Jason Storbakken glides through the streets of Brooklyn each morning heading to those trapped in the margins of society.
He passes restaurants and coffee shops, tourists on their way to see something bright and big. He passes people walking dogs and those on their way to work, crisscrossing through the good and rough parts of the city. Over the Williamsburg Bridge and into Manhattan.
When he arrives at The Bowery Mission, an old part of town that dates back to early days here, his success can be found in the eyes of those inside.
But the ride each day for the last five years has been about more than helping the homeless. The ride is about a new path in his life, far away from the world traveler he used to be -- and far away from a time seven years ago he found himself in South Korea, standing in front of a judge on a charge of drug trafficking.
For a writer, Storbakken has experienced enough life to fill books and write an episode or two of “Breaking Bad.” And he is beginning another season in his life: this one as an author.
Having grown up in Wisconsin, moving around to a lot of communities, including Pardeeville where he went to high school, Storbakken discovered his love of writing.
From turning the pages of Walt Whitman to penning his first poems, he found a career writing for publications ranging from the Isthmus in Madison, to Forbes Magazine and High Times -- a marijuana publication.
His first book takes on the days during and after he was held for three months and then deported from Korea, a place where he discovered his faith once again. “Radical Spirituality: Repentance, Resistance, Revolution” is an autobiographical work aimed at Christians who seek a deeper meaning.
The book touches on his life of being a preacher and his work at The Bowery Mission in New York, and delves into the Christian community he and his wife have formed within the block they live.
And he will give a talk at the Portage Library on Oct. 8 on the book, and earlier that day he is speaking at the University of Wisconsin-Rock County in Janesville.
When he talks about envisioning his path in life as a writer and minister, Storbakken says he did imagine a version of this at a younger age -- wanting to see and experience the world.
“I chose to imagine other possibilities,” he said from New York, where he no longer needs to travel to live among the cultures of the world.
In the years after high school, Storbakken found himself taking jobs in Portage and around the area to fund his travels.
He backpacked out West, headed to South America, India and Asia.
“I usually ran out of money, in the midst of these travels,” the 37-year-old said.
Storbakken said he had come to faith when he was 19, but left that for a long time, with churches doing one thing and saying another.
But his life soon changed when he found himself teaching English in South Korea. He was caught with hashish in his system, and forced to face the strict laws in a place with a no-tolerance drug policy.
“I was charged with trafficking narcotics, but only (convicted) of usage,” he said.
By law, he got three months and then was deported.
He started reading the Bible again while being held in Korea, and a month out of prison he found himself on a friend’s couch in Brooklyn, finding faith.
Seven years ago he and his wife founded a Christian community with 24 members living in one block of one another.
“We gather for meals. And sometimes Bible study,” he said. “We share our lives together. And our common core is faith. We are really diverse, form Pentecostal to Episcopalian, Catholic and Presbyterian.”
Storbakken is Mennonite.
To write “Radical Spirituality,” Storbakken got a grant from the Louisville Institute.
The purpose of the book is to follow the root of religion, and he looks at the social and historical context, then and now.
“What does it really mean to follow Jesus? And what did early church look like when compared to today?” he says.
The book also talks about his work at the mission, but not too much. He will be putting those stories into a second book, looking back at the history of the work done there, and the pastors who came before him.
As the director of chapel and compassionate care, he encourages homeless at the mission through spiritual ways and practical ways. The goal is to move the people on to independent living still surrounded by help.
The stories of those at the mission are often ones of hardship and compassion from the workers.
Delon Ali, a compassionate care manager at the Bowery Mission, originally came there to get help.
“Nine years ago I slept on trains for four and half years. I ate out of garbage cans. In and out prison, addicted to crack cocaine, alcohol,” he said. “I joined the mission, joined the program.”
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He also got his degree from a Bible college, working in the kitchen at the mission during that time. He said working at the mission takes a special kind of person.
“We are all special. But I believe God has to call you to work in a mission like that,” he said.
“(Jason) is a man of God. He is very intelligent. He loves people. Loves to serve the community. Puts his heart into what he’s doing. A good friend of mine,” Ali said.
One of the projects they have finished at the mission is a photo essay called “Through My Lens,” which is trying to change the perceptions people have about the homeless.
The photos will allow people to see the homeless as they see themselves.
One day early this summer, people at the Bowery Mission approached Storbakken and told him two men were going to jump him when he left on his bike.
They were both under 30, angry at Storbakken, angry at the mission, angry at the world.
They had stayed at the mission in the past, but started selling drugs to make a buck.
“They were starting to do that in front of the mission and I wasn’t tolerating that at all,” Storbakken said of drugs like heroin which were being dealt.
He was trying to protect his flock from the wolves, but the two men were ready for a fight.
Storbakken had called police over the weeks leading up to that day, moving along the two men so they would not prey on a vulnerable group of people.
He knew them from their time at the shelter and approached the men often, telling them he will continue to call police, continue to preach at the pulpit and continue to tell them they are not allowed if they deal drugs.
A previous pastor at the mission had been jumped during his time there, and one had to be escorted home each night.
Storbakken prided himself that he had never been hit at the mission before. But when he left that night, the two men approached him with a baseball bat and knife.
“I’m a Mennonite. And Mennonites are pacifist. No fighting in any regard,” he said.
They shoved Storbakken a few times, but he kept his arms lowered as people ventured out of buildings into the side street to see what was going on.
“Do you think what you are doing is right?” Storbakken asked, prodding them to think about selling drugs.
The two men were getting upset that Storbakken wasn’t putting his fists up.
One spit in his face.
“I got on my bike, went home and prayed for these guys,” Storbakken said of going home to his wife and two children.
For the next few days the two men stayed away from the mission, but would ride bikes past and make threats.
“I preached the message the very next day that I forgave them, because threats spread quickly here,” he said.
Within days, one of the men came up to Storbakken and said he was wrong to do what he did and received his forgiveness.
“He apologized, but that doesn’t mean there are no consequences. I still don’t want to see (him) on the mission for three months,” Storbakken said.
“But before he took off on his bike, he said, ‘Pastor Jason, I love you.’ So, something changed in that way,” Storbakken said.
The other man also came up to Storbakken a few days later. He had been an angry person a long time, one Storbakken found hard to connect with. He apologized, and came back a month later to the Bowery Mission.
Storbakken saw how his words and compassion changed lives.
“The mind (changed) and the heart softens when they saw I was not going to be in the pattern they were used to most of their lives -- they would get angry and the other person would get angry, the cycle of abuse and trauma,” Storbakken said.
Both of the men now consider Storbakken their pastor.
“An amazing transformation,” he said.