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”.
“Those people are garbage.
Don’t waste your time on them.”
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.”
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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.
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.
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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).
Our human inclinations to judge people based on their productivity, and value them based on their intellect are such folly.
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.
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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
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Not long ago the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge swept through the social media world like wildfire. People responded to the fun challenge and besides dousing themselves in ice water, gave millions of dollars to help fund research to help find a cure for ALS.
Did you know that Jesus gave an even bigger challenge 2,000 years ago that also went viral? It was the HS Fire Bucket Challenge. Sound dangerous? It’s extreme, but it won’t burn you.
Jesus’ challenge also had to do with money, and how we give it to help others. Before we look at the challenge he gave let’s look at what he said leading up to the challenge:
Then Jesus said to his disciples: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds!…“Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it….“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.
Luke 12:22-24, 27, 29 NIV
Evidently, in Jesus’ time, people worried about money just as much as today. Keep in mind these are people who had no iPhone, cable tv or Xbox. They had to actually work for their money, not click a mouse all day. It wasn’t so easy to “just trust God” for their income. Jesus said to stop worrying, because his Dad was happy to give them his best. He said that the animal kingdom doesn’t plant or reap crops (like his listening audience), but they seem to do okay. He also pointed out that birds don’t save for tomorrow and they do just fine.
At first glance this seems to go against all of our Christian teaching regarding financial management. Don’t throw away your books from Crown Financial and Dave Ramsey, because the Bible tells us to be good money managers and plan ahead. The point is to not even let good financial stewardship consume your heart and let your bank account become your source of security or meaning.
Jesus went on to tell us that we shouldn’t get obsessed with wearing the coolest most expensive clothes or dining at the finest restaurants. In other words, he said to not make spending more money and shopping our greatest heart’s desire. He said that his Dad wants to give us true riches from his kingdom. He’s talking about the best things in life. The best things in life aren’t things, and you can’t buy them with money. What is this great Kingdom stuff he referred to? His extreme challenge points to the answer:
Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Luke 12:32-34 NIV
Jesus tells us in this verse to give our best to the least. In his economy, giving is actually it’s own reward. He doesn’t say here that if you give to the poor, then you get a new car or flatscreen tv. He said that we will get true riches. What are true riches?
The best things in life aren’t things, and you can’t buy them with money.
Jesus is describing a deep, generous life that is about loving others, not a shallow life of consuming for our own pleasure. When we give, we get God’s character. We get connected to the source of all good. We get to be a vessel that he can pour through. We get to partake in his divine nature.
After Jesus rose from the dead, the believers gathered to pray. On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came and what did people do? They sold their possessions and gave the money to the poor. When a bucket of Holy Spirit fire fell on them, they couldn’t resist the urge to love others the way that God was loving them. (See illustration of Day of Pentecost at left.)
This challenge Jesus gave is not symbolic. This means that we should take something we own and sell it on Craigslist or Ebay. Then we can take the money we made and instead of buying some more stuff for ourselves, give it to the poor.
Pray right now and ask God what you should sell. Take a picture of the item and post it on Craigslist or eBay for sale. Ask God who you should give this money to. Give it the way God shows you to, in a way that gives dignity, not shame. Consider giving anonymously to keep your motives pure. (Matthew 6:1-8)
I will risk half my anonymity, but lead by example by selling this fretless bass guitar (pictured right). You know about it, but the people receiving the finances won’t. They are a married couple who are homeless, senior citizens and disabled. Interested in a bass? Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or check it out on Craigslist here.
Will you join me and take the Holy Spirit Fire Bucket Challenge? Let me know at email@example.com. Flame on!
Conflict of interest disclaimer: part of my job at New York City Relief is raising funds to help the poor and homeless… and I love it.
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The following article was submitted in response to a guest editorial printed in the New York Daily News titled, “To save lives, let addicts inject”. My response was never printed by that paper, but it is a message that I believe must be heard in the spirit of Proverbs 31:9:
“Speak for them and be a righteous judge. Protect the rights of the poor and needy.”
Recently a guest editorial in the Daily News suggested that “supervised injection facilities” be established in New York City. These SIF’s would be for people to have places to inject heroin in an environment that is hygienic and that has staff who can respond to potential overdoses. The theory is that it would also help people not use dirty needles and “works” which spreads HIV and other diseases. The title of the piece was, “To save lives, let addicts inject.”
All of this is proposed in the name of “harm reduction.” The suggestion is to give people a “safe” place to take poison. The problem is that there is no safe place to take poison. The reason there are no supervised injection facilities in the United States is that it would be a gross form of enablement that would cause more harm.
Having worked for the last 12 years in a non-profit known as New York City Relief helping heroin addicts, I can tell you that most forms of so called “harm reduction” simply cause more harm. People who are addicted to heroin need a healthy relationship with someone who can help them to stop shooting up drugs, not help them shoot up more drugs. Rather than put money into places that help extend their addiction, a better use of funds would be to establish more opportunities to escape addiction.
Another form of attempted “harm reduction” is the use of methadone programs. People addicted to illegal opiates are given regular doses of methadone with the supposed goal of slowly weaning them off. These tax-funded drugs are given out free with the goal of preventing crime and the spread of disease.
most forms of so called “harm reduction” simply cause more harm.
As someone who has worked with many methadone users, I can tell you that many are never weaned off of this legal drug. Instead they are kept high and unable to work or be effective fathers or mothers to their children. When I say they are kept high I mean that they are given such large doses that they stumble around on the streets with their eyes rolling back in their heads. Many times our staff have called in an ambulance for someone who passed out and hit their head on the sidewalk. While in this state they are also vulnerable to attack and are robbed and beaten by predators looking for an easy mark. Many methadone users supplement their new habit with other drugs or sell their methadone in order to obtain other stronger drugs. I have met people who have kept on methadone for over twenty years. It is one of our society’s worst examples of systemic injustice against the poor.
(left) Relief Bus Outreach Team Leader Sean Ballentine ministering to a friend in East Harlem, an area plagued by not just heroin addiction but by one of the largest methadone clinics in the city.
These half-measures are really doing more harm than good. If your son or daughter was hooked on heroin, you would want someone to offer them a way out such as detox or rehab, not hand them a new clean needle. Let’s stop shoving our troubled citizens in a dark corner where they won’t be a nuisance to us. Let’s treat those trapped in addiction as people, not as problems, and throw them a lifeline that doesn’t cause them to sink deeper.
Rather then deal with the symptoms of addiction using various forms of “harm reduction”, we need to treat the root causes. The key is to connect with the human heart of the person who is addicted and show them that someone cares. When they know they are valued, it is the first step to getting the help they need. Emotional, physical and spiritual care should be offered as a pathway to permanent recovery. We are our brother’s keeper. Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to serving in this labor of love.
1 Corinthians 13:3
And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.
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One of the remaining social stigmas in America is addiction. We allow it and expect it of our celebrities, pop stars and even politicians, but in most normal social situations those who struggle with addiction still hide in shame. No one wants the scarlet letter “A” for addiction to mar their reputation. Even Jesus himself was accused of being an alcoholic in a character assassination attempt: “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard,” Matthew 11:19
The fact is that we are all addicted. Some are addicted to the perceived “big addictions” of alcohol, drugs or sex. The more accepted addictions in America are those of work, tv, internet, Facebook, porn and my personal favorite: coffee. I call it “Christian crank”. Some of my most poignant spiritual moments and deepest spiritual epiphanies happened under the influence of hot, dark, and delicious caffeine Kool-Aid. My favorite brew is served at my second office and favorite coffee bar, Rockn’ Joe. The brew is called Sledgehammer and it is awesome. Every year more scientific studies come out with evidence that coffee is good for your heart, liver, etc, but to be honest I just don’t care. I love the flavor, the aroma and have to confess, the buzz too.
As the child of a former addict, I decided to never drink alcohol or even try a cigarette. Suffering the effects of alcoholism in my family gave me a bad taste for drinking, no pun intended. I know that drinking alcohol is not a sin, because Jesus did it and even created alcohol with his first miracle. I guess I’m a teetotaler, but I don’t like tea. My drug of choice is stronger and if brewed right, puts hair on your chest.
It has been said that drugs and alcohol are counterfeits for the Holy Spirit. Alcohol is even called “spirits”. I think that when someone uses drugs and alcohol to get drunk or high it opens a door to the influence of evil spirits. In fact many occultic or shamanistic spiritual rituals intentionally utilize drugs to open people up to these spirits. The word “pharmaceutical” comes from the word pharmakeia, which is the greek word for sorcery.
At New York City Relief we see the graphic results of addiction to drugs and alcohol. Heroin, crack and liquor have ravaged people’s lives, leaving them as hollow shells. Much of our work involves helping men and women to get into detoxification units to cleanse their system of chemical addiction, then connecting them to a rehabilitation program where they can learn to live without the chains of these life-controlling substances. Counseling is given to deal with the root causes of the pain that drives addiction and Biblical ministry is given to lead people into God’s spiritual and emotional healing.
It’s easy to judge such people for their self-destructive lifestyles, however, not one of those people set out to become a drunk or a junkie. Most addictions start out as “social drinking” or “recreational use”. What is at first a fun diversion becomes an all consuming storm that sweeps away their hopes, dreams and future. Addiction also brings a crushing shame that tempts the addict to drink or drug more to escape the emotional pain that tortures them. There are many Christians who love Jesus and also battle addiction, knowing that these two things are antithetical. This is happening both on the streets and in the pews.
New York City Relief Director of Follow Up Care and Social Worker, Teresa Gowan (left) with Samantha who she sent to detox to be free from heroin.
We can judge addicts for their poor choices and irresponsible behavior, but what do we use to cope with the stresses and challenges of life?
We can judge addicts for their poor choices and irresponsible behavior, but what do we use to cope with the stresses and challenges of life? How do we numb our pain? When life is challenging at home, do we pour ourselves into work where we feel more confident and affirmed? Workaholism destroys many marriages and families, even and especially workaholism associated with ministry. When stressed out by work, do we escape into endless hours of tv, movies and internet? How many people (even Christians!) are “shopaholics”, numbing their pain by buying more and more things they don’t need while maxing out credit cards and drowning in debt?
The more legalistic and judgmental we become, the more we hide our addiction that we deem “not as bad” as other people’s problems. Our false “holiness” becomes a wall we build to separate us from those “sinners”. Our self-righteousness can then separate us from God causing us to actually be rejected by God. Jesus makes this clear in the story of the tax collector and the Pharisee:
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
What is your addiction? What is the thing you try to use to fill the hole inside your soul? What counterfeit element do you turn to for peace and joy? Mostly, we are addicted to ourselves. The truth is we are all in “recovery”. We are recovering from the fall of man and our own personal flaws and failures. Rather than despising addicts, we should see that we are both the same. Without Jesus setting us free and breaking the yoke of bondage, we are all doomed. No one has enough will power, personal responsibility and good sense to avoid the entanglements of sin. We are completely dependent on a savior to rescue us from the things that we are addicted to. Our flesh craves temporary relief of all kinds and only through the power of the Holy Spirit can we overcome.
People in recovery talk about how much “clean time” they have, meaning how long they have been able to consistently stay sober. How much “clean time” do we have from our more acceptable addictions that take the place of God in our lives? We are all dirty and only the blood of Jesus can make us clean, whether we are hooked on pills or video games.
Here is a good question: Are there any positive forms of addiction?
In 1 Corinthians 16:15,16 Paul affirms how certain Christian leaders “addicted themselves to the ministry of the saints.” (KJV)
The work of ministry is the lifestyle of actively caring for those around us. We can addict ourselves to the lifestyle of love and helping others to be freed from their sin, their addictions and the shame that goes with them. Embrace the addicts around you. Don’t run from them, run to them. Give people in recovery the same mercy, support and friendship that you want as you work on your own recovery. There is no us and them. We are them and they are us. Together let’s embrace freedom and wholeness, throwing ourselves on God’s generous mercy. Addicts unite!
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Question: “Do we NEED the poor?” The question almost sounds offensive. Many might say the poor need us, but that we have no real need for them. Let’s think about that…
How many people count on you each day? Family, friends, boss, coworkers, clients, customers? How many people need you? How much does that inform or define your identity? If I’m honest, I’d have to say it defines a lot of my identity.
In our world, the more people that need you, the more important you are. To be needed is to be valued. The band Cheap Trick said it well, “I need you to need me.”
Recently a scuffle broke out between a few men at The Relief Bus who are homeless. One of our friends on the streets who comes regularly and who we know by name, stepped in. He said, “Stop fighting! If you do this, these people can’t keep coming here and then where will we be?” The man knew how much he and many others desperately needed us to be there every week.
In 25 years no staff or volunteer with New York City Relief has ever been assaulted in dealing with one of the most volatile people groups in our country. The homeless are very protective of us. I have to tell you that is a very special feeling, that they would risk themselves to protect us. To be honest, it feels good to be needed, appreciated and protected.
People count on The Relief Bus, not the bus but the people on the bus- staff and volunteers. It’s hard to grasp but New York City Relief serves over 400,000 servings of food each year. That’s a lot of people who would be hungry without our help. Last year staff and volunteers prayed 20,000 prayers on the streets. That’s a lot of people who wouldn’t have had prayer, if we weren’t there for them. Of course the biggest need is love and a friend who cares.
Outreach Team Leader Johanna Soukka is one of the people helping to meet that need of love and friendship on the streets with The Relief Bus. Here she is pictured with Albert, a homeless man who has Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, has been shunned by his family, and has lost almost everything. One thing he hasn’t lost is his faith. When she and a volunteer talked to him, he was quoting the Bible extensively and holding onto those scriptures with all of his might.
It feels good to be needed by the poor and that need even creates a job for me, a reason to get up early and work hard all day. How pointless would my day feel if I didn’t have a job?
What if your boss told you that he no longer needed you? That would be a blow, but one that you could recover from by getting another job and finding a boss who does need you. But what if your spouse or children told you that they didn’t need you? That would be a tough blow to recover from.
Many of our homeless friends on the streets feel unneeded by society, and maybe bosses, friends and even family have told them that they don’t need or want them anymore. There may be good reason for the rejection they experience due to choices they have made. What identity do they have left after that? How do you recover from that blow? How pointless does their life feel?
When Jesus spoke to the poor, the unemployed, the handicapped, He felt their pain. Jesus had times when he himself was hungry but had no food. He slept outdoors. The local religious establishment didn’t think they needed him.
Do we need the poor? Does the church think that they have value? Are we pursuing them because they are just too important to be left as outsiders?
The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.
1 Corinthians 12:21-27 (NIV)
So let me get this straight. According to the Bible, the poor are indispensable, worthy of honor and special treatment. If they suffer, we suffer. If they win, we win. By the way, if you don’t think that some of the body of Christ is homeless and living out on the streets, think again:
I read an article by a man named Chris Arnade who is a former prominent Wall Street trader, currently is an Atheist, and now a photographer who daily documents the poorest of the poor in the South Bronx. His photographs are stunning. Here he documents how strong the faith is of his friends who are drug addicts, prostitutes and homeless. His article articulates how he used to proudly deride the faith of Christians, but now he sees how vital it is to those living on the edge of disaster. He was deeply moved by how much their love for God kept them going through the worst of circumstances. Chris needed his friends to show him what faith is all about.
You see, we have many brothers and sisters on the streets who trust God everyday just to survive. They cry out to Jesus from the traps of poverty and addiction. They hold on one more day because they believe that as bad as they are, Jesus still loves them- not because of their accomplishments, but because of grace.
We have so much to learn from the poor. We truly need them.
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I have written many songs and one of my favorites is called Stretch Out.
This song is based on the story of Jesus healing a man with a crippled hand in Mark 3 and the beatitudes in Matthew 5. I am sharing a video of the song with lyrics and photos of our work on the street with The Relief Bus.
Below that is a version of the beatitudes from a paraphrase of the book of Matthew that I wrote called The Street Bible. I hope you enjoy it!
Matthew 5:1-10 (The Street Bible)
Jesus saw the huge turnout and decided to get a spot where everyone could see him. He sat down on the side of a mountain and his boys got the front row seats. He shared a great message:
God is taking care of people that are bankrupt in spirit by giving them the kingdom of Heaven.
God is taking care of those who are grieving by putting his loving arms around them and holding them.
God is taking care of those who are gentle and kind by giving them the earth itself.
God is taking care of people who crave and desire God’s ways more than anything else by filling them with his presence.
God is taking care of those who cut people some slack by cutting them some slack as well.
God is taking care of those with a heart of gold by letting them see him face to face.
God is taking care of people who help others settle their disagreements and keep them from tearing each other to pieces by adopting them as his own children.
God is taking care of people who are getting put down, mocked or even beat up for their Godly lifestyle by giving them the kingdom of Heaven
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