Bus Stop Pastor
THOUSAND OAKS, California — On a cold, clear-blue morning at a public bus terminal in Thousand Oaks, overlooking the busy 101 freeway that connects Los Angeles with Santa Barbara and beyond, David R. Jeffery, 55, is handing out coffee and cookies to people who know him well.
Jeffery, pastor of Freedom Church Assembly of God, has come here every Friday 6 to 9 a.m. for eight years and set up a sewing table stacked with homemade chocolate chip cookies and mobile carafes of coffee. Drivers, riders, and homeless people greet him by name. Many consider him their pastor.
Today, a new person introduces himself: Mohammed, a university student recently immigrated from Pakistan, who wears professional-looking clothes and an out-of-place Green Lantern backpack. While waiting for the bus that will take him to a job interview, Mohammed speaks eagerly with Jeffery about matters of faith. Before he leaves, Jeffery prays for his job interview to go well.
“We were looking for some way to connect to people,” says Jeffery of the bus stop ministry’s beginnings. The newly opened park-and-ride seemed a natural crossroads, so Jeffery threw two portable coffee pots into his car one Friday morning with the sewing table and a sign that read “Free Coffee.”
The initial response? Chilly.
“They wanted to know what my angle was,” he says. “But I ran out of coffee.”
The next week he brought more coffee, as well as cookies. The people who passed through — minimum wage workers, students, homeless people, and no small number of special needs people traveling together by bus to their jobs — began to expect seeing him.
“These are normal people struggling to make ends meet, and those living on the street,” Jeffery says. “This is the last stop of the Los Angeles metro buses and almost the last stop of buses from Santa Barbara. I am dealing with people from a huge geographical area. I didn’t even think about that when I went there. I had no plan.”
Eight years later, the bus stop patrons are essentially Jeffery’s second congregation. He has counseled bus riders’ children by phone, conducted a funeral for a homeless man, visited some of the contacts in prison, and prayed weekly with many. People began calling the church office asking to “talk to my pastor from the bus stop.”
But any illusion Jeffery had that the outreach would grow Freedom Church quickly went out the window.
“This is the worst church-growth strategy ever,” he says, laughing. Most bus riders don’t live nearby, many speak only Spanish, and buses don’t run on Sundays.
Jeffery believes the purpose of the outreach is to connect him with those who need an encounter with God. So Friday mornings bring waves of passengers and drivers arriving at regular intervals to hug Jeffery, catch up for a moment, request prayer, and move on with coffee and treat in hand.
One such man is Bill, whom Jeffery calls “an amazing brother.” Bill, wearing an oversized parka, walks to the bus stop every Friday and serves as Jeffery’s informal lieutenant. A clear-eyed, articulate Christian, Bill is on the streets not because of addiction or mental illness, but because of divorce and the onset of cataracts, which robbed him of sight in one eye. Bill became a regular one day when he heard about free treats and java at the park-and-ride.
“The key word for me is freedom,” says Bill, while eight others chat by the table as buses pull up, wheeze, and unload more passengers. “I’ve lost everything. I don’t have any possessions or family anymore. So this church is a new beginning, a brand new freedom in the Lord.”
Bill and another homeless friend started attending Freedom Church because Jeffery picks them up at a Chevron station every Sunday.
“I’m very much part of the congregation,” Bill says. “David has opened his arms up to me. I wouldn’t be going to church if it wasn’t for that.”
Luz Gomez, a spunky, diminutive bus driver, takes her brief break standing at the table and sipping coffee.
“David gets to pray for people who are in need of prayer and encouragement,” she says. “There are a lot of broken people out there — homeless, people who are mad at the world — but one smile will make their day.”
Jeffery functions more as a pastor than an evangelist at the bus stop, caring for people and letting them choose the conversation topics. Yet how quickly newcomers are willing to share their life story amazes him.
Many riders are on their way to the nearby court in Ventura, sometimes for jury duty and sometimes to appear. Others have job interviews and medical appointments.
“I pray 30-second prayers with people every single week,” Jeffery says. “I have far more spiritual conversations at the bus stop than I would sitting in my office. In a sense, getting out of my own little circle and into another world among people was my motivation.”
In eight years, almost no one has turned down an offer for prayer. One bus driver has just three minutes, but hops off his bus, puts an arm around Jeffery, and says, “Hit me,” every week. They pray together before he drives his bus to downtown Los Angeles.
Jeffery’s scriptural stimulus is, “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench,” from Matthew 12 and Isaiah 42.
“There’s an awful lot of bruised reeds and smoldering wicks at the bus stop,” he says. “People share their hurts and stories. They ask for prayer, for advice. I’ve been in their homes and hospitals. These are not projects, these are my friends. People will come see me at the bus stop that won’t go to church.”
Nobody is allowed to donate money at the bus stop table, though at the church people donate specifically for this ministry. David’s wife, Kim, 53, wakes up at 5 a.m. before work on Fridays to prepare nine carafes of coffee. David bakes seven dozen cookies every Thursday night. The table is stocked with half and half, sugar, and fruit.
As 9 a.m. approaches, Bill and riders waiting for their buses help Jeffery load his gear into a minivan.
“See you next week,” people say, fist-bumping and hugging him.
“If I hadn’t done this, my life would be very narrow,” Jeffery says. “Any pastor or person sitting in the pew can do this. You don’t need a lot of training. You just need to show up every week.”