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3 Things I learned sitting with homeless men for a day

Last week I had the opportunity to come along side of Penuel Ridge and a ministry called “The Living Room.” The Living Room is a homeless ministry that extends from the Downtown Presbyterian Church in Nashville.[1] Laura Valentine, Executive Director of the Penuel Ridge Retreat Center, asked me if I would be willing to help with a group of homeless men who come out to the retreat center a few times a year. My task was to “extend a compassionate and helping hand to homeless men in Middle Tennessee.” They call this “solidarity with the homeless.”

I like that.

I had volunteered with various homeless ministries before and so I jumped on the opportunity to help. This opportunity was different because it combined sacred space in rural settings with individuals who have not had much touch with the sacred and spent most of their lives in urban settings. It was raw and uncontrolled unlike my times at the Rescue Mission and other places.

I wish I could share all of the stories and the whispers of the Spirit I heard during my time with the homeless. Instead I simply want to share lessons from my time with them in an effort to help you simplify your time to focus on what is important.

#1 – Our understanding of poverty is shaped more often by assumption than actual experience.

How many times have you driven by someone at a red light selling a copy of The Contributor in Nashville and thought to yourself, “They probably are going to use this money to buy drugs, alcohol or ______________________ (insert whatever you perceive as a waste of money here)”? As I sat with individuals and listened to their story I was struck by how unique each situation was when it came to how they ended up homeless. One guy said he couldn’t pay the bills for a family member who had a brain aneurysm and child support at the same time. So he ended up sleeping by the Cumberland River. Many others ended up there because of addictions while others ended up there because of mental illness. Each story shared I thought to myself, “This just shatters my preconceived notions of homelessness.”

This leads me to…

#2 – The homeless are short on advocates.

“I don’t want to go to the Mission,” one man said to me. “I have to sleep on the floor, eat horrible food and nobody cares about me.” Think about how many committee meetings you have at church where you discuss the homelessness in your own community. I remember walking into a church building where I worked at the time and it was exactly 15 degrees outside and there before me stood a huge building that was heated with nobody in the building. Phil Collins wrote a song called “Just Another Day in Paradise” with these poignant lyrics:

She calls out to the man on the street
‘Sir, can you help me?
It’s cold and I’ve nowhere to sleep,
Is there somewhere you can tell me?’

He walks on, doesn’t look back
He pretends he can’t hear her
Starts to whistle as he crosses the street
Seems embarrassed to be there.

My heart was broken that day.

#3 – The homeless are short on loving and being loved.

We began the morning introducing ourselves in a circle and with each introduction I sensed in their eyes that love was nowhere near them. Think about how many times people have used them, forgotten them or abused them. Would you want to love? Would you know how to accept someone’s love? As I spent my time during the day I kept praying, “Lord, help me not to have a me versus them mindset but a we.” So often we never enter into the broken world with the homeless and come alongside of them. If we help it is usually a top to bottom approach meaning we buy them things but never partner with them.

I am sure I should have learned more lessons but right now I just want to pray for the men who shared space and heart with me for a day. When we closed at the end of the day a couple of them expressed how grateful they were for the space and food. Eating with them I noticed how much they ate and how quickly they ate it. I was reminded of a book I read:

The hidden rules about food in poverty is that food is equated with love. In the final analysis, all you have are people. How do you show people that you love them? You give them food so they can continue to live.[2]

Jesus said something about: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” (Matt. 25:34-36).

Thank you Abba for the least of these who are the greatest in your kingdom.

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[1] I am really not sure who leads this ministry. The Hillsboro Presbyterian Church provided a driver and a van who picked up the homeless men from downtown. It might be that the churches provide the space and transportation and the ministry is run by others.

[2] Ruby K. Payne. A Framework for Understanding Poverty