Forging friendships with homeless key at Dry Bones Denver
Rebekah Duke is on her cell phone, arranging a free dentist visit for a girl she serves through the Dry Bones urban ministry. Her coworker, Zach Smith, scans the crowd for someone he knows.
It doesn’t take long. Sitting on a concrete bench near a fountain is a young man with a tightly trimmed mohawk. His combat boots are black. So are his studded leather wristbands and fingernails.
Most of the passersby avoid or ignore him. Smith hugs him.
Between puffs on his cigarette, the young man talks about a premonition he’s had — a feeling that he’ll soon be martyred in a battle between darkness and light. Smith listens patiently and invites him to dinner.
Days — like conversations — rarely conform to any pattern for the six Christians who work for Dry Bones, ministering to a subculture hiding in plain sight on the streets of Denver.
“It’s not one of those 9-to-5 kinds of jobs,” said Duke, a Dallas native who joined the staff two years ago, after earning a psychology degree from Abilene Christian University in Texas.
Dry Bones isn’t a medical ministry, but staffers accompany expecting mothers to doctor visits, said Nikki Wallace, who helped launch the ministry seven years ago.
“We visit them in jail, but we don’t run a prison ministry,” Wallace said. “We really specialize in building relationships. We run very few programs.”
The nonprofit takes its name from Ezekiel 37, where God asks the prophet to speak to a valley of bones. As Ezekiel prophesies, breath enters the skeletons and they rise to form a great army.
Youths living on the streets of Denver identify with the story of God bringing dead things, discarded by society, to life, Wallace said.
The youths don’t see the ministry as “some goodie-two-shoes organization trying to help them,” said Tim Schweikhard, vice president of Dry Bones’ board of directors and a member of the Garnett church in Tulsa, Okla.
The ministry is “approved by the insider culture,” Schweikhard said.
Staffers consider the youths they serve as friends and avoid “an attitude that … I’m the ‘have’ and you’re the ‘have not,’” Wallace said.
In addition to helping their friends kick drug habits and find Christ, Dry Bones’ workers take time to listen to their friends’ stories. Many talk about spiritual warfare — something they face on the streets every day.
“They are teaching me about God in ways I’ve never been taught about God in church,” Wallace said.
VALUING THE DEVALUED
“I can’t have Christians walking with me … not with the stuff I’m about to do!”
The tattooed youth laughs in disbelief as Smith and Duke join him and his friends on their walk through downtown Denver.
Dry Bones’ workers don’t advertise their faith, Duke says.
They don’t have to.
“We’ve had people refer to us as their pastor,” she says “They say, ‘This is my church. These are my church people.’ And they’ve never even come to church with us.”
Many of Denver’s estimated 3,300 homeless youths leave home because of physical, sexual or emotional abuse. Some have been in the foster care system multiple times, Duke said.
Jeff and Kama Medders noticed the large concentration of homeless youths while vacationing in Denver in 2001. The Medders, along with Wallace and her husband, Matt, moved from Texas to Colorado the next year.
Denver offered many services for homeless youths, but “nothing on a spiritual level,” Nikki Wallace said.
Instead of building a soup kitchen or launching a rehab program, the church members developed a ministry to connect youths with preexisting services. In addition to spending time with the youths, staffers host small-group Bible studies and lunches. On Thursdays they take groups of up to 70 to a bowling alley.
The ministry’s only facility is a rented apartment in an upscale neighborhood near Coors Field. It’s a place where homeless youths can take a shower, do laundry, eat a hot meal and talk with a counselor. Dry Bones also has hosted cooking and photography classes in the apartment.
“It’s not a homeless shelter,” Duke said. The upscale furnishings and porcelain dishes are intended to let the youths know that “you’re worth this.”
“We want to lavish value on a largely devalued group of people,” she said.
Though Dry Bones’ primary mission is to homeless youths, the ministry also seeks to serve Christian youths across the nation, Schweikhard said.
Every summer Dry Bones hosts Elevations, a program for teenagers that includes a climb through the Rocky Mountains with some of Dry Bones’ friends. Teens also follow Dry Bones workers as they work with youths on the streets of Denver.
The program’s goal is to help teens recognize the outcast and those living in the margins in their own neighborhoods — to realize that “people aren’t throw-aways,” Schweikhard said.
LOVING WHEN YOU DON’T HAVE IT IN YOU
After two years with Dry Bones, “success looks different than I expected it to,” Duke said.
Like her coworkers, she came to the ministry expecting to see Christ help the youths she serves get off drugs and off the streets.
“We absolutely do see that,” she said. “It is just is a much slower and intense and crazy journey than I ever would have thought.”
Dry Bones’ staff has a deep understanding of the power of addiction, Nikki Wallace said. She’s written reports about friends who have cleaned up their lives, only to learn that they relapsed before the newsletter was in her supporters’ mailboxes.
Working for the ministry sometimes means “continuing to love when you might not have it in you to love,” Duke said.
Dry Bones also provides its staff, all from middle-class homes, with plenty of “How did I end up here?” moments, Wallace said.
LaDawn Noble had a similar moment when she joined Dry Bones for lunch and found herself in the middle of a Bible study. Noble, who found out about the ministry on the streets of Denver, refused to participate in the study — or even open the Bible.
“What has God done for me in my 22 years on this earth?” she thought to herself. “I have been to hell and back!”
Three years later, she’s an active participant and attends services at the Lakewood, Colo., church.
She’s still working out some issues with God, she said, but she’s come to understand that “he wants me to come back.”
THREE QUESTIONS WITH NICK
In a secluded corner of Denver’s downtown, Duke catches up with Nick, a longtime friend of Dry Bones who lives on the streets.
Originally from Algeria, he speaks with a slight French accent and is a bit standoffish about talking to a reporter.
He accompanies Duke back to the Dry Bones apartment and says he’ll answer three questions — a request he rarely grants, he notes.
“Do you believe in God?” the reporter asks.
“No,” he says, flatly.
“Why to? At the end of the day you either have that faith or you don’t. And I’m not to the point where I have that faith.”
“So why do you keep coming to Bible study?”
“It’s like I told you … to give them a hard time,” he says, adding that “there’s nothing wrong with knowledge.”
In fact, Nick asks some of the most challenging questions at Bible studies, Duke says. He keeps the interns leading the discussions searching the Scriptures for answers.
“Somebody’s got to ask the tough questions,” Nick says. “If you don’t know how to answer them, you won’t survive out here.”
DESCRIPTION: A 501(c)3 nonprofit based in Denver, overseen by a 10-member board of directors. Churches, families and individuals from across the country support the work.
PURPOSE: To serve homeless teens and young adults in downtown Denver, connecting them with resources, nutrition, entertainment and new friends. The ministry’s mission is to reach, rescue, reconcile and reclaim.
STAFF: Five full-time employees: Matt and Nikki Wallace, Robbie Goldman, Rebekah Duke and Zach Smith, and one part-time worker, Susan Zimmerhackel. Each raises his or her own financial support.
WEB SITE: www.drybonesdenver.org