The night watchman
For almost 30 years, Rick Reynolds ’75 served thousands of people by giving them a hot meal and a place to sleep
OPERATION NIGHTWATCH’S STORIES are rarely about numbers. If you receive their monthly newsletter or visit their website, you won’t be inundated with statistics of how many people were housed, fed, or cared for that month. Instead, you will read stories of Nightwatch’s street ministers taking the time to sing happy birthday to a woman on a downtown corner. You’ll hear about the ministry’s partnership with churches like Madrona Grace Presbyterian, where 10 guys find sanctuary, safety, and warmth at night. You’ll read about Nightwatch employees working the phones for hours to find an open bed for someone in need.
For 28 years, Rick Reynolds ’75 was at the helm of the interdenominational Christian ministry before he retired in June. His ministry was all about befriending and meeting the needs of one person at a time. And he did that while also building an organization that has served thousands of people by giving them a hot meal and a place to sleep.
Reynolds won’t brag about the numbers, but Nightwatch greatly expanded Seattle’s ability to feed and shelter people each night by providing contract funding to agencies throughout the region. Nightwatch hired street ministers. It created 24 single-room occupancy units for low-income seniors, and this past year, it opened two additional shelters managed by its own employees.
“Rick will stop everything he’s doing to help one person,” said former Nightwatch board member Jim Simpkins. “That’s the legacy that Rick leaves: an agency that’s not reliant on measurable outcomes but goes toward where the need is and helps.”
The early days
Reynolds has never been the type to sit down and write a five-year plan for his life. When he attended Seattle Pacific College in the ’70s, he thought he’d be a teacher. But he hated student teaching, so he switched his degree to sociology and graduated a quarter late. The summer after graduation, he remembers feeling a powerful sense of call while singing old gospel standards at an inner-city nursing home with his church.
He enrolled in Fuller Seminary Northwest and began volunteering at Nightwatch in the early ’80s as a street pastor alongside the organization’s first executive pastor, Norm Riggins. They’d wear clerical collars and go into dive bars to pray for people and connect them to resources.
“Bartenders liked us,” Reynolds said. “Now people had a trained professional to blubber on.”
An ordained Free Methodist minister, Reynolds pastored a church in Capitol Hill for 12 years before he knew it was time to move to something else. He phoned Riggins for advice on his next steps, and Riggins said, “You should have my job. The board meeting is next week.” That was in April 1994. Reynolds has been the director of Operation Nightwatch until his retirement this year.
Simpkins has been a friend of the organization for decades. Before he joined Nightwatch’s board, the Microsoft program manager saw an online ad in an employee bulletin looking for volunteers, so Simpkins and a friend started driving to downtown Seattle to serve soup in Operation Nightwatch’s dispatch center previously located in Belltown.
Today, the dispatch center is in the International District, but the prior center consisted of a small office where 50 to 75 unhoused people gathered to drink instant coffee, eat soup, and wait to receive a shelter bed or hotel room for the night. Simpkins says it was often a volatile place. Fights would break out. Clients were agitated and angry. But he started to notice that on the nights Reynolds worked, there was a calmness to the place. Reynolds is known for having the gift of de-escalation. He will draw near to someone who is agitated and speak quietly until they settle down.
“Rick is drawn toward suffering and tries to figure out how to help. It’s an unusual way to go through life, but maybe that’s what makes [things] so calm around Rick,” Simpkins said. “We are all suffering in different ways, and he’s drawn to us.”
Everybody is called to something
Reynolds sees himself as a work in progress. There’s an early story that has shaped how Reynolds views his work and ministry. Nightwatch had a particularly disruptive client who filled the dispatch office with his volume and odor. Shelters didn’t want to take him in because of his defiant and inappropriate behavior. One night, the man was jubilant when he got placed for an overnight bed.
“It was probably a new worker who didn’t know his name,” Reynolds said with a laugh.
The man asked loudly if he was beautiful in front of a dispatch center full of clients and volunteers.
“Yeah, you’re beautiful,” Reynolds said, hearing snickers in the room.
“Then hug me,” the man challenged him.
Oh, I don’t want to do that, Reynolds thought, but he extended his arm for a safe buddy hug. Instead, the client wrapped Reynolds in a full-on embrace that reeked of body odor, cheap alcohol, and cigarettes. He stooped to press his bristly whiskers into Reynold’s face and then turned and kissed his cheek.
Reynolds immediately thought, That was God’s moment! I really helped him. It wasn’t until later that Reynolds realized he was the foul one in the situation.
“That’s not how God loves. That exuberant, unbridled, enthusiastic love that man was showing me was what I needed to be doing. That’s the call of Jesus on my life. If I only remember that one story in 20 years, that will be enough.”
There’s a “Rickism” scrawled in blue marker across the whiteboard at the Nightwatch office that reads, “Jesus didn’t say that when you wash the feet of the poor you wouldn’t get fungus.”
Reynolds once gathered friends to clean out a hoarder’s apartment because of a bedbug infestation. The apartment was so filthy that the men threw away their clothes after the clean-up. Another time, he found a 5-pound bag of potatoes hollowed out by cockroaches under a resident’s bed.
“I’ve seen so much fodder for nightmares,” Reynolds said. “It’s not like everybody’s called to this work, but everybody’s called to something. You might not have the stomach for this, but I might not be able to do what you’re called to do.”
A friend who understands
Simpkins loves when his phone rings and Reynolds is on the other end. About a decade ago, Reynolds called Simpkins because he had a blind friend who used a typewriter called a brailler. The brailler had broken and repairs would cost $128. Instead of just covering the cost out of Nightwatch’s budget, Reynolds said he would personally pay half of the repair costs if Simpkins could pitch in the other half.
Simpkins was amused by Reynold’s request and contributed to half of the costs for the brailler. “It was so great — so Rick,” Simpkins laughed. “He sees one need at a time.”
Neal L. had been homeless before but was never willing to admit it until he met Reynolds. Neal bought an RV seven years ago in hopes of paying off student loan debt but doesn’t think he’s made a single payment since. He struggles to keep his phone and laptop charged and doesn’t have heat. But he’s thankful for a roof over his head, a bathroom, and a place to sleep. Neal, who also enjoys serving others without homes, met Reynolds while volunteering at a shelter.
“Everything is a special challenge as a vehicle resident. It’s nice to have a friend who understands what I’m going through and doesn’t judge me for it,” Neal said. “Rick grasps the hardships people go through on the streets. He understands what it’s like for people who are unhoused.”
Both men share Christian faith and a commitment to the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous, although Reynolds is one of the only nonalcoholics Neal knows who has worked the steps. Reynolds recently comforted Neal with Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:25-34 about not worrying.
“When I read that part of Matthew, it reassures me that I don’t have to have the answer,” Neal said.
“I don’t have to figure out how to get out of that mess. I have to get out and do today.”
Every Thursday night around 7, Reynolds picks up Neal from where he sells Real Change newspapers. The pair drive to Little Caesars to buy at least seven pizzas to bring to a tent city. When they arrive, people shout, “Pizza! Pizza!” Tent flaps unzip, and people come wandering out to get hot food and sometimes talk.
Reynolds remembers one night when he sat down to chat with a resident at a tent city. He was casually dressed in his signature uniform: black shirt, clerical collar, jeans, and tennis shoes.
The man got serious and asked Reynolds if he was OK. “Yeah, what do you mean?” Reynolds asked.
“Well, if you don’t have a place to go, I could probably get you in here,” the man offered.
“It was sweet, you know,” Reynolds said. “Homeless people have the capacity for love and care. Some people think that homeless people are something other than the rest of us. In Seattle that’s less and less [true] because people are falling off the edge all the time.”
King County paused its official homeless count for the past two years because of COVID-19 and criticism that the methodology undercounted actual numbers, but at their last count in January 2020, just over 11,700 individuals were counted as homeless. Reynolds acknowledges there are several factors that feed into the problem, but the main issue is simply the lack of affordable housing in King County.
“The average apartment in Seattle is under 600 square feet [and] renting for $2,200. How is somebody who is currently very low income or not able to work ever going to survive when they’ve got to come up with $2,200 each month?” he asked. “Nobody’s going to get stable sleeping outside. As soon as you get someone into a situation where they’re safe and cared for, they’re going to be less of a community problem.”
Street stories over office work
Reynolds is happiest when he’s out meeting with people, whether they are friends experiencing homelessness, board members, or Nightwatch volunteers. But as the director, he has obligations he doesn’t care for as much, such as grant writing and strategic planning.
“I’m not a strategic thinker,” Reynolds said. “My brain doesn’t work that way. I have no doubt that’s held us back.” But Reynolds quickly points out how he’s been assisted by Ann Sakaguchi, whom he calls the “strategic thinker and business mind.” Sakaguchi, who has been Operation Nightwatch’s deputy director since 2003, also retired this past spring.
Sakaguchi says Reynolds is skilled at hiring the right people to come alongside and support him so he can do the relational work that comes so naturally to him.
“I believe God has put these people in the ministry with him to do the things Rick doesn’t like to do and isn’t good at,” Sakaguchi said. Reynolds is rarely at his desk. When it’s time to turn in a grant, she has to find Reynolds and “tie him down” in his office.
“I don’t know if he likes it, but [the grant proposals are] beautifully written, and then we get grant money,” she said.
Reynolds is a gifted speaker and writer. He blogs about his friends who are experiencing homelessness on the organization’s website (seattlenightwatch.org), and a collection of his best blog entries have been published in his book, Street Stories.
“The lives of individuals are what’s compelling about Nightwatch,” Reynolds said. “The grace they exhibit and the care that comes back to us — it’s mind-blowing.”
When Reynolds started in 1994, he was the only full-time employee. The organization now has nine full-time and nine part-time employees. And then COVID-19 happened.
COVID-19 has had a significant impact on the ministry. One Nightwatch shelter used to take 50 men. This was reduced to 20 during the pandemic. It later closed completely after there was a coronavirus outbreak. Now all clients in shelters are required to be vaccinated against COVID-19. The dispatch center served hot meals in the building until the pandemic forced them to distribute food outside in to-go containers.
When a resident at Operation Nightwatch’s senior housing facility came down with COVID-19, everyone at the center was tested. Twelve scared and upset residents who tested positive had to be moved to a hotel for isolation. “None of the tenants wanted to leave because they thought they were going to be living in tents outside,” Reynolds said.
Reynolds himself was sick with COVID-19 for two and a half months with a fever that lasted nearly eight weeks.
More to come
Reynolds didn’t want a farewell party to wrap up his years of service to Nightwatch. Being thanked isn’t high on his priority list.
“The personal experience is the fun part of this job and the reason why I’ve kept doing it,” Reynolds said. “You get close to people and learn about their lives — their struggles and joys and dreams and fears — and realize, That sounds a lot like me! We’re all human beings, for crying out loud.
Reynolds has retirement plans to travel to Iowa with his brother to learn more about his family history, but for the most part, he’ll continue do what he always does: meet one need at a time. Reynolds jokes that as he ages, Neal will have to learn to push Reynolds’ wheelchair into tent city on pizza nights.
“Helping homeless people gives me great joy,” Reynolds said. “Why would I want to stop that?”
Editor’s Note: Operation Nightwatch hired Deacon Frank DiGirolamo to succeed Rick Reynolds as its new executive director.