By Jeff Cherry and Lloyd Jones
Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
We have all seen homeless people on the street. It is so easy to step around them and to avoid their eyes, or give them a dollar or some change and go about our day feeling like we’ve met our social obligation. In August of 2015, Pullen was given an opportunity to enter into a ministry of relationship with a group of homeless, young adults who turned up literally on the doorstep of the church. Most of these young adults are young enough for us to think of them as children, and it is easy for us to see resemblances of our younger selves or of other kids we know in our family and our neighborhood. But these young adults do not meet the image we had of the face of homelessness when we began this work. Some have been on the street just a short time and each one has a story. Here is the story of one such young man. We’ll call him Christopher.
The factors that disadvantaged Christopher are complicated and the list is long. Though he is a bright and engaging young man in his early 20s, he has limited formal education and, like many of the unhoused, Christopher had a home environment that was unstable, abusive, and un-nurturing. Christopher told us a story of abandonment and mistreatment at the hands of his parents that was so profoundly shocking that we assumed it was some sort of exaggeration intended to play on our sympathies—until during a time of crisis in Christopher’s life this spring, we reached out to his grandmother. To our horror, the grandmother confirmed every detail Christopher had shared with us. Not surprisingly, Christopher is estranged from his family, who have conditioned giving him housing on Christopher taking psychiatric medications that he distrusts. If you are surprised or disdainful of his distrust of psychiatry in general and psychiatric drugs in particular, sit and listen to him list the facilities and medications he was subjected to during his adolescence, including an entire year of high school spent in an inpatient facility that sounds disturbingly like the place portrayed in the 1975 film “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”. His family also demands he stop being gay because “it is a sin”.
Because of his lack of a high school diploma, a driver’s license, or a permanent place to stay, Christopher is disadvantaged when searching for employment that will allow a living wage. When we got to know him, we learned that he fears for his safety in existing homeless shelters because the general homeless population is a much older group with higher rates of violence, substance abuse and past criminal behavior. Unfortunately, the longer Christopher stays on the street, the more drugs and criminal activity he is exposed to, and we worry that as a result, such activities have become “normal” to him. Since Pullen asked the young adults to leave the church’s back patio a few months ago, Christopher and a few other members of that group and a few other stragglers they’ve picked up along the way have lived in a makeshift camp in a patch of woods about a half mile from Pullen. We don’t see him as much anymore, but we hope and pray for him often.
What does a ministry of relationship mean? For us, it does not mean giving Christopher a handout, or shuffling him off to the nearest homeless shelter or government social service bureaucracy so we can get them out of our sight. To us, it means telling Christopher or other homeless kids that you have faith in them. You say, “I am proud of you and though I may not be able to provide everything you need or want, I will answer when you call and walk by your side.” For the kid that feels abandoned by his family and society in general, this may be more important than any gift we can give. This past Christmas, while many of us enjoyed fellowship and feasting with friends or family, Christopher spent Christmas alone in a park enduring a cold rain for three days with no coat. We cannot fathom why God has blessed us with such rich abundance, but given others so little. But one thing we are certain of—our faith requires us to share that abundance with “the least of these” referred to in Matthew 25. This work is exhausting and, for people like us who have been imprinted with an achievement/results orientation from growing up in middle class America, often frustrating. But in those frustrating moments, we ask each other, “if it were me pressing my nose against the window and you did not know me, would you let me in?”
37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ 40 The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” Matthew 25:37-40.