Thousands of fans stream toward Coors Field for a Colorado Rockies baseball game on this Saturday night in downtown Denver. I make my way through the crowd to the corner of 16th Street Mall (a mile-long pedestrian walkway with shops and cafés) and Arapahoe Street, four blocks from Coors Field, where most visitors would love to spend an evening enjoying Italian cuisine or sipping coffee.
Less than 50 yards away are nearly 50 street kids who hang out here. Some on skateboards attempt tricks on various steps, handrails and curbs. Nearly all of the youth know each other, but pockets of closer friendships exist within the group.
They all know Doyle Robinson, an Assemblies of God U.S. missionary, and seem to have let him into their world. Several youth give Robinson a hug as we arrive downtown. Nearly five years ago, Robinson began ministering to these Denver teens and college-age adults by giving out socks, drinks or whatever snacks he had from his minivan.
“I picked up the street name ‘Sox,’ and the Lord began opening up doors through relationships,” Robinson recalls. Trust is crucial to those friendships, he says. More than 50 Wiccans and self-proclaimed witches and vampires come through Robinson’s Sox Place (Denver’s only drop-in center) daily. Here, they can receive a free hot meal and play games in a safe environment. Simply put, “They talk to us because they trust us,” Robinson says. Some grew up in church. Most, Robinson says, went to a church at least once when they were children.
Robinson introduces me to one teen, who goes by the nickname Daisy.
Daisy, 19, says she was tired of living in hotels with her parents, who are mired in alcohol and drugs, so she ran away. But the life of freedom she sought from the streets has eluded her. Daisy professes to believe in the Lord, although she says many roads lead to eternal life.
“I see religion and the Lord and everything as a mountain,” she says. “All around the mountain is a bunch of religions. It all leads to the top, to the Lord Jesus Christ.” On the streets since she was 12, Daisy is somewhat of a veteran. She says she stays because downtown is like a drug. But she feels betrayed by the streets she thought would bring her happiness.
“There’s no real friends down here,” she says. “These people pass you a beer and hand you a joint. They don’t tell you, ‘Go home.’ They don’t tell you, ‘Go to school.’ They don’t tell you, ‘Get a job.’ They tell you to stay downtown. That’s not a true friend.”
Mario, 26, is also a veteran of these streets. And the life he learned to live under the care of his former foster parents prepared him well. They taught him how to tote guns and sell drugs, and that women are nothing but objects, Mario says. Smoking marijuana was accepted at home, he adds matter-of-factly.
In a deeper, darker past, Mario says, he was involved in cultic things.
“Some of what I saw allowed me to believe in spiritual things,” he says, his backpack strapped across one shoulder as he holds his skateboard. “I’ve never seen a physical God, but I’ve seen demons.” During a stint in jail in 1991, Mario says he accepted Christ as Savior because he knew he’d need help in life. But the lack of good influences led him to abandon his faith. Mario’s terminology throughout our conversation reveals his knowledge of God and the Bible. While Jesus Christ is an afterthought for many street youth who gather downtown, Mario seems to know whom he will serve, but only when he’s ready.
“The God I worship is Jesus Christ,” Mario says. “He was a Nazarene that went around teaching people all these great things, and how submission to God can give you great power. I haven’t given that submission in a while. I know I have to do it before I pass on.”
But no one knows when they will die.
Throughout the night as I interview and meet new people, two men argue with each other, but it seems nothing more than a scuffle. By the end of the night, the argument escalates and one man is stabbed. He had greeted me with a handshake and a couple of jokes just hours earlier. Now he is dead on the corner of 16th Street Mall and Arapahoe Street. He was 21.
Like most of Denver’s street kids, Robinson knew him well. He met him here three years ago, and had been reaching out to him ever since.
“I hope you got all this,” Mario tells me above the drone of police and ambulance sirens, “because this is the way it is.”
Yes, Mario, that’s true, I think. But it doesn’t have to be.
By Isaac Olivarez -staff writer for Today’s Pentecostal Evangel.
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