Pastor Eric Johns was surprised and excited to see his dear friend, Keith “Shoes” Cauley, slowly make his way into the Buffalo Dream Center at 286 Lafayette Avenue in West Buffalo for service last Sunday morning, the day before Eric and his team would begin its 25th anniversary of “Living on The Streets” of Buffalo for one week.
Cauley has been sick and was just released from the hospital two days earlier but told Pastor Johns, “I had to be here today. It is the day before you head onto the streets and are homeless for a week. I had to join everyone in praying for you and your team.”
Pastor Johns, so moved by seeing his Cauley, began the service by telling the story of how he had met “Shoes” and what he has meant to the Buffalo Dream Center. It would turn out to be a very significant sermon.
Pastor Johns met “Shoes,” as he is affectionately called, 25 years ago and what has occurred since, is one of the many miracles he loves to share. Cauley had spent 7½ years in prison on a murder charge, was a pimp, and a drug dealer. When Pastor Johns met him, Cauley was drunk and staggering along on a downtown street, hours after being released from jail. Pastor Johns parked his car and began praying over “Shoes,” who knew he was the pastor from down the street at the Buffalo Dream Center inside the Buffalo Christian Center at 512 Pearl Street. He said he didn’t want anyone to pray for him because he was going to hell. Pastor Johns grabbed “Shoes” and continued to pray over him.
“He began to cry,” explained Pastor Pat Fleming, a close friend of Pastor Johns and Cauley. “Soon, Keith became a child of God, and he became very active at the Buffalo Dream Center.”
Shortly after meeting “Shoes,” Pastor Johns and his wife, Michelle decided they would raise money to purchase new toys for 200 inner city children because most of his congregation then was extremely poor and he realized the kids would have nothing for Christmas. As he was driving down Delaware one day in November of 1998, The Lord gave him a clear message.
“He told me to spend a week sleeping on the streets of Buffalo with the homeless,” Pastor Johns recalled during an interview this week over coffee with his team at SPOT Coffee on Delaware Avenue. “I had no idea what sleeping on the streets with the homeless had to do with obtaining toys for these kids, but I quickly realized we do not always see what God sees for us.
“I recall going in front of my congregation and announcing I had received a calling from The Lord to spend a week with the homeless on the streets of Buffalo,” Pastor Johns recalls. “Most were receptive, but Shoes just would not support this idea. He came up to me afterwards and said, ‘Pastor, you are not a street guy. You will get hurt out there.’ He kept asking if I wanted him to teach me how to stab someone because it is not safe on the streets. I said no.
“We were having this discussion while standing in the Christian Center on Pearl Street, when he then asks, ‘What are you going to do for protection?’ I replied, ‘Jesus is with me. He will protect me.’ Shoes gives me this look and says, ‘Jesus is not enough. I must come and help you.’”
“Shoes” was Pastor Johns’ shadow that first year, following him everywhere, except overnight because it brought back memories of when he was homeless, and he never wanted to go back there again. With his wife’s support, Pastor Johns packed one bag, which included a roll of quarters for pay phone calls home because there were no cell phones back then. He also recalls after Shoes would leave, he would unroll his sleeping bag under a thruway overpass and slept with one eye open.
The media also covered this story as all the local television and radio stations did stories about his week on the street. The Buffalo News ran a front-page story with a photo of him praying over a homeless man, and he used those opportunities to promote the Buffalo Dream Center’s need for new toys. Suddenly, donations poured in, enough to allow them to host The Biggest Christmas Party in Town that saw more than 800 people celebrate and yes, there were wrapped toys for the 200 children they identified earlier in the month.
“Keith became our street smarts,” explained Pastor Fleming, who graduated with the author of this story 50 years ago from Cardinal O’Hara High School in Tonawanda and who was pastor of a church in Amherst when he learned in 2001 about Pastor Johns week on the streets and joined him for 11 straight years until he was called by Pastor Franklin Graham to pastor Operation Heal Our Patriots, a program under Samaritan’s Purse in Boone, N.C. Fleming came back to town this week for Pastor Johns’ 25th and final year of walking the streets with the homeless as he is passing the baton to his sons, Alexander, 20, Nate, 19, and nephews Jackson Rutherford, 16, and Tommy Rutherford, 18.
“Back in 2001 I knew my purpose in walking the streets with him was using my size (6-foot-6, then 300 pounds) as his security because we would run into a lot of people who were challenging and being a former bouncer at a bar, I knew how to handle these situations,” he explained. “This year, my role is to support his sons and nephews by sharing some of my wisdom of sleeping on the streets with the homeless for 11 years. These young men are anxious to take over and I am confident they will carry on this tradition with dignity and success in bringing attention to the homelessness issue in Buffalo, which is growing.”
Living With the Homeless in 2023
Pastor Johns was so excited his very close friend, Keith “Shoes” Cauley was in church with them last Sunday because that assured him, he would be with them for the Monday morning blessing before they began their week-long journey on the streets. Cauley’s failing health has limited him to being there on Monday morning and hosting their annual Thanksgiving dinner in his apartment in the St. John Tower in the Fruit Belt community in East Buffalo.
During the Bills’ late afternoon game last Sunday, Pastors Johns and Fleming were texting him, something “Shoes” and Fleming do during every Bills game. Monday morning, when the team was ready to pray, Cauley was not there, and no one answered the phone. They went to his building, called the supervisor, and stood outside his apartment as security did a welfare check. She told them he was not there, and nothing seemed out of place.
On a rainy Tuesday morning, they contacted one of his friends in the building to see if he had been taken back to the hospital.
“We were told that they had found Keith dead on the other side of his bed,” Pastor Fleming said as his eyes watered. “We are grieving but rejoicing! He is at his real home and no longer in pain!” (Revelation 21:4). There is no coincidence Keith was there at the very beginning of this ministry and as Pastor Eric celebrates 25 years and is now handing the baton to the next generation, Keith’s work was done and like Jesus, he died for us all.”
Pastor Johns added, “All these young guys cried when we learned The Lord had called Keith. To my two sons, Keith was like a grandfather to them. They will truly miss him.”
As for the Buffalo Dream Center’s Street Team’s Thanksgiving Day traditions, Pastor Johns said it began at 9 a.m. at SPOT Coffee on Delaware where all their families and supporters arrive for a Thanksgiving Breakfast before watching the Turkey Trot pass by. Then it is off to the streets as they walk anywhere from 10-20 miles per day.
For each of the past 24 years Pastor Johns’ wife, Michelle and their two daughters would prepare a large turkey and all the trimmings and bring it to Cauley’s apartment for the Street Team. They did it this year in one of “Shoes’” friend’s apartment in the same building where they relaxed, ate dinner, and watched football before heading out onto the streets for the evening. Pastor Johns said a special prayer of Thanksgiving for “Shoes.”
The State of Homelessness on the Streets in Buffalo
It has been 11 years since Pastor Fleming spent the weeks on the streets of Buffalo and the one thing, he noticed immediately on Monday was the amount of time it took to find a place they could spend the night. The prerequisite was some type of overhang to protect them from the elements like the all-day rain on Tuesday. He said most of the popular spots downtown have all been taken but they finally found one under a Thruway overpass they found on Ellicott Street, east of the train station.
“It seems there are more people on the street than last year,” Pastor Johns said. “They are mostly men, and it seems everyone has a different story of why they are on the streets. You cannot put everyone in one box and stereotype them as homeless. There are several reasons they are homeless—drug or alcohol addiction, mental illness, a family tragedy or loss of job or their home or apartment to name a few.
Solving the Homelessness Issue in Buffalo
“I do not believe government is the solution,” Pastor Johns explained. “One positive I have noticed over the past couple years is the Church, as a body, is working together better than before in Western New York to meet the needs of our homeless population,” Pastor Johns said.
“For example, the Buffalo Dream Center does not house the homeless, but we work together with someone from the Kenmore Alliance Church and its Shelterless Ministry. Together, we are all doing different things and most important, we are communicating much better than before. Quite honestly, isn’t this one of the important messages The Lord gave to all our churches what is in the Book of Matthew 25:35-40 (essentially, it says For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was a stranger and you invited me in, etc. Lord, when did we see you like this and He responded, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”)
“When I began living with the homelessness 25 years ago, it was only me and Hearts for the homeless but now there are a lot more organizations and churches you have taken a serious interest in our homeless population and that’s good because we are all God’s people,” he continued.
How Buffalo Dream Center Began
Johns lived across the country as the son of a Navy seaman before settling in Appleton in Niagara County with his mom. He graduated from Lockport High School and commuted Bible College in St. Catherines, Ontario because he wanted a career in ministry. He eventually met Michelle there and together they moved to Buffalo to begin a ministry when the school wanted to plant churches throughout North America with its graduates.
Eric and Michelle began their ministry in a conference room in the Days Inn Hotel across from the Buffalo Niagara International Airport on Genesee Street in 1993 months after they were married. In 1995 they found a home in the Buffalo Christian Center on Pearl Street where they ministered to the homeless, children and families from Buffalo’s Inner City. In 2015, the building was sold to Ellicott Development and is now the impressive 500 Pearl Street complex.
After the deal was done the building owner approached Pastor Johns to notify him, he had just sold the building and they would have to find a new home.
“That was a bit of a shock and when news of that got out, I recall Channel 4 running a story titled, “Homeless Pastor is Now Homeless,” Johns said. “We really had no place to go so I just put a call into Carl Paladino, whose company had just purchased the building. I explained our ministry to him, and he was amazing. He told us to stay until we found a new home and 1½ years later, we found the perfect spot where we are now on Lafayette on Buffalo’s West Side.
“To this day, Carl remains a great friend and annually his donations support our Boxes of Love program,” Johns added.
Boxes of Love
Boxes of Love, which began with the 200 wrapped toys for Christmas gifts for kids in need 25 years ago, has blossomed into a “mini industry” for the Buffalo Dream Center and its many volunteers. This year it plans to provide food to 3,500 families and wrapped Christmas gifts to 4,000 children.
“My sons and nephews are ready to carry the baton of being homeless into the future and they know our original goal remains—obtaining funds for food and new toys for families and kids in need. Of course, we still accept donations of non-perishable food items and new toys for kids,” Pastor Johns said. “The best part of this entire experience has been meeting all the people who have been a part of our Boxes of Love ministry. There are volunteers who come back every year just to wrap toys and others who love to be on our distribution teams.
“It truly has been a pleasure doing God’s work here in Buffalo everyday of the year and now we do it in memory of our dear friend, Keith Cauley. May he rest in peace,” Johns added.
The 25th annual Living on the Streets ends Saturday at 10 a.m. when the Street Patrol arrives at its warehouse at 437 Masten Street, across from Performing Arts School for a big volunteer day of sorting food and wrapping gifts.
For more information or to donate to the Boxes of Love program, visit http://www.buffalodreamcenter.org or call 716-854-1001.
Lead image: The Street Team making its way from its sleeping arrangement on Exchange Street