he says proudly, he has hitchhiked across the country several times. Traveler also professes to be a Christian, though he admits he struggles. "I’m not living the life I should be living," he says. "Sometimes that bothers me. But one of these days I’ll sober up."

Traveler is a self-proclaimed street-corner poet. "I read my poetry for spare change," he says. At night he stays under a bridge in a sleeping bag that he counts as one of his most prized possessions. A few months ago Traveler lived in a Christian shelter. He says his life was changing for the better, but one day he walked out and started smoking marijuana again. Life on the street, he says, is not all that bad; plus, he claims, it has fortified his relationship with the Lord.

"A lot of my day-to-day life is living by faith in a way that people who proclaim to live by faith can’t comprehend," he says. "I start out with nothing each day and have faith that God is going to give me something. He hasn’t let me down yet."

After talking with Traveler I search for his fellow panhandlers who so quickly dismissed me. When I catch up with them, they reluctantly agree to talk. Cherie is a soft-spoken 18-year-old with a silver ring hanging from her nose. She has lived on the streets for three years.

"I’m not out here because I have to be — I like to travel," she says, trying to convince me. But then, unexpectedly and without prompting, she lets her guard down. "My family couldn’t afford to take care of me and we didn’t get along anyway so I left. It’s hard living like this, but it makes me appreciate the good times I do have."

Cherie seems anxious for the interview to end, but continues to talk. She says if people believe in God it’s fine with her; but she, like many I’ll meet tonight, has not given Him much thought. "I respect people for their opinions and beliefs and I’m not going to hold it against them, but I haven’t read too much about it," she says. "I have no idea if God ever existed. If He was standing right in front of me, I might believe it. But I don’t believe in things I can’t see."

As she picks up her green duffel bag, indicating the interview is over, I ask what she has hope for. She turns around, looks me in the eyes for the first time and says, "To be happy and get out of the cold."

With that said, Cherie leaves. It’s almost 10:30 and the temperature has dropped below 40 degrees. I walk a lonely stretch of sidewalk where window displays advertise clothing from Ann Taylor, Saks Fifth Avenue and Abercrombie & Fitch. As I round a corner I meet Kevin and Bobby, both 18. Kevin wears a black leather jacket adorned with punk rock group logos and clunky black boots.

Kevin says he spent 11 years going to a Christian school, but that hasn’t seemed to leave a lasting impression. "If I am going to believe, it needs to come to me," he says. "It’s not something that can be put on me."

He says he gets drunk to relax and looks forward to the drinks he’ll consume tonight with his friends. Bobby says he used to attend church, but quit because it was boring and nothing there compelled him to come back. "I don’t really think about God," he says. "I believe there was a man named Jesus, because of the Bible, but I don’t know about Him creating the earth in seven days."

Nearby, standing at a phone booth, are three naïve-looking 15-year-old girls. Two of the girls say they have made commitments to Christ, but would never tell their friends about it. "I don’t tell them because they never ask," says Monica, the quasi-leader of the three. The other two giggle and give each other high fives as if in victory.

I venture near the Willamette River. Music pulsates from a nearby Irish pub. Long lines of 20-somethings dressed in evening finery wait to enter trendy clubs. In front of the Paris Theater, where local punk, Goth, ska and industrial rock bands play, I meet Kate*, Angie and Will, all 17-year-old high school juniors.

Kate sports a Mohawk-style haircut, combat boots and several earrings in each ear. She says she and her friends were attracted to the punk scene because it reflects their interests in art, music and fashion.

As we talk, it is apparent that all three are well-spoken, intelligent and satisfied with their undeveloped philosophies. When our conversation shifts to God, Kate says, "I think she is a nice woman and she is pretty cool because she lets me and my friends be here."

Angie pipes in that God is whatever people want Him to be. "Everyone is so different and has so many different views about religion. I don’t think we can ever find common ground," she says. "People need to have something to believe in, but everyone needs to find out for themselves — that’s what’s really important."

Will used to attend church with his family and even helped lead worship by playing guitar for the worship team. But he soon found other activities that interested him and eventually fell away from his church and faith. "I felt like I had a lot of other things to do before committing myself to a religion," he says. "I think I have a lot of time in front of me where I’ll have religion as an option."

It’s nearing midnight when I meet Luke, 17, and his friends. They stand on one of Pioneer Square’s busiest corners. Luke says he and his companions try to pattern their lives after their favorite hip-hop and rap artists. Most in Luke’s group wear baggy jeans, gold necklaces and backward or tilted baseball caps. When a limousine full of teen girls pulls up, Luke’s friends whoop and holler. One of the girls in the limousine stands in the sunroof and teasingly acts as if she is going to lift her shirt. The teen boys rush into the street and begin pounding on the windows. The driver of the limousine speeds off.

When Luke was younger he says he liked going to church. But as he grew older, he says "hypocritical" sermons turned him off. "I went to a church and all they talked about was tithing," he says. "I thought you’re supposed to talk about God at church."

Though he has religious roots, Luke does not think the way he is living is wrong. "I believe Jesus died for me," he says. "But I don’t feel bad when I smoke pot or get drunk. I’m not doing what God wants for me; I’m doing what I want for me. I’m a teen. I’m supposed to have fun."

When I ask what the night still holds, Luke’s 16-year-old friend Adam says, "We will go to a hotel tonight and party, drink, smoke and have sex. I have to be blunt about these things — we’re only going to be teens once."

Moments before I get on the train for my trip back into the suburbs I meet Jose, 22, who plans to party with friends tonight. "When I die I’ll come back and do it again until I get it right," he says. "Eternity is boring; you’ve got to mix it up here in this life."

If only Jose knew the real truth, I say to myself, as the train’s doors close.

Kirk Noonan is news editor for the Pentecostal Evangel.

Some names have been changed.
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