I wrote this for the church magazine in Aberdeen, which was published this morning, so now I can post it here:
At the beginning of my time in San Francisco God gave me a verse. That morning we had gone for a walk in the Tenderloin; we were supposed to be finding the treasures that the neighbourhood holds behind the drugs and violence that are the face of it. But as we walked we just became more and more broken for the area. We already loved it and we ended up just sitting on the pavement, unable to face the pain that we were burdened with. That afternoon we spent some time praying individually and as I stood at the back of the room I asked God how I could bear this burden. How could I possibly be expected to carry it when it was just so heavy? As I stood there, a Bible reference came to mind, as though it was on the tip of my tongue and I wanted to speak it out loud: Jeremiah 6:11.
“I am full of the wrath of the Lord; I am weary of holding it in. “Pour it out upon the children in the streets” (ESV)
It was a real acknowledgment for me that God understood exactly what I was feeling because He feels it too. In fact, it was His burden first. For a long time, I had been praying that He would break my heart for what breaks His, and yet had been surprised by the pain. But here I could hear Him say that this wrath within me – a wrath against the injustice, against their pain, a love that is all-consuming – is His wrath. And having been wrestling with it for years I was so weary of holding it in; weary from trying to work it out for myself, weary of trying to fix the world in my own strength. But here was God saying that it was time to pour out that ferocious love upon His precious children who call the streets of the Tenderloin and San Francisco home.
Someone once told me that our drop in-centre was essentially a day-care for grown-ups. He was right. As one of the few facilities of its type in the area, the Ellis Room provides sanctuary for all kinds of people from the street. Everyday the same group of men will sit and play chess, while another group will stand around the pool table waiting for their turn to show off their skill. Another three or four guys come in to play table tennis everyday. Some come to read, to play dominoes or cards. Some come for a safe place to get a couple of hours sleep. And some come just to sit. But I think it would be fair to say that what draws them all to our place in particular, and what keeps them coming back, is a sense of community.
Maybe we never grow out of that childlike need for love and attention. I think it is probably a part of being human; of being created in the image of a communal God. And whether they receive that from their peers in the centre or from the staff, the people who come into the Ellis Room are desperate for it. Many have been abused, abandoned, ignored. They get a shock when you want to have a conversation with them and genuinely want to know about who they are. They aren’t used to such attention without negative consequences. Like little children they need to be taught again how to love and be loved and the best way to do that is to lead by example.
They’re also like children in the way that you care about them. You begin to feel a sense of responsibility for them. You get defensive over them. In the same way that a child will, these people, who society has rejected, will capture your heart.
I quickly learned that the treasures in the neighbourhood, which we had been sent out to find that morning, are not in quirky little stores or amazing cups of coffee. They are in the people. The people who are so easily concealed by appearance or addictions but who have beautiful, sweet spirits that you can’t help but love. And in the brokenness, the pain, the bitterness and fear, you see the very image of God etched upon their hearts and you know that these are His children upon whom He longs to pour out His love.