Gary Davis of Operation Nightwatch on Creating Community for Those Who Need It Most

operation nightwatch portland

Operation Nightwatch is a non-sectarian night ministry providing hospitality to promote dignity and community among the neediest populations in the greater Portland, OR area.

One of the only service organizations open at night, Nightwatch provides shelter, food, and health care to the homeless and those who need extra support to survive. Called “the poor person’s Starbucks,” Nightwatch is a coffeehouse-style atmosphere complete with board games and open mic nights, giving people a place to connect and be heard.

I started volunteering at Nightwatch in 2014 and it became my unlikely community. Instead of spending Friday nights with friends or Netflix, something about providing hospitality, from playing Scrabble with David to talking about life with Jean and Sammy, fulfilled a vital part of my personal development and human need to connect. Impressed with the organization’s ability to stretch a very small budget to make a meaningful impact, I joined the Board in 2015.

gary davis operation nightwatchAt the helm of the organization’s operations is Gary Davis. Born and raised in Gary, Indiana (believe it or not), he attended Washington University in St. Louis and Yale Divinity School, then served as a pastor at churches in Connecticut and Oregon. Gary began as a volunteer with Operation Nightwatch in 1986 and was hired as Executive Director in 2008. He has been married to his wife Sharon for 37 years and lives in Lake Oswego, Oregon.

In this interview, Gary shares his personal journey and how community serves the homeless not just on a practical level, but also physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

What factors played into your decision to go into a career of spiritual service?
I was led in that direction way back when I was a teen. And I say that was “led” there, rather than that I “decided” to go there, because that’s what it felt like.

The poet Robert Bly was fond of instructing others to “Follow your bliss.” And back in those teenage years—as is true for many teenagers, I suppose—I was at loose ends, on what was at heart a spiritual search. The “Big Questions” bothered me (“What is the meaning of life?” “What sense is there in all the chaos of the world?” “Where is there justice?”), and my life felt like a jigsaw puzzle with all the pieces jumbled.

When I turned to dedicating myself to working through those questions with others, it just felt like all those pieces came together. I had found my bliss.

What inspired your career shift from pastor of a church to executive director of a homeless service organization?
Actually, it’s not as surprising that I became a non-profit director than that I started out as a local church pastor in the first place!

Though my spiritual quest as a young person took me to seminary, I rather disdained the local parish and it was the last place I wanted to serve. Back in the days I went to seminary, those sentiments did not at all make me unusual. We were coming out of the 1960s, and that was an age of activist clergy working in the civil rights, anti-war, and community organization movements.

But a funny thing happened when I engaged in field placements in some organizations focused on social activism: somehow they just didn’t fit me. Finally, during my last year in seminary, a friend who was graduating before me talked me into replacing him doing a weekend stint serving a little church in small Connecticut village. The job paid well and I needed the money. So for mercenary reasons I took the job—and I found that I loved it!

I subsequently served as a local church pastor for 29 years. The work felt so much like my calling that I thought for a long time that I’d live the rest of my life in the pulpit. I found I could still be an activist, but I was nurtured by being part of a community.

Did working as a full-time pastor leave something lacking in regard to your activist tendencies?
Too many activists, I had come to feel, approach injustices as if the people victimized by them are just abstractions. When you’re a pastor and you’re present at your parishioners’ births, graduations, weddings, and funerals, when they show up at your door because they’re being beaten by their spouse, or running away from home, or feeling the harsh judgments of homophobes, you see them as people.

But then something happened, much to my surprise. While I loved the people I served, acting within the context of “doing church” suddenly didn’t seem to fit me anymore.

That’s how I eventually ended up at Nightwatch. While pastoring a local church, I had volunteered for many years at Nightwatch and knew it well. I didn’t know that I wanted to take the responsibility of Executive Director when the opportunity arose.

But I took the plunge and gave it a try. And you know what? I’m now at a point in my life where it fits. This is where I’m meant to be. I love it here. It’s almost as if I’ve come full-circle.

What is unique about Operation Nightwatch?
It is an organization that serves the homeless of Portland, but what makes it different from the many other Portland agencies doing similar work is that while the others focus on the physical needs of the homeless, Nightwatch recognizes that those on the streets also suffer from simple social isolation. We therefore seek to engage them by building bonds of relationship, fostering community.

operation nightwatch guestWhen people have a hard time understanding what we do, I point out to them the significance that we label those on the streets as being “home”-less people, not “house”-less people. And as we all know, a “home” carries more emotional weight for us than a mere “house.” When we’re “home”-sick, for instance, it’s not the shelter we left behind that we long for, but our old friends, our family, our nurturers, the ones who give our life meaning. So it is that in calling someone a “home”-less person we are implicitly acknowledging that person needs more than a simple roof over his head or a meal in his stomach to feel whole. “Home”-lessness poses an existential crisis as much as a physical one.

At Nightwatch, we thusly seek to care for those who come to us in that ache for connection and relationship they feel. As I like to say, Nightwatch is a place where those can come who, even though they may not have a roof over their heads, can find a place they can feel “at home.”

Why does the homeless population need this kind of community?
The same reason any of us do. Human beings die if they are shunned, isolated and abandoned. For after all, what’s the point of going on if you feel nobody cares?

What are the biggest challenges?
Establishing trust. The folks who come to us have tremendous trust issues. Some grew up in terribly dysfunctional situations, others struggle with various paranoias, and when that’s wedded with their practical experience where they often find themselves in competition for survival with others on the streets and even sometimes discover those who claim to want to “help” them only have their own hidden agendas, there are imposing emotional walls we often find we have to surmount.

But a relationship can still be built with a distrustful person. And we’re in no hurry. If the person wants to open up and extend a hand through the crack in his wall, we’ll be there.

operation nightwatch volunteersHow does your wider community play into the success of Nightwatch?
This work couldn’t happen without many, many volunteers — obviously, building relationship is very labor-intensive work! It’s done in “one-on-ones,” not in a production-line, en-masse way.

Fortunately, we are blessed with a great army of volunteers. No doubt a reason for that is that relationships enrich in two directions, and our volunteers find that they make connections here that they can’t easily abandon.

What about donors?
Individual donors are key, as we receive no government support. It’s hard to “sell” the nature of what we do to funding agencies that demand strict metrics to measure our success.

How do you measure the number of people who might not have gotten drunk or high today because they knew Nightwatch was there? How do you measure how many summoned enough self-esteem to tackle the day because she knew someone cared? How many suicides have we prevented?

I don’t know, and it’s too squishy a notion to record on a standardized form. But many of those who donate to us themselves know, because at one time or another, they themselves (or a loved one of theirs) has “been there,” isolated, desperate, and alone.

Is there anyone else who completes this community?
Our Board. Their most important role is to keep us on task, focused on our mission. In this “business” the people we serve are so needy that it would be easy to fall prey to “mission drift” and try to address every need of the homeless. But if you try to do everything, you end up being effective in nothing.

We’re blessed in Portland to have a lot of agencies addressing homeless needs. Among them all, Nightwatch occupies an important part on the “spectrum of care.” We are all about providing hospitality. For all other needs, we can refer.

What impression do you hope to make on your greater community, the people of Portland?
I wish I could get more folks in the wider community to appreciate how much, in serving the homeless, we’re also providing a service to them.

Downtown businesses, for instance, complain about all the homeless folks who might be hanging out in front of their places, perhaps driving away business. I truly do sympathize. But consider what would happen if Nightwatch were not here. Because many homeless folks are coming to Nightwatch, they are joining the other ones hanging out on the streets. And given that our Downtown Hospitality Center is open weekend evenings when a lot of restaurants draw their most customers, I think we’re actually helping their business.

I think most people should love Nightwatch because we get people off the streets.

What surprised you most in your actual journey leading this community?
That homeless people are just people. I’m going to be a bit crude here and relate a story I’m not proud of, but I think illustrates my point.

When I first began as Nightwatch’s Executive Director, I once “joked” to some old friends, “I never thought some of my best friends would be alkies, junkies, and crazy people!” But then I caught myself. I had served churches for 29 years, and I know for a fact that my congregations also contained those struggling with substance abuse and mental health issues. But because they had money and networks of friends and family members who would care and cover for them, they didn’t suffer from societal condemnation because of it.

Talk to our guests and learn their stories. You find that they too are someone’s sons or daughters, fathers or mothers, brothers or sisters, uncles or aunts or friends. But what puts them on the streets is a lack of resources. And for that they are condemned.

Was there anytime you wanted to give up?
I often hear of those in human services who are find themselves ready to throw in the towel over their frustrations. But I honestly have never found myself there. And that’s probably because, even though I have no church affiliation anymore, I still approach everything as a pastor.

How does approaching your job like a pastor manifest?
I had a professor in seminary who said, “We’re not in this business to fix people. We’re just in it to care for them.” The reason social workers, mental health pros, and the like get frustrated is that their mandate truly is to fix people, and they can be working with those with so much stacked against them that easy fixes are just not possible.

But I’m not in the “fixing” business. I’m in the relationship business. And I can build relationships with people in whatever state they’re in. I will listen to their stories of their own frustrations, helplessness, and hopelessness. I can do that. I can be their friend.

And the mystery of the process is that, though I put no personal investment in “fixing” anyone, I often see healing take place anyway, just because they have found someone who has not given up on them.

What are your biggest goals for Nightwatch?
Ultimately, I’d like to see Operation Nightwatch go out of business because we had such a health society we wouldn’t need any agencies like it. But I don’t suppose that would ever happen. Even if housing were found for all those we serve, we’d still have those who were lonely, and it’s really for the socially isolated—whoever they are—that Nightwatch exists.

In the shorter term, through Nightwatch I’d like to do something about the crazy delivery system that current exists to provide services to those on the streets. Do those who run the bureaucracies meant to provide homeless services not see that they’re often dealing with some severely dysfunctional people, short on resources? Yet the way the system is structured is often with expectations that their clients might easily be able to travel cross town to keep appointments that might have been set up for them weeks before.

I’d like to see us at Nightwatch be able to act more as resource centers—for example, by bringing mental health pros on site—so that the services are brought to where the people are, rather than requiring the people take the initiative to seek out the services.

Who do you admire in your career and why?
To be honest, those who most blow me away are some of our young volunteers. We get many of our volunteers from local colleges, and so many of them are much more advanced than I was at their age in terms of their ideals, commitment, and compassion. More than anyone else, they’re the ones who inspire me and give me hope.

Here at Pregame, we believe that service is a vital part of success. What role do you believe service plays in building a “successful” life?
Given the fact that retirement looms before me after a long career, I think the answer is simple. When I look back at my life, can I answer in the affirmative: “Do I feel satisfied about my life? Was it all worthwhile? Did I make a difference? Can I honestly say I know others whose lives were enriched because of me?”

You can learn more about Nightwatch, sign up to volunteer, or make a donation at OperationNightwatch.org

2 thoughts on “Gary Davis of Operation Nightwatch on Creating Community for Those Who Need It Most

  1. Loved the quote “But I’m not in the “fixing” business. I’m in the relationship business.” night watch is Such a truly phenomenal organization. ciara, Hope you remind us again next year to contribute to the organization. Your idea of volunteering on fridays has inspired me, too. what a Great way to end the week. Ciara pressler, you truly are one of the most thoughtful, insightful, inspiring people who excels at connecting great people. don’t know what I’d do without you as one of my dearest friends and ADVISERS.

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