The Opposite of Poverty–It’s Not What You Think.

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A toothless, one-eyed man named Billy who lived on the streets offered me his last gift card. My own self-centeredness was assaulted by the reckless kindness of this stranger with a scruffy beard. Who was this man and why would he do this? I was learning lessons on true wealth and doing justice from what appeared to be the most unlikely of teachers during my week living on the streets of New York City. Talk about not being able to judge a book by it’s cover…


In the book Just Mercy, author Bryan Stevenson says, “The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice. Poverty is not just the simple absence of wealth. Poverty is the social condition of being disfavored.”

Being poor isn’t just being broke. Being poor is something you are branded with by society or even yourself as a negative identity. It is being stamped with a scarlet letter that defines your worth by your current situation.

It is human nature (the bad part of human nature) to wonder why a person is poor and then surmise whether they deserve our help or not. We reason that maybe people who struggle financially are just getting what they deserve. We know that we ourselves have gone to great lengths to avoid poverty: studying hard in school, then working hard to move up the career ladder. We immediately assume the person in poverty must not have the same values or work ethic as we do, otherwise they wouldn’t be poor. In other words, we find them to be undeserving of our assistance and consider that helping them might even constitute enablement.

The Catholic activist Dorothy Day once said, “The Gospel takes away our right forever, to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor.”

“Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

Author and Pastor Tim Keller wrote,

“Because there are a number of potential causes of poverty, a distinction is sometimes made between the deserving poor (the oppressed and the unfortunate) and the undeserving poor (behavioral). There are a number of reasons why such categories are illegitimate.

“First, the complexity of the interrelationship between the causes does not always make it easy to discern who is “deserving” and who is “undeserving”.

“Second, God, who shows mercy to the undeserving, is our model in showing mercy to others. Christ might have said, “They are wicked rebels…shall I lay down my life for these? I will give to the good angels.” But that is not what he did. He left the ninety-nine and came after the lost. He gave his blood for the undeserving.”

The Bible is quick to affirm the dignity of the poor and condemn those of us who dishonor them by showing favoritism to others who we deem more worthy. It even goes to the extent of telling us that we could learn a thing or two from the poor who, are in fact, more wealthy than we are in the things that really matter-in matters of faith:

“Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: 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? But you have dishonored the poor…But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.” James 2:5-6, 9


I learned firsthand how much I had to learn from those who are poor when I spent a week living on the streets of New York City in March of 2018. I did this because I felt led by God to embark on a spiritual pilgrimage. It was an extreme experience in which I saw Jesus up close and personal in the lives of many people challenged with homelessness.

I was shown great generosity by a man named Billy who, although he sleeps on a piece of cardboard every night, offered me his last Dunkin’ Donuts gift card that a stranger had given him. This angel in disguise was the one I described as “a toothless, one-eyed man from the streets.” He told me that what he really desired in life was to be surrounded by friends. His wisdom made me wonder who was rich and who was poor.

Another man named Jacques who I met at a soup kitchen offered to teach me a trade painting houses and give me work. He also showed me how to sleep in the Port Authority bus terminal without getting arrested. Instead of judgement, these men offered me kindness and assistance when I had done nothing to deserve it. This changed me. Coming close to people fighting to survive will do that. Coming close to Jesus will do that.

One of the stigmas that go along with poverty and homelessness is the assumption of addiction. You might assume that most people experiencing homelessness are addicted to drugs or alcohol, and while that is definitely an issue, according to the most recent annual survey the top three causes of homelessness among individuals were not addiction but 1. lack of affordable housing, 2. unemployment, 3. poverty. (Survey by U.S. Conference of Mayors) This paints a completely different picture for why people are living on the streets.


Bryan Stevenson describes poverty as a condition of disfavor-of being looked down upon and judged as undeserving. As followers of Jesus we are called to be agents of justice standing up for what is right and standing up for the weak. We know that the blessings God has given us are not only for us but for others in need:

“Defend the weak and the fatherless;
uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”-Psalm 82:3,4

Our job is not only to assist people in escaping poverty, but in escaping the stigmas that go with poverty. We do that by associating with them and showing solidarity in our common humanity. That is why at the organization I work at, New York City Relief, we set up chairs and tables to break bread together with our friends who are unhoused. Rather than just giving out charity, we offer community.

hair salon

Jody Wood, the creator of Beauty In Transition which gives free hair styling to people experiencing homelessness says, “The stigma of homelessness is such a learned cognitive error and it’s so easy to undo once you just have face-to-face contact between two humans in a tactile, intimate setting and a hair salon can create this.” This is the very truth we see displayed at every outreach operated by New York City Relief.

In many cases it is true that people have made bad choices that have contributed to their poverty. Our flesh finds it difficult to have compassion on someone who has rebelled against wisdom and embraced foolishness. We find people like that to be harder to love. Maybe that is why the great philosopher Socrates said, “Those who are hardest to love need it most.”

Of course, everyone has made foolish choices, but not all of us have had security nets such as stable family, education or a network to fall back on.

Bryan Stevenson goes onto say, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” This idea is echoed in the life of Jesus who, rather than judge and condemn the sinners he met, offered mercy. Where others saw trash, he saw treasure. More than just offering assistance or lessons, he offered relationship. Jesus knew that one way to destroy stigmas and crushing labels is to draw near to those suffering from them.

Jesus drew near to us, though we were undeserving and hard to love. He laid aside fairness to give us what we didn’t earn. This is how he calls us to do justice-offering the same grace we were given. By sharing our blessings, we destroy the poverty of a lack of housing, employment or resources. By loving those who are struggling we destroy the condition of being disfavored. Maybe that is part of what Jesus meant when he said that he came “to destroy the works of the enemy.”

Despite being challenged with homelessness, my mentor Billy taught me a powerful spiritual lesson through his actions. He lived out the truth of scripture in Micah 6:8, “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Thank you Billy, for showing me how to love like Jesus does.



This Thanksgiving, please consider loving people who are living on the streets by making a gift towards New York City Relief. We need your help to feed the hungry and offer hope and connections to vital resources. Give at: THANK YOU!


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Our new podcast: 36 QUESTIONS


Bono, The Salvation Army and staring into each other’s eyes for 4 minutes. Find out more at the new podcast by my wife Tracy and I titled, 36 QUESTIONS.


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No Chance In…- Part 7 of STREET PILGRIMAGE

It was my third night living on the streets of New York City as a part of my spiritual pilgrimage. I walked up the stairs of the drop-in center called The Main Chance that was supposed to be a temporary oasis for those challenged with homelessness. I was exhausted from walking the streets. I hadn’t bathed in days and was hoping I could get a good night’s sleep and a hot shower. Unfortunately, The Main Chance turned out to be “no chance in…”

Main Chance

At the top of the stairs I found an open room with women sitting in plastic chairs. I looked at them and felt uncomfortable, so I quickly looked away. These ladies had no privacy here and probably didn’t want some strange man gawking at them. I turned around and found the stairs up to the next level where the men are kept.

A drop-in center is a kind of overnight shelter, but with no beds. What I discovered was a room full of plastic, Adirondack style lawn chairs. The brightly lit room was half-full of men. The cinderblock walls were painted with colorful murals of the type you might find in an elementary school. I saw an empty chair and made my way over to sit down.

I found out that I could put my name on a list to take a shower. I eagerly ran back downstairs to sign up and then ran back up hoping my backpack was still in my chair. Throughout the night, names were called to have a turn in the single shower stall, but somehow I never made the cut. This was really disappointing.

The staff member in charge of the room was pleasant enough as he watched the men enter and find a seat. While he chatted off and on with other staff, he mentioned one of his supervisors who was very tough. If a person struggling with homelessness didn’t comply with her instructions, she would put them on a list that effectively blackballed them from entering any city drop-in center or shelter for good. One mistake could cause a person who was already at the end of their rope to be permanently cut off from vital services. It was a lot of power to have over people who were already powerless. I imagined what it would be like to have even this rudimentary shelter stripped away.

Inside Main Chance

There was a TV in the room, but it wasn’t turned on. This made some of the men upset and they complained about it. A staff member gave the excuse that they only turned it on weekends. No explanation as to why weekends were designated as TV worthy. (See picture at left)

An older man with glasses entered the room and sat down next to me. He was clean and dressed decently. I imagined that he could have been my grandfather. As soon as he sat down however, he began talking to himself and cursing. Apparently, he had some mental challenges. I was imagining the man keeping me up all night while he talked to himself, so I asked the staff member in charge if I could move to one of the many empty chairs in the room. I was also hoping to get a chair by the wall so that I could lean against it when I tried to sleep. He said that maybe later I could move, but what he really meant was “no”. I sighed and sat back down.

After the men filed in, there were multiple altercations. The group was riled up as men grumbled at each other. An elderly man closed a window which caused another man to openly complain to the room and criticize him over and over. Finally, the older man got fed up and left. I wondered where he would end up that night. He would rather brave the cold streets than endure this hostile environment.

If someone was upset or violent, it was usually because of the disrespect they were shown. They didn’t have the capacity to endure that.


After that a man marched in very angry and yelling profanities. This was a small room so it kind of shook the crowd. He slammed down his belongings and sat in a chair. The man in charge ran up the stairs and confronted him loudly. This backed the man down so that he quit screaming and apologized. Evidently, he was in a rage because someone had disrespected him. I think this was the case everywhere I spent time with people who were unhoused. If someone was upset or violent, it was usually because of the disrespect they were shown. They didn’t have the capacity to endure that. Disrespect was the last straw that sent people spiraling out of control. It offended their human dignity and cut to the core. Being treated like garbage was heaping insult upon injury.

These experiences helped me to realize why the outreaches at New York City Relief are so effective. When people come to one of our outreach sites, they aren’t just hungry for food, they are starving for dignity and basic human kindness. A man who volunteered with us remarked to me how our team had trained him to treat people as if they were being served at a 4-star restaurant. He said that this method worked beautifully and that people really appreciated the VIP treatment. He ended up connecting with people at a heart level because he learned how to honor them.

At The Main Chance, another man walked into the room and was bewildered to discover that he had to be separated from his wife to stay there. He argued with the staff that he could not be apart from her. They tried to explain that those were the rules of the facility, but it made no sense to him. He had nothing left but his wife and could not bear to be separated from her. He pleaded with the staff and tried to make a case for why a husband and wife should not be apart. Ultimately, he couldn’t sway them and decided to grab the love of his life and his belongings and leave. I find it to be true that many couples living on the streets protect each other and help manage the physical and/or mental conditions of the other. They depend on each other to survive.

Meanwhile, I was still nervous about the guy sitting next to me keeping me up all night. I decided to ask one of the other drop-in center residents if I would get in trouble if I moved. I overheard a man back behind me talking to others for about an hour. Actually, he was the mouthiest guy in the room, but seemed friendly enough to the people he knew. The man seemed like a regular who had been around. I was sure that he knew the ropes around there.

I stood up quickly and walked several steps over to him. I asked if he thought the staff would mind if I moved to a different seat now. That turned out to be a big mistake. I broke some sort of unspoken code by entering his space. Although I asked the question pleasantly, I had caused an offense. He looked at me as if I was crazy and immediately started ranting to the entire room about my audacity. He loudly said, “You ever see anything like that m*f* coming up on someone like that? Last time someone did that to me I…” Basically, he threatened me.

I told the guy, “Don’t be intimidated, I’m just being friendly”. He ranted for a while and his friend loudly said, “If I didn’t see it I wouldn’t have believed it – first time guys.” Wherever I slept at night during my street pilgrimage there were always some guys posturing and acting tough to intimidate others. An inebriated guy walked in that night and loudly said, “Hey &@#* face” to someone, then just kept rambling drunkenly for a long time. I hoped he would pass out which thankfully he did.

In an online digital news company called MIC, a man named Joseph Reed wrote about his experience at The Main Chance and other city shelters:

“For two weeks, I slept in a plastic chair every night while I went through the mandatory preliminary process before beginning case management. The conditions were horrible. Nobody in their right mind would want to go into the shelter system; it is an outpatient penitentiary. The shelter is a hospital of wounded and broken souls, in which people, at some point, inevitably lose hope.

“Unless you have lived in this environment, felt the danger, and seen the chaos, you cannot understand the horrors of the shelter system. Shelters are packed. People from every walk of life seek out emergency shelter.

“I see 30 to 45 fights every week. The lady in charge treats me like I am not even a human being. It is impossible to sleep in the shelter because of the constant arguments. Of course, sleep deprivation makes people angry and disgruntled and can turn anyone into a loose cannon.

“I used to say to myself, why me? And then, I had an epiphany, why not me? I have met people in the shelter from every walk of life – from people recently released from jail, to people who have master’s degrees but lost their jobs, to people suffering from mental illness. The city must provide the homeless population with real services to meet the needs of each individual. For some people that means treatment and rehabilitation, for others it means education and training to get current jobs, and for people like me, it means adequate housing and one more shot to be part of society again.

“As it stands today, the NYC shelter system for single adults is an underworld that treats the homeless as subhuman.”

Back at The Main Chance, at 7:05pm the lights went out without any warning. The staff left us alone in the room for the rest of the night which was a little disconcerting. I pulled out a piece of pound cake and cranberry juice from my bag that I had been given at St. Francis of Assisi breadline that morning. It really hit the spot.

I saw a few surreal things happen that night. One man had a neck pillow like people use during air travel. I thought that was really smart, but unexpected. A white guy across the aisle from me got a call on his cell phone and had this long, professional sounding business conversation. He obviously had spent a lot of time in a corporate environment. It was so out of place in this room, but he chatted away like it was the most normal thing in the world.

The man next to me dozed off, but I didn’t fall asleep for a long time. My chair was very uncomfortable and there were two men behind me who were trading drunken banter for about two hours. The conversation went sour and the loudest guy left. Just when I thought I would get some rest, the man sitting next to me woke up and started talking loudly to himself with lots of cursing. I tried to gently quiet him but to no avail.

The deranged conversation with himself woke up the men sleeping around us. They began yelling at him which caused him to quiet down for a while, but then he would start up again. These exhausted souls got more and more fed up. They yelled insults at him and cursed him out. I felt bad for the man, but also felt bad for these guys who just wanted a few hours of sleep. I guess the intimidation worked because he got up and left. I was torn between feeling sad for man who couldn’t control his mental issues, and hope that I might actually get some sleep now.

I did eventually doze off, but then woke to the sound of a woman from the lower level yelling upstairs to her husband to get his attention. A young security guard told her to quit, but she wouldn’t listen. He cussed at her and then she lost it. She screamed, “Why do you disrespect me like that? You don’t know what it’s like to sleep in these chairs.”

Her husband woke up along with the other forty of us. He went down to lecture the young security guard on how to talk properly to a woman. This went on for ten minutes until they finally went back to sleep.

Like other places I stayed that week, throughout the night there was a cacophony of snoring. There was also the continual background noise of people chatting downstairs. I think it was the bored staff chatting to pass the time. At one point in the night a staff person walked around the building squirting air freshener. I think one of the women downstairs was so rank that the smell was spreading throughout the building. I woke up in the middle of the night thinking it must be close to 6am. I was disappointed to see my phone said 2:30am. It was so hot in the room that I walked down to security to see if they could turn down the heat. Sadly, they could not.

At 5:30am the lights went on abruptly and the TV was turned on with the local news blasting loudly. I got the message. It was time to wake up and get out. I ran downstairs to grab a sink to brush my teeth before heading out into the dark streets.

This had been one of the longest nights of my life. I was happy to get the heck out of that place. It was more of a holding pen then an oasis. It was more depressing than comforting. How could people deal with this existence night after night for years of their lives? What were the long-term effects on these men and women who had nowhere else to go?

Juan on street

Fortunately, the next place I landed later that morning really was an oasis where I had one of my most meaningful encounters that week. Stay tuned to read Part 8, titled Friends In Strange Places.

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The Trauma of Homelessness- Part 6 of STREET PILGRIMAGE

…a continuation of a series called Street Pilgrimage, documenting my week of living on the streets of New York City amongst people experiencing homelessness. To read the series in order start here.

While I rested alongside many other people challenged with homelessness at Grand Central Station, I saw a mentally ill woman who wore white makeup like a mad clown. She had bright red lips and crazy eye makeup. She talked to herself and gestured with her hands to no one. How did she end up that way and was there any hope of escape from the torment of her own mind? Sadly, the streets can drive a person to madness…

After panhandling that morning in the falling snow, I headed over to a drop-in center to see if they would allow me to sleep there that night. A drop-in center is like a shelter, but with chairs to sleep in instead of beds. I thought, “Anything has to be better than sleeping on a moving subway train.” I was dead wrong.

At the front door of The Main Chance, I met a security guard named Lance. I inquired to see if I could stay there that night. Lance was kind and told me to come back at 5:30PM so that I could get a good spot before it filled up. I was happy to hear that and also found out that if I came even earlier at 4:15PM I could have dinner there too.

After several days without bathing, I was pretty grimy and hoped to clean up. I had heard that showers might be available at the drop-in center and asked Lance if I could shower there that night. He replied that I could if I had ID to put down for a towel. Holding people’s ID’s made sure that the center got their towels back. I told him that I had no ID and asked if he knew a place where I could buy a cheap towel. He didn’t know.

Street Smarts










Lance sympathetically gave me a fold-out map called Street Smarts NYC that listed all of times and locations of free meals being served at soup kitchens throughout Manhattan. This turned out to be incredibly useful to me during my week of living on the streets. I remembered that we give out these same maps at our outreaches operated by New York City Relief and that The Relief Bus outreaches are listed in there as well. I had heard friends struggling with homelessness say how valuable this item was to them, but now I was finding out firsthand.

Along with not showering, I hadn’t brushed my teeth for several days either. The night before, a man staying at The Bowery Mission had given me his extra toothbrush, but I didn’t have any toothpaste. I asked Lance if the drop-in center had toothpaste and he said they did. Usually they are only given out at night, but he gave me one immediately which made me so happy. I felt like I hit the jackpot! How many little things like this have I taken for granted in my everyday life?

grand central

Finding out that I could stay at The Main Chance that night lifted my spirits. I hoofed it over to Grand Central (left) to get warm and journal to document the things that I was learning. Grand Central is the world’s largest train terminal, with 700,000 people passing through it every day. Some of those people are like me, simply needing shelter to make it through the day.

While there, I used the electric hand driers to dry off my wet gloves. That was when I saw the mentally ill woman who wore white makeup. Her appearance with the garish makeup was shocking. She was lost in another world and talked to someone who wasn’t really there, waving her hands about. Meanwhile the thousands of people around her carried on with life as usual, pretending her bizarre behavior was normal, or pretending she didn’t exist at all.

One study by the National Institute of Mental Health found that approximately 20-25% of the homeless population suffers from severe mental illness compared to the 6% of Americans in general who are severely mentally ill. Also, 45% of the homeless population have some kind of mental illness diagnoses.

The Trauma of Homelessness
I have found that if someone isn’t mentally ill before they become homeless, the trauma of living on the streets can cause them to become mentally ill. Psychological trauma is a type of damage to the mind that occurs as a result of a severely distressing event. Trauma is often the result of an overwhelming amount of stress that exceeds one’s ability to cope, or integrate the emotions involved with that experience. Trauma may result from a single distressing experience or repeating events of being overwhelmed that can be precipitated in weeks, years, or even decades as the person struggles to cope with the immediate circumstances, eventually leading to serious, long-term negative consequences.

The European Federation of National Organisations Working With The Homeless states: “Research has shown that people who are homeless are likely to have experienced some form of trauma, often in childhood. 85% of those in touch with criminal justice, substance misuse and homelessness services have experienced trauma as children.” How can someone experiencing homelessness not be plagued with anxiety when there is danger at every turn? One third of all homeless women have been raped. Being homeless means living in constant vulnerability to many real threats.

When you are challenged with homelessness, successful people are literally all around you rushing to their next meeting, while your life seems to operate in slow motion. When your world stands still, your mind can start to cave in on itself.



One survey showed that 14% to 21% of individuals experiencing homelessness were victims of violent crime as opposed to only 2% of the general population.

The European Federation of National Organizations Working with the Homeless found that

  1. Trauma is prevalent in the narrative of many people’s pathway to homelessness.
  2. Trauma often happens during homelessness
  3. Homelessness itself can be considered a trauma in multiple ways.

I have met so many people on the streets broken by the trauma of child abuse. Without the building blocks of nurture and care, the scars of trauma can cripple the victims, making them unable to grow into healthy adults. Tragically, many end up wandering the cities of America surviving day by day, hand to mouth.

When you are challenged with homelessness, successful people are literally all around you rushing to their next meeting, while your life seems to operate in slow motion. When your world stands still, your mind can start to cave in on itself. The isolation is not just unhealthy, it is damaging to the heart. Feelings begin to go numb and emotions shut down to cope with the swirling chaos. How can you not become morbidly depressed when you feel trapped by your circumstances? These feelings are overwhelming and crushing.









IMG070Later in the day, I visited the NYC Public Library (left) for the second time that week. I wasn’t in the fancy area that tourists visit. I was down in the basement where the the average citizen can read the newspaper or check out a book. Libraries are one of the oasis’ that people living on the streets use to stay safe, especially in the winter. There I was able to rest my feet and read my Bible while my phone charged. I only used my phone scarcely as I wanted to immerse myself in this street pilgrimage experience. I would only text my wife a quick, “I’m OK”, once in the morning and once at night to let her know I was safe and still alive. People living on the streets many times have no family or spouse to talk to for encouragement and concern so I chose to experience the same reality.

Many people living on the streets have cell phones that are provided by charities and government programs. New York City Relief even lends some cell phones temporarily to people we are working with to help get them back on their feet. Cell phone communication is one of the vital tools that people require in order to make important appointments, obtain vital services and find employment. It’s not just a luxury. It’s a necessity.

I kept my eyes open on my way back to The Main Chance and was excited to find some cheap towels for sale at a discount store. This meant that I could get a shower tonight! I spent $4.00 from the money I raised panhandling earlier that day on the towel. I hoped they would have free soap available.

I got lost on the way back to the drop-in center, but did get there in time to have dinner. They served a pretty good meatloaf, mashed potatoes, spinach and a salad. I had an interesting conversation over dinner with an Egyptian man named Ahmed. He was a very friendly guy who suggested that I block out the rich people around me who were showing off their wealth, clothing and sexiness. He was saying that not getting caught up in coveting what they had was the only way I could be satisfied. This good advice shared in the soup kitchen made me think of the verse where the Apostle Paul gave one of the pearls of wisdom that he lived by,

“I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” Philippians 4:12

Ahmed realized that it was hard not to be negatively affected by the wealth all around you when you were fighting just to survive. The key was to not focus on what others had, or your own lack. The key was to instead be appreciative for whatever you did have, however little that might be. This is no simple task when all that you own fits in a backpack.

After dinner I had to go back and get in line outside on the sidewalk for the shelter services. On the sidewalk I met a nice couple who weren’t happy that they would have to be divided into separate rooms that night. I myself do not like to sleep apart from my wife, but for people who have nothing in life but their spouse or partner, separation can be unbearable. Some will sleep outside on the concrete together rather than be separated. I told the man that I hadn’t had a shower in 5 days and he said that I was lucky because even the flies he attracted were dying from the smell. I said I was looking forward to a shower. He replied that the last time he was at The Main Chance he didn’t get a shower because 60 men and 40 women took turns one at a time using one single shower. I hoped this story wasn’t prophetic for me. Spoiler alert, it was.

Once they let me inside, a staff member checked my backpack for contraband. He took my apple because no outside food or drink was allowed. Fortunately, he left some of my other food alone. I think he was being nice. For some reason he took the plastic grocery bag that I had been using to carry my blanket around.

It had been a long day and I was grateful to get into The Main Chance for the night. I wasn’t so grateful the next morning. It was a horrible night that seemed to never end. Read more in the next article in the STREET PILGRIMAGE series titled, No Chance In…



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Growth Spurting Or Hurting?


In the book Everybody Always, Bob Goff writes, “People grow where they are truly accepted, not where they’re merely informed.”

For many decades, the American church has used a discipleship model known as “Christian education”. As the church at large continues to shrink in our country, it might be time to rethink that particular strategy for spiritual growth. People aren’t beating down our doors to attend Sunday school, but they are starving for relationship and for God’s grace.

I remember visiting an inner-city church once where I met someone on the stairway outside smoking a cigarette. The person was nervous and trying to gather the courage to walk in the door and attend the service. They were dressed a little shabby, not as well as everyone else and knew they would stand out. People would see that their life was a mess. The fear of judgement and potential rejection was palatable. In order to reach God, many people first need our acceptance.

Another word for acceptance is favor. We all need favor, meaning we need people to like us just the way we are, warts and all. The insecurity we are bound in shuts down our hearts so that God’s grace-undeserved favor can’t take root.

Christians are good at talking about giving grace, but it’s definitely a practiced skill to pull off effectively. I’m definitely still learning. People can pick up on our tentative approval of them. It can be a subtle hesitancy that we think is unseen, but others may see as a flashing warning light. Our body language can speak louder than words.

“People grow where they are truly accepted, not where they’re merely informed.”

At the ministry I lead, New York City Relief, we operate outreaches to thousands of people challenged with homelessness every year. We connect people to vital resources such as shelter, food, job training, detox and rehabilitation. These resource connections can mean the difference between life and death, but so much of our effectiveness depends not so much on what we do but how we do it.

Unless the unconditional acceptance is there first, people won’t be able to make steps forward. Human beings don’t care how much we know, until they know how much we care. Acceptance opens the gates of people’s hearts so that information can come in.


New York City Relief Director of Outreach, Brett Hartford (at left), tells the story of a woman named Marissa who he and a team of volunteers accepted warts and all during a night of street outreach. The positive growth was dramatic and almost immediate:

“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.

“I invited Marissa to walk along with us while we looked for other people to help. Within 5 minutes of talking with Marissa, she 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 that 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 cane from someone who “didn’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

As Brett explains, in order to fully accept others, we need to see ourselves accurately as sinners saved by grace. Then we can fully embrace others who are sinners as well, not as the other, but as friends.

As Christians we need to be less like the chiding school teacher giving moral lessons and more like the hospitable neighbor who welcomes people into our lives with no strings attached. We need not fear that sinners imagine that we are putting a stamp of approval an ungodly lifestyle. Our job is to love deeply: “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” 1 Peter 4:8

Jesus was a magnet to sinners. They undisputedly knew that he liked them. His favor was upon them and he welcomed them to come close. Rather than watch from afar, the adulterers, drunkards and tax collectors came to him like moths to a flame. Jesus ate and drank with them with no thought of how it affected his image and had no fear of appearing to endorse their unrighteousness.

He preached a strong message and I believe that one of the reasons they were able to accept and receive it was that they themselves were loved and accepted fully by him. People grow where they are truly accepted. Thank God that he accepts us despite ourselves so that we can pass on the favor to others.

“Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.” Romans 15:7


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Cold City, Warm Hearts- Part 5 of STREET PILGRIMAGE

As I panhandled, I had to keep brushing snow off of my sign so that people could read it. That caused my gloves to get wet which then started to freeze. By the 45-minute mark I was shaking with cold and my hands ached. The snow turned to sleet rain which got my jeans wet so I held my sign over my legs like a roof. I only made $2.00 and 50¢ in that hour. It was going to be a long day…

homeless winter

I arose that morning at 5:30AM with a jolt. Another shelter resident was walking around the room saying “Good morning” loudly even though we didn’t have to get up yet. This inconsiderate behavior made me angry because I was exhausted and stiff from sleeping on a hard pew in the Bowery chapel. Why couldn’t that guy just shut up and let us get a few more minutes of precious sleep?

My resentment dried up quickly when I climbed out of my pew. There on the bare floor slept a man who did not get a mat to sleep on or even a pew. He must have come in late that night after the rest of us had fallen asleep. It had been a Code Blue night when people were allowed to enter at any hour due to the freezing temperature outside. I immediately felt bad for the man and guilty for taking his pew. I would return home at the end of the week, while he would remain on the streets struggling to survive. I felt deep sadness that anyone would have to lay their head down to find rest on a cold, hard tile floor.

I stumbled into the lobby to ask when breakfast would be served in the soup kitchen. I found out it would be several hours later and I didn’t want to wait. It had been a long night and I was ready to get out of there. Being crammed in a room with so many people can feel claustrophobic. I gathered my belongings and headed outside. It was pitch black and snowing. I hoofed it to the subway and made my way to Penn Station where I could get warm and use the public bathroom.

A decent bathroom is an oasis for people living on the streets and some of the only privacy that exists for them. You don’t realize how precious privacy is until you have none. Our psyches need a certain amount of peace and quiet in order to center and stabilize ourselves. I had always taken this for granted until this week.

After using the facilities, I headed out to panhandle in the snow. I couldn’t sit on the wet ground so I used some street smarts. I had seen other people make use of corrugated plastic mail bins as stools. One bin wasn’t strong enough to hold a person’s weight, but if you stacked up three or four it did the trick. I scrounged around and found some of my own to keep my butt off the wet concrete.

As I panhandled, I had to keep brushing snow off of my sign so that people could read it. That caused my gloves to get wet which then started to freeze. By the 45-minute mark I was shaking with cold and my hands ached. The snow turned to sleet rain which got my jeans wet so I held my sign over my legs like a roof. I only made $2.00 and 50¢ in that hour.

A couple of young women saw my condition and asked if I would like a hot breakfast sandwich. I said “yes” and they waited at a food cart for 15 minutes in the snow while the guy made it. I couldn’t believe how patient and persistent they were. They apologized for how long it had taken and I thanked them profusely. These little acts of generosity from strangers were magnified in the life of someone like me who was hungry for human kindness. A little compassion goes such a long way. I prayed for them after they left as I did for every person who gave to me.

I cried because of their compassion and I cried because I realized my temporary suffering was many people’s daily reality for years of their lives. God was breaking my heart.

Begging Cup

An old man put a dollar in my hand and looked me straight in the eyes. Another person did the same. I knew what they were trying to communicate to me. “I see you—I care.” I sat there, cold, wet and freezing, and cried. I cried because of their compassion and I cried because I realized my temporary suffering was many people’s daily reality for years of their lives. God was breaking my heart. I asked God for eyes to see and ears to hear so that I could learn. I asked the Holy Spirit to teach me and show me what he wants of me and New York City Relief so that I could obey.

I went into Penn Station to thaw out and eat my breakfast sandwich. It was SO good. They bought me orange juice too, which really hit the spot. All these encounters made me realize that every act of kindness matters. It lifted my heart every time someone put change or dollars in my cup. It reminded me of the verse, “And if you give even a cup of cold water to one of the least of my followers, you will surely be rewarded.”—Matt 10:42 NLT.

Many people wrestle with giving money to panhandlers—some because they don’t want to enable addiction and others because they fear that the person may be a con artist who isn’t really homeless. Others see panhandlers as lazy people who don’t deserve any help.

The New York Times featured a fascinating article on the subject titled The Pope on Panhandling: Give Without Worry. They reported on a perspective from none other than Pope Francis:


Living in the city — especially in metropolises where homelessness is an unsolved, unending crisis — means that at some point in your day, or week, a person seeming (or claiming) to be homeless, or suffering with a disability, will ask you for help.

You probably already have a panhandler policy.

You keep walking, or not. You give, or not. Loose coins, a dollar, or just a shake of the head. Your rule may be blanket, or case-by-case.

If it’s case by case, that means you have your own on-the-spot, individualized benefits program, with a bit of means-testing, mental health and character assessment, and criminal-background check — to the extent that any of this is possible from a second or two of looking someone up and down.

Francis’ solution eliminates that effort. But it is by no means effortless. The pope said that giving something to someone in need is “always right.” (See photo below of Pope Francis visiting men at Vatican homeless shelter)

But what if someone uses the money for, say, a glass of wine? His answer: If “a glass of wine is the only happiness he has in life, that’s O.K. Instead, ask yourself, what do you do on the sly? What ‘happiness’ do you seek in secret?” Another way to look at it, he said, is to recognize how you are the “luckier” one, with a home, a spouse and children, and then ask why your responsibility to help should be pushed onto someone else.


Then he posed a greater challenge. He said the way of giving is as important as the gift. You should not simply drop a bill into a cup and walk away. You must stop, look the person in the eyes, and touch his or her hands.

The reason is to preserve dignity, to see another person not as a pathology or a social condition, but as a human, with a life whose value is equal to your own.


It is completely amazing to me that this man who leads his own country as well as one of the largest religious organizations in the world (1.2 billion), understands the importance of touching a beggar’s hand. I learned this firsthand and can confirm that he is absolutely correct on that point.

I can also state unequivocally that panhandling is not easier than working a job. I have worked many menial jobs, including manual labor, in my life and begging is the absolute worst “job” I have ever had. It is a wretched state to be in. Sitting for hours with a cardboard sign isn’t living, it’s a slow death. You turn your emotions off and simply become numb to life. You are in public view, laid bare on the altar of public opinion. Your shame is on display for the world to see. People don’t beg to get rich. They beg because they don’t believe that they have any other option. They exchange their self-respect for people’s pocket change. It is a demeaning existence and you can’t get much lower.


Many people have told me how they were offended by beggars who turned down the offer of food and just wanted money instead. Hard to believe, but people need more than food to survive. In this video story by Invisible People, a young man named Andy who is homeless in Wales describes how people constantly give him food when he is desperate for money to get a room.

A good Catholic friend of mine (see a trend here?) was talking to his priest about the dilemma of whether or not to give to beggars fearing they would buy drugs or alcohol. The priest said that the greater risk was not about giving money to someone who might buy alcohol or drugs. He said that the greater risk was missing the person who genuinely needed money for food, shelter or other essentials. That perspective informed my friend’s approach from then on.

I will not tell you that you should give money to every beggar or that you should ignore every beggar. I advise you to take a moment and pray when you see someone begging. Ask God how you can connect on a caring, human level with that person.

One time while walking through New York City with my daughter Hailey, I passed a woman who was sitting on a piece of cardboard on the ground and begging. I got halfway down the block when I heard the voice of the Holy Spirit in my heart telling me to go back because I was about to miss Jesus. I turned around and we went back to talk to the woman. I offered to buy her a meal. She only spoke Spanish, but through my Spanglish I learned that she was disabled and had pain in both of her legs. She had several children and was in a very tough place. My daughter and I gave her whatever cash we had and prayed with her. It did not solve all of her problems, but it was love in action. It was also a test of my obedience to God. Prayer opens a door for God to take over when I come to end of my abilities. Our act of faith can trigger the supernatural. I can’t help but think of the boy who gave Jesus his lunch of bread and fish that ended up feeding thousands. The holistic approach of giving materially and spiritually is how Jesus operated.

Living on the streets changed the way I treat people who are panhandling. At the outreaches we operate at New York City Relief we have a policy against giving out money. We have found that money can get in the way of building relationship and connecting people to resources at our weekly outreaches. In the context of outreach we have found that it is better to connect people to social services and empower them to take their lives back. The relationships we build as we journey together grease the wheels towards freedom. I applied this to my personal life as well and never gave out money. After living on the streets for a week, I changed my tune.

Now, when I am walking the streets as an ordinary citizen, I try to stop and acknowledge every person I see who is begging. I ask them their name and if I have a dollar, I give it to them. In this context, I find that generosity can open a door to relationship. If I don’t have a dollar, I just tell them that I don’t have any money on me. Whether I give them money or not, the people always respond to my friendly smile with another smile. I ask a few questions to get to know them and offer them a New York City Relief connection card. They always appreciate the kindness and offer of help. We usually close our time together with a prayer.


Connection cards are little cards (see outside cover left) with all the information on where and when people can get food and help at one of the many weekly outreaches operated by New York City Relief. Want to have some connection cards of your own? Click here to download and print your own.

Many people purposefully carry pairs of socks or hygiene kits in their purse or briefcase to bless someone they may meet in their daily travels. This is brilliant, because these are some of the items most needed by people struggling with homelessness. They are much appreciated and can lead to some wonderful moments connecting with people. In the spirit of “do unto others”, rather than buying the cheapest socks available, why not buy the best quality socks you can? For every pair of socks you buy from a company named Bombas, they give away a pair of socks to someone struggling with homelessness. Win-win! Another great option is to carry gift cards to give out that allow the recipient the dignity of choosing their own meal at a local restaurant.

If you want some helpful tips on interacting with people challenged with homelessness, my friend and Vice President of Outreach Operations at New York City Relief, Josiah Haken gives his Top Ten Homeless Outreach Tips here.

Let’s get back to my street pilgrimage living on the streets of New York City…

St Lukes soup kitchen

I stayed warm that day by taking shelter at Grand Central Station. I ate a delicious lunch at St. Luke’s soup kitchen (See photo at left). The volunteers were friendly and fabulous. A homeless woman I met there was named Sierra. We had a very nice conversation over our meal. Some of what she talked about was delusional and strange, while much of her conversation was intelligent and lucid. She was a sweet person. I told her I was going to get a second coffee in a minute. While I was getting my stuff together to leave she came back with a second tray of goodies for herself and coffee for me. I told her she was very sweet and that I enjoyed talking with her. I took the opportunity to tell her about the women’s shelter at New York City Rescue Mission. She didn’t know anything about it and was glad to get the info. I also gave her a New York City Relief connection card and told her how helpful those people were.

Throughout the day I continued to encounter people living on the streets who were struggling to keep a grip on reality. Read more in the next article in the STREET PILGRIMAGE series titled, The Trauma Of Homelessness…

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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.

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