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One of my favorite quotes is taken from a book entitled, The Three Battlegrounds by Francis Frangipane. Do you want to know if your Christianity is the real deal or just empty religion? There is a litmus test:
“Is your love growing softer, brighter and more visible? Or is it becoming more discriminating, more calculating, less vulnerable and less available? This is a very important issue, for your Christianity is only as real as your love. A measurable decrease in your ability to love is evidence that a stronghold of cold love is developing within you.”
In four sentences, Francis strips everything about our faith down to the core essential issue: Is God’s love alive in us? Is it tangible, available and active? If it is just a philosophy or system of thought, than Christianity could just as well be another moral code.
We have all allowed a stronghold of “cold love” to take root in us at one time or another. Fortunately, if we are really pursuing Jesus, he doesn’t allow us to stay there. His love for us transforms us and compels us to love others out of sheer gratitude and joy.
If love is so important, where, when and how do we turn up the heat on our love for others? Let’s get down to the nitty gritty. The general concept of love is too broad and vague. What does Jesus love look like?
Jesus communed with people. The definition of the word commune is: “to share one’s intimate thoughts or feelings with someone, especially when the exchange is on a spiritual level.”
The organization I work with is called New York City Relief. NYCR takes almost 7,000 volunteers a year on outreach to the homeless in our mobile soup kitchens/resource centers known as The Relief Buses.
On The Relief Bus outreach, Josiah Haken, Vice President of Outreach Operations (above) teaches volunteers not to think of what we are doing as charity, but instead as communion. We are endeavoring to connect on a deep relational level with those challenged with homelessness. In other words, we are pursuing intimacy. This is what Jesus love looks like.
CommUNION can only be done in CommUNITY. Community is where those who are separated become unified into one heart and one spirit. Creating community is nurturing a richness of relationship with those who might be literally starving for love. Mother Teresa said, “We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty.”
Our friends experiencing homelessness are isolated. In a city environment where they are surrounded by millions of people, they are many times completely alone, because they do not have relationships that truly bring life and healing.
A man named Darnell who was struggling with addiction and despair came to The Relief Bus for help. When talking to Outreach Leader Brett Hartford (above), he said, “When you are going through stuff in life and bad stuff happens, you need people. You need others to share those sufferings with. Someone that will come beside you to say, “It’s okay, you can do it. Just keep on going. It will be okay.”
Darnell’s words echo God’s mandate in Romans 12:9, 15,16
Love must be sincere…Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.
The Jesus kind of love embraces those who are different than us. It pulls in the outsider who has been rejected by society. It befriends those who are on the fringe and pulls them into the inner circle of intimacy. The outcasts are transformed into brothers and sisters, family that we will lay our lives down for.
At New York City Relief, our staff community motto is “Fighting for each other’s hearts.” This phrase expresses the intense intentionality it takes to connect at a heart level. If it is not pursued intently, the opposite of community naturally happens: cliques, disjointedness, and offense.
Hebrews 10:24,25 is one verse that provokes us into pursuing a deep community life where Jesus love can thrive and spread.
And let us consider and give attentive, continuous care to watching over one another, studying how we may stir up (stimulate and incite) to love and helpful deeds and noble activities,
Not forsaking or neglecting to assemble together [as believers], as is the habit of some people, but admonishing (warning, urging, and encouraging) one another, and all the more faithfully as you see the day approaching.
If you want love to come alive in you, you must dive deeper into the place where the Jesus kind of love happens: commUNITY.
How would you respond to someone spitting on you as you tried to sleep on the sidewalk? With violence, despair or patience? Meet a man in this article who, like Jesus, responds the third way. But first…
I wrote the allegorical story titled, The Prison many years ago and have just published it here on my blog.
The prisoners in this story were guilty of committing the most heinous crimes against humanity. Their deliverance by the hero in the story could seem unjust to some. It is normal to view such vile offenders as deserving of their punishment, but rarely do we see ourselves as worthy of that same treatment.
Maybe we can see ourselves in this story, or maybe we cannot relate to these outlaws because we consider our crimes against God just “misdemeanors.”
It could be that the prison we find ourselves in is one of self-justification. “I’m not as bad as so-and-so. Sure I sin, but not big sins like some people.” We create a pecking order not only of sins, but of people who commit those sins. For some reason, many like to say, “I’m not as bad as Hitler.” Talk about lowering the bar!
Some of us find solace in comparing ourselves to others, while others are tormented by the same practice. I once saw a humorous book titled, Old Age Is Always Fifteen Years Older Than I Am. Whether we think better of ourselves as better or as worse, our self-perception is skewed when comparing ourselves with others.
We puff ourselves up, or tear ourselves down out of the common human experience known as insecurity.
The insecurities that exist in all of us come from the knowledge, experience and consequences of our shortcomings. Our personal faults and character flaws are painful to face. They cause us to feel shame. The definition of shame is “a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.”
So many of our friends challenged with homelessness are trapped in shame and other people’s lowly view of them.
One of my buddies named Richard (left), who is experiencing homelessness, told me that he loves The Relief Bus. He said that when he goes to other places for food, he is often treated roughly, like a prisoner. But, he says our staff and volunteers at The Relief Bus always have smiles for him and treat him like a person.
Richard is from Trinidad and is one of sweetest men you will ever meet. He always has a kind word to say and has a deep love for Christ. Richard takes care of himself and dresses sharp. Our team has gotten to know him well and appreciate this man who is such a joy to be around. He encourages us in the work we do and let’s us know how much we are impacting the community. He ministers to us.
Richard sleeps on the sidewalk each night next to a statue of Jesus, in front of a Catholic Church. He told me that sometimes people literally spit on him while he tries to sleep. That has got to be a hard feeling to shake, a hard prison to break out of. It reminds me of how Jesus was treated:
Then they spit in his face and struck him with their fists.
My shame isn’t physically evident to people around me, but when I look in the mirror I see someone who is prone to lust, judging others, cowardly avoiding conflict, fearful of looking bad publicly, pretentiousness and laziness. I don’t like these things about myself. These are things that I don’t want to admit, but know are truth.
Becoming spiritually mature is not thinking of ourselves too highly-as better than others, but also not too lowly-as inferior to others. Whichever way we are skewed, we need Jesus to remove the scales from our eyes so that we can see ourselves clearly.
How do we escape this kind of crushing shame? We have a hero who can not only relate to us, but who can also break us out of this prison of shame:
He was despised and rejected by men;
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
Although he didn’t deserve it, Jesus was covered with shame. He was crushed for us. Because he took our place, we can find peace and be healed.
I need not despise myself, when someone who knows that I am even worse than I think, loves me dearly. He watches me adoringly as I sleep at night whether I am sleeping on the sidewalk or a warm bed. He sees the good and the potential in me. He believes in me despite myself.
Although I am as guilty as the convicts in The Prison, my hero has broken me out of prison. Now it is my job to let others know they can be free too. Pass the word.
There was a maximum security prison located far from any town or city, which had a reputation for being the very worst. It was like a cage for the animals. Only the most depraved criminals were confined there. Deep within the bowels of the prison, the sick and twisted men who lived there were held captive by iron bars, concrete bricks and barbed wire. Molesters, rapists, dealers, pimps, pushers and murderers were among their ranks. They were no longer fit for common society and so were isolated to the point where they could no longer harm anyone but themselves.
The conditions of the prison fit their nature perfectly. It was disgusting. Roaches roamed the walls of their cells. Rats fought them for the few scraps of food they received. Lice and mites infested their mattresses. There was a deep and nauseating stench in the air of human feces, blood and sweat. This was a literal hell on earth prepared for those who had inflicted fear and fury on their victims.
Violence was the norm instead of the exception. Life here was brutal and assault was common. Gangs fought for control and constantly battled for dominance. The guards were cruel and merciless. Any punishment handed out was swift and severe. Constantly, the guards would taunt and harass the inmates, hoping to provoke a fight in which they were sure to have the upper hand, armed with steel batons and double-barreled shotguns.
This confinement was the end of the line. There was no escape and no possibility of parole. It was reserved for the worst of the worst. The atmosphere was thick with misery and hopelessness. Many wished death rather than spending the rest of their lives in this dark pit. The days were filled with emptiness and the nights were filled with terror as the screams of new victims echoed in the dungeon-like caverns of the cellblocks.
Each inmate was simply a number waiting to be called on death row. There were no more appeals to be made, no hope of reprieve. All were assured a painful execution in front of their victims or the families of their deceased victims. All were destined to die a death that they knew they deserved. Each feared the day that they would make that final walk down the hallway to meet with eternity.
One day, news of a visitor spread throughout the prison. This was strange because no visitors were ever allowed. They were curious yet cautious, thinking this might be another trick by the guards to lift up their hopes, than crush them. Word got out instantly that this was not just any visitor, but a man famous throughout the country. People revered him for his love for the hurting and the down and out. He was deeply respected by the poor and even the criminals in the barrios and ghettos. Being such a man of honor, the prisoners could only wonder why he would visit this armpit of a prison. They were even more amazed to find out that he would be speaking to them collectively out in the prison yard, surrounded by guard towers. Nothing like this had ever happened before.
The mob of prisoners stirred uneasily as the man stepped up to a microphone on a wooden platform. He said “Men, I’ve come here today because I have found a way for each of you to be pardoned and set free. The warden of this prison and the government have agreed to allow all of you to leave if one person will take your place on death row, and receive execution in your stead. I have decided to do just that.”
Immediately, when he finished the statement, guards grabbed him from both sides and dragged him away to the place of execution. The prisoners were wide-eyed with shock as they were led to the observation room. They stared on as this man known to all as good, was strapped down to “the chair” and wires were affixed to his chest and arms. A metal cap was strapped onto his head. The inmates were bewildered and could not fathom why this man who had it all, would do such a thing.
The warden nodded to the switchman who brought down the lever quickly. The body of the man tried to rise up as the electricity pulsed through him, but the thick leather straps held his limbs down. For several seconds, that seemed like days, a shrill and piercing scream came out of the man’s mouth and then he fell silent.
Just as the man had said, the prison gates were opened and each of the men walked out into the open. They began to cry and shout and laugh. They embraced each other and jumped up and down. Some of them just ran and ran with big smiles spread across their faces. Somehow, they weren’t the same savages they had been only minutes before. Something had changed.
In one moment of death, every one of them had been given new life. Not one of them returned to their illegal activities and crimes. They traveled throughout every country, telling anyone who would listen the amazing story of how one good man had taken the place of all of them- the refuse and scum of society. They went out and found their old comrades in crime, and with love in their eyes, led them away from their destructive habits and ways. Nothing could stop them from feeding the hungry, caring for widows and orphans and raising up the powerless. They went to every run-down neighborhood and lifted the hearts of all who were troubled, from people living on the streets, to those battling drug addiction. Their story was one of new hope. This message went around the world and changed everyone who heard it.
Think of the “stickers” placed on you throughout your life. Think of how people either purposefully or inadvertently put you into a box. What labels were put on you? What negative words stuck to you? Imagine those experiencing homelessness, addiction or poverty and how trapped they must feel by the labels pasted on them.
The more labels we put on people, the more invisible they become. Once our mind categorizes someone, it refocuses on something of “more importance” and the person fades into the background. The person becomes a thing.
There are people experiencing homelessness, addiction, poverty and many other afflictions, but like everyone else, they are just people. The problem with labels like “the homeless”, “the addicted” or even “the needy”, is that they lack dignity and respect. People are lumped into a big negative category that robs them of their true selves. They are treated as less than, or worse ignored. The impact on their psyche is enormous.
When someone is called “the poor”, instead of just “Michael” or “Rachel”, they are removed from our world. Labels dehumanize people and cause us to forget that each person has feelings, hopes and dreams just like we do. Michael and Rachel are actually the real names of my brother and sister. They aren’t trapped by poverty, but even if they were, of course I wouldn’t lump them into an impersonal categorization. We don’t do that to loved ones.
I’m so glad that when most people see me on the street they don’t say, “There’s another jerk. The jerk population is really growing in this area. Can’t the authorities do something about all the jerks around here?” This might be completely accurate, because I really am a jerk sometimes, but I don’t live with this stigma hanging around my neck.
People’s current circumstances shouldn’t define them. Imagine if you and I were judged solely on who we were on our worst day. Not a pretty picture. I think that I would go around crushed by shame if people thought of me that way.
Fortunately, I have a lot of people who treat me as if I am always the person I am on my best day. I know it’s not completely accurate, but it shapes me and helps me to become that person. They see the “me” I want to be. Grace does that.
One day during outreach on The Relief Bus, I met man named Christopher (left) who was struggling with addiction. His dream was to kick his habit and become a better father to his children. He showed me photos of his two beautiful 4 and 5-year-old boys and was so proud. I affirmed him as a father for the things he had done to spend time with them and show them they are loved. I ended up sharing about the love of Jesus with Christopher and he gave his life to Christ. After we prayed, he said that he felt something when we were praying and hugged me in gratitude. It was a real God moment. Afterwards, I was able to give him some employment info and a Bible.
I asked Christopher what kind of career he was interested in and after he told me I said, “I think you would be really good at that.” That’s how my parents always talked to me.
I hope that I helped Christopher peel off the “failure”, and “addict” stickers plaguing him and put a new “Loving father” sticker in it’s place. I was most excited that he let Jesus put a sticker on his head that read, “Forgiven”.
It was one step, but what a step! I am trusting God to peel off the rest of the old stickers of guilt, shame and condemnation, as I trust Him to plaster Christopher with some “new creation” ones.
What if we were to “prophesy” into others lives, speaking the reality that could be? What if the stickers we put on them were packed with possibilities and potential? Could our words shape someone into the person they were really meant to be all along?
Maybe prophecy isn’t as mystical as we think. Maybe it’s as simple as letting love spill out of our mouths. In our culture, we usually wait quite a while in a relationship before speaking so personally to someone. As a result, many people go starved for love, while we politely stay at surface level.
Fearing presumptiveness, we wait for spiritual gifts to somehow manifest out of thin air. If by faith, we start to speak the heart of God, maybe the Holy Spirit will complete the process. I don’t want to miss my chance to pass on the stickers that people stuck on me. I have backpack full of good ones and I want to give them all away. Love does that.
A man with no home stood in the middle of Times Square in New York City. The weary fellow had worn clothes with stains and frayed edges. He had a bushy beard, a few missing teeth and yellowish eyes. Under the buildings with giant screens and brightly lit signs, he faded into the concrete that he stood upon.
The man was panhandling. To each person that approached him, he reached out with a paper cup in one hand, hoping for help. His eager eyes displayed the desperation that churned inside him.
Rather than give him money, the pedestrians did something quite strange. Each person slapped a sticker on him as they walked by. The stickers said things like, “Bum”, “Homeless”, and “Wino.” Rather then each sticker being very light, each one of these stickers was incredibly heavy, as if each one weighed 20 lbs. Maybe these stickers were crafted by aliens from another plant, because they defied the laws of gravity on earth.
A child walked by and slapped a sticker on his forehead that said, “Beggar.” An old man moving by slowly with his walker, paused to put a sticker on him that read, “Criminal.” A businessman walking quickly, didn’t even slow his pace, but expertly slapped a sticker on his back that said, “Lazy.”
Each sticker that was placed on the man caused him to sink a little. His knees bent increasingly with each sticker, until eventually he was compacted down into the pavement. The transient man looked less like a person, and more like a cube of trash coming out of a trash compactor. His entire body appeared as if it were compressed into a small glass box. He was still alive, but it was as if his body was made of silly putty.
At this point, only the man’s head looked normal, protruding from his compacted body. A woman jogging by stopped, and stooped down to slap the final sticker on the man’s forehead. It read, “Crazy.” As she bounced away to finish exercising, his head was slowly sucked down into the rest of the cuboid shape. It looked much like a victim descending into quicksand. All that was left of the man was what looked like a square box plastered with stickers.
A medium height, 30ish man, wearing an old tattered backpack, was strolling down 42nd street whistling. He wore a plaid shirt and had messy hair. The man saw this human box-shaped aberration in the middle of the sidewalk, and his eyes went wide with disbelief. This good Samaritan ran to the man, now in the shape of a 3 by 3 foot box and frantically began peeling off stickers. It wasn’t easy, because many were absorbed into this die-shaped human mass.
As he tugged at each sticker and it came off of the silly putty man, he saw a metamorphosis occur. Parts of the poor man’s body began to pop out of the cube shape. When one sticker was removed, it caused an arm to emerge. Another caused a leg to pop out. One by one, the guardian angel furiously peeled off the troublesome stickers. Finally, he got the last sticker off and the poor man’s head popped out with the sound of a bottle being uncorked.
Now freed, the man laid on the sidewalk, heaving from the traumatic experience. His rescuer slipped off his worn-out backpack and began rifling through it. The fellow looked on with horror as the man pulled out his own pack of stickers. His frenemy now peeled a sticker off of the new sheet and approached him. He trembled while crab-walking slowly backwards. The rescuer’s eyes were soft and his voice gentle as he explained, “You don’t have to worry. These are different.”
The man pressed a sticker onto the survivor’s chest that read, “Accepted.” Immediately, warmth rushed throughout his body. He put another sticker on that read, “Approved” and another, “Chosen.” Each sticker brought a new wave of refreshment. He was breathless with exhilaration and felt resurrected. Like a modern-day Lazarus, he rose from the ground with new energy and vigor. One at a time, the sticker man continued to coat him with stickers reading, “Gifted”, “Smart”, “Loyal”, “Generous” and a blue sticker that said, “Humble.” Finally the sticker man put a sticker on his new friend’s forehead that read, “Loved.” This one was so strong, that the man started to swoon from the force of sheer pleasure that nearly overwhelmed him.
After he recovered, the man was amazed to discover his hero slipping the beat-up backpack onto his own back. It felt very full. After all that had been done for him, he was grateful for the bag, but didn’t really see the point. At this moment, he didn’t feel that he lacked anything in life. He was on cloud 9, more alive than he had ever been. These stickers seemed to also defy the laws of gravity, but in reverse. He was walking on air and felt as if he could leap over a building.
Before he could thank the fellow for this backpack, the man was gone- swallowed up into the sea of humanity flowing down the sidewalk. He craned his neck, anxiously scanning the crowd for his benefactor, but to no avail.
The man pulled off the backpack and unzipped it to see what was inside. The bag was overflowing with new packs of stickers- the same exact ones that he now wore. He sank to his knees, dumbfounded. He shook his head in disbelief at the treasure now in front of him. He swallowed hard, overpowered by the weight of his new task. Destiny stirred deep within him. Nothing would ever be the same. He was now the sticker man.
Located next to Times Square, The Port Authority Bus Terminal is the largest bus terminal in the United States and the busiest in the world, serving 65 million people a year. Sadly, it is also a sanctuary for many homeless people struggling daily to survive. Millions of tourists and commuters pass by those who remain stuck there in limbo, unable to make their own connection to a better life. It reminds me of the saying, “Any port in a storm”, which is sailor dialect for, “When you’re in trouble, any way out is a good way out.”
Our mobile soup kitchen/homeless resource center known as The Relief Bus goes to Port Authority every Saturday night bringing hot soup, friendship and resource referrals that can lead the homeless to wholeness. Staff and volunteers figuratively and sometimes literally wash the feet of our friends there in hopes of reigniting the spark of hope.
Brett Hartford (pictured below) is an Outreach Team Leader with New York City Relief. Below, he details a sobering encounter with a police officer and a homeless friend at Port Authority while on outreach with The Relief Bus.
Last night while in Port Authority, I saw a friend of mine named Albert. Albert is an alcoholic and I have been talking with him the past few weeks and encouraging him to get help and go into a rehabilitation program. Last night he told me that the “system” can’t help him and that it’s basically the runaround. I shared that whether in that system or the system of alcohol dependence, it’s still a runaround, just with different end points. He agreed and said he would think about it, but wasn’t ready.
As our conversation was coming to an end, a woman he knew that was heavily intoxicated, grabbed the beer he had set down and drank it all, thus leading to a scene of yelling and the such. I did my best to try to calm down the situation by offering to take Albert to get some food and ultimately just praying for peace. All the while this conversation was going on, there were two Port Authority Police in the distance, I was pleading in prayer that they wouldn’t have to get involved. Eventually, I was able to get Albert to walk away with me and calm down. At the end, I reminded him that I am there for him whenever he wanted to get out of the situation he was in. I gave him my business card that has my cell phone number on it, and I told him to call me anytime and that I would find a way to get him. He said thank you and went on his way.
After he went away, I walked over to the woman who had initiated the argument and explained to her that I was with an outreach organization that assists people who would like help and asked her if there was anything she needed at the moment (something to eat, drink, socks, hygiene kit, etc.) She said that she was homeless, didn’t have anything, and that there was nothing that we could do to help her. I told her that we are there for her if she would like anything and to have a good night.
As I was finishing up my conversation with the woman, the Port Authority Police Officers walked over and asked me what I was doing. I explained that Albert was a friend of mine whom I was trying to help and that we were just loving on the people who needed love. He replied with “These people are garbage, don’t waste your time on them.” I told them that I had to disagree with them, and that my job was to love “those people” on their good days and bad – and today happened to be one of the bad days. I thanked them for what they do and for protecting us all and wished them a good day. They said thank you and told me to just “go and do what you do somewhere else”.
Heartbreaking statements – especially from individuals whom people look up to and expect more from. But really, do you blame them for having that reaction?
The NYPD, the Port Authority police, and every other law enforcement officer in New York City are tasked with the nearly impossible task of maintaining safety and order for the city’s 8.5 Million residents and the 55+ Million tourists that come to the city. They deal daily with disorder, frustration, public drunkenness, violent crimes, drugs, and the list could go on and on. If you are given the job of keeping a certain area safe day after day, and all you ever see is the same people causing trouble, harassing bystanders, and doing everything possible to make your one job difficult, your negative view of them would be completely understandable. Especially if you didn’t know what grace, love, and compassion are – without those three things, I would say it’s impossible to have any other reaction.
So, as much as I want to be frustrated with the police in this situation, I really feel as though this is where I need to advocate for them just as much as for my friends on the street. BOTH need love, BOTH need to be shown compassion. This is where I come in.
My prayer is that as I am continually faced with situations like last night, that I would be able to do both of those things for everyone I face. Please pray for me as I feel like this is also sometime a near impossible task. Definitely overwhelming at times!
Please pray for your local police officers. Please pray that they would tangibly see grace, hope, and love in their life, so they can in turn, show the same to EVERYONE they are tasked with keeping safe.
Much love my friends, thank you for going on this crazy adventure with me.
As Brett’s story illustrates, not only do we have a responsibility to help the poor and broken, we also have the authority to help them. This authority wasn’t given by a government or an institution. We have been charged and empowered by God to act:
You shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be. For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’ -Deuteronomy 7,11
When we freely give grace and compassion to the poor, we also become authorities to a watching world that looks for answers when trying to make sense of the glaring disparities between the haves and the have nots. In this way, we offer hope for “the haves” too, and give a living example of a pathway that leads to life and freedom for all.
As those who walk in spiritual authority and understanding, we are able to see past the symptoms and recognize the source of dis-ease. We can see through the rotten fruit and bring healing to the root. We are able to see past the irrational behavior, and speak straight to the heart. We are only apprentices, but we are learning from our master how to “heal the brokenhearted and set the captives free.”
I have heard it said that God doesn’t call the qualified, he qualifies the called. I believe that he also authorizes the called. Authority is the power to influence others. We earn authority in people’s lives by serving and laying down our lives for them.
Jesus authorized us to live out his law, which is love. Policemen keep the peace, but like Brett, we are called to make peace. We have more power to effect change than we know. Jesus gave us his strategy:
Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. -John 13:14,15
Will we wear this “badge“? Will we take up this cross? Will we be a refuge for those who have nowhere else to run? Will we be someone’s port in a storm? We don’t need to wait for someone to give us a title or endorse us. We are not to be people of small influence. We have authority to intervene into the lives of the hurting and homeless. We have “Poor Authority.”
A man who is a self-professed atheist came to serve the homeless recently on The Relief Bus. Like many volunteers, he had a life changing experience when a person he came to help ended up helping him. He wrote this to Megan Coleman (below), one of our All-Star interns at The Relief Bus:
“I actually prayed today for the first time in about 5 years. Not for myself, but for the people in the South Bronx. I prayed from within and felt a rush each time I wished for the betterment of each individual. These people whom are homeless and in great need have wonderful hearts. Their willingness to care for one another amazes me. Today I was a recipient of that. Maria, a woman I talk to frequently while here, heard me mention I wanted a coffee. She offered to get me one and I declined. Later, as she was leaving, she insisted on me taking a five dollar bill she was offering. We went back and forth- me declining, her insisting. Finally, I accepted it, as it was obvious she was adamant. This action left me without words. Someone who is coming for help was willing to sacrifice on my behalf. Makes me think about what I’m sacrificing on the behalf of others.”
This is a strange ministry strategy- asking atheists to join us as we pray for the homeless and hurting. It’s hard to argue with the results. As we invite pre-Christians to administer grace with us, their worlds are turned upside down. When they receive this grace from those who they came to serve, it is a game changer.
A study from the Chronicle of Philanthropy showed some interesting giving trends during the Great Recession. Those Americans who were earning more than $200,000 cut back their donations to charity by 4.5%, but those who earn less than $100,000 per year increased their giving by 4.5%.
During tough times, those who made less gave more. This goes against common sense. It seems that those who make more would have the ability to give more and those making less would have to cut back on their giving.
In 2 Corinthians 8, Paul describes a similar situation:
And now, brothers and sisters, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people.
No one twisted the Macedonian’s arms to give. “They gave themselves first of all to the Lord, and then by the will of God also to us.” Their passion for God welled up into an urgency to give sacrificially. Paul notes this amazing occurrence as he writes to the Corinthians and challenges them to follow in the Macedonians footsteps.
I think that from an American way of thinking, the Macedonians are being irresponsible. They should take care of their own financial issues first, and only then should they consider giving out of their disposable income. Once they have earned enough to provide for their family should they consider the privilege of helping the less fortunate. I guess God’s ways don’t look like ours.
I find that the grace of giving is one of the most startling aspects of the faith life to pre-Christians. Why would we give out of our lack? Why would we be generous when we are poor? This kind of bizarre behavior reflects a core aspect of who God is. Jesus “became poor so that we could become rich.” Sacrificial love is giving away what we really need, not our leftovers.
When Jesus says, “So the last shall be first, and the first last”, he is talking about a Kingdom economy that is baffling to those of us accustomed to this world’s economy. He uses the poor to teach the rich about how to be generous. Makes you wonder who is really poor and who is really rich.
There are many who can never have enough and constantly worry about losing what they do have. Then there are some who are so free with what they have that they don’t hesitate to give when they find someone in need.
Are you in financial need right now? Do you have unpaid debt? Are you not making enough to cover your expenses? Are you experiencing a severe trial or extreme poverty? What if God asked you to participate in the grace of giving despite your circumstances? Isn’t he always?
Maybe, like Megan, God will call you to do something radical, like a 6-month internship with The Relief Bus or serving in a foreign land overseas. Maybe he will just ask you to stop and give a few minutes of your time to someone who needs a friend. Who knows? Maybe God will even use them to be “foolishly” generous towards you.
Megan and a volunteer developing friendship with a homeless woman in New York City.
My wife Tracy commented to me that she sees lots of people taking selfies with celebrities and posting them online, and finds it ironic that the type of people the New York City Relief staff takes selfies with on the streets are the opposite of celebrities. They are the least valued people in our culture who are almost completely anonymous to the point of invisibility. Those who are developmentally disabled are especially avoided and sometimes even scorned. The homeless are anti-celebrities in America who most wouldn’t want to take a picture with, unless they were trying to be funny and ironic. Makes you wonder who Jesus would take selfies with.
Course words used in American history to classify the mentally impaired were “fool” or “idiot”, meaning someone who is weak minded, stupid, lacking judgement or sense. Psychiatric facilities were actually sometimes called “Asylums for Idiots”. Fortunately, we don’t label people like that today. This blog details a few encounters with some of our friends on the streets who are daily facing mental and emotional challenges.
On a chilly Friday morning, we rolled into Chelsea Park in midtown Manhattan to discover a space barely large enough to fit The Relief Bus. Using his Jedi parking skills, Outreach Team Leader Brett Hartford miraculously parallel parked our leviathan-on-wheels between two parked cars with just inches to spare.
We anticipated a lower turnout that day, since we had been gone the week before due to a holiday break. However, the soup went quickly as hungry people lined up to fill their stomachs and warm their bodies. It was a cold day, the kind that beats your body down. My feet were numb and my fingers ached. Our outreach that day was only four hours long. It makes you wonder how hard it must be for someone enduring an entire winter on the streets?
I met a homeless man named Bob who I had met once before when he helped shoot a video segment with us where staff, volunteers and homeless friends read Isaiah 58:6-12.
Bob is developmentally disabled and is not always able to grasp reality. My heart was touched as I talked to him in the frigid weather. He stood there in his shoes full of holes and tried desperately to hold a conversation. The words Bob said didn’t make much sense and he stuttered a lot. He is a wounded soul. It was hard to get to know him. It was hard to find something we had in common.
I have to admit that many of these conversations with people like Bob have felt like a waste of time. My thoughts would range from, “Did they understand me?” to “Did I make a difference in their life?“ Today was different. I saw something and felt something that is hard to describe, except by saying that I was touched by God. Right before the bus left, I prayed for Bob, gave him a hug and said goodbye
When I got home after outreach, I showed Bob’s photo to Tracy. She remarked how sad he looked, but I reflected to her that I had a great time with him that day. I wondered out loud who in this city of millions would give Bob the time of day and treat him like he mattered? Who else is going to give Bob a hug? It felt like a privilege to be a part of his life and be a part of God’s beautiful plan to love the unlovely (at least by this world’s standards).
As I read this scripture in Psalms I see it as a prayer for someone like Bob: weak, looked down on, unappreciated, but loved by God.
For I am poor and needy,
and my heart is wounded within me.
I fade away like an evening shadow;
I am shaken off like a locust.
My knees give way from fasting;
my body is thin and gaunt.
I am an object of scorn to my accusers;
when they see me, they shake their heads.
Help me, Lord my God;
save me according to your unfailing love.
Psalm 109:22-26 NIV
In reality, this prayer was not written by a poor, homeless person, but by a king named David. Maybe I have more in common with Bob than I think.
I find that it is easy to be fatalistic when a homeless person is developmentally disabled. It’s not possible to “fix” the person, so we throw up our hands. The only problem is that this mentally confused person is more precious than all the gold, diamonds and Bitcoins on earth.
If I can’t solve their problem, than why not use my energy where it can be more “productive”? There are lots of needy people out there longing for help. If we can make half an hour, 15 minutes or 5 minutes of that person’s life better by giving them ourselves, it is a high-yield investment with a guaranteed return. I’m talking about a Kingdom economy that supersedes what is going on in the stock market.
The next day I went out again on The Relief Bus to Harlem. It was there, on another cold, and this time snowy day that I met a 34-year-old homeless woman named Nadia. She wore a sweatshirt and wrapped herself in a ratty blanket. Although also plagued with psychological issues, Nadia was the opposite of Bob in some ways. She was smiley, upbeat and could hold an articulate conversation.
As I chatted with Nadia, she rolled a funny cigarette, and probably not the kind you are thinking of. Nadia lit up a homemade cigarette loaded with a popular new street drug known as K2. K2 is marketed as incense or aromatherapy, and is sold legally in local bodegas. K2 is actually a mixture of herbs, spices or shredded plant material that is sprayed with a synthetic compound chemically similar to THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. It can cause delusions and hallucinations along with other serious effects such as seizures and heart attacks. I explained that K2 is highly toxic, but Nadia didn’t believe me. She showed me the brightly colored packaging it came in, decorated with flowers and featuring a blueberry scent.
Nadia was very friendly and told me the story of how she came from Chicago after doing some jail time. We talked about the dangers of living on the streets which she grasped somewhat, but she also talked about how great her life was. Her childlike mind couldn’t completely fathom the kind of crisis she was actually living in. I’m sure that when people interact with her, they shake their heads.
Assistant Outreach Director Johanna Soukka gave Nadia some emergency shelter information. We prayed for her under the train tracks and declared that she was precious to God- too precious to be sleeping out in the open. We gave her hugs and took a selfie together.
Our human inclinations to judge people based on their productivity, and value them based on their intellect are such folly. I think myself so wise, and God continues to pull the scales off of my eyes revealing how very foolish I am. My value is not based on my intellect or productivity, but on the unfailing love of the Father. I’m grateful that God uses people like Bob and Nadia to help teach a fool like me. In the end, my prayer has to be the same as Bob and Nadia’s:
Help me, Lord my God;
save me according to your unfailing love.
It is an amazing time to be serving the homeless through New York City Relief and The Relief Buses! God is expanding our team and more importantly, our impact on the streets.
2014 STATISTICS People served Percentage of increase from 2013
One-on-one Care & Aid 33,447 41%
(beyond just food)
Decisions for Christ 123 21%
Prayers 19,114 25%
Volunteers Mobilized 5,308 28%
As missionaries to the poor and homeless, we fundraise the majority of our income. We are so thankful for you, our friends, family and churches who believe in the important work we do and help us to continue in it. Year-end giving is an important part of raising our budget.
Please prayerfully consider a special gift to help us continue bringing help and hope through 12 outreaches each week to some of the toughest neighborhoods in America.
You can give by going to www.give-relief.org and under gift designation, choose “support a staff member” and select “Juan Galloway” from the menu. You can also send a check made out to New York City Relief, 295 Walnut Street, Elizabeth, NJ 07201. Just put a note in with it that says “Juan & Tracy.” Thank you!
These Things We Do…That Others May Live,
Juan & Tracy Galloway