Taxi Driving, Homelessness and A Life of Traumatic Events.

In my early twenties, while still living in Aotearoa (aka New Zealand), I drove a taxi-cab. During that brief epoch of my life, I experienced and saw some fairly intense trauma and drama! In fact, if you're planning on driving taxis, (especially the graveyard shift), expect your stomach to churn and your faith in God and humanity to be challenged in new ways. Being a cab driver means you're going to submerse yourself in an ocean of traumatic and dramatic events. For the purpose of this blog-post, I'm going to highlight 3 episodes I experienced in my cab and how they affected me.
It was late. It was Monday. Everything was closed. Everything was peaceful. I was just sitting there, waiting to be called up, waiting for that elusive fare. Two men appeared out of the dark and got into my car; the smaller fella sat in the front, while the bigger guy sat in the back. They gave me an exact address and off we drove, peacefully chatting about our day.

As we approached our destination, the bigger fella shuffled across the back seat to sit directly behind me. He grabbed my ponytail with one hand and rested a knife against my throat with his other. He positioned my head so I would never get a good look at their faces again. They calmly told me to do what they say, and despite this precarious situation, all of us remained extremely calm. I was praying. I was praying hard! I obeyed them and with his knife resting against my jugular, I gave them all my money and drove my "stick-shift" another mile to a "dead-end" street, where they told me to pull over. While still gripping my long hair and keeping the knife in place, they forced me out and walked me to the back of the taxi! They opened the boot (trunk) and made me climb in.

It didn't end there; they got back into the cab and drove off, with me lying in the boot. This was actually the most frightening part! In the darkness and silence of the trunk, I asked myself many questions and was internally screaming out to God for His mercy. I didn't have a clue what they were going to do or where they were going. My imagination was running wild! I was scared!

After what seemed like an eternity, they stopped the vehicle and opened the boot. Standing in the shadows, I was still unable to see their faces, they hovered over the trunk and waited to see if I was going to try anything. Ironically, they asked me, "are you alright mate?", "yep" I replied. They gently lobbed the keys into the trunk, slammed it shut and disappeared into the darkness of the night.

I yelled out loud for a few minutes. I didn't have a clue where I was. To my surprise, I found a lever in that trunk and opened it up. I climbed out and discovered they'd parked half way down a long driveway that led to 2 houses. This traumatic experience ended by driving to my parents house. They only lived about a mile away from this whole incident. When I told my family what just happened, they thought I was kidding. Their demeanor changed when the police came.

The 2nd incident happened a couple years later (1998). 5 local youngsters decided to rob a taxi driver. There I was, once again, peacefully sitting in the wrong place at the wrong time! This was a planned robbery; I picked up 4 young men, while a 5th was waiting at the destination with a getaway car and a steering wheel lock as a weapon. As I pulled up, the dude behind me grabbed my ponytail and throat and all the others started pounding my face with their fists. Thankfully, they never used their weapon, but my face received about 50 punches and I needed a few butterfly stitches in my chin.

These 5 young fellas were very different from the first 2! They panicked and failed to get all the cash I had in my car. In fact, I grew suspicious on our drive because of their very pointed questions and how fidgety they seemed. They'd also quiet down to a whisper, and with very serious and intense tones, they'd occasionally speak to one another in a Polynesian language; it seemed like they were planning something. Because of this, I started praying and taking note of "distinctive features" about them. My hunches were correct, but unfortunately, my observations and prayers didn't stop the robbery and battery. They sped off into the night with less than $16.00, all they bought was a pack of cigarettes and they were later apprehended by the police.

A few months after that incident, came another episode which shook me up more than the others. I picked up 4 young men who came out of a house in intervals. The final man was visibly aggravated and intoxicated, and he happened to sit directly behind me with a large glass bottle of whiskey. As I took off, he immediately started running his mouth, asking "pointed questions" and trying to provoke me. He wanted me to react or say something that would justify an attack.

I didn't bite, I refused to bite, in fact, I remained cautious and very polite. This guy enjoyed making threats of how he and his buddies would take pleasure in beating me senseless with that bottle and leave me in a vegetative state. He'd switch between laughter and crazy outbursts of anger! He'd also switch languages, knowing I didn't speak Samoan. He'd also spontaneously touch my head or shoulders. All these other guys thought this dude was hilarious and weren't trying to slow him down. No, they'd laugh and add their own little violent snippets from time to time.

Externally I looked calm, but internally, I was petrified! I didn't want this to be my final night on earth. I didn't want to be hooked up to a machine for the rest of my days. There was no way I was going to drive these fellas down a dark deserted road, I was looking for an escape route! I was praying. I was praying hard! After about 25 minutes of this torturous driving, they finally told me to pull over in front of a house. As they started getting out, I sat there riding the clutch and accelerator, ready to release the left and plant the right. At this point, I didn't care about the money, I just wanted them out of the car. I just wanted to survive!

To my utter surprise, they paid their fare and thanked me for the ride. The crazy dude behind me shook my hand and told me what a cool taxi-driver he thought I was.

As I drove up the street, the car was spluttering and bounced a little, as my heart was racing, my legs were visibly shaking and my knees were actually knocking. That's how scared I was. Have you ever tried to drive a "stick-shift" and go through the gears when you have no control of your legs? Let me tell you, it ain't easy!

All 3 of these incidents had a profound impact on my life. They affected me well beyond the few minutes I sat in my cab and was robbed, attacked, bullied and threatened by these guys. Traumatic experiences do that! Traumatic experiences permanently change us. Traumatic experiences can either take us down long depressing roads of despair and fear, or, if we take a courageous leap of faith, we can be transformed by God and His Kingdom, who takes what's intended for harm and uses it for good! 

Immediately after each episode, my faith in humanity and my ability to trust people was radically affected. I'd relive it in my dreams and I was nervous about heading out at night. I'd steer clear of certain areas, I'd get cold sweats if someone was "talking trash" in my cab and sometimes people would flag me down and I'd drive right past them because I had a "vibe" or they looked similar to my attackers. I'd feel guilty as I did this, because I felt there was gap between my actions and my beliefs of accepting and loving all. 

About a month after these episodes, this fear and distrust dissipated and I started picking up almost anyone and everyone again. Yet, these traumatic events, (along with a few I didn't mention), left me with one major lingering aftereffect that has remained until this very day; it doesn't matter if I'm driving, sitting in church, standing in a crowded elevator, walking down a hallway or riding in Chicago's packed el trains, I do not like having people behind me, especially when the area is enclosed or I have to keep still. I feel vulnerable. Age doesn't matter, race doesn't matter, gender doesn't matter, the situation doesn't matter, if they're someone I don't know or they are fidgeting behind me, I tend to get a little anxious. It makes me want to move to a location where there's a wall or a wide open space directly behind me and I can observe my surroundings. This is one of the main reasons why I tend to gravitate to the back or the side of many settings! 

Even though these 3 events were extremely traumatic, I believe the good that arose from them, has far outweighed the harm and negatives. It has helped me understand and comprehend the words Joseph said to his brothers: "you intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives." (Genesis 50:20 NIV)

Years ago, just after I had been tossed into the trunk of my own car, I would have never dreamed that I'd end up working with so many people who have experienced far more trauma than me and who struggle daily with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I would have never dreamed that God would turn this into something that would help me and benefit the hundreds of homeless people I deal with daily. These 3 taxi-driving episodes have given me empathy, compassion and a sensitivity for those who've been harmed by the lasting affects of being traumatized.

Homelessness, in and of itself, is a traumatic experience! All men, women and children experiencing homelessness are living with many losses. They have lost the very things we cherish as our protection and safety. Not only have they lost their homes and assets, they've often lost their families and communities. They also suffer trauma through the isolation, stigmatization and marginalization that society places on people, simply because they're experiencing homelessness.  

The stories I see and hear daily go far beyond the reality of just simply "being homeless". I mourn over the horrific stories and wounds of homeless veterans and the debilitating PTSD that has followed them. I anguish over the tales of rape and molestation that terrorizes so many women (and some men also) who are homeless. I weep over the bitter reality that people experiencing homelessness are often victims of mass incarceration, callous gentrifiers, unjust power-mongers and police brutality. How about all the scars people have shown me? They could be through bullets, knives, baseball bats, gang fights and prison riots. How about the hundreds of poor victims who are mocked or bullied, simply because they have a mental illness, a learning disability or a physical difference? How about those who are ostracized and assaulted, simply because they are transgender, push around a large shopping cart full of their belongings or sleep under a viaduct? 

I barely touch the surface here; the examples are too numerous to mention. The offenders are countless. The trauma is real and the homeless population is overwhelmingly flooded with her victims.  

When I came to Chicago, I entered this world! When I came to Uptown, I brought my own trauma, but I walked into a traumatized community. When I came to this neighborhood, I discovered a place where trauma wasn't being hidden or suppressed, it had risen to the surface and was screaming out for answers, it was screaming out for real genuine love. It still screams. It still seeks love!

When Jesus entered this world, He brought forth a Kingdom that sets captives free, elevates the afflicted and where sinners find forgiveness. He died on the cross and rose from the grave, so those traumatized may find compassion, hope and love through Him and His people. His loving Gospel turns what is meant for evil and harm into good. His Revolutionary Love, which should also be displayed by His people, turns our systems of oppression and violence into actions of humility and peace. Jesus, through his radical discipleship, said "NO" to the evil empires and turned this traumatized world upside down through His mercy and grace.

So here I am; many years later, living amongst a traumatized people! 
So here I am, trying to bring this radical and revolutionary Kingdom of God and Kingdom Love into our communities. 
So here I am; asking God to use me, asking God to use what several fellas intended for harm and transform it into something that He uses for good and maybe save a few lives.
And God has used me, my friends and colleagues, right here in good old Uptown. 

When we're living out the Kingdom of God, Jesus doesn't call us to tackle all the trauma on our own; it's too much! He wants Kingdom people to come together and lift up those who've been pushed down by all the trauma they've faced. 

He wants us to come together as a community, loving and supporting the "least of these". We need to come together for people like Kevin, George and Feliciano (not their real names); 3 men who've been victims of violence, familial death, continual rejection, bullying and homelessness. One is a Vietnam veteran who experienced horrific things, one was sexually assaulted in prison and the other tragically lost his twin brother. All 3 of these fellas found hope, compassion and love at Cornerstone and Jesus People. They came to us broken and rejected, but we took them in and they found something they'd never known before they entered our doors. They found people who truly loved them, accepted them and didn't cast them aside. They all eventually left us and successfully moved into their own cribs. 

These 3 guys are truly some of Chicago's "least of these", but they've been embraced by people who were willing to sacrifice for them, empathize with them and show compassion to them. Though they're still riddled with PTSD, their trauma has softened a little, because people chose to follow the example of Jesus and wrap their loving arms around these very broken men. 

Their stories aren't ending in hopelessness. 
What was intended for harm, has been turned into good. 
What was supposed to destroy these men, has been transformed into stories of Hope! 
God's Kingdom does that; it turns our world upside down and reveals Jesus, who relates to, embraces and deeply loves those who who've been traumatized and victimized! 
God truly gives the broken-hearted new found hope, because "a bruised reed He will not break, and a dimly burning wick He will not extinguish." (Isaiah 42:3)
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