TEXAS: Houston church brings spirituality, outreach to the homeless

December 1, 2010

There are some men and women for whom homelessness seems to be a chronic state, others who are temporarily down on their luck, who are working to get back on their feet. Many are Veterans, and today there are a growing number of women who turn up on the steps of Lord of the Streets (LOTS) in Houston seeking help.

"Do you know we are the mailing address for 2,200 people?" said the Rev. Bob Flick, the new part-time vicar of Lord of the Streets. Flick recently took over the ministry to Houston's midtown homeless population when the Rev. Murray Powell retired.

After only a few weeks, Flick, who has snowy white hair and a much laid back countenance in his jeans and corduroy jacket, is energized by the new challenge.

LOTS began as an outreach program of Trinity Church, Houston, in the Episcopal Diocese of Texas, in 1990. By 1997 they received additional support from Christ Church Cathedral, St. Dunstan's, St. Francis, St. John the Divine and St. Martin's, Houston, and Good Shepherd, Kingwood. A grant from Episcopal Health Charities in 1997 helped to establish the recovery center at Holman and Fannin in midtown Houston. Volunteers from these parishes and other groups still arrive every Sunday morning at 6 a.m. to prepare a hot breakfast for more than 250 homeless men and women who attend worship at Trinity at 7 a.m.

Today, the work and mission of Lord of the Streets Episcopal Church and the social service arm of the ministry, Community of the Streets, is to minister to the spiritual, emotional, physical and social needs of individuals living in Houston who are homeless, in crisis or in transition.

LOTS helps to provide hundreds of clients a day with the tools and support to reclaim their lives. The staff helps people find transitional housing, provides on-site job training, access to state identification assistance, crisis intervention, health care and case management programs.

Flick stops to talk to a woman in the waiting room on his way to an interview. "Jane" is articulate, clear-headed and while homeless now, used to have a position in the health care industry. She wanted to thank Flick for walking her to the bus stop the day before when she had been afraid of being mugged. She's back today to get copies of her identification papers that will allow her access to other services.

Flick has had an interesting journey to Lord of the Streets, each step a kind of preparation for his new congregation.

Raised Roman Catholic, Flick received his high school education at a Franciscan seminary. "It was very common in the '60s," he explained. "I had more than 100 guys in my class."

After college in Detroit, he studied theology in Dayton, Ohio, where he was under formation for becoming a Franciscan (either via the priesthood or as a friar)." He left three months before he finished his studies.

"Something in me was saying, 'I love the priesthood, but I don't know. I had never lived. I had to get a life," Flick recalled. He returned after a time and while finishing his theology degree, also got a master's in counseling psychology.

After serving as a missionary in the Philippines for three years, he returned to Ohio where he was ordained as a priest. He and two other clergy founded the Zacchaeus House and worked on the streets of Cincinnati, taking in 14 homeless men to live in community. "We gave them a place to live and helped them to reestablish their lives," he said.

He describes the ministry as "touching the lives of folk who otherwise would have fizzled into oblivion."

With his counseling degree and a background on the streets and in foreign missions, Flick was called to take further studies in Franciscan spirituality so he could run the novitiate at the Franciscan seminary.

"The spirituality of Francis is finding God in the things that God created," Flick explained. According to Bonaventure, an Italian theologian and philosopher who entered the Franciscan order in 1243. In articulating Francis' spirituality, he said, God wrote two books, the Bible and Creation. You can't read one without the other.

"Francis' journey and his call to his followers was to read creation and the most magnificent of God's creation is us -- humanity," Flick explained.

"Francis always talked about embracing the leper, a metaphor to be able to embrace what was ugly and thought to be un-embraceable, inside and out. The point is to find God in humanity and quite often that means finding God in the most difficult places," he said.

"It's always been a Franciscan thing to let go of the stuff of life that most people think of as important and go after God in the odd places. For me, that's always been part of my spirituality -- a drive to seek after God in needy, the poor and in the homeless, the struggling and the suffering," he added.

After his studies were finished, Flick spent time in Rome and Assisi getting to know the land of Francis, then attended the institute for spiritual leadership at Loyola before leading the novitiate in Cincinnati for several years.

His first taste of Texas came in the late '80s when he was assigned to Our Lady of Guadalupe in Galveston where he served for six years. Again, Flick became restless and asked for a leave of absence to reconsider the priesthood and what he wanted to do when he "grew up."

"It was probably a midlife crisis," he said, admitting that was similar to the time he left theological college. "It wasn't quite right, I was just lonely."

Flick had met his wife while she was studying medicine in Galveston and they remained friends while she did an internship in Georgetown. Sarah returned to UTMC for her residency in child psychiatry and they were married a year later.

"I didn't leave to get married, but that's the way it worked out," he said. The Flicks have been married for 18 years and have a 15-year-old daughter.

The Flicks tried to remain in the Roman Catholic Church. After meeting with the priest, Flick said, "the very next Sunday, he preached about the abomination of men who leave the priesthood and women who leave the convent and that it's the ruination of the church ... Well Sarah and I agreed, 'This isn't going to work,' so the next week we rolled up to Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Friendswood." He remembers driving up seeing the congregation gathered in front of the church, dressed in shorts for their annual picnic.

The Rev. Jim Nelson "was all over us," Flick said. "He wanted to know when I could be on the vestry."

Flick said that much of the doctrine that was problematic for him in the Roman Catholic Church just didn't exist in the Episcopal Church. "All the things I love about the church are here," he said. "I didn't have to shift many gears and it felt that God was in this somehow."

After serving as an active lay person at Good Shepherd for a while, Nelson brought up the idea of Flick becoming an Episcopal priest. He went through a two-year process and was received as a priest in the Episcopal Church in 2004, remaining at his job at the Gulf Coast Clinic until the bishop asked him to take a parish, St. Michael's, LaMarque.

"I love parish ministry," Flick said. "I never felt I wasn't a priest, even after I resigned from ministry in the Roman Church. This Franciscan stuff is who I am, part of my nature. It was good to be back in active ministry."

He will serve St. Michael's part-time and Lord of the Streets part-time. It makes for a busy Sunday morning with a 7 a.m service at LOTS for more than 200, followed by a hot breakfast. Flick stays to chat with folks and serve coffee, then heads to LaMarque for the 9:15 a.m. Christian formation class and Eucharist at St. Michaels. He is at the church on Monday and Wednesday and in Houston at LOTS on Tuesday and Thursday.

"It's just wonderful, I love to preach and do liturgy and this week they applauded after my sermon. I said, 'I hope that was for Jesus, not me,'" he chuckled.

The number of volunteers and the connectedness to the broader diocese is astounding, he said. Bible study with the clients of LOTS is "really powerful."

"If you are looking to find God, all you have to do is listen to someone who has nothing but God. During prayers, I offer time to give thanks. I didn't know what I would get. I mean, what's to be thankful for if you're homeless and carrying all your stuff in a bag? ... They are effusive, they pour it out ... they are grateful for all the stuff we just walk through everyday ... someone who has helped them."

At church, Flick said that if two out of 80 respond with personal petitions it's a big day. At LOTS almost all of the 18 at the Tuesday worship have something to say.

"There is a freedom that comes with not having all kinds of stuff to protect. That's the Francis piece," he says.

While Flick has the professional background to do psychotherapy and clinical assessments, he wants to be the pastor at LOTS. He wants to pray with people, do Bible study and listen. There are others on the staff to do the assessments.

Before the interview, Flick had sat with a schizophrenic man for an hour just listening. When the man left, he told Flick that it was the first time someone had listened to him. Even in his delusion, he recognized his need to make contact with another person and to be heard, ravings and all.

"There is a new reality in homelessness now, and it will get worse instead of better in Texas in the next few years," Flick believes. One third of the people who come to LOTS are veterans with chronic mental and physical illnesses.

"I think some of them are war torn. They've been through hell and are disturbed by that, some physically, some with brain injuries. Stress sets off people who may be genetically vulnerable mental illness. You go to war and come home and you are not who you were when you left. Coping is beyond what some folks can do," he explained. Veteran services are not able to manage the volume they have. And there are more women today.

"There's plenty to do," Flick concludes with a broad smile, anticipating the opportunity to exercise the best of his Franciscan spirituality in this time and in this place.

LOTS and COTS welcome volunteer staff. Some programs may require highly trained professionals: doctors, registered nurses, pharmacists, counselors, social workers, attorneys and therapists but there are also opportunities to help with office work and miscellaneous jobs, seasonal projects and special events. Most opportunities are available during business hours Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. or on Sunday morning. Groups who are interested in coordinating community drives for school supplies, holiday gifts and other special projects are always welcome.

For volunteering opportunities at LOTS or COTS, contact Myra Mitchell at mmitchell@lordofthestreets.org.