Are you homeless?

Last week, I spent two days on the streets of Atlanta soaking up a little of what it means to be homeless.   Forty-eight hours does not even begin to paint the whole picture, but maybe it was a start on understanding God's heart for “the least  of these.”

I met a woman named DeeDee who asked me, within minutes of my meeting her, if I'd pray for her.  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.  I watched him very lovingly, tenderly talk to a little kid, also homeless.

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 the church.  The guy handing the sandwiches out 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 and assuring us that they'd look out for us. He also showed us where the Presbyterian church was where we could get 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 told me about being raped last summer.  It still haunts her.  She said it was the third time and the worst.  She didn't realize is 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 I could speak to on the street.

We slept in front of the Catholic church.  In the morning, around 6:30, the church security guard would come out and wake us up.  “Good morning! Time to get up.”  And everyone would get up (there were about twenty people sleeping in front of that church), fold up their cardboard and stuff 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.  I discovered that there is 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 havelearned to survive without purpose.

When it comes to mercy, we who follow Jesus have a bad case of the “can't help it”s.  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: our giving to homeless people is missing the one thing we are commissioned to do.  Jesus told us to “go and make disciples.”  And yet, we are spending huge amounts of energy and time feeding bodies without changing lives, without challenging people to actually follow Jesus.  So while Jesus has given us permission to call people home, we are handing out sandwiches and leaving them homeless.

Not all the time, of course.  There are some amazing people sharing the gospel in amazing ways.  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.

We were hosted by Safehouse Outreach in Atlanta.  They hold a worship service 365 nights of the year.  That's a lot of Jesus.  They are giving a lot of churches the chance to share Christ and get to know the poor.  A very good thing.

I don't live in a city where hundreds of homeless people are clamoring at my door daily for food, water, a place to sleep or go to the bathroom.  I don't know what that's like so I sure don't have a right to any kind of educated opinion.  I'm not one of those who live there and do this day in and day out.

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.   We are called to make 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.  Any of us who choose not to take that path are actually choosing a path of homelessness.  Our souls find rest only when they rest in Jesus.  Our home is in Christ.

I am praying for The Church and for my church … that God will give us grace not just to offer mercy but to help people take up their cross and follow Jesus home.