Homeless worshippers flock to First Vagabonds Church of God

ALINE MENDELSOHN


– Under the bridge, only four people have shown up for
church, but for the pastor it is enough of a congregation.
As he sits on a curb next to his sparse audience, Brian Nichols is oblivious
to the rattle of a train nearby, the rush of traffic overhead.
He focuses entirely on today’s message.
“All of us have had people steal our backpacks,” the soft-spoken Nichols
tells his congregants, who nod in agreement. “What if someone tries to steal
our vision, our purpose, our dreams?”
It is an unlikely setting to discuss dreams, this city-owned parking lot. In
one corner, a barefoot man sleeps and stirs under a blanket; in another
corner, a woman guards a shopping cart filled with clothes and food. A gaunt
man wanders by slowly, clutching a piece of cardboard.
Nichols implores his curbside listeners to build an inner character no one
can steal.
“You’ve got to do what’s right in spite of yourselves,” Nichols says. “We
must find our purpose.”
Nichols’ purpose is right here, beneath the underpass at Interstate 4 and
State Road 408 in downtown Orlando, where he conducts twice-weekly services
for his ministry, the First Vagabonds Church of God.
Nichols’ church has no pews, no pulpit, no offering, no walls.
The church doesn’t have a home.
Neither does Nichols.
He sleeps behind some bushes downtown, out of sight where he won’t be
bothered. When it rains, he props open an umbrella and covers himself with a
plastic sheet.
Each Saturday, Nichols perches on the curb and ministers to whoever shows
up – maybe only three people, including his two loyal followers, De’Angelo
Jones and Jim Tagen. On Sundays, more people turn out because the Orlando
World Revival Church provides food.
Nichols, 47, has wide, startlingly blue eyes; coarse, sunburned cheeks; and
a mouth with no teeth. He wears paint-spattered jeans, a checked flannel
shirt and an American-flag bandanna tied around his head.
His backpack, always at his side, contains his few belongings: some clothes,
a powder-blue suit jacket from charity for special occasions, a green binder
stuffed with church paperwork.
Nichols is able-bodied. He is skilled in painting and remodeling.
Yet he is homeless, in part because of the difficulty of leaving the cycle
of poverty, in part because he thinks it’s God’s plan.
“God is letting me experience this for a reason,” Nichols says. “God knows I
can handle it.”
“I’ve always had a heart for the poor,” he says.
He grew up poor, in such poverty that his permanent teeth grew in rotted.
In his late teens, Nichols left his native New York state and hitchhiked to
Oregon. He says he found work in construction and painting, married, and had
a son.
By the time he was 34, he says, he fled to Florida, leaving his life behind.
He had drug and alcohol problems, marital problems.
“I wanted to be as far away from things as I could,” Nichols says.
Slowly, he began to rebuild his life. He worked in labor pools and stayed in
a homeless shelter. Along the way, he says, he had a vision directing him to
become a pastor.
Before Nichols could realize that vision, he faced more setbacks: a back
injury, the loss of his van and his dentures. He bought an old truck for a
few hundred dollars and drove to central Florida to visit a friend, but the
vehicle’s transmission died along the way.
So Nichols returned to the streets but avoided the shelters, where drug use
and thievery are rampant, he says.
“When it was said and done,” Nichols says, “God was the only thing I had
left.”
At Compassion Corner, a gathering spot for the homeless at First
Presbyterian Church of Orlando, Nichols met Jones, a homeless man affiliated
with a small religious group in Atlanta. Jones was immediately drawn to
Nichols and thought he was a man of God, he says.
One day a First Presbyterian Church member spotted Nichols and Jones and
asked them, “Where have you two vagabonds been?”
Vagabonds. It had a nice ring to it. Nichols decided to name his ministry
the First Vagabonds Church of God.
In February 2004, Jones performed a makeshift ordination ceremony for
Nichols under the interstate bridge.
“It was very moving, a beautiful experience,” says Kelly Kilpatrick,
president and founder of the Ripple Effect, an outreach program for the
homeless.
Nichols registered his ministry with the state’s Department of Agriculture
and Consumer Services. Still, he says, “some people believe if you don’t fit
their mold, no matter how spiritual you are, you’re not a Christian.”
Kilpatrick chafes at such opinions.
“Why would anyone criticize him, tear him down?” she says. “Here’s a man who
has nothing, yet he’s trying to do something so positive. He’s touching
lives.”
Several local churches are interested in Nichols.
Gabriel Mercado, a member of the Vineyard, a Seventh-day Adventist Church in
Orlando, regularly attends Nichols’ services.
On a recent Saturday morning, Mercado, 24, and Nichols sit side-by-side on a
curb, discussing their personal relationships.
The pair are a study in contrasts: Mercado’s shined shoes and Nichols’
scuffed loafers; Mercado’s pressed shirt and Nichols’ wrinkled flannel;
Mercado’s smooth shave and Nichols’ scruffy cheek.
Yet they worship as equals.
“I’m not here to live for myself,” Nichols tells Mercado. “I’m here to live
for God.”
Nichols has a vision of a place for the homeless.
He imagines a campground where the homeless can sleep, shower and worship –
and regain some dignity.
Right now it is only a dream, and though he has written a proposal and hopes
to organize a fundraiser, for now his work has been put on hold. Until
recently, Nichols worked on his church projects at the Ripple Effect office
downtown, using a computer Jones gave him. But the office was shuttered in
July when the organization lost its lease.
Nichols can’t work on the computers at the library because without an
address, he can’t receive a library card. He doesn’t have enough steady
income for an apartment, and he doesn’t want to squander any money he
squirrels away for a place he might not be able to keep.
Orlando is not an easy place to be homeless, Nichols says. Two years ago,
the Ripple Effect feedings were moved from nearby Lake Eola to under the
bridge. And a city ordinance prohibits agencies from adding or expanding
services. So the Salvation Army and the Coalition for the Homeless are
discussing plans to move their shelters out of downtown.
Nichols, meanwhile, has resigned himself to being on the street for a while,
but he thinks about the future, about someday renting a discipleship house
and taking in people from the streets. He has mentioned retiring in Oregon
someday.
But not now. He has too much work to do here. He needs to help people such
as Bob Kent.
“I was ready to step in front of a freight train,” recalls Kent, 54, who
says he is a Vietnam veteran and a former drug addict. “Brian helped me to
look at what’s going on.”
Under the bridge, the usual Sunday crowd waits for lunch. A man kills time
with a John Grisham paperback. Another man lies on cardboard and does
crunches and leg lifts. Today the Orlando World Revival Church will come to
provide lunch and conduct a service with Nichols.
Nichols sits on a curb until Jones offers him an upside-down bucket to sit
on. Soon, members of the Revival Church arrive and hook up a sound system to
their van. Christian music blares from the speakers and evangelist Paul
Barros takes the microphone.
“Hallelujah, hallelujah,” Barros calls and invites everyone to join him.
Some are here just for the lunch, but others are getting into the service.
A man in a thin white tank top raises his arms and claps his hands together.
The woman with the stuffed shopping cart retreats from her corner and
approaches the crowd.
“You are not alone,” Barros calls. “Repeat after me: The joy of the Lord is
our strength.”
Placing his arm around Nichols, Barros tells the congregation, “Pray for
Pastor Brian, for the man of God here.”
Fingers curled under his Bible, Nichols takes the microphone and begins his
sermon. He talks about the book of Matthew, about finding the kingdom of
God.
Rain falls gently, and some drops leak through cracks in the bridge. Nichols
closes his eyes. He sways to the music, shifting his weight from foot to
foot, and lifts his arms toward the concrete overhead.
He looks forward to the day when all the pain in the world is swept away.
Including his own.