“After 29 years [of being a Pastor] I realized I was being called to something else,” Gary Davis shared.
Shortly after Davis retired from The United Church of Christ, he accepted a role at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church. Although the job title changed, his desire to help those in need has never wavered.
His calling: Operation Nightwatch. This group’s mission is to help improve the lives of the homeless.
Nightwatch offers four main things. First, they offer food. Because Nightwatch changes their offerings based on the amount and nature of the demand for services, some locations serve more food than others. For example, full meals are served in Southeast because there is so little outreach in that part of Portland, whereas light snacks are served in downtown because there are so many offerings for homeless to have a meal. For those in Southeast, Nightwatch may be the only place they have had a meal in a day or two.
“We [are] always looking for what do we need to do to meet [people’s] needs. We use the word homeless a lot, [but] that is a generic term. There are a lot of subpopulations among the homeless and so we have to tailor our program to the particular homeless population.”
Second, they offer health care. Davis was quick to clarify that they don’t do surgery, they do the little things people need on a daily basis. One of the most widely used health care services is their foot clinic. These clinics check the quality of people’s shoes, asses the state of their feet, and even offer foot rubs. For people who spend almost every minute of the day on their feet, this offering is vital.
Third, the community that Nightwatch offers is arguably the most important of all Nightwatch services. Nightwatch holds routine movie nights, schedules karaoke outings, and even puts together excursions like hikes or trips to the mountain. Davis says that this is where Nightwatch is able to go from helping people to saving them.
“There are the physical needs and then there are the things that make us human. There are so many things that the rest of us take for granted. but what do they got. What resources do they have in order to fill their lives with the sort of things that make life worth living. That’s what we seek to do.”
Fourth and finally, Nightwatch provides a safe haven. In a world where those on the streets are constantly on guard about their own safety and well being, sometimes the best thing to do is give people a place where they feel comfortable and can just relax.
“We try to create a place that despite not having a roof over their heads they can still feel at home. This is a very homelike atmosphere.”
Davis on his job
“I never do anything unless I enjoy doing it. So many of the folks here do come back regularly there is a community here and we make an effort to build and nurture that community. You get to know them, their stories, you laugh together, it’s very sustaining. When I am out there with the folks, that’s the cherry on the cake. It is what Nightwatch is founded on. We are all social animals and we all need each other. If I ever had a patronising attitude towards serving the poor, I gave it up a long time ago because I really feel like they do me a favor. We’re friends.”
During our forty minutes together, two people from the homeless community walked into Davis’ office and started talking to him about their issues. One started asking him the phone he left in the back of the church pews on Thanksgiving. Another – who Davis knew by name – picked up a conversation with Davis as though they were best friends. Davis handled every issue comfortably and methodically, helping each person through their issues and all the while with a smile on his face.
“So that’s typical,” Davis said.
How old are you: 64
Family?: married for 38 years; no kids
Hobbies?: trying new things and expanding his knowledge-base
Fun Fact: “It’s true: I was actually born in Gary, Indiana. (My parents swore they didn’t name me after the city.)”