“Pray for me,” Sunny Bear said…


I couldn’t help but wonder if the 31-year-old Navajo man I met Friday July 7 at the Phoenix Rescue Mission once looked like this cute little guy.  Below I recount  2 significant conversations I had on Friday in the record-setting heat in Phoenix (116 on July 7), including the one with the Navajo man who goes only by the name “Sunny Bear.”

Today I went out again with the team on the Hope Coach, one of the ministries of the Phoenix Rescue Mission. We traveled to a park in west Phoenix, a place where people on the streets are known to hang out. As soon as we arrived at the small “City of Phoenix” park, we started giving out water, popsicles and “rescue kits” (hand wipes, deodorant, granola bars, a tooth-brush and tooth paste). Three women and 7 men ate popsicles and talked next to the Hope Coach. One guy smoked while eating a popsicle.

With sun blazing in the cloudless sky and temperatures at 105 by 11:30am — it reached 116 on July 7 setting an all-time record for July 7 — I had a 30-minute conversation with a 22-year-old man named Dale.

We ate popsicles while Dale told me about his life. Dale stands about 6 feet. Shirtless and wearing long black Nike shorts and rubber swimming sandals, he couldn’t weigh more than 140 pounds. His auburn hair is buzzed, and you can see his ribs.

Tattooed smack in the middle of Dale’s chest are the words: “Sorry Mom.”

“What’s that mean?” I asked.

“It just means I’m sorry for all the crappy decisions I made so far in my life and will probably continue to make in the future. And it means I’m sorry that me and her are both meth addicts.  She’s out here on the streets, too. Somewhere.  I hardly ever see her. She can’t get her life together. That’s the other meaning. My mom’s really a nice person, and I love a lot. She just can’t get it together, and well, I guess I can’t either.”

Dale said he sleeps in the alley behind a friend’s house. “It’s okay.”

“Can you sleep when it’s still over 100 degrees at 10:30pm?” I asked.

“I have to,” he said.  “I just make myself go to sleep. I got my dog with me. I’m fine.”

Dale said sometimes he makes 5 or 6 bucks a day panhandling.  “Panhandling is hard work. Some guys are really good at it.  I’m not, and I don’t like doing it. But I can usually get a few dollars. Some people know me. They know I have a good heart, and they usually give me a few bucks without me even asking. I can count on that. I appreciate it, too.”

Occasionally he gets something to eat at big food store near the park where we were talking. “I get chicken and vegetables from stuff pre-made in the deli.  Whatever I want.”

“How’s that work?”

“It’s pretty easy, actually. You have to watch and pay attention, of course, and then be sure and take the price and bar code off the containers before you walk out.”

I told him about Phoenix Rescue Mission and why I thought it could be a good place for him. He had heard of it, but never been there. “We could give you a ride today in the Hope Coach. You can take a shower and get a good lunch. We can get you some shoes.”

“Do they allow dogs?” he asked. “Because if they don’t I am not in the least bit interested in knowing much more. My Black Lab is about all I have left.” He said his friend lets him keep the dog in the backyard in the shade during the day and helps him pay for dog food.”

It got up to 116 today. People were worried about their dogs, and Dale was worried about his Black Lab.   At 116, everybody suffers  — Humans. Dogs. Machines. No one turns down a bottle of cold water.


When we got back to the Rescue Mission I met a Native American man sitting alone under one of the shelters. He told me he just arrived from the Zuni reservation in western New Mexico. I sat down beside him.

“Hi, I’m Don.”

“Call me Sunny Bear.”

“Sunny Bear. I like that.” We shook hands. “You have a young-looking face.” Sunny bear said he is 31, born February 5, 1986.

“People always tell me I look younger than my age. But I feel old, man.  My life has been real hard.”

“What brought you here?” I asked.

“I got kicked off the reservation.”

“You got kicked out the reservation?”

“Yep, for doing bad things.”

“What made them bring you all the way to Phoenix?”

“Oh, it’s a long story.” He said he left with “the officials” from the reservation about 6:30 a.m. and got dropped off at the mission in southwest Phoenix at noon.

“That was it? They just dropped you off at the gate?”

“Yep. All they said was ‘Good Luck.'” Pointing to the gatehouse he added, “I got a bag of clothes in there.  That’s all I have. I have a few things with a friend back on the reservation, but I have no idea if it’s still there.  Probably not.”

Looking at the ground he said, “I so don’t want to be here.”

“Are you Zuni?”

“No, Navajo. My girl is Zuni. I was on the Zuni reservation when I was ‘removed.’ I deserved it.”

“You deserved it?”

“For sure.”

We talked for 20 minutes. At one point he wanted to know what I do. I told him I am a pastor. Immediately he started calling me “Rev.”

“Can I call you Rev.?”

“Whatever you like.”

“You like being a reverend?”

“Yea, it’s okay. Its got its ups and downs.”

“Like anything, huh?”

“Pretty much.”

He told me about how he was raised in northern Arizona on the Navajo reservation. He still speaks the Navajo language fluently. He lived on and around the reservation until he was 18. When he was just 10 or 11, he doesn’t remember when, he said he was removed from his home and put into a church-based orphanage on the reservation.  “I think I became a Christian when I was 12, Rev. I accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. I am still a Christian, man. That’s cool, don’t you think?”

“I sure do.”

Looking back at the ground, he let out a big breath. “I guess somewhere along the way I lost my ability to make good decisions. Maybe I never had it.”

“Sounds hard.”

“Yeah, man.  It’s really hard, especially right now.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Man, don’t be sorry. It’s not your problem.  I made my choices — mostly bad ones.”

As he was telling me about his years in the orphanage I asked, “What have you done for the last 12 or 13 years?”

“Mostly prison or dealing. That’s about it. I’ve been clean for a while now. It’s good to be clean but it’s hard.”

“Wow. What do you think is next?”

“I don’t know, man. Get out of here as soon as I can and get back with my woman.”

“Well, keep your head up.”

“Yea, I guess.”

“You know this rescue mission is strong on talking about Jesus and for really helping people stay sober and develop job skills?”

“Yea, I know. That’s what they told me when they checked me in. That’s okay with me. I just hope I can handle it here. But I don’t know, man.”

“I hope you stay. I think you can make it here.”


While we talked he noticed I was looking at the many tattoos covering his body. He started showing them to me and let me snap photos of the 2 tattoos he’s most proud of.

One is on the top of his right forearm and shows Sunny Bear’s idea of a beautiful Native American woman.


The other is on the backside of his right forearm. It’s the way Sunny Bear says he wants to approach life — “With passion, Savage Passion,” to say it the way Sunny Bear says it.

Before we shook hands and said good-bye I asked, “Anything else you want to say to me Sunny Bear?”

“Yeah Rev,” he said. “Pray for me.  Pray that I make it.  Just pray that I make it.  Maybe I’ll see you again.”

“I think you will make it Sunny Bear. I know you can do it.  I have hope.  Don’t give up hope, pal. Have a good day, man.”

“You, too, Rev.”



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