Redbeard ministers to the Sweetwater homeless jungle

He carries a backpack and a sacred calling

To avoid the consequences of testing positive for meth, Redbeard fled the Constellation and went AWOL.
  • To avoid the consequences of testing positive for meth, Redbeard fled the Constellation and went AWOL.
  • Image by Matthew Suárez

I once saw Redbeard riding his skateboard along Otay Lakes Road. It was close to midnight, there were only a few cars on the road, and the light from the streetlamps was dim. As he snaked his way down the slope, hands in his pocket, moving toward the Sweetwater Valley —where he sleeps against the wall of the Circle K, or holds his signs along the 805 exit for spare change or spreads the good news to the people of the jungle — I thought of a verse he once shared with me, a Psalm of promises from God:

Redbeard told me that it takes a certain type of personality to co-exist in the jungle.

Redbeard told me that it takes a certain type of personality to co-exist in the jungle.

  • For He shall give His angels charge over you,
  • To keep you in all your ways.
  • In their hands they shall bear you up,
  • Lest you dash your foot against a stone.
  • You shall tread upon the lion and the cobra,
  • The young lion and the serpent you shall trample underfoot.

Bonita Road Baptist Church. Redbeard apologized to the pastor afterward, saying that he did not mean to go against his authority.

Bonita Road Baptist Church. Redbeard apologized to the pastor afterward, saying that he did not mean to go against his authority.

When I first met Redbeard he was sitting still on a patch of grass, legs outstretched, under the shade of a large clump of bamboo-like Arundo donax, alongside a drainage ditch next to the southbound 805 freeway exit onto Bonita Road. He was wearing True Religion jeans and an orange-and-red plaid shirt over a tie-dye T-shirt. Tied loosely around his neck was a rainbow-patterned tie, on his hands black fingerless gloves, and a red, white, and yellow headband covered his forehead. His long red hair and red beard, from which he gets his moniker, are merely accessories to his costume. “I dress this way to get attention. Then, they can hear my message.”

A few hours earlier on the same day, Redbeard got the attention of law-enforcement officers. He was walking slowly along Plaza Bonita Road. He hadn’t gotten a lot of sleep the night before on the rocky ground behind the Home Depot in Imperial Beach. He’s an insomniac, and drinking two two-liter bottles of Mountain Dew did not help. He was heading to one of the four hideouts he has across the county where he stores his things — sometimes he hid his things under a bush, beneath a freeway bridge, or lodged deep inside a dumpster. He had a guitar, a green satchel, a Bible, and a folded cardboard sign with a thick Sharpie inscription: “The only thing powerful enough to change an enemy to a friend: love. #GodisLove.”

As Redbeard made his way to his things, two sheriff’s department SUVs pulled up next to him, flashing their lights. The doors of one of the SUVs swung open and two officers walked up to Redbeard. The other cruiser drove off.

“This time, we have probable cause,” one of the officers said. “I know last time you were talking about probable cause. This time we have it.”

“Probable cause for what?” Redbeard asked, taking off his sunglasses that covered his red, drooping eyes.

“We got a call that you are dealing crystal meth around here,” one of the officers said.

Redbeard assured the officers that none of it was true. He was clean and he was sure of it. To back his case, Redbeard would have said that he has never touched the drug, let alone dealt it, but that would be a lie.

It would be a lie because of that night during his Navy days, more than a decade ago, after partying in Tijuana. He was stumbling back into his Chula Vista apartment when his neighbor offered him crystal meth, and he smoked it for the first time. What began as a wild ending to a wild night became an addiction, and to feed that addiction Redbeard kept going back to his neighbor who eventually ran out of the drug. But Redbeard pressured the neighbor for more, which got Redbeard stabbed in the hand with a knife, blood spilling onto his white T-shirt. The doctors aboard the USS Constellation gave him a drug test while treating his wound. To avoid the consequences of testing positive for meth, Redbeard fled the ship and went AWOL.

He never touched the drug again. That is, until that winter night in Montana, when Redbeard, heartbroken from a cheating girlfriend, locked himself inside his trailer — no running water or electricity. The only light came from the amber flame that lit his glass pipe. Redbeard, who had experience as a mountaineer, was ready to pack his things, head out into the cold Montana wilderness, and survive for as long as he could. But with the help of his father, he admitted himself into a rehab facility in Seattle, and he fought the addiction and won.

When Redbeard re-entered the world, things happened fast. He met a woman in Seattle through Craigslist who had two children from a previous marriage, married the woman, moved to Colorado, had two more kids, developed bipolar behavior, was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, found a new addiction in alcohol, and drank 1.5 liters of vodka a day. His marriage eroded. Redbeard ran, returned to his family, then ran and never went back. He took a train to St. Paul, Minnesota, to visit a brother dying of cancer. Redbeard crumbled into the streets of St. Paul, where he found meth once again. But this type of meth was different. It lacked ephedrine, a component of meth that keeps people awake for days. Without the ephedrine, the meth calmed Redbeard as he battled his ADHD, bipolar disorder, and insomnia. The meth helped him think clearly, allowing him to complete his thoughts and to find something that was rare for Redbeard: rest. He would use the drug as often as he could. Until one night while resting, Redbeard, who grew up in the church as the child of a Lutheran pastor, had a vision.

In the clouds of heaven, Redbeard says, he saw God the Son pointing at him, and the Son told God the Father, “We can send Redbeard.” God the Father said, “Fine, but he has to clean up his act.” Redbeard awoke with a purpose. The Minnesota winter was setting in, so last December, he boarded a bus to San Diego, where he had a history. He carried with him a backpack and a sacred calling: bring the gospel to the homeless.

Redbeard was thinking about all of this while the sheriff’s deputies persisted, and it refreshed the pain of leaving his family, his wife and his children; it reawakened the suffering of addiction. But Redbeard knew he was a different person, following the vision from God that he said made him clean. He also knew that officers often pick on homeless and claim “probable cause” even when there is none, just to buy a chance to search their things.

Ryan Keim, who is the media relations director for the San Diego County sheriff’s department, told me in an email, “It is completely reasonable and expected (when appropriate) for a law enforcement officer to ask for consent to search a person, vehicle, or residence when applicable. Conversely, the person can also refuse that search request.” But for an unknowing individual — perhaps a homeless person, isolated from society, not well versed in the law — he or she may not realize they can refuse a search. Redbeard’s friend, a homeless man we’ll call Frank, agreed to a search out of fear and lack of knowledge and was caught with crystal meth. Redbeard, though, was clean and he was not unknowing. He was on a mission called by God. He asked if the officers had any evidence. Redbeard said the officers fumbled through some anecdotal proof with contradicting narratives; they ran his ID, found nothing, got back into their SUV, and drove off.

Redbeard continued to walk along Plaza Bonita Road toward his things and his Bible with a bookmark placed on Romans 7: “O wretched man that I am! Who will save me from the body of this death?”

The first thing that Redbeard told me during our second time meeting was bad news. “I am deserving of hell. Everyone is, because we were conceived in sin. So even before that first little cry, there was sin in us,” Redbeard said. Our environment matched the damnation, as we stood in a dark, empty parking lot in front of a flat concrete foundation where a set of stairs led to nowhere, and only a pile of trash and a skunk wobbling by, inhabited the space. But like any evangelist would, at least an effective one, he arrested my attention by giving me a reason to hope. Redbeard was in constant movement. Throughout our conversation, he waved his arms to emphasize his theological conclusions, or he paced back and forth, as if deep in anxious thought. Sometimes he rubbed the sides of his face with his hands then looked up and blasted a call into the heavens: “Thank you, Jesus!” Other times, he pulled in close to me and delivered the good news in a low voice, almost in a whisper: “There is something amazing happening. I think there is a revival that is gonna happen.”

As we stood in the dark, empty parking lot, Redbeard explained the principles of his gospel message for the homeless multiple times, each explanation muddying the previous. The thought processes were clouded with layers of personal history, scripture, and mystical experience. Still, Redbeard’s goal is simple: freedom. It begins with light and darkness.

“The light obliterates everything that’s not it. Darkness is not darkness. It’s only a lack of light,” Redbeard told me. “The light is Jesus, and once you bring him into your life,” Redbeard said, your perception changes, and you are free from the negative way you used to see things. For instance, if you’re doing drugs, you don’t stop using because drugs are morally bad or sinful. With the new light, you would realize that drugs just don’t bring any value; they’re meaningless. In relation to the light,” Redbeard explains, “it’s nothing. Meaningless is meaningless. It’s all junk. It’s all vanity. It all doesn’t exist if we don’t want it to. We can be on this earth but not of this planet.”

On this planet is a place law-enforcement officers and park rangers have called “the jungle.” It sits within the thick brush and trees of the Sweetwater Regional Park. It is also home to dozens of people. The community is not a series of tents, but actual wooden structures, some with decks and patios, generators giving them power, boards acting as bridges atop the small canals of the Sweetwater River. Though Redbeard had once called it “a dark place,” the jungle is where he does much of his work, talking about Jesus next to somebody who is collecting cans and bottles to recycle, or beside another person who is smoking a pipe of crystal meth. “I get to go around, and every single person that I meet, I see nothing but goodness,” Redbeard said. “I see nothing but the potential for Jesus to be in them. That’s all I see.”

Redbeard’s network of believers is growing. There is Julie, who had suffered several strokes, which made her partially handicapped. Her husband was recently murdered, found burned in a part of the jungle. Julie was begging for another stroke, hoping that it would kill her. Redbeard asked her, “What if you get another stroke and you survive?” This changed her perspective and Redbeard said Julie began to smile more often, showing off her toothless grin.

Oliver was a worshiper of nature and the earth. Redbeard was working to convince him that Jesus is the author of nature. Oliver seemed receptive to the idea — putting an actual face to the sight of fog at dawn, the sound of water slapping against rocks and reeds, or the feeling of damp sand, crumbling in the palm of one’s hands.

Deborah was known as the kleptomaniac of the jungle. She never left the jungle, so she knew it well, a map etched into her mind. Deborah moved only at night and stole from everybody. Redbeard paid no attention to what she could do, and he had met with Deborah on four occasions to discuss the message.

Nancy has lived in the jungle for 15 years. Most people inside the jungle believe that Nancy practices witchcraft rituals. Recently, Redbeard told Nancy that he is going to church on Sundays. She told Redbeard, “Pray for me.” Redbeard took this to be progress.

Paul has also lived in the jungle for years. In the past two decades, he has seen more than a dozen people die in the jungle, both by the hand of nature and of man. Paul once found a woman that he knew tied to her house. She was burned to death. He carries the darkness of these tragedies with him and is unmoved by the idea of a God or freedom. Struggle and death is his reality. He and Redbeard often talk for hours, and Paul asks questions, each intended to expose a hole in Redbeard’s message. “But he’s asking questions and he’s thinking about it,” Redbeard said with a smile.

Redbeard told me that it takes a certain type of personality to co-exist in the jungle, one that assumes little and acts freely. “When [God] says something, I just say ‘Yes.’ I don’t question it. Because when I do it, my life is good.”

Redbeard told me he is in constant dialogue with God. But for a man who self-describes repeatedly as narcissistic and prideful, this was an unnatural exercise. He knew it was his pride that broke his marriage and his family. It was pride that reduced him to his homeless state. But where he is today has taught him something he always longed for but never understood.

“This is the ideal classroom for humility,” he said, “because it’s not comfortable. You have to be uncomfortable to allow change to come into your life.”

Recently, I attended a prayer meeting with Redbeard. It was held at the Bonita Road Baptist Church. The pastor there had been supplying Redbeard with Bibles to pass out to the homeless. Attending church has been the closest Redbeard ever gotten to his old life. There, he interacts with fathers, mothers, people with jobs, nurses, and a fellow former sailor. During the prayer meeting, about ten members of the church, including the pastor and his wife, sat behind plastic foldable tables that formed a circle. Redbeard came in and sat next to me, midway through the second hymn, “Be Thou my Vision.” The next 40 minutes were meant to be spent in prayer, whether silent or aloud. The pastor hit play on his iPhone and a playlist of hymns crackled through the church’s small speakers.

Midway through the prayers, Redbeard spoke up, interrupting whatever meditation the iPhone music was supposed to create: “Can we sing another song? Can we sing ‘Amazing Grace’?”

“Um, we can, but um, after we pray. Is that okay?” the pastor said sheepishly.

“Well, I think He just wants us to sing. I think some of us were faking it last time. Can we just praise the Lord? He’s kinda telling me that,” Redbeard responded.

“Yeah, that’s fine,” the pastor said, pausing his iPhone music.

“Does everybody know ‘Amazing Grace’? Someone with a tune is gonna have to start it,” Redbeard said.

The pastor’s wife started to sing, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound—” Redbeard joined in, a bit off-tune. The room was tense as the group finished singing the impromptu hymn, “...that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I’m found. ’Twas blind, but now I see.”

The pastor restarted his iPhone music and the prayers resumed.

Redbeard apologized to the pastor afterward, saying that he did not mean to go against his authority. The pastor said it was totally fine.

The prayer meetings are always held on a Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. Redbeard almost missed the meeting. He had no idea what day it was, nor the time. Many things that function as a framework for our lives — dates and times, weekends and weekdays — do not exist for those living on the street, especially when your cell phone is dead. Earlier that day, Redbeard charged his phone and turned it on. The phone read: “4:40 p.m., Wednesday, March 15.” The first thing Redbeard thought about wasn’t the mid-week prayer meeting or my un-read texts asking whether he was attending that night. He saw the date, March 15, and he thought about his wife. It was their ninth wedding anniversary.

“Just being around these normal people, it’s getting me to think about my wife more and my kids more. I know there’s a responsibility in that. It’s not exactly clear what it should be at this moment,” Redbeard told me as we stood on the church’s lawn after the prayer meeting. He went on to quote Matthew 10:37: “He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”

“Maybe that’s what he’s called me to do. That doesn’t mean that I like it. You know, but I wouldn’t be me if I was back there. Do you understand? I would be that person again. That person can’t do this. That person isn’t free enough to do this. Do you understand? I can’t have both. And so I have to choose which is better, and it has to be His work.”

As he spoke, Redbeard, who is typically in constant motion, stood still, his body tense, head looking into the ground. He paused and began to cry. “But, whatever. He’s a good God, which means that it’ll all come back to me,” Redbeard said with a louder voice, trying to replace sorrow with volume, trying to be hopeful. “How can you serve Him and it not be good? Basically I pray for them. I pray for them that through this time it will protect them, because I know when it comes out through the wash, it will all be good, because that’s what He does. And so I’m not sad for me because I know that He is perfect. ‘His good and perfect will,’ it says. I just want them to know and be comforted by that. And taken care of in that.”

I asked what he misses most about his children. He started with the eldest, Jessica, who is wheelchair-bound but is carefree and never lets anything bring her down. The next is Mark who is passionate and strong-willed — a lot like his father, Redbeard said. Natalie expects little but accepts and loves wildly. And Angela, the youngest, who is the tomboy, full of energy. When Redbeard returned home after leaving the first time, his wife told him that Angela prayed for her father every day. “That’s what I always remember about them, and that’ll never change,” he said.

He said that his parents gave him his wife’s email address, home address, and phone number. I asked him if he plans on contacting his wife and children anytime soon. “I don’t know. Today is probably the day I need to reach out to her. He’s gotta help me with that. I don’t know what to say,” he said.

A few days after the wedding anniversary, Redbeard texted me, saying that he finally sent his wife an email. She responded with news that she had already filed for divorce. Since she did not know where to find her husband, she had to publish the notice in a newspaper. I asked Redbeard if he is doing okay with the news. He said he was fine, that he saw it coming. “No matter what, in the end, God wins. Love will rule once again. It’s all vanity, man,” Redbeard said in the text. He closed by quoting Ecclesiastes: “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”

At this point, homelessness is a choice for Redbeard. He is sober, he is intelligent, charming, and charismatic, and he has parents, siblings, and friends who are not homeless and are a phone call away. He has had jobs while homeless.

During a recent phone call, Redbeard’s father, the former pastor, likened Redbeard to Saint Francis of Assisi, who grew up wealthy, but after hearing a moving sermon decided to dedicate his life to poverty and spreading the gospel. Redbeard was never wealthy, but while growing up he never had to sleep against the wall of a Circle K, stomach aching, wondering where his next meal would come from.

Redbeard used to cook all the time. He impressed his family with gourmet dishes. His favorite was pad thai noodles — stir-fried rice noodles cooked with peppers, tamarind pulp, fish sauce, and peanuts. When he was still new to the streets, Redbeard was forced to look for food in dumpsters. He limited the search to the top layer of the garbage, not wanting to dig too deep into the filth. Today, his diet consists of Mountain Dew, sour gummy worms, and breadsticks and pizza, which he gets from a friend who works at Little Caesar’s. He meets him after closing, each night at 10:30 p.m.

In March of 2016, Redbeard weighed 260 pounds. After a year of living on the streets, he weighed 155 pounds. “You would be surprised on how little food you could survive on,” Redbeard said. “You’ll find that out if you’re ever homeless.”

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