I hadn’t talked to anyone who’s living on the streets for quite some time… months likely. Today however, I met David. I wasn’t out looking to “minister to homeless people.” I wasn’t trying to find someone in need. I wasn’t on a street evangelism team in matching t-shirts. Actually, I was in between appointments and considerably busy. I stopped at a convenience store, intending to run in, buy something to drink and run back out on my way to my next stop. (I will mention though that I never stop at this particular store. Maybe I’ve been in there three times in five years or so.) As I scurried out devouring down my Krispy Kreme honey bun, the man that I was about to meet as David called out to me, “Hey, you know where a guy can get some work around here?” to which I responded, in my great care and concern (I say sarcastically), “Nope. Sure don’t”, as my feet didn’t miss a step. Thankfully, he walked with me over to my truck and asked me about my business. I instantly knew I needed to stop and make time for this man. For the next forty-five minutes or so, I chose to unplug from my demands of life and hear this stranger’s story and I was so glad that I did.
David is a kind-hearted, big in stature yet soft-spoken man who fell upon some hard times several years ago. He made his way up here from Atlanta after hearing that there were some openings in a shelter in the area. He had been on the streets (literally) down there for six weeks, sleeping on cardboard and taking any odd jobs that he could find. He told me of some of his bad choices that snow-balled into much bigger issues. He showed me a picture of his fourteen year-old daughter who he proudly told me enjoys participating in amateur boxing. She lives with her mother now, his ex-wife. He apparently battled for years for custody of her, but chose to wisely send her back to her mother when he lost his job and found out that his house was being taken away from him. He cried as he told me of how hard it was to tell her that he wouldn’t allow her to go to the streets with him. He shared of his battle with addiction in his younger years. He told me how he understood that life is hard and that things don’t always work out the way we want them to.
He must have talked ninety percent of the time that he and I were in conversation this afternoon. He just wanted a friend - someone to hear him and actually listen. The heart of the Father kicks in quickly when I’m around transparent people who are free of trying to impress me or paint some façade of religion, status or success. I must admit, listening to homeless people speak of the things that they do has always changed me. There’s just something about their transparency that is freeing. Most everyone has closets full of skeletons, buried deep under a thick epidermis of pretense. Not so with the down-and-out. I’ve found that there’s often more wisdom within their few words than perhaps anyone else that I’ve ever met. Their perspective isn’t like yours and mine. They generally see what matters and call things as they are without grandiose rhetoric or beautiful words… and I like that. In fact, as I’ve said before, it would do us all good to befriend someone who lives on the street. Likely much to your surprise, not for their benefit but for ours! I need to hear of this perspective. I need to see what is lasting in this life. I forget how awesome the Lord moves within relationships with them.
David would go on to say some interesting things about God, organized church and Christianity in general. The first thing that he mentioned, in the midst of a story he was recounting, was how God has met him in his need and despair. He talked about how so many people think you have to get a man inside of a church building to “drag him to Jesus”. When he said “Salvation is a spiritual thing you know. God is spirit. You can’t force a man to find Jesus with natural programs and services”, he piqued my interest! I asked him to elaborate and he obliged quietly and without any angry or judgmental words. As I mentioned earlier, he just said it like it is. (And I’ll quote him because it is etched into my brain).
“Everything has a clause you see. ‘We’ll help you if… We’ll help you but you have to… We’ll show love to you if you…” he said. “For example, where I’m staying now is full of nice people but the only way you’re allowed to stay there is if you attend all of their church services. The other night they had an evening service and the pastor stood up at the pulpit and said that the church doesn’t pray enough, so all they were going to do that night was pray. Everyone went to the front and the pastor led this excitement-laced prayer where he’d keep stopping, look people in the eye and ask, ‘Amen?’ People would of course respond with ‘Amen’ as they knew they were supposed to. He did the same to me and I didn’t agree with what he prayed. I didn’t think it was biblical, so I didn’t say ‘Amen.’ A few minutes later he looked at me again, stopped mid-prayer and told me, in front of everyone, that I could just go sit down until they were done. So I went to the back and sat and waited. After the service he came up to me and said he needed to talk to me. He told me that he knew I had to be there but if I was going to be staying in the services, I was not going to disrespect him in his church. ‘Your church?’ I asked. ‘There, sir is the problem.’ He sternly responded and said, ‘Don’t you know that I’m a man of God?’ I just looked at him and said, ‘Well don’t you know that I am too?’”
When David told me this story, I must have smiled from ear to ear at his response to such an asinine question and exchange. I wanted to applaud him for doing what likely no one else in that church would likely ever do… speak the truth! (I did shake his hand though.) He went on to tell me almost verbatim what others whom I’ve known that are on the streets have experienced of the church and their approach to people who, in the eyes of most, are just lowly nobody’s in need of charity and pity. Now I completely understand that many religious institutions help those in need. Many in metro areas do fantastic things for the homeless and needy. I know this. I’ve spent time in Nashville and met first-hand organizers that are primarily funded by churches. I’ve seen families with small babies eating in their cafeterias, likely going completely without if not for that meal. But the more I’ve found out about the details behind the scenes over the years, far too many strings are attached and generally no real hope of getting someone off of the street is even in the gameplan. Funds are tight at best and my issue is not that churches don’t give and help but it’s the percentage issue that gets me. To be specific, how much of what your average local church brings in annually is used to reach out to those in need? Not outreach programs like mission trips where all of the money is spent to send your “team” somewhere. I’d be in complete and utter shock if it exceeded any church’s pastoral salaries (which is generally reported as high as 45% of all church income), building endeavors (generally at least 2 out of every 10 dollars) or church programs (VBS, literature, etc.). There’s simply little left to give after our consumer-driven Body ravages through the church’s revenue. Friends, we cannot allow The Church, the representation of God on this earth, continue to be seen as buildings and programs! We must become willing and active participants of what’s going on in the world around us! The world will not just wander in “to” us. We must go into it and share this unconditional love that we’ve been shown.
Jump to Part 2