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Code Blue- Part 4 of STREET PILGRIMAGE

That night I squeezed into a space narrower than a coffin, trying to get some desperately needed sleep. I was glad to escape the frigid temperatures outside, but felt uneasy with the strangeness of my surroundings. I hoped that no one would steal my boots while I slept…

Each winter, about 700 homeless people in America die from hypothermia. About 35 people freeze to death each year in New York City where I serve. This is beyond tragic.

Every winter in NYC, in order to prevent this kind of tragedy, the Department of Homeless Services initiates an emergency plan known as Code Blue to prevent people from freezing who are challenged with homelessness. When temperatures fall below 32 degrees or the wind chill falls below 0 degrees, various government and private facilities welcome people inside to escape the freezing temperatures.

Bowery food historic

The Bowery Mission
I got to experience Code Blue up close and personal at a place that has been providing food and shelter since 1879—The Bowery Mission (see historic photo at left). Last year, The Bowery Mission provided more than 653,500 warm meals, and 167,300 nights of shelter.

I came to the Bowery in time for dinner that night. Before dinner was a service where one of the staff shared a gospel message in the historic chapel. You don’t have to attend chapel before dinner, but if you do you get to eat first and that was for me. I was hungry.

I sat down in one of the pews and waited for the service to start. A young man started getting into an altercation with someone in the pew behind me. He wanted the other man to scoot over and give him a seat. In order to make peace, I offered to scoot over myself so that he could sit on the end of my pew. I quickly regretted that decision. During the message, the young man kept commenting disrespectfully to refute what was being preached. I started to get hot under the color and asked him to please chill out and stop talking. He continued to be hostile and belligerently speak against the speaker while he was teaching. I had never seen anything like this. I began to see red and get even more angry at this man’s open rudeness. My temperature rose by the second and I didn’t know what I was going to do, but it wasn’t going to be pretty.

All of a sudden I caught myself. I am not normally an angry person who lashes out easily. What was going on with me? I started to laugh at myself, because I was starting to get just as out-of-control as the guy sitting next to me. I realized that I wasn’t myself and there was a reason why. My back still hurt from trying to sleep on the subway the night before, and I was tired, cold and hungry. I was hangry! Fortunately, I stopped myself before I made a bad situation worse. I realized that the guy sitting next to me was probably in a terrible mood for a lot of the same reasons that I was. Now I could see through the symptoms and imagine the root causes.

When we see someone behaving badly, our mind immediately fills in the missing pieces to explain it. The missing pieces we fill in are usually negative ones that paint the person as a jerk, crazy, or worse. In other words, we judge them. That’s what I did with this loud mouth sitting next to me. Who did he think he was? The person who God said was my neighbor became my enemy in a split second. What happens to many people challenged with homelessness is that bystanders define that person by their worst moment. It reminds me of a story that Brett Hartford (see picture below), Director of Outreach at New York City Relief told about a woman he met during an outreach named Marissa:


“Marissa is homeless. She is overweight, rude, judgmental, crass, and quite racist. She doesn’t have personal awareness. She has a foul mouth. She outwardly accuses everyone of picking on her and looking to harm her–and the list could go on about the outward flaws this girl has.

Tonight, one of our volunteers ran into Marissa while in route to meet us. Marissa saw her and asked if I would be there tonight. After confirmation of this, I invited Marissa to walk along with us while we looked for other people to help. Within 5 minutes of talking with Marissa, she had yelled at one of my co-workers, complaining that they were the reason she was arrested, she yelled at me for a question I asked, and she referred to people of different races than herself (white) in quite unpleasant ways.

“If you are looking for someone who has flaws, sins, or really just is a mess, Marissa fits the bill.

“That’s what we do. That’s what I do. I know I have things I equally am bad at (and probably worse), but I lower my things on the “sin meter”, because I’m not as bad as Marissa, so I’m ok.

“But really, I am Marissa.

“Everyone has flaws. Everyone. Some people’s flaws are just easier to hide than others.

“I’m not addicted to heroin. I’m not an alcoholic. I don’t steal. There’s nothing that I do to negatively affect my outward appearance, thus, nothing blatantly points to those negative characteristics. But they are there.

“I’m a hypocrite. I’m a glutton. I really struggle with lust. I put LOTS of things above my relationship with God. I coast on the fact that I work in ministry day in and day out. I use it as an excuse to not read my Bible or go to church. I say mean things to my wife when we fight. Sometimes I put people’s approval of me over doing the right thing.

“The list could really go on and on. I am Marissa.

“But, just like there is hope for Marissa, there is hope for me.

“All night long, Marissa was cared for, listened to, encouraged, and loved. She spent the entire night’s outreach walking alongside one of our street teams. They did EVERYTHING they could to make sure she knew she was welcome anytime. They even took her out for dinner!

“The team showed compassion and patience to someone who had earned neither. At the end of the night when I saw her again, she was glowing! She couldn’t stop talking about everything they had done. Get this, she shared the food she had been given (A Monster energy drink and Nutter Bars) with our team – even giving her only Monster drink to one of our African American volunteers – and that’s coming from someone who “doesn’t like black people”.

“I earn nothing by way of my failures and sins, but God loves me anyway? He listens when I complain, am rude, don’t give Him credit, am prideful, and a jerk? That makes no sense, But He does.

“Marissa earned nothing by way of her rudeness, but we too, love her anyway.

“In the same way, I believe we are being like Jesus when we do such things:

‘A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.’ John 13:34-35

“I am Marissa, but God loves me anyway. I’m thankful for that.”-Brett Hartford

Grace Full
In the midst of my frustration during the chapel service and being awoken to my own cantankerous nature, I saw something beautiful. The speaker gave an altar call and out of that big crowd of cold, tired, hungry people, a man walked forward to give his life to Christ. While I was caught up in myself, God was at work. Jesus got through to this man who was hungry for grace and forgiveness and who was even willing to publicly step forward to show it. I was so inspired that I struck up a conversation with the loud mouth next to me after service. I wasn’t angry anymore and we actually had a nice talk. God was showing me his grace, which allowed me to give some grace away myself to my pew mate.

Jesus met a lot of messed up people when he walked the earth. Being perfect, he could have easily looked down upon them for all their flaws and pettiness. Instead, he had a different reaction:

“When he saw the crowd, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” Matthew 9:36

Rather than push away from all the pain and ugliness of this world, Jesus pushed in close. He came close enough to feel people’s pain. That’s what the word compassion means–“to suffer together with” and Jesus was moved with compassion all of the time. The key word there being “moved”. Rather than shaking his head and turning away from the brokenness of this world, he moved in close enough to experience it himself. His love was that big.

Dinner was delicious that night. The Bowery staff and volunteers were very friendly, which meant a lot. A man named Pedro sat at my table. He told me that he was finishing up a 21-day stay at the mission. I asked if the Bowery gave out tooth brushes and Pedro gave me one of his extras. I was really touched by his gesture of kindness and grateful that I could finally brush my teeth.

After dinner I went back into the chapel to wait for a shelter bed. I found out that after they clear the dining room of tables and chairs, they set up cots. Most of this crowd had really hit rock bottom. These were the long-term streetbound homeless. If not for the brutal cold, many would have probably slept outside.

A leader got the attention of all us men to read the list of who was getting a cot and who had to sleep in the chapel. I thought that I would get on the cot list since I was a first timer. I don’t know why I thought that, because I was wrong. I’m sure the guys who got the cots needed them more than me anyway.


Forgotten Warrior
After the winners of the cot lottery left, staff pushed all the pews in the chapel over to one side of the room. On the other side of the room they began to lay mats on the floor (see photo at left). During this time, I met a man standing next to me named Dan who was also a first timer at the mission.

Originally from Long Island, Dan had just retired after 18 years in the Navy, including a stint in Afghanistan. His job was to operate a machine gun from helicopters. Dan looked military. He was clean, fit and had a professional manner about him.

I asked Dan if he could access some veteran services and he said the wait was six months. Six months! When he said that I felt like someone had punched me in the gut. I couldn’t believe that someone who had served our country and risked his life for me would come back to become homeless. I was dumbstruck, and it made me want to cry seeing his first day of living on the streets. I hid my emotions and just tried to hold it together.

I gave Dan a New York City Relief connection card that showed all of our outreach times and locations. I told him that those were good people who could help connect him to resources. Dan thanked me and was genuinely grateful.

I never imagined that they would run out of mats, but they did. Thankfully, Dan got one of the last ones. No pillow or blanket, but this warrior got a mat to sleep on the floor. He looked tough and was probably used to worse conditions on the battlefield, but this situation was one that I would never forget. “Honor. Courage. Commitment.”, are the Navy core values that this man lived. I prayed that they would help him in his next great challenge of life on the homefront.

After my week on the streets, my good friend Dave Jones, who is President of The Bowery Mission, informed me that the entire chapel was about to be renovated. The pews were being taken out so that many more cots could be provided. I don’t know how to describe how big a deal this is, and I am grateful for the Bowery’s commitment to give dignity to these men.



I squeezed into a space smaller than a coffin (see photo at left) and could not even hold my arms by my side. Someone had laid down some newspapers to cover part of the wood which was sticky. It did not escape my attention that I was laying my head down on a surface that thousands of butts had resided.

As I lay in my pew I looked up on the wall and saw a sign that said, “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest. Matthew 11:28” I was experiencing such a literal manifestation of this verse. I thought of all the other men over the last 139 years who had also come into this room and were given a chance to lay down their heavy burdens and rest.

I used my vest and jacket as a pillow. Some guys slept in their shoes, but I was so glad to finally take mine off. I put my boots near my head on the pew by my backpack so that no one would steal them. I met a barefoot man in winter once at a New York City Relief outreach who had his shoes stolen while he slept at a public shelter. I was determined for that not to be me. At the Bowery, guards watched over us all night long as we slept which gave me a greater sense of security. Someone cared about my safety.

The guy in the pew next to me seemed happy to get a spot, because he had slept on the sidewalk the night before. He had a bruise and cut on his face where someone had obviously hit him. As soon as his head laid down, he started snoring.

A staffer said it was time for lights out, and then prayed the Lord’s prayer over us. The lights were dimmed in the main part of the room, but where I lay the lights shone brightly into my face. I used my blanket to cover my eyes all night.

Two men walking to the bathroom started arguing. One was joking about the others Caribbean accent and offended him. He started to stare the guy down and asked why he was putting him down. Instead of apologizing, the other guy who was bigger, started yelling and posturing himself. A leader came and deescalated the situation. I saw this kind of thing happen almost everywhere I went. Even though we were sheltered from the snow falling outside, inside we were still exposed to the chaos of the streets.

I passed out in my little wooden slot. I slept on my back or twisted onto my side with difficulty throughout the night. At 1:30AM I got up to go to the bathroom. I was in my socks which was disgusting because there were pools of liquid on the floor in the bathroom. It was just so hard to climb out of my pew much less put on my big clunky boots. I desperately just wanted to fall back asleep as quickly as possible.

Fortunately, I did catch some z’s that night. I would need all the energy I could get to make it through the next day of begging while it snowed. Stay tuned for part 5 of my Street Pilgrimage series titled, Cold City, Warm Hearts

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Rude Awakening- Part 3 of STREET PILGRIMAGE

A toothless, one-eyed man from the streets of New York City offered me his last gift card. My own self-centeredness was assaulted by the reckless kindness of this stranger. Who was this guy and why would he do this? I had found the person that I had been hunting for on my 7-day spiritual pilgrimage on the streets, and he had an elaborate disguise…

My night “sleeping” on the E Train was brutal. I awoke very cold at 5:30am. I knew immediately that I needed to put on more layers of clothes. I pulled my head out from underneath my blanket to see a packed train car of commuters staring at me. What a strange feeling! I felt awkward and exposed. I had never been deprived of privacy like this before and it was very disconcerting.

I rifled through my backpack to find a vest, hat and gloves. I was hoping to fall back asleep, because I was extremely drowsy and disoriented. Overhead the loudspeakers began blasting public announcements. The voice said, “It is illegal to take up more than one space on a train. It is illegal to drink alcohol on a train.”, and “Assaulting an MTA worker is a felony”. These announcements were obviously timed to wake up the inhabitants who called the train home. The intention was clearly to get them out of the way of the commuters. My sleep time was officially over whether I had gotten enough rest or not.

From down the car I heard my friend June’s voice calling out my name. (See Part 2 to learn more about June) Because she was mostly blind, she could not see where I was. As my hostess, June wanted to let me know it was almost time to exit the train. We got off at Penn Station and immediately headed to the bathrooms.

At Penn Station we found police trying to wake people up. It was very difficult because these men and women were in such deep stupors. I wondered how many restless nights it takes to get into such a zombie-like state where you can’t be awoken on the bench of a busy train station. One person was passed out on the floor and completely unresponsive. EMT’s came and wheeled him away. I prayed for him and hoped he would be okay.
St Francis
June led me outside into the bitter cold. It was still dark as she walked with me to the breadline at St. Francis of Assisi Church. As we arrived, we discovered about 100 people ahead of us already waiting in line on the sidewalk (see photo at left). We cued up and there were quickly 100 people standing behind us. I wrapped my blanket around myself and tried to stay warm as we waited. The people waiting in line were very quiet and stoic. We weathered the cold in anticipation of hot food to revive us. An entrepreneurial man who also lived on the streets walked up and down the line selling “loosies”-single cigarettes.

While standing in line I saw another person challenged with homelessness in crisis. He was lying unconscious on the sidewalk. Eleven Emergency Service Workers came to help him, including EMT’s, Firefighters and Police. Eventually, an ambulance came and took him away for treatment. It seemed like people were dropping like flies. The average life expectancy in the homeless population is estimated between 42 and 52 years, compared to 78 years in the general population.

Jesus statue

Our Daily Bread
The St Francis Breadline is 87-years-old. It’s the oldest, continually running breadline in America. St Francis is famous it’s statue of Jesus in the form of a beggar outside the church (see photo at left). Each day since 1930, the St. Francis Breadline has formed at 7AM to feed over 400 people. Thank God for our Catholic brothers and sisters who are so faithful to serve the hungry.

That morning I was desperately in need of their generosity. My back was killing me from sleeping bent over all night and I felt chilled to the bone. Fortunately, the friendly volunteers served us delicious hot oatmeal and coffee. It felt SO good to get that food in me after such a difficult night. It truly rejuvenated me. They also gave us a sack lunch with orange juice, a ham sandwich, a slice of pound cake and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

While I was waiting in line with June, a man approached her with a smile. His name was Billy and it turned out that he had been friends with June for years. Billy was a man with few teeth, a scruffy beard and only one good eye. June told me that he sleeps outdoors on a piece of cardboard.


Billy (see photo at left) animatedly told June that some people were handing out gift cards the day before and that he had been given several. He immediately gave a Burger King gift card to June and she thanked him. I was taken aback by his generosity and quite touched. I saw community in that interaction. I saw kindness.

Billy immediately befriended me. I quickly discovered him to be one of the nicest people I have ever met. Billy asked my name and how long I had been homeless. I told him that I had just recently started living on the streets. He asked where I was from, but when I hesitated, he quickly picked up on my discomfort and said, “It’s okay, you don’t have to tell me.” Billy was sensitive to my feelings and possible need for privacy. He kidded around with me, bringing a lightheartedness and joy. He loves to tell jokes and asked me, “What did the hat say to the other hat? I’m going to go on a-head.”

June got a refill on her coffee and it was so delicious that I tried to follow suit. Billy and June watched my stuff while I got back in line. Unfortunately, the volunteers ran out so I returned empty handed, but happy to have gotten the first cup. Billy asked what was wrong and when I told him that they were out of coffee an amazing thing happened. Billy pulled out his last gift card, a Dunkin’ Donuts card, and offered it to me. I was dumbfounded. He knew that I had already drank a cup of coffee and he was willing to give me his last card so that I could have a second cup! Who was this guy?

I recognized this sacrificial generosity. It was Jesus in disguise.

Earlier in line Billy asked, “You know what I want Juan?” I said, “What?” He replied, “To be surrounded by friends.” This man who seemingly had nothing actually was clued in to what the real treasures in life are. He appeared poor, but was actually richer than many powerbrokers on Wallstreet. He gave me tips on how to stay out of trouble with the police and encouraged me to keep my head above the water. I remarked to Billy that it seemed like God was using him to uplift other people around him wherever he went. This was a man that I could learn from.

I thought of times in life when friends or family had given me gift cards. Getting a present of a Starbucks gift card was better than getting cash to me. I had never considered using one of those cards to bless someone else. Jesus had to use someone who was impoverished to teach me about generosity. I want this lesson to stick. Billy was a living embodiment of the Word where it says,

“Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.” 1 Peter 4:8-10

Later that morning I sat on the ground with my cardboard sign, panhandling in front of Penn Station. During that hour I made a whole $5. Some kind soul also gave me a bag with a sandwich, orange and water bottle. On the outside of the paper bag was written, “Jesus loves you.” While begging I got extremely cold and couldn’t stop shivering. I could see my breath and my feet felt like ice. The cold concrete really froze my behind.

Later that day, I also panhandled at Grand Central Station. A very strange thing happened there. A young man was walking by wearing a reflector vest, the kind you would wear if you were doing road construction. He looked down at me and stopped. The man held out his hand and in a very southern country accent said, “Man, I don’t have any money to give you, but I can give you this. He reached out his hand to me in a gesture of kindness and I shook it. Then he said, “Hang in there man. One day you will be sitting on a throne.” I thought this a very odd thing to say to someone who is begging on the street. It was only later that I recalled this verse from the Bible:

“He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; he seats them with princes and has them inherit a throne of honor.” 1 Samuel 2:8

I kept hearing God’s voice coming from his representatives all around me.

Any Port In A Storm
By 12pm that day I felt pretty shot. I was extremely fatigued and spaced out. My back was killing me from trying to sleep on the subway, so much so that I couldn’t even wear my backpack. I remembered the ibuprofen my wife Tracy had given me before I left home and thankfully took it. I have shared in the blessings of the poor through their friendship and generosity, but to truly become one with them maybe I must also share in their pain.

I decided to go to the library to rest my back and journal about my experiences. I walked into the main branch on Fifth Avenue and 42nd street. This building is famous for it’s two marble lions outside. It’s a popular tourist destination, but I was just looking for a place to put my feet up and rest my weary bones. I walked into the main entrance with all the tourists and stuck out like a sore thumb. Security stopped me and let me know I couldn’t come in wrapped up in my crazy looking pink blanket. I asked where the normal library was where I could read the paper or check out a book and they said they did not know. They were eager to get me out of there as fast as humanly possible.

I made my way around the side of the building and found that they had relocated the Mid-Manhattan Library downstairs. Here security was fine to let me in after I put my bag through the x-ray machine. Once inside the reading room, I found a crowd I would fit in with.

The library is one place where people challenged with homelessness can get out of the cold and rest in a peaceful atmosphere. You still weren’t allowed to doze, however, and if you tried they would ask you to wake up or leave. The library is also a good spot to charge your phone if you have one and take advantage of the free Wi-Fi. I pretty much stayed offline all week in order to immerse myself in this experience, but I could see how important it was for others to have access to this tool that we take for granted. People living on the streets need Wi-Fi to find work and communicate with family. For many, it is a vital lifeline.

Several times that day I found myself doing things that were crude and socially unacceptable. Earlier that day I took my boots off in the food court of Grand Central Station. My feet were throbbing and badly needed relief. I tried to hide my stinky feet under the table so that no one would be offended. Later when I was at the library, I got hungry, but knew I wasn’t allowed to eat in the reading room. It was just too cold to go outside and eat so I did something I never thought I would do–I ate in the bathroom. The library had beautiful individual bathrooms that were very clean and covered in marble. Once you got in there, you were all alone and had something that was very precious-privacy. I opened up my sack lunch I had gotten from St Francis of Assisi Church that morning and gratefully devoured it.

Outposts Of Grace
This brought thoughts of the tables and chairs we set out at New York City Relief outreaches. We create a space for people to enjoy a hot meal and be with friends. I had no idea how much of an oasis this could be. Our outreaches are outposts of grace where you don’t have to hide or be ashamed as you eat. This is a place where people are graciously welcomed and shown hospitality. It’s a lot better than eating in the bathroom and certainly much more dignifying.

Later that night I would find myself in a very different environment than the first night as I strived to get some rest amongst throngs of weary strangers. I would sleep on a strange “bed” in a place that is one of the oldest and well-known institutions in America. Stay tuned for Part 4 of this series titled Code Blue…

If you would like to volunteer with New York City Relief or make a donation to bring life transformation to our friends on the streets, please go to COME JOIN US!

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Night Train- Part 2 of STREET PILGRIMAGE

It was one of the worst nights of “sleep” of my life. Bright lights glared. Intercom systems blasted messages announcing the next stop. Strangers moved around me constantly. Worst of all, every few minutes the subway train stopped and started all night, jarring me out of any hope for a deep sleep. This is how I ended up trying to find rest on a restless E-Train…

June In March
A week before I went to live on the streets of New York City during my spiritual pilgrimage, I had come across a friend of mine named June in Penn Station. It was the month of March which was still bitter cold. Winter was holding on as long as it could.

Chelsea outreach

I had met June about 10 years earlier at a New York City Relief outreach in Chelsea Park at 28th Street & 9th Avenue. (See photo of Chelsea outreach site above) She came every week to enjoy delicious soup, hot chocolate and fresh Portuguese rolls at The Relief Bus. June was originally from Trinidad and used to work as a baby nurse. Work dried up and one day June came home to find a padlock on her apartment door. She has been living in a state of homelessness ever since.

There is a video of an interview I shot on the street in with June in 2010 that you can see here.

Even though I had known June for over a decade, I had been thinking about her a lot recently and was concerned about her. June is a sweet and gentle person whom I hated to see living in such dire and dangerous circumstances. When I finally reconnected that day in Penn Station, I felt that it was no coincidence. There was a problem in the tunnel and all of the trains to New Jersey had been canceled. This gave me plenty of time to sit down and talk to her.

As we chatted, I told June about my intention to live on the streets the following week. I asked for her input and even if I could shadow her for an evening. June explained that she stayed in the Penn Station until 1am each night, then went to sleep on the subway train. She graciously agreed to show me the ropes and host me for my first night on the streets. We made an appointment to meet up the following week at her church where she attended mass each day.

After I finished panhandling (see last article, Imagine If You Were Homeless) for the first time in my life that afternoon, I made my way to St. Francis of Assisi Church to find June. The sanctuary (see photo below) was enormous and there must have been 1,000 people attending. I couldn’t find June in the crowd, but did enjoy the service. The priest shared the story of when Jesus rubbed spit and mud in a blind man’s eyes causing him to be miraculously healed. I prayed that God would open my eyes that week as I looked for traces of his grace amongst the huddled masses.

St Francis online

During mass, the worship director sang the song, “Open The Eyes Of My Heart” by Paul Baloche! This ornate cathedral was big contrast to the Communitas church that I attended that morning, but they similarly also welcomed the poor. I watched as a mentally ill man walked around, rambling to himself during the service. No one was bothered by this. Other people challenged with homelessness attended the service as well. I thought of Jesus who was homeless and made his place among the poor and broken.

“Jesus replied, ‘Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.'” Luke 9:58 NIV

There is a fancy Greek word called Kenosis. It means the voluntary renunciation of power in order to submit to the will of God. This is what Jesus did when he became human, when he became poor, when he became destitute and hungry. It was all for a purpose:

“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” 2 Corinthians 8:9 ESV

When Jesus bore the shame of a criminal’s punishment, naked on a cross. It was the act of emptying. The book of Philippians puts it this way:

“he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.” Philippians 2:7 NIV

I hoped that as I emptied myself and lowered myself to embrace the pain of people challenged with homelessness, I would actually be enriched by his presence. I had no idea how true that would be.

Man sleeping Penn

Night “Life” In Penn
I left the service and made my way a half-block back to Penn Station to hunt for June. Penn Station is a busy place. In fact, it serves more than 650,000 commuter rail and Amtrak passengers a day. It is the busiest passenger transportation hub in the Western Hemisphere. It is also a place that many (See photo left) like June call home.

As I walked around the New Jersey Transit area, I handed out my bags of Garden Veggie Straws that people had given me when panhandling earlier. Attendees of the Knicks game that day had been given free bags of the snacks and were happy to pass them to to me. The folks who lived in Penn Station seemed to like them and were appreciative. One young man gave me a hug and said that he loved me. He was sincerely happy and thankful for the food.

I snuck into a restricted waiting area to eat my sandwich and salad that a man named Asa had given me earlier that day. Delicious! I took my boots off, because my feet were so sore from walking the streets. Later, I tried to go into the AMTRACK waiting area, but they wouldn’t let me in. I asked the guy if there was a water fountain anywhere and he said no, but gave me a little bottle of water. I thanked him profusely and then he gave me another one. I was amazed.

I went downstairs to look for June and couldn’t find her. I did find a newspaper while digging through a trash can. This is what I see people challenged with homelessness do all the time in Penn Station and I was determined to “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.” I found a man playing jazz and R&B guitar by the subway entrance and listened for a while reading my paper. He played one of my all-time favorites, “Ain’t No Sunshine”, by Bill Withers.

June 2


I did finally find June. We had a great time talking (See photo left) and I gave her a sandwich that I had leftover from Asa, and two bags of Veggie Straws. Boy, did she enjoy the food. Because June was 69, I asked her if she received social security and she said no. I finally discovered that she believed the president and government were tracking her to keep her safe. That’s why she hasn’t let me get her a place to stay all of these years. She believes that entering a shelter will cause her to lose benefits that are coming one day. This delusion makes me sad and I pray God will give her clarity of mind to escape it-maybe even use me to help convince her.

I asked June where she gets money. She said that her friends give her a little money here and there. One time, June tried panhandling, but when she approached a man to ask for money, his response was to ask what she was going to do for him, meaning he expected a sexual favor. She walked away and that was the last time she ever begged. Women struggling with homelessness are extremely vulnerable to assault and sexual attack. Many become homeless because of domestic violence. In fact, thirty-eight percent of all domestic violence victims become
homeless at some point in their lives. Source: Baker, C., Cook, S., & Norris, F. (2003).

June went to buy a coffee from McDonald’s after selling two razors to her friend for $1. I guarded her bag while she went for coffee.

While sitting in the public waiting area, I met a young woman with short hair and crooked teeth named Shaquanna. She used to fix women’s hair in Newark, but came to New York City five years ago because she thought it would be safer. Because of her insinuation, it was obvious to me that something really awful had happened to her in Newark. Shaquanna paced around constantly. She said that she was returning to a Bronx women’s shelter at 10pm. I know that she never did, because I saw her throughout the night.

I noticed that Shaquanna had a ziplock baggie full of hygiene items. I asked her where she got it, because I needed a toothbrush. She offered to give me hers, but I said “No, you need it”, to softly decline. June told me that Saquanna was not fully cognizant of reality. If people don’t start off mentally ill before they are homeless, odds are that the state of homelessness will literally drive them crazy. Despite that fact, Shaquanna was offering to help me by giving me her only toothbrush.

The benches in the New Jersey Transit area have no backs to them which I suspect is to keep homeless people from getting too comfortable. You can’t lean back and relax. As a result, June and I were really stiff. After a while, our backs both hurt pretty badly.

Human Holding Pen
While we chatted, June told me that the lady from McDonalds never gives her back the right change. For some reason she withholds the one or two cents owed her. That night June made her open the register back up and give her the change by talking loudly so that everyone could hear that she was getting ripped off. When she got her change, she put it in the donation box in front of her on the counter. She laughed a lot while telling me that story. June was unwilling to let someone steal from her even a little, just because they knew June was homeless. That was just a little bit of her dignity that she couldn’t spare to lose. She was happy to win it back.

June can’t see very well and her vision is cloudy. She said that when she lays down and her body gets proper circulation it clears up. June experienced this when Hurricane Sandy hit New York City. The police cleared all of the transient people out of Penn Station and took them to a temporary emergency shelter. When June laid down on the cot there, she slept so deeply that they couldn’t wake her up for an entire day. It was like she was in a coma and when she finally woke up, her vision was clear. By sleeping sitting up every night on the subway, her body never gets proper circulation and it adversely affects her entire health. She only sleeps for four hours maximum each night. Like many people challenged with homelessness, she is perpetually sleep deprived and the fatigue is brutal. I got to experience this firsthand.

About 11:00pm, June started having terrible pain in her thighs. She thought it was from the coffee she drank. Some homeless guy began ranting loudly to the New Jersey Transit clerk about how he almost beat up a cop. Another guy told him to shut up and they cursed at each other. One pretended he was going to hit the other until a police officer suddenly showed up out of nowhere. Then they started hugging each other like it was a joke. The officer pulled out mace and they immediately separated. The officer then walked around banging the metal benches and waking everyone up. He made the ones who were asleep wake up and walk around to “get the blood flowing”. It was not fun to watch. The weariness on their faces pained me.

A homeless couple sitting across from June and I drank alcohol out of paper bags for an hour while groping each other. A well-dressed, attractive, middle-aged white woman was kneeling for hours at the end of the room. She got up and walked by me while talking to herself and laughing strangely at nothing. It was a deep laugh that was creepy. The woman looked like a mom from the suburbs, but acted like someone who had escaped from the mental institution. I wished she was home in the burbs with a loving family.

The longer the night went on, the weirder it got. The nightlife in the station didn’t seem like life at all, but a perpetual waiting room where your name never got called. It was limbo–a human holding pen.

June kept napping off and on while we sat in the public waiting area. At one point, outreach workers from the Bowery Residents Committee came by to ask if I wanted shelter. I said I was fine, but really I was concerned about getting any real sleep that night. I wondered what kind of place they would take me to if I had agreed to go along.

The E-Train
At 12:55am, June said that it was time to go. At 1:00am the police roust everyone and clear the place out completely. June dragged her bag all the way to the subway platform because one wheel was missing on her rolling suitcase. I offered to carry it for her, but she refused because she didn’t want to burden me.

June taught me to use the bathroom before we got on the subway so that we could try to sleep for four hours before having to wake up and relieve ourselves. She prefers the E-train over all of the others because she says it’s a much smoother ride than most. One night she was accosted on the subway by a group of young thugs who harassed her and scratched her face with their hands. It was a bizarre and scary situation that she never forgot.

June would usually wait for someone to walk through one of the gates so that she could catch it before it closed. That’s how she gains entrance to the subway platform. June actually believes that the government is covering her fare while they “monitor” her. I was determined not to break the law sneaking in with her and offered to scan us in with a metro card. I earned enough panhandling that day to cover the $5.50 in fares.

E Train

When the door to the subway car opened, I saw that it was already filled with people trying to sleep. (See photo left) Many had blankets over their heads to block out the bright lights which stayed on all night. I put my backpack on my lap and leaned against the bar on the end of the bench. None of us could lay down for fear of being ticketed or worse, arrested by the police. This is just one way you know that homelessness has been criminalized in our city.

I wrapped myself up in my blanket with my backpack on my lap. I wrapped the backpack strap around my arm so that no one would steal it while I slept. Almost everyone I have known dealing with homelessness has had their bag stolen. This is catastrophic because when they lose their ID, including drivers license, social security card or birth certificate, it makes it impossible to get a job. It also hinders them from accessing social services that they desperately need to get back on their feet. Getting new ID is expensive and even if you can pay to replace it, you need an address to have the ID mailed to. June has had her bags stolen several times while she was sleeping.

I’m not accustomed to sleeping sitting up, so it took me an hour to fall asleep. I slept off and on for three hours while the train stopped and started over and over as it moved from stop to stop. The E-train goes all the way out to Queens and then back to Manhattan where it goes downtown to the World Trade Center before heading back north again. It was impossible to get comfortable. I twisted and turned, moving my body around when my back or legs started to hurt too much. My whole body was stiff. It was a very long night.

My first day living on the streets was very long and it didn’t end well. I don’t know how June and all the other people who live in the train station or on the subway have the courage to do this day after day for years. In the church services I attended that day, I saw some of them holding onto God as an anchor in the storm. Others had been swept away by the chaos of their circumstances. It was hard to find a port in this storm. Who could you trust? Where could you go? What else would I witness over the next six days? Would I get more than three hours of sleep?

Stay tuned for part 3 of this series titled, Rude Awakening

If you would like to volunteer with New York City Relief or make a donation to bring life transformation to our friends on the streets, please go to COME JOIN US!

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Imagine If You Were Homeless- Part 1 of STREET PILGRIMAGE

Imagine Sign




















Imagine if you were homeless.
There I found myself, 47-years-old, sitting on a sidewalk begging for change in New York City. The air was cold and the longer I sat there, the more the chill cut to the bone. I had no idea where my next meal would come from. The sea of humanity swept around me as I blended into the background with my cardboard sign. No longer human, I was part of the familiar landscape of this renowned city. They say that if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. I found myself amongst those who blended into the background, like part of the concrete, because they definitely weren’t making it and there was no light at the end of the tunnel either. How did I find myself here?

In the beginning of January, 2018 I put aside time to pray concerning what God would have me do in this new year. I asked for direction concerning myself, my family and the organization I lead, New York City Relief. As I listened to the voice of the Holy Spirit, I felt he was leading me to go live on the streets of New York City amongst the thousands of people with no place to turn. My thoughts were, “If someone like me doesn’t do this, who will?”

I believed that there was much to learn about people challenged with homelessness in New York City and much to learn from those same people. Even though I have worked with the unhoused for 14 years, I also know that I have done that from the safety of the “bubble” of how we do outreach with our organization. I wondered what we were missing and what the voiceless would say if they were given a voice.

The more I prayed about it, the more I knew that this could not be a social experiment or PR stunt, even though it might appear that way to some. This journey was to be a spiritual pilgrimage. I believed that if I really saw the homeless, I would see Jesus. If I really heard the homeless, I would hear Jesus. If I would take the time to know the homeless, I would come to really know Jesus.

I had no idea how entering into the brokenness of others would impact me, but I can tell you that it continues to impact me today. I do not claim to know or comprehend what it really means to be homeless. One week only gave me a glimpse into this other world where Jesus has always lived:

“I live in a high and holy place,
but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit,
to revive the spirit of the lowly
and to revive the heart of the contrite.” Isaiah 57:15

My week on the streets was filled with heartache and hope. I had significant encounters with God. I experienced his presence constantly through the people I met. Some were those battling homelessness, some were people who gave to me as I panhandled, staff and volunteers from various soup kitchens and shelters and random strangers on the streets. I also experienced God’s presence heavily as I sought him alone in prayer and scripture. I pressed into his heart, hungry to see his face. I was not disappointed.

Each of the seven days, I took time to journal about all of my experiences in order to document what I was learning and where I saw God at work. I am breaking up this experience into many parts for you, the reader, to digest. Each month I will share part of my journey along with the lessons I learned from the friends I made. Maybe these articles will help you to see, hear and know those who exist on the fringes of society. Maybe God will give us the grace to feel what he feels about these modern-day lepers. Hopefully, we will gain insights into our own brokenness and feelings of isolation and know that Jesus is here for us also. In this way, the poor may become a mirror–helping us to see into our own souls. Maybe the poor will be used as tools in God’s hands to cure our blindness and heal our pain.

Day 1, March 11, 2018: Enter The Underbelly
After taking a train into Manhattan from New Jersey that Sunday morning, I jumped on a subway and headed to my first stop, a church made up mostly of people struggling with homelessness called Communitas. I got off at the wrong stop, then wandered around until I found the church which meets in the chapel of the New York City Rescue Mission. Because I was late, I missed the coffee time before service. The coffee was gone, but I ate half of a leftover bagel. The room was mostly full of about 80 people who sat quietly listening. You could see the weariness on their faces. They didn’t have many other places to go, and this was a refuge for them from the streets. It was a nice room with big screens which they used to play videos of worship songs being performed live at big events. After the music, the pastor, Christine Mayes encouraged the congregants from the microphone to seek God, not use the time to take a nap. Although she was sympathetic to those who were legitimately tired, she wanted them to receive something spiritually powerful. She was very caring and genuine.
























Testimony at Communitas church

Pastor Chris asked for testimonies and a man battling homelessness spontaneously stood to share with the group how God was taking care of him. I was impressed by his faith in the midst of very challenging circumstances. According to this verse, I shouldn’t be surprised:

“Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?” James 2:5

Craig and Chris















Craig and Chris Mayes

Chris’ husband, Dr. Craig Mayes, gave the message that day. Craig is the former CEO of the New York City Rescue Mission, now Chief of Staff at The Bowery Mission who they merged with recently. Craig shared about becoming mighty men and women for God like David’s top three men and encouraged the audience to love and sacrifice for others. It was a very relevant and engaging message for the group that was well received. Overall, the whole environment that the Mayes created was peaceful, unlike some other services for the homeless that I visited that week. It was an atmosphere of warmth, and though some did take the opportunity to doze off, others found the solace and encouragement that they needed. It was an oasis in a city that can sometimes be hostile to it’s most burdened citizens. Communitas provided a space where they could lay their burden down for a few minutes and relax with their community.

After the service, the mission served lunch downstairs. While waiting for lunch to begin, I picked up a free Gideon Bible in the chapel to carry with me all week. I brought very little with me for this pilgrimage-only the clothes on my back and a backpack with a few Christian teaching books in it. The clothes I wore were some secondhand items that had been donated to New York City Relief-a ratty orange sweatshirt and a coat. The coat was a generic looking blue number and it was only when I was on the streets that I figured out that it was actually a woman’s coat complete with drawstring and zipper on the left. I wore a misshapen winter hat with a bill and some gloves with cut off fingers. Some key items I brought were a plastic container without a lid and a black Sharpie marker. More on these later. I was going to bring a blanket too, but in my haste, I forgot to bring it–doh! That was going to be a problem. It was still cold out in March–especially at night. The temperature outside was in the high 20’s to low 30’s all week, so below freezing.

After a big delicious lunch at NYC Rescue Mission I headed out to Madison Square Park. On the way I found cardboard on the street which I picked up to make a sign for panhandling. It was my plan to only eat what was given to me and only buy what I could afford from begging that week. I carefully tore the cardboard into a small enough size to carry in my backpack, but a large enough size to get people’s attention.

I had never panhandled in my life and wasn’t sure if people would give me anything. It was a weird feeling knowing that I was about to step into a new role that was completely foreign to me. I had seen people begging with signs many times over the years, and wondered what that must be like. Now I was going to found out exactly what they were going through.

I thought about what to write on my sign. I was determined not to lie in any way. I was not really homeless and decided not to say that to anyone. If anyone asked me, I would simply tell them that I was living on the streets which was completely true at the moment.

In a moment of inspiration I wrote on my cardboard, “IMAGINE IF YOU WERE HOMELESS. PLEASE HELP.” With my sign I asked others to do the very thing that I was trying to do-imagine what it must be like to live on the bottom, dependent on others generosity and strive to just survive from day to day. At the bottom of my sign I wrote, “God bless you!” I saw this written on the bottom of almost every beggar’s sign that I had ever seen. It gave authenticity, but I actually meant it too. I wanted God to bless those who were kind enough to help me out.

After finishing my sign, I read three chapters in my new Bible while sitting in the sun at the park. Then I made my way to Penn Station, where I would beg for the first time in my life.

























Panhandling at Madison Square Garden

Stepping Down To The Bottom
I picked a spot near a corner, not far from the main entrance to Madison Square Garden. Little did I know that the Knicks were playing that day. An ocean of people poured out of the Garden and walked right past me. Many never saw me. I mostly saw their shoes as I sat on the concrete with my head down and my sign in my hands. I was surprised as one person after another put money in my plastic container. Most put coins in quickly and dashed off before I could thank them properly. Not only did they not want to engage with me, I could tell that they were uncomfortable even looking at me. It was a humiliating feeling to be so low that people felt leery around me. I was no longer a “safe” person. My character was questionable. Begging is a shameful activity. Sometimes people walking by would catch eyes with me and quickly and awkwardly look away. It reminds me of when Isaiah prophesied about how Jesus would be treated:

“He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.” Isaiah 53:3

It’s a blessing to give, but receiving feels lousy. No one wants to be dependent on others. It was during some of these times begging that I remembered that Jesus was dependent on those who supported him financially during his three years of active ministry. He received their charity graciously. The Bible mentions several times that it was in this kind of lifestyle that he found himself hungry, with not enough food to eat.

Even though many people were brusque, I was extremely touched that they would take the time to help me out with a dollar or some spare change. I would quickly say, “Thank you, God bless you.”, as they marched off. I began to cry as I begged-partially in thankfulness for people’s kindness and partially because of the realization of how many people beg like this for many years of their lives. How do they do it? I prayed quietly for each person who put money in my cup-that God would bless them and provide for all of their physical, emotional and spiritual needs. One young man gave me ten dollars which really blew me away. I was equally amazed when a small child put four pennies in my cup. I went through a whole range of emotions as people offered me these gifts. I collected a total of $24.56 that day.

Several people gave me food. I was given an apple and a sealed bag of peanut M&M’s. One man even asked me if I would like a hotdog. The interaction with the man was very touching, because I could feel his compassion for someone in trouble. He took the time to go and order me a hot food and boy did it hit the spot. People like him cared enough to do something about my pain. Rather than turn away, they moved into action. Reminds of me of the verse in the Bible that says,

“If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” James 2:16,17

I don’t know if faith was a factor in motivating people to feed me, and at the time, I didn’t care. What moved me was their actions, because they were helping me to survive. Part of the reason I could deal with all of the people passing me by is because of the few who would stop to acknowledge me by reaching out a helping hand.

Other people gave me unpleasant gifts-half-eaten food and cold french fries. I suppose they thought they were being kind and that if I was starving, it would help. In reality, it made me feel like garbage because they saw me as degraded enough to eat their trash. I tried not to judge and to assume they had the right intentions, but it was tough.

It was evident to me that all of the ticket holders to the Knicks game that day had each been given a personal sized bag of Garden Veggie Straws, a type of snack food. I was grateful for each bag they gave me, but soon became overwhelmed when I collected 14 bags. This was humorous and strange to have so much “food”. After I ate a few Veggie Straws I discovered why they were so happy to share them with me. They taste a little like Styrofoam. Still, I was thankful for their generosity and figured I could share them with others who were hungry later.

My head was spinning from all of these encounters with strangers when my most shocking interaction took place. A man who I assumed was homeless asked me if I was hungry. I showed him the 14 bags of Veggie Straws and said that I had a lot of food. The man said, “Don’t eat that crap. Have some real food.” He handed me a big plastic bag full of fresh food sealed up in containers and plastic wrap. There were gourmet deli sandwiches, salad and soft pita rolls. I was dumbfounded and asked him for his name. He said it was Asa. I thanked him for his incredible generosity.

Asa obviously didn’t have much, yet he gave me somethings that were extremely valuable. Who was this guy and why would he do that? It was the last thing that I expected. It wasn’t the last time I met him that week or the last time he helped me. After my pilgrimage was over I discovered the story behind the story and found out why he was so selfless. More about Asa will be revealed in future articles.
























Juan on the streets

I made my way over to a discount store and bought myself a snuggly blanket for $8. I knew I would need it that night and was glad that I had collected enough money to purchase one. The only color I could choose from was a crazy pink pattern, but I didn’t care because I just wanted to stay warm.

It was an emotional first day on the streets and I had gotten through it. The night was coming, however, and I knew it was going to be a tough one. I would be attempting to sleep on a moving subway train and that was daunting. Would I sleep at all? I didn’t know. This was only the beginning of a long, exhausting and profound journey.

Stay tuned for my next article in this series titled, Night Train.

If you would like to volunteer with New York City Relief or make a donation to bring life transformation to our friends on the streets, please go to COME JOIN US!

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A Longer Table

“When you have more than you need, build a longer table, not a higher fence.”

I love this quote. It inspires me to live a more generous life, rather than use what I have to insulate myself from other people and their problems.

The problem is that we have usually have a skewed idea of what we need. Many people plan on being generous and sharing with others if they ever hit the lottery. For many, that is the only way they will miraculously have everything they need.

In the book Money, Possessions and Eternity, Randy Alcorn gives stats on our wealth in relation to the rest of the world:

If you made $1,500 last year, you’re in the top 20% of the world’s income earners.

If you have sufficient food, decent clothes, live in a house or apartment, and have a reasonably reliable means of transportation, you are among the top 15% of the world’s wealthy.

The point is that we all have more than we need, so it’s time to build a longer table. It’s time to put our wants aside for other’s needs to be met. It’s not all about finances either. Making space at the table doesn’t just mean buying more food. It means making space for more people and different kinds of people to be valued in your life.

Table ministry 3













New York City Relief operates outreaches every week to people who are living on the streets and a key component of that is literally making a place for them at the table. Around the bus we use to serve food and drinks, we set up tables and chairs on the sidewalk. It can seem like a small accommodation, but a friend named Christoph who came to The Relief Bus for assistance, helped us see how important it is:











Christoph sharing his story inside of The Relief Bus

“Thank you for giving them tables and chairs to make them feel like people. That little bit of stuff you do to take away homelessness for the time that you spend with them, that touches hearts and changes lives. Thank you for not giving up on us and them when the rest of their families have. You show that God doesn’t give up, just by you being here.” See a powerful video of Christoph sharing his story of life transformation here.

One of our key concepts is that we are sharing communion, not charity. By breaking bread together on the sidewalks, we demonstrate that we are all on an equal level. These are great opportunities to ask people to share their thoughts, dreams and opinions. That’s what friends do

By making a place at our table, we make a place for people to stop, rest, be seen, heard and valued. The alternative is shuffling off to a dark corner by themselves to eat hastily. The alternative is isolation.

“When you have more than you need, build a longer table, not a higher fence.”

I think the reason we sometimes build fences and cling to what we have is because we had to work so hard to get it. We earned our living and have a right to what is ours. The apostle Paul explains that actually one of the goals of earning through hard work is that we can then help others:

You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions. In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ ”- Acts 20:34,35

How can you build a longer table? Sign up to volunteer with New York City Relief or some other organization that befriends people in need. Use that opportunity to not just give one-sided charity, but to connect with others on a deep level. Risk letting others into your heart.

Building a longer table is what God did for us by sending Jesus. Ironically, he was a carpenter and could literally build tables. He made a place at the table for people that his own society rejected. Lest we forget, you and I were the outsiders who he welcomed to the table as well.

Jesus could have built a higher fence, but instead he tore the old fence down. The law was insufficient and left too many out in the cold who couldn’t live up to those standards. The cross became the table that made room for everyone to come and feast on God’s presence.

Here is the reality of building a longer table- when we make room for others, we make more room for Jesus as well. He says,

Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.”- Revelations 3:20

Jesus is knocking. Can you hear him? He wants to know if you have room at your table. Time to build a longer table.

Table ministry

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The Wrecking

Scott and Tania













My friend Tania Hansen wrote this moving description of her night serving homeless friends on The Relief Bus. Her husband is Assistant Director of Outreach, Scott Hansen.


Last night I had the great pleasure and privilege of joining Scott and Kai and an amazing team of New York City Relief volunteers on the streets of NYC. Not only did I get to experience serving under my husband’s leadership and witness my sweet son’s kind and gentle compassion in action, I also got to meet Henry* (name changed, of course, to protect his privacy).

I held Henry’s hand as he told me his story. One of seven children, living in extreme poverty, a childhood marked by violence and abuse. With tears streaming, he told of the beatings he endured trying to protect his beloved mother and siblings from his father’s brutal attacks. A childhood of fear, lack, misery and eventual abandonment.

A childhood broken and stolen.

Brokenness that manifested later as an adulthood of severe alcoholism.

Henry believed he could beat it. He believed he could have and give something better. He worked two jobs and got married and had a daughter. He believed he could overcome his dark and painful beginnings and his alcohol addiction.

Sadly, after losing his childhood and family to abuse and neglect, the alcoholism stole what he had left: his jobs, his health, his marriage and his relationship with his treasured daughter.


“I have no one and nothing left.”
Weeping, he looked down at his lap.
His words slurred, “I have this hat.”

It was a Saturday night in Manhattan. Beautiful people in their beautiful clothing, hustling by on the sidewalk, headed to their evening outings in the magically mild October breeze.
Not seeing Henry. Not seeing his shaking hands, his tattered clothing, his story, his pain.

It’s so much easier to not see.

It’s so much more comfortable to dismiss and label the homeless person in the dark corner as a bum, hobo, degenerate, junkie, loser, panhandler, beggar. Labels that allow us to look away, because “they” have made their bed, and now they can lie in it.

I honestly don’t know how Scott and his colleagues step into the pain on the streets day after day, week after week. Coming face to face with sorrow and despair will wreck you to the core.
In the most holy way.

God, thank you for the wrecking.

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What Can I Do About Homelessness?

Vice President of Outreach Operations Josiah Haken shared the following excellent and helpful article in his blog at


What Can I Do About Homelessness?

Wanda during our August 2017 Harlem outreach.

The most common question that I get about homelessness is simply, “what should I do?”

“I see someone panhandling on the sidewalk, what should do?”

“I’m waiting for my train in Penn Station and there are people everywhere who appear to have no train to catch and no way to catch it, what should I do?”

“Someone approaches me and asks for money, what should I do?”

“There are 60,000 men, women, and children in the NYC shelter system, what should I do?”

The reason why people want to know the right thing to do is because they are so afraid of doing the wrong thing. They don’t want to enable someone to remain homeless, they don’t want to make a bad situation worse, and they don’t want to put themselves in a scenario that can get out of control. So, because well intentioned folks don’t know what they should do, they do… nothing. If you hear nothing else, hear me now: doing nothing is not acceptable.

So, I’m going to walk you through some simple steps that will hopefully empower you to do SOMETHING.

The first thing you can do is decide. Decide that our homeless neighbors are not just a nuisance or an eyesore, but human beings who are made in the image of God and deserve our respect, our consideration, and our time.

But it can’t stop with a decision. Decision needs to lead to action. One simple step you can take is to put your phone away as you walk from point A to point B. Too many of us are walking the streets of NYC with headphones in our ears, and screens in our faces, and as a result, we are walking right past men and women who are lonely, struggling, and disabled.

One time I was in Penn Station waiting for my train, listening to music, lost in my own world, and it took someone three tries to break through and get my attention before I tentatively removed a single ear bud and heard him out as he asked me for change. We need to put our phones away and focus our attention on the people that we walk past, sit next to, and travel with. It is physically impossible to love a neighbor that you don’t see.

Our volunteers learn how to listen first.

Once you see the human being right in front of you, you should engage. Believe it or not, I don’t much enjoy approaching strangers. It just feels uncomfortable. I feel like I’m bothering the person. I think things like, “he doesn’t want to talk to me.” Usually, by the time I walk up to someone, I’ve managed to create an elaborate backstory in my head about his aversion to people and why the next guy who comes across his path will get the full brunt of his frustration and anger.

Now, I don’t even like when the UPS guy delivers a package to my house because he always rings the doorbell, which sends my dog into a mindless fit, and in that split second, I have to decide if opening the door is worth the risk of talking to someone I don’t know.

But at least I have a door to hide behind if I want to. Our friends who are homeless don’t often get the luxury of having someone ring the doorbell. Most well-intentioned people just storm through the front door like Kramer on Seinfeld. Please don’t barge into someone’s space and assume that just because he or she is homeless, she don’t get a say in whether or not she talks to you. This may sound overly simple, but you can ring the doorbell of any homeless person by making eye contact and saying, “hi.” If the person ignores you, pretends you’re not there, or curses you out, just take a hint, and assume that no one is home.

Homelessness is intrinsically lonely. The truth is, for every one homeless person who wants to be left alone, ignored, or behaves obnoxiously, there are ten more who are desperate for a friend.

So engage by ringing doorbells left and right. Be the person who refuses to let our brothers and sisters in the street go another hour before someone reminds them that they exist and that they matter. Don’t punt that responsibility to someone else, because someone else might not be coming. Once you ring the doorbell and the person invites you in, by responding positively or answering your question, don’t forget that standard, socially acceptable rules of conversation apply.

One time, I was sitting on the floor of Penn Station chatting with a new friend when a woman walking past us stopped abruptly, looked at my friend (totally ignoring me), and said, “my church feeds the homeless outside every Thursday. You should come. You need it!”

She didn’t say, “hello.” She didn’t introduce herself or ask for my friend’s name. She didn’t even find out if he was homeless before declaring him to be one of “the homeless.” My friend handled the interruption far more graciously than I would have. He smiled. Thanked her and explained that he was ok and she walked on without saying goodbye.

When you meet someone at a party, you typically don’t open with, “Are you homeless?” That’s just awkward.

Start at the beginning. What’s your name? Where are you from? What do you like to do for fun? How’s your day going?

If someone is truly in acute need, these kinds of questions will quickly reveal what’s going on. If he or she isn’t interested in a longer conversation, that will also become clear.

Don’t feel pressure to guide the conversation. Just show interest in the human being standing or sitting right in front of you.

If the person does tell you they need money, or a ride, or a ticket somewhere, don’t freak out.

I feel like every day the city is full of people walking around terrified that someone will ask them for money. As though the moment someone asks you for a dollar you either have to empty your bank account into his cup or he might kill you!

Personally, I don’t like giving money to people in the street. Not because I’m worried about them spending it on drugs or alcohol, even if that’s what some folks do, but I don’t give money to people because I’ve found that it sets up an unhealthy relationship dynamic.

I also like to ask people why they are asking complete strangers for money. I feel like once someone opens that door, it’s okay to walk through it.

So the guy who approached me in Penn Station asked me for some change so I asked him why he needed the cash. He answered by saying, “I’m going to be honest, I’m an alcoholic and I need to go buy a beer.” I thought, man, you picked the wrong guy to ask for money…

When you ask why someone is asking for money, sometimes people will open up and give you the Gospel truth. Other times they will lie to your face. But please try to remember that lying is not unique to homeless people.

It’s not your job to discover if the person you are talking to is lying. Especially if you decide ahead of time that you have a personal policy about giving cash to strangers. It really doesn’t matter if the person is telling you the truth, because you can’t be hustled if you’re not giving money. And if you decide to give money, recognize that it’s no longer yours and you can’t judge them for how they spend it.

This is one reason I don’t recommend giving money to strangers.

I’m way more likely to judge people and put expectations on them when I give them money. It’s easy to feel like they owe me something, but since I don’t expect homeless folks to pay me back, I tend to demand repayment in things like respect, appreciation, or even a photo that I can post on my social media feed for some applause from my peers.

The issue isn’t panhandlers, it’s me.

If someone does ask you for money and you decide ahead of time that you aren’t going to give them any, try being honest. Don’t tell the person, “I don’t have any.” Say, “I don’t give money to strangers.” One time I told someone that and he got mad, “why don’t you just lie to me?”

I said, “because you deserve better than that!”

If you want to have something to give to someone who is asking for help, I recommend new socks. Most of you probably walk around NYC with a backpack, briefcase, or purse. Why not buy a pack of new socks at the store and just throw one pair in there for someone that you might meet as you walk around the city? You could also carry gift cards to Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks. These cards don’t just buy coffee for someone, they also buy a few minutes of heat or air conditioning.

If you want to take an even bigger leap into the world of engagement, instead of just giving someone a gift card for coffee, try offering to treat someone to coffee. Some of my best conversations have happened over a shared meal with someone who asked me for money.

The next thing to remember is that Boundaries are healthy. If you meet someone for the first time, second time, or third time, please don’t bring that person into your apartment for a shower.

Boundaries are always easier to take down than set up, so make sure you establish them right up front.

If the person asks where you live, you can be vague and use general language. If the person pushes the issue, feel free to say that you don’t give that personal information to people that you just met.

If someone says something inappropriate to you, tell the person that you won’t be friends with someone who talks to you that way.

Ladies, please remember that many of the men who are in the street were never taught how to appropriately engage with an attractive woman. If someone says something offensive to you, feel free to say, “that’s offensive. I can’t be around someone who talks to me that way.” If someone curses you out, just him goodbye and walk away. That’s what you would do for anyone else, there’s no need to surrender your safety, dignity, or well-being just because someone is homeless.

At the same time, boundaries work both ways. It’s up to us to make the person we are engaging feel safe as well. Did you know that statistically speaking, homeless folks are way more likely to victims of violent crime than you or me?

It’s not a good idea to approach someone with a big group, or to make someone who is sitting on the sidewalk feel intimidated by hovering over them. It’s always helpful to ask permission before sitting down next to someone.

It’s also not a good idea to wake someone up. Homeless folks average anywhere from 2–4 hours of sleep every 24 hours.

I don’t know about you, but sleep is precious to me. I can’t imagine not being able to crawl into my own bed every night.

The last thing I would want when I fall asleep is to have some strange person poking me or yelling in my direction so that they could give me a pair of socks. Just let them sleep.

Feel free to look for signs of life. Make sure their chest is going up and down or their lips aren’t blue (especially in the winter time), but if they appear to be in relatively good health, let them be.

Another good principle of productive engagement is “2 way conversation.” As we’ve heard about tonight and as we know, mental illness is a real thing, and drugs and alcohol can be legitimate barriers to healthy relationship.

So, don’t force it. If someone is in full blown psychosis, or extremely volatile because he is drunk or high, don’t choose that opportunity to have a chat. In those situations, you can call 311 and report that someone who appears to be homeless is having a bad day and could use some assistance. Or if there is a police officer nearby, you can ask them to keep an eye on the individual because you are concerned for his safety as much as anyone else’s.

Just use two-way conversation as a guide to know if this is going to be a healthy step in the right direction.

The last thing that you can do is learn about the resources and the organizations that are around to help folks who are struggling with homelessness on their journey.

Learn where the free beds are for people with no place to sleep. Learn where the drop-in centers are. Learn about the city shelter system. Sign up for mental health first aide training. Sign up for Overdose Prevention Training.

Guys, we live and work in the city with more resources for folks who are struggling than any city in America. Take advantage of it.

If you’re too nervous to engage people on your own, sign up to volunteer with New York City Relief. Contact us at

Please don’t own the responsibility of saving someone from homelessness. But please don’t ignore the responsibility of being a good neighbor. I think it’s easy to assume that because the folks struggling with homelessness in our community don’t have doors, or doorbells, they aren’t our neighbors.

In the first century one of the religious leaders asked Jesus a similar question: “who is my neighbor?”

In response Jesus tells the famous story of the Good Samaritan. It’s the story of a stranger who was walking home after a long day of work, but who clearly didn’t have his headphones in his ears or a phone in his hand, because he noticed the man crumpled in a ball on the sidewalk. I’m sure he rang the man’s metaphorical doorbell by asking if the person was ok and checking to see if he was breathing. Then he engaged by calling the guy a cab and transported him to the ER. But he didn’t just leave him there. This religious and cultural outsider made sure that the man he met would be treated and cared for.

My friends, most homeless folks will not require that level of emotional and physical investment. But just because someone doesn’t have a doorbell, apartment, or house, doesn’t mean that he is not your neighbor.

So, “what should you do?” DO SOMETHING.

~Josiah Haken: V.P. of Outreach Operations, New York City Relief

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The Shame Attendant

jimmy stewart

Over my lifetime I have had many moments in which I was plagued with anxiety and depression. It has been a cycle that is sometimes crushing. Inevitably, in the midst of my pain I would do an emergency triage on my soul to find out what the roots of my emotional distress were. Very recently, this happened to me again…

I was in the midst of an exciting time of strategic planning with the organization I lead, New York City Relief. It was exciting because God was giving us the wisdom and direction we needed in order to move forward in our mission to help more friends living on the streets to experience life and freedom.

While I was in total agreement with our leadership team about the direction we were headed and next steps, I began to take the burden of these changes completely upon myself. I began to have the irrational fear of making a misstep and doing major damage. The weight I felt was immense.

In addition, we had a pillar of our team and one of my best friends, Bill Hoffman leave the ministry after 27 years to relocate to California and start a new chapter in his journey with God. I was happy for him and sad for me. One of my safest places was a friendship and working relationship that was now on the opposite coast.

I also had a project that I had been working on for two years simply stall and go nowhere. I have been looking for a new and larger building for New York City Relief to facilitate our growth. After looking at many buildings, talking to many townships and trying to navigate the strange small city political landscape of New Jersey, I came up empty. What did that say about me?


While I was experiencing these events, so was my “shame attendant.” In the book The Soul of Shame, author and Christian psychiatrist Curt Thompson speaks of the influence of shame in our lives as an attendant who is lurking by our side, giving a warped and negative perspective on life events to confirm how inadequate we are. He says, “Shame wants to alter our stories by telling its own version. It is both a source and result of evil’s active assault on God’s creation.”

During this time of feeling oppressed and overwhelmed, I received an email from a good friend who felt that they had a word from God to share with me. She wrote, “I saw you in this rusty iron cage. It was small, claustrophobic and dark. You couldn’t see outside of the cage so your perspective was from the inside of this cage. On the outside the world was so colorful, bright and airy.  I saw the greenest trees and the bluest sky. The enemy is trying to cloud your perspective.  He is trying to plant lies of doubt, fear and failure (represented by the cage).  The truth is outside the cage. The truth is God’s perspective.” She couldn’t have been more correct.

I realized along the way that the anxiety I was feeling was that I would fail, causing me to be exposed as being incompetent. Being seen as weak equated in my mind to being the ultimate shame. Something inside me wanted to be a strong leader that everyone could count on. I began to feel more and more shut down and drew inside myself.

hide shame

This is what shame wants, for us to live in isolation rather than in relationship. Shame’s mission is to disrupt connection between people. Why? Because it knows that humans thrive when we are in honest, healthy relationships. The “shame attendant” is out to destroy. Its message is that we are not okay and that when people know the real us, they won’t want to have anything to do with us.

The parts of us that feel most broken and we keep most hidden are the parts that most desperately need to be known. Dr. Thompson says, “For only in those instances when our shamed parts are known do they stand a chance to be redeemed. We can love God, love ourselves or love others only to the degree that we are known by God and known by others.”

Dealing with my own sense of shame causes me to think of the people we serve at New York City Relief. How do our friends challenged with homelessness grapple with the shame that is heaped upon them? How can God use our staff and volunteers to break through this assault upon their souls?

I would like to share the story of how God put a beating on the “shame attendant” of a man we met on the streets named Christoph. As an orphan escaping from Vietnam, Christoph was placed in a foster home in America where he was abused by his foster parents. Afterwards he was bounced through 16 more group homes and foster homes. As a teenager Christoph became homeless and got involved with gangs who became his only family. He eventually got married, but when his marriage fell apart he ended up on the streets of New York City working as a male prostitute to survive. Christoph said, “When you are living on the streets, you are humiliated. You (The Relief Bus) give (the homeless) a tiny bit of pride that uplifts them and encourages them. Never have I felt the love of God more in my life.”


In this dramatic video, Christoph details the amazing story of how lost and isolated he was until he met friends at The Relief Bus who became companions in his journey to freedom. Satan had used every wound and failure in Christoph’s life as “proof” of how worthless he was. Outreach Director Brett Hartford assisted in getting Christoph the help he needed to get off of the streets to start life over again.

Christoph said, “You hugged me and said you loved me. I didn’t want to let go. You said to give God the honor and glory because it comes from him. He works through people. Thank you for not giving up on us when the rest of the world has. You show that God doesn’t give up.”

Like Christoph, God has used trusted people in my life to speak forth God’s truth and reality- that I am not alone. Counselors, mentors, family and friends were used by God to pull the scales off of my eyes and the burden off of my heart. The weight is lifted, my eyes turned back to the lover of my soul.

As president of New York City Relief, it is my job to make sure that when people in need come to one of our outreaches, they find a community that offers a non-judging ear and a helping hand out of the cage of shame. As steward of my own heart, God is calling me to courageously share my weakness and brokenness with people around me who love me. In this way I can cut the legs out from under the “shame attendant” who tries to drag me down.

When I connect myself to the body of Christ through intentional vulnerability, I connect myself to the head which is Christ. This is the place of safety and connection that my soul longs for. The voice of the shame attendant becomes only a faint whisper, drowned out by the roar of the Holy Spirit who sings songs of delight over me. I breathe deep and my heart swells with the joy of being wanted.

“Hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” Romans 5:1-5

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Top Ten Homeless Outreach Tips


Have you ever walked by someone who is homeless, been moved in your heart to do something, but didn’t know what would be appropriate or even safe? A lot of us feel a twinge of guilt when we ignore a person who is obviously in great need. Something inside of us knows that we should do something.

I believe that we can overcome our feelings of nervousness, discomfort and social awkwardness to have a meaningful interaction with the homeless that might be life changing for both parties involved. I know this because for the past 14 years I have seen this happen firsthand during our outreaches to homeless friends with New York City Relief.

No one is better at training others to effectively engage with people challenged with homelessness than Josiah Haken, Vice President of Outreach Operations at New York City Relief.  In his blog he gives his top ten tips on how to approach and connect with a homeless person. Life is too short not to love the hurting people around us. Here is some great advice from Josiah on how to get started:

TIP #1

Enter into a conversation:

  • Lead by asking for the person’s name. Repeat it. Say “Nice to meet you ‘Joe.’”
  • It’s important that the person hears you calling him by name.
  • It will also help you remember his name later on.
  • If you end up praying for the person, do so by name.
  • Offer your first name. There is no need to share your last name right out of the gate.

Josiah helping woman

TIP #2  

Listen.  Bring nothing into your listening.  Just Listen.

  • Don’t just tell her what you think, actually hear her.
  • Even if she is telling a story that you think, or even know, is impossible, simply give her the chance to say her piece. Take everything she says as the “gospel” truth.

1 Corinthians 13:7 says that “love hopes all things” so always hope she is telling you the truth, unless what she is asking of you requires some action that you feel is unwise or unsafe.


TIP #3

Ask questions.  Learn something about your new friend.

  • “Where are you from?” “Do you have family in the area?” “Are you a sports fan?” “Do you believe in God?” Show interest. Be quick to laugh at his jokes, but don’t force it.
  • The more interest you show, the deeper you’ll go. Your conversations will be as shallow as your ability to demonstrate that you care about his or her story.


TIP #4 

Be Clear About Personal Boundaries.

  • Just as you make it clear that he or she can be honest with you, don’t be afraid to be honest about personal boundaries with the person you just met. If someone asks why or seems annoyed that you are self-protecting, you can always say, “I just met you! I don’t know who you are!”
    • You are allowed say things like, “I won’t do that.” “I can’t do that” etc…
    • Don’t give out your personal information (phone number, address, email, social media) until you have an established relationship with the person.

EVEN THEN, be wise and don’t do or share anything you wouldn’t with someone you just met at the movie theater or bar.


 TIP #5 

Be Clear About Physical Boundaries.

  • Don’t make anyone feel trapped. Never approach someone with more than 2 people. Don’t hover over an individual who is sitting on the sidewalk or laying down on a bench. If necessary, kneel down or ask for permission to sit next to the person.
  • If you have the option, approach folks with someone of the same gender.  Many homeless women have had terrible experiences with men and will open up more quickly with a female volunteer.


Josiah and couple

 TIP #6

 If someone asks you for money….

  • Feel free to say that “I’m sorry, but I have a personal policy about giving money to strangers.”
    • WHY? Monetary exchange is almost always a poor foundation for a healthy relationship.
    • If someone is panhandling, ask for permission to take some of his or her time.

Don’t assume that he or she wants your company.

By asking, you will show the person respect as a human being and he or she will be more likely to hear what you have to say or be open to your company.


 TIP #7

Giving stuff away.

  • Always prioritize 2-way conversation over bulk distribution. Be wise about how you give things away in high population spots like public transportation stations, busy tourist spots, or in front of a drop-in center or emergency shelter. Don’t make a scene or you might just get a scene.
  • If you have socks, blankets, or toiletries to give away, simply ask the person if he or she would be interested. Don’t assume that he is.
  • If he or she says ‘no’, ask if he/she might know someone who would be interested.
  • If the person expresses a need that can be met by running to the store and buying something small, feel free to do so. Never give the person cash for the same item.
    • GIFT CARDS ARE GREAT (McDonald’s or Dunkin’ Donuts allow the man or woman to purchase something that will give her a safe, warm place to sit and enjoy a meal after you leave).


TIP #8

Don’t wake anyone up. It’s just rude.

  • Homeless folks sometimes average 2-3 hours of sleep a night. They are often awakened by police and security guards and moved indiscriminately. This makes sleep precious.
    • Feel free to observe whether his chest is going up and down. Make sure his lips are not blue.

IF you think someone may not be breathing or his lips are blue, call 911 immediately and loudly say, “excuse me, sir!”


TIP #9

 Don’t leave items next to a sleeping person.

  • These things will probably just get stolen anyway.
  • And if someone is already stealing the pair of socks (or item you left), they might help themselves to the person’s backpack or wallet, with all their ID’s in there, while they’re at it.

Again, relationship is the goal. 


TIP #10

If the person seems intoxicated, high, or in an unpredictable mental state….

  • Do not extend the conversation. Just be kind and compassionate, but assume that this is probably not the best time to make a heart connection over coffee.
  • If the person seems completely out of control or volatile, please call 911 or 311 depending on how severe the situation might seem.

Use common sense.  Don’t call 911 because there is a homeless person talking to himself.


FINAL NOTE:  In seeking out people to serve and talk to, if you cannot find anyone just ask local cops where homeless folks usually hang out. If you literally can’t find a single person to engage, just thank God that everyone in your area appears to have a place indoors. The average life expectancy for someone who is homeless is approximately thirty years shorter than those who are housed (National Coalition for the Homeless Fact Sheet). Know that building a relationship with someone might just add years to someone’s life. Don’t be afraid and don’t put too much pressure on yourself. The founder of New York City Relief likes to say, “God only uses one kind of person: those who show up.” Our homeless neighbors are precious in the eyes of God, which means that they must be precious in our eyes as well. Stop waiting for the perfect opportunity, just get out there and make it happen!


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Willy Wonka Wisdom

Willy Wonka

The Greek playwright, Sophocles once wrote, “To be doing good deeds is man’s most glorious task.” Sophocles is alright, but I am more of a Willy Wonka man myself. In the movie Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, Wonka commented on young Charlie’s actions by saying, “So shines a good deed in a weary world”. I’m speaking of the 1971 version with Gene Wilder, not the remake with the creepier character portrayed by Johnny Depp.

Many times, we as Christians get sidetracked with “culture wars”. We can get stuck in just taking a stand against what is wrong in society, rather than doing what is right and good. This is what most people think of as religion: lists of do’s and don’ts, mostly don’ts. Our human efforts at this lean towards legalism that is void of any connection with God’s heart. We can easily forget what we are here to actually do.

Popular conference speaker and author Graham Cooke puts it this way,

“What if the biggest problem in America is not drugs, or pornography, or abortion, or poverty, or low education, or terrorism, or crime? What if the biggest problem in America is simply the lack of goodness? The Bible says we overcome evil with good, so why are we building more prisons than hospitals? Why are there “no go” areas in our major cities? Why do the police have to walk around in combat dress all the time? Why are certain areas of our culture and our society rabidly out of control? I think it’s because the church does not understand who she is, and she is so busy railing against sin, which is not our job. Our job is to bring down the goodness of God into the earth.”

Mans most glorious taskJesus backed up his preaching and lessons with action. His deeds were a living embodiment of what he taught. There was no difference between what he believed, taught and practiced.

There were times in the Bible when spiritual leaders took a tough public stand against what was wrong. For example, John the Baptist publicly pointed out Herod’s sin of marrying his brother’s wife. That got him beheaded. Jesus himself called the Jewish leaders snakes and hypocrites for their proud, manipulative behavior and that led to the cross. If we choose to take this route, we had better have a direct mandate from God to speak and be prepared for the potential consequences. The trend is that prophets usually get killed, because the accused shoot the messengers. If we take a hard stand, we also must be sure that our attitude is one of “loving our enemies” and “blessing those who curse us.” Easier said than done.

You may have heard the phrase that, “People won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” It is much easier for people to receive the good news, when they can see tangible proof through our actions that this news really is good.

When we treat people like gold, they stop feeling like garbage.

Jesus teaches this approach in Matthew 5:16,

“Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”

Whenever it says to do good deeds, the obvious question is “What kinds of good deeds?” Here are just three that God mentions through the prophet Isaiah:

Isaiah 58:7

  1. Share food with the hungry

  2. Provide the poor wanderer with shelter

  3. Clothe the naked

How much more do you think people will be prepared to believe in Jesus after you do these kinds of things for them? If you do the works of Jesus, you will instantly win respect. It is the natural response from honoring others and treating them with dignity. This is the strategy that we use on the 12 weekly outreaches to homeless friends that we operate with The Relief Buses.

When we treat people like gold, they stop feeling like garbage. Most people already feel lousy about themselves and wish they could be a better mother, father, son, daughter, spouse, friend or person. New York City Relief Senior Outreach Leader Brett Hartford (below with outreach team and friend) describes it this way,

Brett and lady

“I am convinced that we would all be a lot happier, more joyful, have more confidence in ourselves, and generally just like each other more if we took the time to remind each other WHO we are.

“There is so much negative reinforcement all around. People telling us that we aren’t good enough, not pretty, intelligent, driven, useful, fill in the blank…

“Tonight, during an outreach on foot that we do every week called Don’t Walk By, I had the opportunity to look a woman in the eye who is challenged with homelessness and start erasing all of that junk.

“I said, ‘You are beautiful. You are capable of doing it. You are not a failure. Your life is not over. You are not invisible. You can do it. You are lovable. God has not forgotten about you. He doesn’t think you’re worthless. He loves you. I love you.’

“Tears flowed. A crack in the hard shell that is used for protection.

“For women living on the streets, my heart breaks. How can I make them feel beautiful, cherished, and valued like God is trying to express to them every day by way of birds chirping, flowers rising out of the ground, and air in their lungs???

“Words. Eye contact. Hugs. Action.

“I told her words. I affirmed who she is, and not the junk of her past.

“I looked her in the eyes-straight into who she is, not what she looks like or smells like, but deep into her soul.

“I asked her if she would like a hug. She said yes.

“She didn’t just want a hug from me, but she asked for a hug from everybody on our team that night.

“Now we need to take more action. She needs resources. She needs knee surgery. She needs a place to lay her head at night that’s not a sidewalk or a guy’s bed who’s taking advantage of her.

“I invited her to come to The Relief Bus the next day for an appointment that we call a Life Care Visit. I told her we would love to sit down with her and figure out what she has tried, what her options look like, walk alongside of her and support her along the way.

“She is beautiful. I know it, now it’s time to start getting her to believe that as well.

“How can we do that better ourselves? Look for the beauty in each other. Look for the good stuff, and call it out. Love your neighbor.”

Brett is doing the first part of the verse in Isaiah 58:7-taking care of this woman’s physical needs. The results are described in verse 10:

and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,

It is what we DO by “spending ourselves” that allows God’s light to shine in the darkness so that the world can finally see who he really is and who they really are. “So shines a good deed in a weary world.”


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