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Exactly who is homeless?

Recently, I spent two days on the streets of Atlanta, participating in a project designed to help ministry leaders better understand what it’s like to be the least, the last and the lost.  Forty-eight hours does not even begin to paint the big picture of homelessness but maybe it was a start on understanding God’s heart for “the least of these.”  Here’s what I learned.

I met a homeless woman named DeeDee who asked me, within minutes of my meeting her, if I’d pray for her (she didn’t know I’m a pastor).  I said, “Sure.  What do you want me to pray?”  She replied, “Pray that I will learn to love myself.”

I met a guy named Ed who showed me some amazing artwork he created himself.   He told me that after three or four months on the street, most people lose their drive to look for work.

We discovered a little band of believers who have been handing out meals for something like twenty years.  They made long tablesful of sandwiches and handed them out to people who lined up at the back door of their church.  The guy handing out the sandwiches would ask, “Do you know Jesus?”  When the response was “yes,” he would say, “What are you doing about it?”

Jeff is the one who greeted us our first night on the street, showing us where to get water (from a fountain in front of a building) and assuring us they’d look out for us. He also showed us where the Presbyterian church was.  That’s where they eat breakfast.

I don’t know the name of the guy who said to me, “You think this is a game?  My life is not a game.”  And then he told me all the rough things he’s been through.  And then he prayed for me like someone who prays a lot.

Ann is the one who came over to my spot on the sidewalk one night to tell her story of being raped last summer.  It still haunts her.  She said it was the third time and the worst.  She didn’t realize it was still weighing heavy on her until she ended up in the hospital last week.  And then in jail.

By the second day, I had friends – people who recognized me on the street and spoke to me.

We slept in front of the Catholic church on Peachtree Street.  In the morning around 6:30, the church security guard came out to wake us up.  ”Good morning! Time to get up.”  Like we were at camp or something.  Everyone got up (there were about twenty people sleeping in front of that church), folded up their cardboard and stuffed it into a nearby shrub.

I asked one guy, “What would happen if all the churches and missions stopped serving food?  ”We would be in big trouble,” he said.  Talking to my new homeless friends, I discovered a web of government and church support that will provide all your basic needs if you choose to live outside.

Which sort of breaks my heart because it is almost like the church has become a great, big vending machine for a lot of people who have learned to survive without purpose.  Is this how we respect people?

Since I don’t live in an area where hundreds of homeless people are clamoring at my door daily for food, water, a place to sleep or go to the bathroom, I sure don’t have a right to any kind of educated opinion about what ought to be.  All I have is a snapshot of an experience and a sense that maybe there’s something to learn here for all of us who want to give.

When it comes to mercy, we who follow Jesus have a bad case of the can’t-help-its.  We like to give, and that’s a good thing.  And giving should be full of mercy.  To give only to people who deserve it would be missing a huge point. Jesus told a story about that, about learning how to give to people who can’t repay you.

But here’s the thing: If our giving to homeless people – or to anyone, for that matter – misses the one thing we are commissioned to do, then what’s the point?  Jesus told us to “go and make disciples.”  If we spend all our energy and time feeding bodies without changing lives, without challenging people to actually follow Jesus, then it seems we’re missing the grand opportunity to give people a spiritual home.  Instead, we are handing out sandwiches and leaving them homeless.

Of course, there are plenty of amazing people sharing the gospel in amazing ways with the least among us.  I met a young man who has lived on the streets for a couple of years just so he can understand God’s heart for the homeless.  He tells people he is trying to understand what it really means to follow Jesus.  Now, all kinds of groups want to hear his story. He’s making a difference.

Our home base for this project was Safehouse Outreach in Atlanta.  They hold a worship service 365 nights of the year, usually attended by two or three hundred homeless people.  That’s a lot of Jesus, and a very good thing.

I personally felt challenged by this experience to do more than find things to give away.  People who follow Jesus are called to make more followers of Jesus.  Jesus himself said to every person, “If anyone wants to be my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.”   That means you and me and Ed and Ann and Jeff and everyone else who claims Jesus as Redeemer.

“Home” for people who follow Jesus is in his footsteps.  That’s what we should be offering, and it is the best way to respect a life.  So that’s what I am praying.  I am praying for The Church and for my church … that God will give us grace not just to offer mercy but to call people to follow Jesus … home.