Archive for the ‘Articles’ Category


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You Dirty Addict!


One of the remaining social stigmas in America is addiction. We allow it and expect it of our celebrities, pop stars and even politicians, but in most normal social situations those who struggle with addiction still hide in shame. No one wants the scarlet letter “A” for addiction to mar their reputation. Even Jesus himself was accused of being an alcoholic in a character assassination attempt: “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard,” Matthew 11:19

The fact is that we are all addicted. Some are addicted to the perceived “big addictions” of alcohol, drugs or sex. The more accepted addictions in America are those of work, tv, internet, Facebook, porn and my personal favorite: coffee. I call it “Christian crank”. Some of my most poignant spiritual moments and deepest spiritual epiphanies happened under the influence of hot, dark, and delicious caffeine Kool-Aid. My favorite brew is served at my second office and favorite coffee bar, Rockn’ Joe. The brew is called Sledgehammer and it is awesome. Every year more scientific studies come out with evidence that coffee is good for your heart, liver, etc, but to be honest I just don’t care. I love the flavor, the aroma and have to confess, the buzz too.

As the child of a former addict, I decided to never drink alcohol or even try a cigarette. Suffering the effects of alcoholism in my family gave me a bad taste for drinking, no pun intended. I know that drinking alcohol is not a sin, because Jesus did it and even created alcohol with his first miracle. I guess I’m a teetotaler, but I don’t like tea. My drug of choice is stronger and if brewed right, puts hair on your chest.

It has been said that drugs and alcohol are counterfeits for the Holy Spirit. Alcohol is even called “spirits”. I think that when someone uses drugs and alcohol to get drunk or high it opens a door to the influence of evil spirits. In fact many occultic or shamanistic spiritual rituals intentionally utilize drugs to open people up to these spirits. The word “pharmaceutical” comes from the word pharmakeia, which is the greek word for sorcery.

At New York City Relief we see the graphic results of addiction to drugs and alcohol. Heroin, crack and liquor have ravaged people’s lives, leaving them as hollow shells. Much of our work involves helping men and women to get into detoxification units to cleanse their system of chemical addiction, then connecting them to a rehabilitation program where they can learn to live without the chains of these life-controlling substances. Counseling is given to deal with the root causes of the pain that drives addiction and Biblical ministry is given to lead people into God’s spiritual and emotional healing.

Teresa Gowan and Sam

It’s easy to judge such people for their self-destructive lifestyles, however, not one of those people set out to become a drunk or a junkie. Most addictions start out as “social drinking” or “recreational use”. What is at first a fun diversion becomes an all consuming storm that sweeps away their hopes, dreams and future. Addiction also brings a crushing shame that tempts the addict to drink or drug more to escape the emotional pain that tortures them. There are many Christians who love Jesus and also battle addiction, knowing that these two things are antithetical. This is happening both on the streets and in the pews.

New York City Relief Director of Follow Up Care and Social Worker, Teresa Gowan (left) with Samantha who she sent to detox to be free from heroin.

We can judge addicts for their poor choices and irresponsible behavior, but what do we use to cope with the stresses and challenges of life?

We can judge addicts for their poor choices and irresponsible behavior, but what do we use to cope with the stresses and challenges of life? How do we numb our pain? When life is challenging at home, do we pour ourselves into work where we feel more confident and affirmed? Workaholism destroys many marriages and families, even and especially workaholism associated with ministry. When stressed out by work, do we escape into endless hours of tv, movies and internet? How many people (even Christians!) are “shopaholics”, numbing their pain by buying more and more things they don’t need while maxing out credit cards and drowning in debt?

The more legalistic and judgmental we become, the more we hide our addiction that we deem “not as bad” as other people’s problems. Our false “holiness” becomes a wall we build to separate us from those “sinners”. Our self-righteousness can then separate us from God causing us to actually be rejected by God. Jesus makes this clear in the story of the tax collector and the Pharisee:

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

                                                                                                            Luke 18:9-14

What is your addiction? What is the thing you try to use to fill the hole inside your soul? What counterfeit element do you turn to for peace and joy? Mostly, we are addicted to ourselves. The truth is we are all in “recovery”. We are recovering from the fall of man and our own personal flaws and failures. Rather than despising addicts, we should see that we are both the same. Without Jesus setting us free and breaking the yoke of bondage, we are all doomed. No one has enough will power, personal responsibility and good sense to avoid the entanglements of sin. We are completely dependent on a savior to rescue us from the things that we are addicted to. Our flesh craves temporary relief of all kinds and only through the power of the Holy Spirit can we overcome.

People in recovery talk about how much “clean time” they have, meaning how long they have been able to consistently stay sober. How much “clean time” do we have from our more acceptable addictions that take the place of God in our lives? We are all dirty and only the blood of Jesus can make us clean, whether we are hooked on pills or video games.

Here is a good question: Are there any positive forms of addiction?

In 1 Corinthians 16:15,16 Paul affirms how certain Christian leaders “addicted themselves to the ministry of the saints.” (KJV)

The work of ministry is the lifestyle of actively caring for those around us. We can addict ourselves to the lifestyle of love and helping others to be freed from their sin, their addictions and the shame that goes with them. Embrace the addicts around you. Don’t run from them, run to them. Give people in recovery the same mercy, support and friendship that you want as you work on your own recovery. There is no us and them. We are them and they are us. Together let’s embrace freedom and wholeness, throwing ourselves on God’s generous mercy. Addicts unite!

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Wooing the Poor

Most of us have heard of wooing a man or a woman, but wooing the poor? Beggars can’t be choosers right? Shouldn’t needy people just be grateful for any help they can get? Why should we have to win their affections?

I talked to a man one day about his experience working with Habitat for Humanity (a great organization). He and other men worked for a week fixing up a badly damaged house. Each day he saw the young men who were inhabitants of the house out sitting on the porch. He began to take offense that these young men weren’t lifting a hand to work to fix up their own house. They sat idly on the porch while this man and others sweated and toiled to literally put a roof over the heads. The man told me that then and there he decided never to work for Habitat For Humanity again.

Years later I still remember this sad story. Recently I thought to myself, “Why didn’t he just ask them to help and offer to teach them how to swing a hammer?” Where the man erred in his thinking was assuming that these young men were ungrateful. Maybe they were, but we’ll never know. He made judgment upon their character, deciding that if they were really “good” people, they would offer to help. He decided that they weren’t worth helping.

“… many times the help we give others can actually shame them.”

In fact, I find that many times the help we give others can actually shame them. They feel embarrassed that they cannot help themselves and so retract. Many of the poor isolate themselves from society because they feel bad about the fact that they need help. This is where we have to look deeper and see that our job is to woo them.

When I was sixteen-years-old and first attracted to a cute young girl named Tracy Lucia, I immediately asked her to “go with me”. I figured, why wait for a date when we can just immediately go steady now? She was shy and didn’t know me, so she suggested we just be friends. I had enough friends and was way more interested in a girlfriend. That was when I began to woo her. I had to be patient. I had to be persistent. I had to get creative if I wanted this girl to be my main squeeze. Now about to celebrate my 20-year anniversary with Tracy, my wooing really paid off. But am I off the hook now? I am realizing that if I want our marriage to be vibrant and alive for another 20 years, I have to keep wooing my wife.

Sometimes when engaging the poor, we can get lazy and avoid the hard work of wooing. We want a person to take the help we give and explode into an upward trajectory towards personal enlightenment and success. We shouldn’t have to convince them to take the right steps forward. They should just go for it. When they don’t, we grow increasingly cynical. This leads to despair and discouragement that can ultimately lead us to isolate ourselves from the poor. It’s ironic isn’t it? We can easily tag others as being lazy, yet when it requires extra effort for us to love them, we can’t see that same flaw in ourselves.

Jim Berry wooing a friend in the Bronx

“We aren’t speed dating the homeless.”

At The Relief Bus, we are in the wooing business. Eleven times a week we take these Mobile Homeless Outreach Centers into New York City and New Jersey. We use these silly buses in a long-term, consistent way to show tangible love to the poor. We aren’t speed dating the homeless. We are in for the long haul. We use slow, steady, methodical wooing methods to tenaciously press through the walls that people have erected to protect themselves.

In order to woo someone you have to understand what makes that person tick. Like a detective, you have to pick up on what they like and don’t like if you want to be successful. Woe to the man that buys his lady the type of flowers that she hates. What’s to hate? They’re flowers right? Wrong.

A one-size-fits-all approach isn’t loving, it’s lazy. Love is hard work, but it’s great work. If you want to woo someone, you had better be patient and you had better be kind. Don’t forget how incredibly patient and kind Jesus was with us. Forget the “was” part, Jesus is constantly wooing all of us. We tend to stray and He gently keeps pulling us back to himself. We don’t deserve this thing called grace and neither do the poor. What’s “deserve” got to do with anything anyway? “Mercy triumphs over judgement.” -James 2:13

Get wooing. Woo woo!

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You Surpass Them All

Jim Carey once said, “Behind every great man is a woman rolling her eyes.” I’m sure every wife can relate to this to some degree. I remember reading an interview with Helena Bonham Carter where she was asked what it was like living with such a genius filmmaker, Tim Burton. She said she didn’t find his genius too intimidating, because he couldn’t seem to pick up his dirty underwear off the floor.

When I was sixteen-years-old and became interested in a cute girl named Tracy Lucia, I truly was struck by her beauty. However, it was her character that caused me to pursue her doggedly until she agreed to marry me six years later. She had qualities that I lacked, but was determined to have: confidence, leadership ability, and an intense passion for God. Frankly, I wanted to be like her. I still do.

When Tracy was fourteen I saw her discipling other junior high students in our church, at fifteen running our teen summer camp, at sixteen running a Bible club at her school and fearlessly doing street evangelism alone on the streets of downtown Dallas.

After many years of dating, I tricked her into marrying me. Although I had no job at the time, but plenty of ambition, she chose me. When I got my first full-time job as a youth pastor, she was my mentor. I was nerve wracked and socially inept. She was a born leader and extrovert. Man, had I picked the right girl! Together as a team we followed our dreams.

A wife of noble character who can find?

She is worth far more than rubies.

Her husband has full confidence in her

and lacks nothing of value.

Proverbs 31:10,11

Tracy is the kind of Proverbs 31 woman who loves those who are looked over, those who are different or even outcasts. If someone is different or doesn’t “fit in”, she makes them feel special. Together Tracy and I started a church for the homeless and a school of urban ministry where she trained many others in how to minister to the poor. She mentors other women in motherhood and wifehood. She even has her own show that gives great advice on YouTube: More importantly, she gives me wise counsel. Although I don’t acknowledge this to her enough, the advice she gives me is usually right on the money. She has played a strong part in every success I have ever had.

She speaks with wisdom,

and faithful instruction is on her tongue.

Proverbs 31:26

Tracy takes care of the poor and elderly, driving neighbors to doctor’s appointments. One time I witnessed her cleaning up and bandaging a bloody, wounded homeless, drug addicted man who had asked her for help. In a world of HIV and AIDS, this was nothing less than courageous (No, she was not infected). Each year Tracy takes the initiative in making sure that our family gives to the needy through sponsor children and special Christmas giving.

She opens her arms to the poor

and extends her hands to the needy.

Proverbs 31:20

Behind the scenes, She nurtures and cares for our family allowing me to work a full-time missionary position serving the homeless in New York and New Jersey. I get all the glory while behind the scenes, she is the one encouraging me and holding me up when I bottom out. She pinches pennies, looks for deals and saves our money to make sure that we are prepared for dry seasons.

She watches over the affairs of her household

and does not eat the bread of idleness.

Proverbs 31:27

To have a wife who knows all of your bad sides in detail and continues to love, support and sacrifice for you is truly a priceless treasure. It is the epitome of grace: undeserved favor. Over almost twenty years in our marriage we had times of turmoil, challenge and stress, but Tracy never considered divorcing me. I have had several Christian buddies over the years who weren’t so fortunate. With a woman like Tracy by my side I am able to go for broke and risk failure knowing that she stands with me no matter what goes down.

Coming up on our twenty year anniversary in November, I can still honestly say that I still want to be like Tracy. Marrying her was the best decision I ever made. No matter what happens in life, as long as I have her I count myself a very rich man. There are plenty of great ladies out there, but as far as I’m concerned Tracy surpasses them all. (And she’s hot too!)

Her children arise and call her blessed;

her husband also, and he praises her:

“Many women do noble things,

but you surpass them all.”

Proverbs 31:28,29

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Rockin Love

Every week I go to read, answer emails, drink strong coffee and write blog articles at my favorite coffee place, Rockn’ Joes. This place is cozy, plays good rock n’ roll on the sound system (Neil Young right now) and is full of regulars. I’m not a very social person. I know how to talk when I need to, but I am more often happy to not talk to anyone. Like Cheers, this is a place where everyone knows my name. They are friendly and the service is great.

Despite my hermit-like nature, I have gotten to know some of the regulars and have had some good discussions. Professor Mike from NYU is here most often, grading papers on his MacBook. He’s like the mayor and no one sits in his seat out of respect. He has given me some good management tips, gleaned from his years of teaching them professionally.

Another fixture at Rockn’ Joes is Stan (not his real name), an elderly retired man who loves to quote Shakespeare, talk politics and just be around people. He is also quick to share with anyone that he deals with depression. I gave him a copy of my autobiographical book, God’s Beggars and he always apologizes for not finishing it. He’s not much of a reader and I certainly don’t blame him. Stan gives me a heads up when the policeman comes around to check the parking meters.

Stan is a sad soul. I have invited him to come out and volunteer with me sometime on The Relief Bus. I think it might cheer him up. It’s way out of his comfort zone, however and he is afraid of dealing with homeless people. He’s mostly afraid of witnessing their sadness, because he is already overburdened with enough of his own. It’s understandable, yet incorrect. Most people who serve quickly forget their own sadness (at least temporarily) as they help others.

The owner of Rockn’ Joes gives free, pricey gourmet coffee to Stan every day. More important, he gives Stan a place to be and have community. Stan plants himself in a comfy leather chair and chats with the waitresses and regulars throughout the day. I saw the owner give Stan a little errand to pick up bagels to earn a breakfast bagel sandwich today.

As I am watching all of this, I am sitting here reading James 2:1-3

My friends, if you have faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, you won’t treat some people better than others. Suppose a rich person wearing fancy clothes and a gold ring comes to one of your meetings. And suppose a poor person dressed in worn-out clothes also comes. You must not give the best seat to the one in fancy clothes and tell the one who is poor to stand at the side or sit on the floor.

Stan has one of the best seats in Rockn’ Joes, right next to Professor Mike and I. He didn’t pay for it, it is given by the owner. The relationships are gladly given by the employees and customers. It causes me to question, do we who have more lay out a welcome mat for those who have less? Are we insulated in a world of haves, cocooned from the have nots? Are we opening our hearts and minds to the powerless and the poor, or is our time too valuable to us? Are our relationships limited to those who are important enough?

God, help me to slow down the pace of my life and my mind to see those you are placing around me that need my time, my resources and my friendship. Life’s too short to live narrow, exclusive and small.

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Do We Have Proof?

Yesterday I met a man named Charlie in the South Bronx during a day of outreach with The Relief Bus. Fifteen years ago Charlie met Vice President & General Manager of The Relief Bus, Bill Hoffman. Back then he was just known as “Bill.” Charlie told the story of his condition when he met Bill those many years ago: sick, homeless and desperate. In his greatest hour of need, Bill helped Charlie and his family find shelter and even diapers for his infant daughter. Today he tells how Bill’s act of friendship and love kept him from bottoming out completely. He is forever grateful. See a video of Charlie’s story told live on the street at The Relief Bus here:

“While he was doing time in the pen, Crazy Johnny heard the word on the street about what his cousin was doing. Johnny sent his boys to ask Jesus, “Are you the One God sent to get us out of this mess or not?

“Jesus said, “The proof is in the pudding. Tell Johnny I’m doing some wild miracles here. I’m healing people who are blind as bats, straightening out crippled legs, changing rotting flesh into brand new skin, unplugging deaf ears, bringing dead people back to life and I’m telling the poor not to give up hope because God really does love them. I may look pretty ordinary on the outside, but looks can be deceiving. If you hang in there with me, you’ll find what you are looking for.”
Matthew 11:2-5 (The Street Bible)

Right after this passage in Matthew 11:11, Jesus ironically goes on to declare that John was the greatest prophet ever to walk the earth right after John sent his disciples to confirm whether or not his own cousin was the Messiah. You would think that the greatest prophet the world had ever known would have some insight into who the person all of scripture pointed toward, as to who the Messiah really is, especially if they were related! But his question to Jesus was simple, “Do you have proof?”

It just goes to show that we all have moments of doubt. As John languished in prison facing his own execution, he wanted to confirm that his life’s efforts had not been wasted.

Jesus’ answer echoed the prophecy detailed in Isaiah 61:

“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn.“ (Isaiah 61:1, 2 NIV)

The proof of Jesus’ messiahship was the demonstration of the true character of God. While the Jewish world anticipated a conquering King, Jesus came as a humble servant, spending his life amongst the poor and powerless. His acts of compassion verified him as the true God, savior of humanity and the greatest hero in history.

If John were to ask us today if we really are followers of the Messiah, what would our response be? If the answer is yes, what proof would we offer to demonstrate that we are truly disciples, followers and imitators of the Messiah Rabbi called Jesus? Isn’t that what the world’s ultimate question for us is, “Do you have proof?”

May our answer be, “I’m spending time with the down and out, telling them good news, that Jesus loves them. I am sharing the same hope and healing that God lavished on me.”

Charlie not only discovered proof that God was real fifteen years ago, he also found proof that Bill was the real deal as well, a true follower. May we all be able to produce “evidence sufficient to establish a thing (our faith) as true, or to produce belief in its truth”, for that is the definition of proof.

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The Only Thing That Counts

What defines a society, a culture and even a person is the law. The written or unwritten law that governs a society, a culture or an individual is the framework or boundaries that dictate who we really are.

Some people love the law and some hate it. Some find security in the law while others find their identity in being lawless. Humanity tends to swing from one extreme to another. Some embrace rules and find that following them can give a feeling of control over their lives. Others shirk rules and find excitement in breaking them, indulging in the forbidden. Most of us have probably tried both. I know I have.

Old Testament law had rules covering just about everything: hygiene, sex, murder, food, animal husbandry, you name it. The Bible details how rule-by-rule the people of God, including kings and prophets broke them all.

Why did God create the Old Testament law knowing that it would be impossible for us to obey it? It can seem like kind of a long pointless exercise if you know the result in advance. Was He trying to just torment us? Just the opposite actually- He was trying to keep us from tormenting ourselves.

God knew that all people have an inner compulsion to create their own law. After creating this list of rules in their minds, they then use this law to justify themselves. Our flawed sin nature creates a built-in belief that says, “I am acceptable IF…I am hard working, IF I am good looking, IF I am successful, IF am responsible, if I am nice.” The problem of course comes when we try to follow our own rules. We mess those up too. With all of these “if’s”, we neurotically push ourselves to work harder to “be somebody” or at the very least to just “be okay”.

I’m not speaking in generalities. I am talking specifically about myself. I have found that much of my activity and striving can make me miserable because I operate out of fear instead of out of faith. Fear that I won’t measure up. Fear that others will look down on me. Fear that I will let people down. Following my own rules is stressful, because I am never good enough.

I don’t know why, but I am perfectly able to give grace to the people we work with on The Relief Bus: the homeless, drug addicts, ex-cons, but end up raking myself over the coals. No one is a harsher judge of me than me. For some reason, I am a cruel taskmaster to myself. I treat myself like a slave. God began to speak to me. I wrote the words He was whispering in my heart in my journal, “Stop doing things in your own strength and walking in the flesh. Why act like a slave, when you are a son? Don’t be a slave to fear, a slave to performance and a slave to success.”

We either make these self-imposed rules our religion, and feel superior to others because of our moral achievements, or we feel like a demoralized failure for our lack of will power and self control. Either way, our self-made law doesn’t lead to what we really want: to be like God, the only one who is truly good, to be so close and intimate with God that we become one. This is the only place of true peace and satisfaction.

Psalm 73:28 (MSG)
You’re all I want in heaven!
You’re all I want on earth!
When my skin sags and my bones get brittle,
God is rock-firm and faithful.
Look! Those who left you are falling apart!
Deserters, they’ll never be heard from again.
But I’m in the very presence of God—
oh, how refreshing it is!

God’s exhaustive law shines a spotlight on the fact that we are powerless to justify ourselves. We can never perform well enough to be secure. That’s why He sent Jesus to come and through the cross justify us through his grace.

Galatians 5:1 CEV
Christ has set us free! This means we are really free. Now hold on to your freedom and don’t ever become slaves of the Law again.

God knows that even after we make Christ Lord, that we will still slip into our old tendencies of trying to be a good enough Christians by reading the Bible enough, praying enough, thinking enough holy thoughts, etc.

v.4 And if you try to please God by obeying the Law, you have cut yourself off from Christ and his wonderful kindness.

In other words He is saying, “Stop it!”

Galatians 5:6 NIV

“The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.”

Evidently the only thing that counts is trusting God and out of that security, freely giving grace, affirmation, expressing value, affection and approval to others.

v.22,23 CEV

God’s Spirit makes us loving, happy, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled. There is no law against behaving in any of these ways. And because we belong to Christ Jesus, we have killed our selfish feelings and desires. God’s Spirit has given us life, and so we should follow the Spirit.

In other words, you have to let God love your flawed, messed up self when you know you don’t deserve it. Only then will you have the power to love others in their flawed, messed up condition.

There is a truth that supersedes all law: God loved us, now we can love others, even ourselves.

1 John 4:19 NIV

We love because he first loved us.

This is what I am finding to be my salvation. This is the light that guides me home.

Psalm 73:28 (MSG)
I’ve made Lord God my home.
God, I’m telling the world what you do!

We should get ahold of this because IT’S THE ONLY THING THAT COUNTS.

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What Makes Us Tick

What you and the public probably know about The Relief Bus for is our service to the poor and homeless. In 2011, we fed 339,778 servings of food and beverage. Our staff and volunteers gave away 12,469 items of clothing or hygiene products to the needy. 19,449 people received one-on-one personal care, and opportunity to connect to vital resources like shelter, job info, detox, and drug/alcohol rehabilitation.

This is the external expression of what our true core is: a spiritual community. Not a church, cult or commune, but a group of people of different ages, ethnicities, and church backgrounds who have come together for something greater than ourselves. Our mission is to help the addicted, the broken and the hopeless find life transformation. We have quite a task on our hands and have definitely bitten off more than we can chew.

In October 2011, the largest homeless population ever recorded in the New York City Public Shelter System was recorded. 41,000 people were counted as being homeless and 17,000 of that number were children.

Will poverty or homeless ever be ended? I don’t think so. Anyone who has ever worked with the homeless knows that it is complicated. Yet we have hope.

Our staff of twelve live as urban missionaries and actually fundraise so that they can even do this work. We don’t look like your average missionaries. The average staff age is around 28. Many of the staff are pierced, tattooed and even a little scruffy. You might think they are just young and idealistic, but you would be wrong. Idealism goes out the window after the first week. There is a quiet depth and an enthusiastic air about them. So many times people who work with the poor burn out and become jaded because of the mountains of need they are exposed to every day. It can be overwhelming. The Relief Bus goes on eleven outreaches a week to the most impoverished, drug addicted, crime infested neighborhoods in America. What stokes the fire of the furnace to keep our team going? It looks something like this:

“God planned for us to do good things and to live as he has always wanted us to live. That’s why he sent Christ to make us what we are.”

Ephesians 2:10 CEV

The more we engage with the hurting of this world, the more God changes us and shapes us into what He always destined us to be. The more we intentionally draw close to Him, the more we gain courage and strength to keep going. There is simply no substitute for the presence of God in our lives. He is our life and the more we give up control to him, the more alive and free we become. This certainly does not pan out like a bed of roses. We walk through our own pain and the pain of others on the streets, but with hope.

We want to share with the public the core of who we are, what makes us tick and how it plays out in our daily lives. We have found a few new ways to share that. We have launched a new podcast and a new quarterly interactive worship experience that we invite you to use to journey with us.


This podcast is a mishmash of sermons, stories and messages given by our staff, given to our staff by friends, music and worship that we sing together and whatever else we find significant to us. Please subscribe and let it feed your soul as you workout, commute or just take a break. Click here to listen now!


Four times this year our staff will be leading a time of worship and prayer at the Eastern Gate International House of Prayer at 950 Raritan Road, Cranford, NJ 07016. Not only can locals join us, but it will be broadcast live online here: Our staff will lead live worship and lead the attendees in times of prayer and intercession for the poor and the city. From 6pm to 8pm we invite you to experience God’s presence together with us. Here are the upcoming dates:

  • March 22
  • June 14
  • September 27
  • November 15

Finally, many of Relief Bus staff write blogs or post newsletters online that detail the ups and downs of living this peculiar urban missionary life. They humbly tell the story of what they are learning from the poor. I heartily encourage you to check them out and consider subscribing as well.

Lance Farrell:

Juan Galloway:

Josiah Haken:

Bill Hoffman:

Katrina Monta:

Katie Morris:

Johanna Soukka:

Caitlin Stiefel:

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A Broken Present

Imagine trying to pick out a present for the guy who really has everything. I’m talking about God. What kind of gift could you give God that He would really want? You won’t find it shopping online. The gift I’m thinking of is the perfect fit, and you won’t need a warranty either, because it’s already broken. “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” Psalm 51:17 NIV

Jesus could have come the first time as a powerful warrior, but he chose to be born into poverty and political oppression. God chose to enter the brokenness of the world, up close and personal. Jesus experienced the pain of those around him firsthand. The Bible calls Jesus, “a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.” Is. 53:3.

Look at who is struggling around us: For the first time in recorded history, New York City has recorded over
40,000 people staying in the public shelter system during the month of October. This record number includes
17,000 children. The broken are all around us.

I have met some of these homeless children on the streets. I have four children of my own and I wonder what all these homeless kids will be going through over the Christmas holidays. I wonder what I can do to help?

Many times we look at the plight of the poor and although we want to do something to help, we feel so overwhelmed that we do nothing. We feel inadequate so we disqualify ourselves. The gift that God really wants from us is action governed by a humble and broken heart. From this perspective, others can receive God’s love from us without feeling condescended to or looked down upon.

Children stopping by the bus in W. Harlem for some soup & bread

Brokenness allows us to connect with people the way Jesus did, humbly. It validates us in people’s eyes. Now that you’ve got the method, let me introduce you to a great delivery system that beats Santa’s sleigh any day:

For 22 years, The Relief Bus has been a vehicle of life transformation in the inner city. The Relief Bus is a mobile soup kitchen and resource center. It feeds thousands of gallons of delicious soup every year to the hungry. More importantly it delivers volunteers into the most needy areas of New York City and New Jersey. These volunteers are on a mission to give away the greatest gift they have: grace. The gift of grace allows us to not come as one with all the answers, but to journey with others who are struggling.

As relationships are built during outreaches with The Relief Bus, connections are made to vital resources: shelter, detox, rehab, food, clothing, job training and local churches. These gifts keep on giving for those desperately in need.

This Christmas, consider giving to the poor through The Relief Bus. Also consider volunteering and giving your time. Mail checks to “The Relief Bus”, 295 Walnut Street, Elizabeth, NJ 07201. Give online at To volunteer contact us at

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The Mystery Machine

You may remember the groovy 1970’s style van from the classic cartoon series, Scooby Doo, Where Are You? Scooby and the gang rode around in this van solving mysteries. It was aptly named The Mystery Machine. Most of these mysteries were of the supernatural kind, or at least appeared to be. As a little kid, I was so scared of the ghosts and monsters that I would change the channel whenever they appeared and quickly flip back to see if they were gone so I could enjoy the rest of the cartoon.

As an adult, I have had the chance many times to ride around in another mystery machine. This vehicle transports thousands of people every year into God’s mysteries, also of the supernatural kind. We explore strange phenomena where the last are first and the powerless represent the One who is all-powerful. We call this groovy vehicle The Relief Bus.

The people we meet on the streets are many times ghosts of their former selves. In former lives they were pilots, soldiers, nurses or even preachers. Along the way something happened to alter their course.

This week I stood in the pouring rain in New York City talking to a woman named Deborah. She is an incredibly sweet woman who is mentally ill. Deborah lives in an artist community near our Chelsea Park outreach location. It is a free Section 8 apartment. She comes to eat our delicious soup twice a week. She also dumpster-dives for her food. I was amazed to hear how she described the great finds she had made of squash and cheese in the garbage. Deborah explained that if she lived in lower Manhattan she would be fighting 30 other people for food of that quality.

Deborah and Juan on a rainy day in Chelsea Park

Deborah was formerly an art teacher. At one time, her school was going to close the art department, because they couldn’t afford art supplies. She volunteered to buy them herself so that the kids could continue to enjoy the gift of art.

Deborah told me an amazing story about a team of female Relief Bus volunteers from Ohio that impacted her life. She was very ill, but too afraid of doctors to get help. The women who heard her story offered her prayer and she accepted. As they lifted their voices up to heaven for her healing that day, Deborah felt very uplifted, but nothing appeared to happen physically. Over the next two weeks, the painful bony arthritic nodules on her fingers disappeared. She was amazed.

Deborah attends a church of mostly wealthy people in Manhattan and sings in the choir every week, next to some people who arrive in limousines. She continues to sketch and paint, showing her pieces at art shows in her building. Deborah is not on SSI, because she doesn’t want to be officially classified as mentally ill. She doesn’t want that label because that isn’t how she sees herself. I can’t say I blame her.

In A Long Obedience In The Same Direction, Eugene Peterson states,

“We have picked up the bad habit of reducing what we find in the Bible to ideas or slogans or principles or out-of-context ‘verses.’ Forget the details; skip the mystery; we want a definition we can grasp and be comfortable with. We depersonalize the Bible into abstractions or “truths” that we can reconfigure and then fit into the plots that we make up for our lives… Imagination is the capacity we have of crossing boundaries of space and time, with all our senses intact and entering into other God-revealed conversations and actions, finding ourselves at home in Bible country.”

The church as a team, a community, a body, must enter the mysteries of God to grasp the deeper truths of God. Like sleuths following clues, we must follow the footsteps of Jesus, studying everything we find his fingerprints on. Like most successful detectives, we must get out of the lab and get out on the field. No amount of analysis can replace good old-fashioned footwork.

The quest I have entered to find God in the city, to find him amongst the poor and broken has taken new sight. The magnifying glass of imagination has allowed me to “see” God in surprising places.

These “ghosts” we meet on the streets are sometimes called the invisible people. Sometimes we have the privilege of leading these “ghosts” from the world of the dead back to the world of the living. Other times, they lead us out of the illusions we are living in to enter the world of humility and faith that we are blind to. They make the mysteries of God clear to us in a way that no one else could.

Like Shaggy and Scooby, we stumble and bumble into these mysteries more than we brilliantly deduce them. We are as scripture describes, “fools for Christ”, the “foolish, weak and despised.” However, collectively we have the amazing ability together to connect with and enter into, even become one with the mysteries of God. Climb on the “mystery machine” and let’s hit the road. We were made for this kind of adventure.

Zoinks! Now we have a new way for you to join the gang here at The Relief Bus. Introducing…THE RELIEF BASE! This is an urban missions training center that volunteer teams can come and stay at for as long as a week. Teams will receive training in the evenings and do outreach on The Relief Bus in New York City during the day with our staff. This facility is brand new with comfy bunk beds, hot showers and decorated with a New York City theme. Click here for pricing and details.

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