On a cool September evening in Washington, D.C., Willy and his buddy, Jim, have just smoked some crack cocaine and are back on the streets, wanting to buy more. As they walk past the embassies and hotels on Massachusetts Avenue near Dupont Circle, they spot a 29-foot recreational vehicle, with a man in a clerical collar standing alongside.

“Exodus Youth Services,” says Willy, reading aloud the words painted on the side of the van. “Whatcha doin’ here?” he asks the minister.

“Just listening to people and trying to help them if they need it,” replies the Reverend Logan Jackson, as he sizes up the pair’s glassy eyes and the clothes that look as if they have been slept in.

With a little prompting the two begin to talk about their lives. Willy speaks in glowing terms of his “Grandma,” a religious woman who wants him off drugs. Jim tells of a younger cousin whom he worries about, and mentions a “nice lady” at a nearby church who gave him the shirt he is wearing.

“You know,” Jackson says, “you’re worth ten million times the value of that shirt. Your cousin needs you to be an example. You need to get off cocaine.” “Yeah, I know, I know,” Jim answers. They talk some more, and before they leave, Jackson gives each one a striped rugby shirt. “It’s going to be cold tonight. You’ll need an extra layer,” he says. “Come back and see us.”

Every Thursday and Friday night, Jackson, an Episcopal priest, and his cadre of volunteers from local Catholic and Protestant seminaries, station themselves near Dupont Circle, the hub of a tiny Washington neighborhood. At nightfall the area attracts a spectrum of people, including yuppie couples out for a French meal, gay men cruising the streets, and homeless, runaway teenagers.

Precious In His Sight

Jackson describes the street-side ministry he began over two years ago as a “listening mission.” “We aren’t into aggressive evangelism. We’re looking for a mode of evangelism that is clear, distinct, accepting, embracing, nonjudgmental, but that allows for the naming and presenting of the Lord.” Patterned after other successful ministries such as Bridge Over Troubled Water in Boston, Exodus strives to find ways to tell severely alienated kids that they are worthwhile, and precious in God’s sight.

As he walks down the streets near the circle, Jackson greets several street kids he has seen before. Others turn to stare at Jackson’s clerical collar. A man sipping coffee in a Hardee’s restaurant comes out to tell Jackson he has just gotten a job as a courier. But he still has no place to live. “Stop by the van in a little while and we’ll talk,” Jackson says.

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“We try to be knowledgeable, to offer practical advice, to be committed, but not to hustle these kids. They’re being hustled all the time, and they are hustling others,” Jackson explains. “I tell volunteers that if they think they’ll bestanding in the revolving door of the emergency room at Children’s Hospital, this is not where they should be. They need to be like soldiers on the front line, looking out into the dark of night and being attentive in their listening. If they’re coming for excitement, they won’t find it here.”

Even so, the Exodus volunteers tell some startling stories about their encounters on the streets. Months ago, two 13-year-old girls, their shaved heads covered with skull caps, dropped by the Exodus RV. After chattering for several minutes, one of the girls blurted out, “My dad’s being charged with child sexual abuse in 16 hours.” Tears welled up in her eyes. “It wasn’t me.” She told of her involvement in a satanic cult and how she was thinking of suicide. “What does God do with suicides?” she asked. Jackson talked to her about the mercy of God and urged her to call him.

“To see waste and pain at such a level in such a young person is utterly excruciating,” says Jackson. “We hope to find some way to be constructive and helpful.”

As Jackson completes his walking tour of the neighborhood, Dan, a 22-year-old Exodus volunteer, tells Jackson about his conversation with Joe, a 17-year-old runaway whom Exodus recently befriended near the circle. Because he had worked as a male prostitute, Joe has agreed to an AIDS test, but he told Dan that if the hospital turned him over to the police he would “slit [Dan’s] throat from ear to ear.” “I’m scared,” Dan says to Jackson.

“Steady. We’ll talk about this later and decide how to handle it,” Jackson assures him.

In some ways, Jackson does not act the part of a street worker. He carries himself with serenity, like a monk who has lived his life in quiet. He looks more like an Episcopal priest who might dream of settling down in a wealthy country parish, far from the harshness of street life. Indeed, before coming to Washington, Jackson served such a congregation. But even as rector of a quaint, historic Kentucky church, he could not escape the reality of kids growing up wounded and unloved.

One evening he went to his church to pray. He thought about several of the families he had worked with in which kids were abused or neglected. “Why doesn’t the church do something about this?” he asked God—and himself.

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In that moment, he recalls, the answer came clearly. “I could see the Lord putting this in my heart,” he recalled. He walked back home, passing an idyllic scene of horses grazing behind whiterail fences. Inside, his wife was putting their three kids down for the night. As he approached her, he blurted out the verse, “ ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.’ Do you believe that?” he asked her.

If she thought her husband had lost his senses, she did not show it. “Yes,” she said simply.

“That was the beginning of our accord about this call,” Logan recalls.

A Nightly Vigil

Jackson and the Exodus workers often start their nightly vigil at the corner of 17th Street and Columbia Avenue in Adams-Morgan, one of Washington’s most ethnically and economically diverse neighborhoods. Unregistered Salvadorians and poor blacks live up the street from upwardly mobile career couples. Health and legal-aid clinics for the poor stand side by side with upscale nightclubs and fancy boutiques.

As the Exodus RV pulls up, the kids materialize as if someone has waved a wand over the nearby streets. Ten-year-old Sandra climbs on board first, looking for a drink of juice and a hug from Jackson. She sticks her head out the window and shouts at the other kids to come inside.

About 35 “part-time street kids” typically drop by when Exodus volunteers are in the neighborhood. Sometimes parents drop their kids off near the van before running errands. Jackson is glad the parents trust Exodus, but he has wondered at times whether they should allow themselves to be a neighborhood baby sitter.

But on at least one such occasion, Exodus has been pivotal in helping the kids deal with tragedy. Last year in the building where Sandra lives, two children, aged ten and six, were beaten to death by their stepfather, who was high on PCP. The kids in the building heard it all and watched as their friends were taken out in body bags. The next day Sandra’s six-year-old sister came to the Exodus van and told Jackson the gory details of what had happened. When she finished, she asked, “Are you going to cry, Father Jackson?”

For several weeks afterward, Jackson kept the newspaper article about the murders in the window of the van. One day Sandra read the article aloud to her sister and four other kids who were huddling nearby. As they listened, the children instinctively put their thumbs in their mouths.

“I’ve thought a lot about how you measure success in a ministry like this,” Jackson says. “But the fact is that we’re here, that we care, that there’s steady concern, on their turf. Little by little, even that makes a difference.”

By Kelsey Menehan, a free-lance writer living in Bethesda, Maryland.

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