Archive for February, 2019


Brotherhood Of The Broken-Part 10 of STREET PILGRIMAGE

Penn StationI woke up that morning in the shelter operated at The New York City Rescue Mission. It was amazing having a pillow under my head and a mattress under my body. Boy, did it beat a plastic chair at the drop-in center! I got up and put on a brand new pair of socks I was given at The Bowery Mission. They didn’t match, but I didn’t care. They felt great! The old ones were so sweat soaked and gross! For the first two days I didn’t have a toothbrush, but now I had a whole hygiene kit (see photo below) thanks to the mission. Being able to brush my teeth and wash my body felt great after being so grungy for days.


It was my fifth day of living on the streets of New York City. I paused to consider why I was spending time away from my family, my friends and the comfort of home. I did this to understand what my homeless friends are going through, but mostly I did it to meet God. I felt that this spiritual pilgrimage was what he was calling me to do. Maybe he wanted me to experience just a taste of what Jesus did when he put aside the privilege of His position and made Himself nothing.

Phillipians 2:5-8 says,

“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death-even death on a cross!”

Jesus left the joy and comfort of heaven and the presence of the father to come to earth in order to connect directly with his lost sheep so that they could relate to him. Jesus shared our pain and sufferings. The shepherd got close to the sheep in order to love and heal them.


I left the mission and headed further downtown to the New York Stock Exchange (photo at left). I was curious what it would be like to panhandle on Wall Street, one of the financial power centers of the planet. I made $11.65 and one bag of nuts, dates and figs. I guess the Wall Street crowd are very health conscious.

To most of the people walking by I was invisible. I simply didn’t exist. When I did exist, sometimes it was for someone’s amusement or mockery. Without asking me, one man stopped and took a photo of me with a big fancy camera. I was an animal at the zoo. Something to be observed instead of engaged. An oddity without feelings. One man who walked by me scoffed at my sign to his friend and said, “Imagine if you were homeless” as he read it in a very sarcastic tone. I was usually sitting on the ground and looking down. I would look down on purpose because when I looked up I could tell it made people uncomfortable. I saw a lot of shoes walking by from my vantage point.

Basic Human Need
After a while, I got too cold and stiff to beg anymore so I went to find a bathroom. This can be tough for people living on the streets. Many places will only allow paying customers to use the bathroom. I remember seeing this happen once when I was eating at a restaurant several years earlier. While I was enjoying my meal, a man struggling with homelessness was getting publicly rebuked in front of me by wait staff. Why didn’t I step in and buy the man something to eat so that he could enjoy the bathroom too? To my shame I only thought of this later when it was too late.

Several months after my street pilgrimage, Starbucks was in the media for denying two black men the right to use their bathroom. The manager actually had them arrested for trespassing! After the bad press, Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz changed the policy. He said, “We don’t want to become a public bathroom, but we’re going to make the right decision 100% of the time and give people the key, because we don’t want anyone at Starbucks to feel as if we are not giving access to the bathroom because you are less than. We want you to be more than.”

On many of my visits to New York City in the past,  I would notice that certain areas, including the subway system smelled like a toilet. In no other city had I encountered this smell so regularly. Now I understand why this is so and how simple it would be to solve. I am amazed that New Yorkers find it acceptable to not have enough public restrooms, resulting in many areas smelling like urine or worse. It’s like London during the middle ages when they would throw their refuse into the street. It was normal, but unsanitary and unhealthy. It appears that we are still living in the dark ages when it comes to sanitation and the basic human dignity of providing a place to go to the bathroom. Of course, public restrooms would solve this problem. Currently, there are not enough for the size of the homeless population and most public restrooms are locked up at night.

My entire week of living on the streets I would pray that restaurant employees would have mercy and give me the combination to the lock on the bathroom door. Sometimes they did and sometimes they didn’t. It’s no wonder that some people living on the streets urinate and even defecate outside. Of course, if they are caught by police doing this, they can be ticketed or arrested. Most of the time the unhoused cannot pay the fines for these minor offenses and then receive arrest warrants sending them back to jail. All this for the crime of needing to go to the bathroom and being too poor to pay for a ticket.

In many European countries I have visited, they had modern portable restrooms that blended in with the environment and were entirely self-cleaning after every use. I am unsure why this has not become commonplace in a city that attracts so many of the tourists from around the world.

That day, I hit the jackpot by finding a nice Starbucks in the financial district where I could use the bathroom. I noticed other homeless men and women using power outlets to charge their phones and using the free WIFI. Some people might be shocked to know that the homeless have cell phones. There are multiple government programs that provide smartphones for the purpose of aiding people as they look for employment. They don’t’ get many minutes, but it is a big help and I have known people to find jobs using those free phones. Most of the people in the Starbucks had bought something to eat or drink to earn the right to enjoy the bathrooms, and sit in comfy booths with soft cushions.

Only A Glimpse
I fully understand that living out on the streets for a week could never cause me to fully understand what people struggling with homelessness are going through. My experience was grueling. It was brief however, and could in no way compare with what people were enduring for years or even decades. I knew that a loving family was waiting for me in a warm home when I returned, yet my pilgrimage did give me a glimpse into the pain, suffering and rejection that people deal with. I was privileged to get close enough to understand a little of how they ended up on the streets, and it softened me to their plight. It makes me think of a quote by the Jesuit Priest Gregory Boyle in his book, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion:

“Here is what we seek: a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.”

Earlier that week, I was eating lunch at The Bowery Mission and overheard one of the guests detailing a traumatic event in his life. When he was a young man in the military, he had a picture of his wife and daughter displayed in his bunk area. This black soldier had a white lieutenant who made sexual and racist comments to him about his pictures. He lost it and began choking the lieutenant who called for backup. The man was beaten unconscious. He woke up in an infirmary with a broken leg, broken arm and broken jaw. Upon waking, he wept in his bed at the injustice he had suffered. From the infirmary, the man wrote letters to the military to plead his case, but he was shipped out quickly before he could obtain justice.

I heard this former soldier’s story and wondered if this event had contributed to his current state of homelessness. It sounded like suffering an abuse of power, a vicious assault, and a racist offense had scarred him for life. Here he was, still talking about it years later in a soup kitchen. He shared his pain with others to lighten the burden he carried and explain the narrative of his life.

dining hall tray of food

That night I ate dinner at the New York City Rescue Mission. I met a likeable man at my table named JJ. He was a super friendly and I really enjoyed talking to him. From the description of his life and troubles I could tell that he struggled with addiction, but he had an upbeat attitude. JJ had a nice blues brothers tattoo that I complimented and claimed he had a Jack Nicholson tattoo on his leg that he gave himself in prison. JJ was such a fun guy and we shared a few laughs together. Sadly, he said that his wife had been at the mission too, but had disappeared. He said that if she doesn’t show up in the next couple of days, he was splitting. I couldn’t imagine experiencing that kind of chaotic life, but was honored that he would share so openly with me. He treated me like a friend and it felt good. These things happen when you spend time around a table together.

Pedro rachaelray_0

Dinner that night was delicious-pasta and meat with a red velvet cupcake for dessert. On my way out, I was passing the Executive Chef, Pedro Rodriguez (see photo at left from the Rachel Ray show) and told him that dinner was delicious. He recognized me and began laughing and hugging me. He was about to tell me I looked just like someone he knew when he realized that I really was the person he knew. I told Pedro what I was up to and he promised to keep it under his hat. Pedro didn’t just cook, he loved every person who came to eat in that dining hall-about 600 people a day. At one time, Pedro had been addicted to drugs and eating at soup kitchens to survive himself. Because of what God had miraculously done in his own life ten years ago, he is now an ambassador of hope to others. He was even invited to share his story on the Rachael Ray show where she remarked, “You’re serving dignity. You’re not just serving them food.” Watch this incredible segment here.

After dinner, I made my way up to the chapel room. I was going to stay one more night in the mission and had to sit with the other men until we were allowed to go upstairs to our bunks. While I was waiting with all of the other men and women, there was an altercation.

A guy asked the man behind him if he was trying to be aggressive because he had kicked his chair more than 3 times. The guy apologized, but it wasn’t quickly resolved. The serial kicker lost it and loudly said, “F*@# you b*@#!”, and the other guy jumped up to face off. Staff came over and the man yelled, “You can’t put this on me!” I jumped up and told the fellow getting his chair kicked to take my chair to try to separate them. He agreed and I took his chair.

A staff member from the mission called me over and asked if I had scanned in with my shelter ID. I said yes, but evidently, it hadn’t worked the first time. I scanned it again and it this time it worked. He said thanks for stepping in with the squabblers and said I could go up to the bunks. I was glad I didn’t lose my bed!

I’m pretty sure the chair kicker was the man who slept in the pew next to me at the Bowery several nights earlier. These guys were like little boys who never grew up. Still scrapping in the schoolyard at 50 years old. I have to say I really liked a lot of these guys at the mission. There was a good atmosphere there and even though there were little scraps now and then, everyone seemed to get along for the most part. I felt a kinship and brotherhood with them. I have heard it said that you shouldn’t judge someone until you have walked a mile in their shoes. I had walked many miles that week, and had the blisters on my feet to prove it. I felt no need to judge because by getting close to their way of life I could better understand the burden they had to bear.

How many people experiencing homelessness were abused as children instead of being nurtured, or grew up in an impoverished, toxic, dysfunctional family? Being robbed of their emotional building blocks, they wander the streets crippled and unable to know how to relate to others, cope with challenges or use problem-solving skills. So many deal with the pain by anesthetizing themselves with drugs and alcohol. Those suffering from addiction find each other on the streets and cling to each other to survive. So often sharing toxic habits making their situation even worse.

We are all broken in some way, but those of us who know Jesus should be the first to give grace, long-suffering, patience, sacrifice and love-knowing we didn’t earn or deserve any good thing. God blessed us so that we can bless others. We must look through the eyes of Jesus in order to see through all the symptoms to see the roots of the disease. It takes looking beyond bad behavior to understand the pain. Most people feel bad for abused children and want to help these innocent victims. What about these same children who have grown up into stunted adults? Many fell through the cracks of the system and are still suffering from the trauma of their childhood.

Let us remind ourselves that Jesus came for the sick, not the healthy. We forget how sick we were and how sick we are. We can make ourselves look good with accomplishments in order to mask the brokenness and dysfunction we still struggle with–our sin. A person struggling with homelessness is confronted constantly with their harsh reality, causing them to seek any temporary relief despite the cost.

When believers step in with relief that is healthy-food, clothes, emotional support, prayer- it opens a window to the soul. Our tangible love is a ticket to journey with others into the roots of their pain so that the healer can reach the infection that is poisoning their whole body. Our prescription is grace and favor-that they are loved and treasured despite what anyone else said and did to communicate the opposite. We really are our brother’s keeper.

Coming up next time, One Of The Best Days Of My Life, Part 11 of STREET PILGRIMAGE.

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