Before the Lord

Homeless man shares strife that led to current path

Photo by Susan France

Onesimus only gives out his one-word missionary name these days.

He’s not your typical homeless man. His beard and clothes are clean, and he carries a cell phone that was recently given to him. The signs of early trauma evident in many transients are not immediately visible as he greets people with a slow bow, hands pressed together at his chest in prayer position.

Onesimus, pronounced “Oh-ness-uh-mous,” carries a stick engraved with the date June 29, 1980, the date that he devoted his life to God.

“That’s a prayer staff, my friend, not a cane,” he says with a smile and clear eyes, responding to questions with a polite “Yes, sir.”

Onesimus speaks softly, slowly, thoughtfully, occasionally tilting his head back to accommodate deep laughter. On one occasion in a park east of the Boulder Public Library, he sits on a bench near the shuffleboard courts and raises a tobacco pipe to his mouth, emitting small whisps of smoke above his red and grey beard.

His peaceful, gentle mannerisms belie a tumultuous past.

“I’ve been homeless all of my life,” Onesimus says. “I ran away from home when I was 2 years old.”

He explains that his parents used to tie him to his crib to keep him from escaping his house, as he was wont to do. But he became good at untying the knots.

“They would find me down the road in the middle of the night,” Onesimus says. “In desperation, they handcuffed me.”

He says the Lord has shown him an image of himself as an infant, a giant dark figure looming over his crib, saying “You’re mine now.” He’s convinced it was an evil spirit.

Onesimus says his father was a functional alcoholic and his mother was selfish.

“I felt like she hated me,” he explains. “She always pushed me away, threw me away. She used to say, ‘Let the devil take him.’ And the devil did.”

Onesimus says he would run away because of the emotional distress at home. His father loved him but didn’t know what to do with him. He found solace down the street at the home of a young girl named Weezer, who Onesimus found comforting because she cared about him.

Life dealt Onesimus other blows before he decided to assume his current nomadic, disciple’s lifestyle. He attributes the lack of hearing ability in his left ear to dirty water from Lake Erie absorbed during his childhood. Complicating matters was the tumor above his left ear that was pushing against his brain, a growth that was removed when he was an adult, leaving him on his back for six months.

“I couldn’t put a sentence together,” Onesimus says of the recovery period. He still suffers from a migraine condition.

The Ohio native attended bible college in Kansas City, graduating in 1982.

“I was a truth seeker as a teenager,” he says of his time exploring meditation, ESP and various philosophies. “For me, Jesus Christ was the only one who answered all the questions.”

After college, he worked manual labor jobs, from helping build a Christian youth camp in Kansas City to factory work in his hometown of Elyria. Then he spent seven years at a Christian radio station, delivering sermons, playing music, even writing and producing commercials.

Then he got married.

“I had to go back into the real workforce,” he says. “I had a wife to take care of.”

That meant working as a security guard for a couple of years, then a truck driver for another six. Onesimus describes those occupations as frustrating for someone who felt that his true calling was being a pastor.

And then the marriage failed.

“We had a rough time,” he says. “We lost four babies to miscarriage. And I lost her. She lost her mind because of the grief.”

According to Onesimus, his wife suffered from bulimia and weighed 450 pounds when they got married. He describes her as someone who was initially humble but became “large and in charge.” She had traditional values, wanted to be a mother badly, and blamed herself for each miscarriage, thinking she had killed her own babies, he recalls. His wife divorced him after 11 years, and he suffered a complete nervous breakdown.

He says he never abused alcohol or other substances. When he did start drinking in moderation around 1990, he says he used alcohol “not to lose control but to maintain control. I didn’t want to lose my temper or be aggressive.”

Onesimus says the Lord told him to get a new start in Amarillo, Texas, where he lived in a motel for six weeks in 2004. As he was picking up the phone to call a company about getting another job “driving truck,” he says he was struck by a realization: “I can’t do this anymore. It’s not who I am.”

So he prayed for a new direction, and decided to “leave the common world.” He left his car, full of all his worldly possessions, as a donation to an Amarillo church. Onesimus says he packed one bag, “even though Jesus said take nothing with you,” and started walking.

“I came to an intersection, sat down, prayed and said, ‘All right, Lord, which way are we going?’” After walking 20 miles the first day, a couple let him sleep in an old car outside their home — and sent him on his way the next day with breakfast and a jacket.

“I’ve seen God move people’s heart time and time again,” Onesimus says of his travels over the past eight years.

Since blisters were slowing him down, he recalls praying for a ride from a Christian, and his request was granted when up pulled an old Jeep driven by a man headed for Moab, Utah. Onesimus’ wandering has also taken him to Tabernash, Kremmling, Laramie, Wyo., and Fort Collins. Onesimus attributes most of his moves to directions from God — and Christians who took him in or gave him a ride.

In Fort Collins, he spent six months in an abandoned house next to a junkyard before a Loveland family that he met at church took him in for a month and shared Thanksgiving dinner with him. After he moved on, while walking through knee-deep snow in Longmont, an old Hispanic man in a truck stopped to pick him up, saying the Lord had told him to take Onesimus to the Boulder homeless shelter, where he dropped him off and gave him $20.

He says he stayed at the Boulder shelter the maximum 90 days, then met a family at a Quaker Friends meeting who let him live with them for several years. He did chores, like washing dishes, to earn his keep, but moved on in April 2012. He spent last summer on the street, or as he describes it, “staying outside.”

Last summer, he completed the three-month First Steps phase of the Boulder homeless shelter’s wait-listed program that helps homeless people get back on their feet, and has now entered the organization’s Transitions stage. He has a guaranteed place to sleep and a support system to help him reintegrate.

Onesimus cringes at the idea of applying to get a disability check. After all, he has been a “working man” all his life, and never thought about being disabled, even though he qualifies.

“It never sat well,” he says of the disabled tag. “It still doesn’t. But I’m beginning to recognize my limitations.”

Onesimus insists that he has overcome the demons of his earlier years.

“I don’t think there’s too much lurking in there,” he says. “I spent 30, 40 years working on those issues.”

Onesimus adds that he could have spent thousands of dollars on a psychologist’s couch, but “my couch was Jesus,” and from those sessions he learned that “you’re not truly free from your past until you can be truly thankful for it.”

He says he hopes the Boulder Weekly series of profiles on homeless people shows who they really are: just human, like anyone else, “flawed, imperfect, doing what we can with what we’ve had to work with.”

Onesimus pauses, puts down his pipe, then recites a scripture about how Jesus wanted to be treated.

“Whatever you’ve done to the least of them, you do to me,” he says. “How would you treat Jesus if he was strung out on heroin or in prison?

“In my early days, I might have walked past him.”