Growing up, there were endless homeless ministries to be a part of but I somehow never got involved. I think I was scared of the homeless. I’ll be honest, the only mental images I had of what we call “homeless” was people from foreign countries that begged on the side of the road, people in New York City who sleep on the steps of churches, and historic movies where all the commoners rush at the king or wealthy person and beg them for money. LOL. I didn’t know what it was like to sit with them and talk with them. I had never heard their stories before.
Very recently, the Lord had told a friend of Joshua and I to wake up from his sleep and begin finding people to invest in and ultimately, share Jesus with. So for the past month, a small and growing group have been hitting up a local park where a few homeless guys hang out, we feed them, pray for them, talk a little about the Bible, try to gauge their needs, and then head on our merry way. From the outside, it’s the “pizza in the park” hook, which is often disputed by many groups of believers out there. Although presence is important, it’s prayer that changes things.
Let me tell you about Mac. Of course, that’s not his real name (*Note: none of the names here are real, but the people and experiences are.), but humor me for his sake. Mac is caught in the middle of an unfortunate situation, where he somehow was jilted of all his savings/present funds, and subsequently lost his living arrangements. So he found an abandoned unfinished condo, that is no more than a concrete structure with pipes poking out everywhere, and called it home. Out of the few guys that our friend found to minister to, Mac was the only one who thirsted for the Word and loved the community (aka, Friends). He came almost every time we met. But the reality, is that very often, he quenched his thirst with something else, and the last time we all met, he came with a glaze in his eyes and the slur of a bottle on his lips. He was truly down in the dumps. Plain and simple. I’m sure anyone would be discouraged if they went through what he had. Poor guy, it was rough. We bought him some clothes recently for a job he was trying to get, and we checked up on him sometimes. We prayed for him and he prayed for us and himself, that God would show blessing, and direct him in the right path. A few days ago, we get a call that he checked himself into a rehab center in a nearby city. We were so thankful for Mac, not because we advocate putting your hope in a 12-step program, or that we think this is the end-all-he’s-saved, but that at least it’s a step in the right direction. A step towards healing. All because of prayer.
This is a stark contrast to Bill who came one time, and never returned, because he intended to slink away from the Word of God and not come back. When we go, he doesn’t accept our invitation for even food anymore. There’s always an excuse of some sort, so we let him be.
Throughout the whole experience of this ministry, I thought I’d share a few things I’ve learned and prayed about. Rather, what Jesus has taught me about homelessness, in general. If you are interested in a homeless ministry, or are considering quitting one, these tips may be of some insight. Please feel free to comment and share your thoughts/experiences!
- Some homeless folks enjoy being and want to be homeless. This is true. Many of them (like Bill) love the life without responsibility. No mortgage, no rent, no taxes, nothing to “tie you down”. It would be nice to not have a mortgage, right? How about not doing taxes each year? Hey, when you have nice people that often come by and give you food, and things you need, why go back to that stuffy life?! It’s actually very freeing….and extremely addictive. I’ve come to learn that homelessness is an addiction for many people. Whether it’s generational or not, some people are not interested at all in getting a job, a clean and dry place to live, or having responsibilities.
- It takes deep prayer and discernment to effectively love and minister to the homeless. I’ll bet many of you have caught on that if you go feed the homeless while sharing about Jesus, 90% of them will say they know Him, take the chicken soup and run. Every time, they come, eat, and run. Or maybe you’ve encountered the person who is emotionally stuck and endlessly expounds on how horrible their life and story is. They never accept encouragement, never acknowledge the power of the Word, or it seems like they just can’t be lifted up, and you begin to feel like they are begging for pity acts more than anything. Or maybe you’ve invested in someone, bought them clothes, fed them regularly, found a place to sleep, or even helped them find a job, but after all your effort and encouragement, nothing changes. You try so hard to love them with your words, prayers, and actions, and maybe they’ll see Jesus in there somewhere. This is what it’s like to be emotionally, mentally, and financially drained by this ministry. I believe that there is an often blurred and fine line between ministering to the homeless and enabling the homeless. Quiet prayer and a vigilant ear are essential to your next move, whether it be changing your approach, or moving on completely. What is best for that person? Maybe if you, respectively, move on, it will make way for someone else who will be used by God to help them get out of their rut, or even better, lead them to Jesus.
- It’s better to show up sometimes than not at all. One of the last times we met, we encountered Pete. He seemed lost, was a little more mentally challenged, and VERY hungry. He ate almost a whole pizza the size of an 18″ hubcap, commenting that he hadn’t eaten in 3 days since he’d been walking, and was obviously so hungry. We determined he didn’t have the mental capacity to know where he was going or wanted to go. He expressed a desire to go to New Jersey to see family, but when we pulled up a map, he was blown away at how far away it was. Then he revealed he didn’t know where Canada was, and after seeing the map, figured that he should go there since it probably wouldn’t take as long. We finally got the message across that it would take weeks, months even to walk that far North. He decided to go back to where he came from (we think), instead of walking to New Jersey. Who knows what was next for him had we not shown up. We prayed in grief because he was so unaware and lost, and we didn’t know what to do for him. We never saw him again and prayed he was safe and sound-minded wherever he was.
- Being a friend often yields more results than being a benevolent source. If you’re at a place where you are or are about to be drained like in number 2, there is still hope and options to love those who can be draining. If you feel like you’ve reached a dead end, there’s no need (unless you feel led otherwise) to mournfully part ways with someone. An option is to check up on them every so often. Stop by and say hi. Treat them like you would all your other friends. “Hey, I picked this up for you because I thought of you when I saw it.”, “How’s your job search coming along?”, “I just wanted to stop by and say hi, but can I pray for you before I go?”. Easy, meaningful, intentional, kind. Your loving heart doesn’t always have to be a grand show. Just like any other relationship, it’s the thought and consideration that counts, not the flashing lights. Sometimes all they really want from you is your friendship.
- Despite the sadness of homelessness, there is great joy. We have seen and experienced it. The genuine gratefulness of someone who hasn’t eaten in days. The gratitude of getting a tarp because it means you don’t have to get rained on anymore. And the willingness of people who come to hear God’s Word, even if they don’t get food or supplies. When God intentionally crosses your path with another person in need, and their life is changed, there is great joy. Just like those who like being homeless, there are people out there who don’t want to be homeless and need help getting out. They are out there. Those who enjoy life without Jesus, are out there, and those who are longing for Jesus are out there. I pray you are led to the right people to develop relationships with, not just feed, not just listen to a sob story, not just read a verse and leave. But to be yourself, the you that God loves and moves through.
I do not know everything, and there are certainly wiser, more experienced people out there who effectively approach the homeless. But I hope you’ve gained some insight on these things. Be blessed today!