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"Look. No pelvic bone. There should be a great big pelvic bone if it’s a person."
"So you think it’s a dog?"
He swigged the Pepsi.
"A damn big dog."
Another wave rolled in and drew the rib cage of a damn big dog closer to the water. We all just looked at it.
Resistance and Revelry
When Pastor Bill Gibbons recently lost the lease for his church on Skid Row, he took a page from the members of his congregation and turned up on the street. Not with bags, and clothes and all worldly possessions, but with chairs, and Bibles and a guitar. "The ministry will go on," he said, "wherever God wants it."
So it did on a recent Sunday, despite the steady rain that swept through the city, clearing the streets of all but the most stubborn pedestrians, including the thousands of homeless. Judging from the activity at the corner of Main and Fifth streets, where people gathered to either drink booze, offer drugs or just hang out, it might have been a sunny day. One woman danced wildly with no shoes, her socks soaked from the wet sidewalk.
There was an added attraction: Across the street a crew was filming a commercial for the video game Doom, a popular title that promises players "an epic struggle against pure evil." Half a block away, Gibbons was engaged in his own version. "The enemy, Satan, is always trying to come and take you back," he intoned between verses of Exodus. "You have to resist."
But with all that was going on, his service was easy to miss, especially when, to get out of the rain, the group retreated into the cluttered entryway of the Regent Theater — right next door to the former home of Gibbons’ Bread of Life Church. Now a warehouse, the Regent used to show triple-X movies. Gibbons credits his ministry’s prayers for shutting the theater down.
Gibbons didn’t blame the weather for the low turnout — aside from his wife, her son, and a worship leader named Will, there were only three other congregants at the beginning of his service. He’s noticed that people come to church less often when they have money, and welfare checks come at the first of the month. Of the three homeless people present, one was in a wheelchair and another was wrapped in a blue tarp to keep warm. Two of them were either deep in rapture or falling asleep.
As the pastor’s energy picked up, though, so did attendance. Soon the congregation had grown to 14 people, with Gibbons frequently interrupting his sermon to invite people walking by. He seemed to know everyone by name. "Kevin, come on in, have a seat." And the others would shift to make room.
There was singing, responsive reading and reciting. And occasionally there was a request for clarification ("What was that you said about the darkness and the light?"), or for affirmation ("But God will only help you if you are willing to take the first step, right?")
Gibbons punctuated his points with either a high-five or the rhetorical "Pretty awesome, huh?" His consistent message was that the Lord was fighting for them — a fact that, given the congregation’s current situation, could have been lost on a bystander. But if it appeared that God had forsaken them, it was clear that the pastor had not. He has been serving them for the past 14 years.
Gibbons began his ministry on the corner of Palmetto and Seaton in front of an onion warehouse, where he would pass out food during the services. Soon he earned the name Hot Dog Man. (On Sunday he wasn’t serving hot dogs, but a dozen slender burritos.) He also became known for his Skid Row tours, a program he started after establishing his ministry there in ’96. Aimed mostly at kids, it’s his version of Scared Straight.
As a reward for his hard work, Gibbons has been stabbed more than once, had threats made on his life and has been evicted from his property. But he can’t resist the call to be out on the streets and ministering to the homeless. "My heart’s here. I love the people who are down here," he says. "God has blessed me, and I want to return that blessing to these people."
The service ended with a unique kind of communion: pieces of Keebler Club crackers and water served in medicine cups. Then the 14-member congregation stood, raised their hands and joined Gibbons in revelry.