An Ironic Interruption

At church a couple of weeks ago, instead of a sermon, some people were invited to take part in a kind of interview about their lives, their involvement in the church and what God has been teaching them. I was one of those who got to join our pastor on the sofa before the congregation and attempt to condense into ten brief minutes simple questions about how my time the US has impacted me and what my hopes for the future of the church are.

Colin had sent me the questions he planned to ask earlier in the week so I had a rough idea what I would talk about. I wanted to attempt to explain that it was the people in San Francisco – the outcast, broken, lost and forgotten – who had transformed my understanding of so much, not least that we are all outcast, lost and broken but never forgotten by the Lord. I wanted to convey that the “us” and “them” attitude of the world was irrelevant and that breaking it down had brought freedom and new understanding. How ironic it would be, I thought, if one of “them” was to come to church that day. Wouldn’t it be just my luck.

I was the last person to be interviewed. Everyone else had done a fantastic job and shared wonderfully. It was all going very smoothly. But, in the thirty seconds that it took for me to walk from the sound desk at the back of the hall to the sofa on the stage at the front, a man came in and sat down in the back. I didn’t notice, I hadn’t seen him, not until I began to speak and he began to shout over me.

I was trying to explain the work I had been doing in San Francisco and he was trying to explain that “those people” lived real close by too. Some people from the congregation moved pretty quickly to try and get him to be quiet. I froze. I was torn between wanting to continue speaking and realising this as an opportunity to practice what I was talking about. I wanted to engage with him; I wanted to hear what he had to say and show him that someone was willing to listen. My pastor, sat beside me, said to keep going. So I did.

Afterwards, people kept coming to tell me that I had done well despite the heckling. I wanted to shout that this heckler had a name and a story and wan’t someone we should just try to quiet down.
I went and spoke to him. He actually apologised for interrupting me before going on to say that if “those” people were to come into the church there would be a divide, like the red sea, between “us” and “them”. He said that unless you had a degree in anthropology (his actual words, I promise) you couldn’t fit in at CCE. He said we were too comfortable and afraid of having that comfort disturbed.

The whole experience really got to me. A week and half later and I still can’t quite believe that he came in at that moment in that service. And I can’t shake off what he said either because I’m inclined to believe him.
Some of what I shared that morning were plans that we have in the pipeline to engage the church in more work with those in particularly difficult physical/practical circumstances near by. My dream, our dream, is that these practical measures will lead to discipleship relationships within the church community. I wonder if this encounter was a reminder that that is going to be no easy task, on either side. That it is going to be messy; that we’re going to get it wrong; and that it’s perhaps going to bring more change than we are currently okay with.

 

 

 

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Jesus had Blue Eyes

You have got  to read this post over at Deeper Story

While I was making payment this beautiful, bedraggled old man turned his blue eyes to search my brown eyes fully and asked, “Would you like to sit and eat with me?” And right there in the middle of Froyo World, with a few dozen college students intensely watching our exchange and the cars and pedestrians making their paces outside and the employee standing behind the cash-counter (waiting, it seemed, for my answer just as much as the homeless man was), I wanted to fall on my face and weep my shattered heart out. Because I knew that I knew that I knew that Jesus was asking me to eat ice cream with Him and what I said past the tears clogged in my own throat were the same words this old guy had just said to me a few minutes before, “Well SURE!!!”

Pierced. My. Heart.

It’s a story that I could tell.
So. Many. Times.
All the blue eyes, brown eyes, worn hands, wrinkled skin, drawn faces, toothless smiles, knotted beards and foul odours.
But there He was, stood before me, asking love and compassion, a kind word and a gentle smile. There He was sat beside me teaching humility, giving hope, exuding grace and stirring up faith.

Sometimes I forget and ask God where He is and somehow it can so quickly feel like He was never there. And I’m scrabbling around inside for that peace I know I had or that joy that burned like Holy fire and I think if I can just pray hard enough I can conjure it again. Then I’m reminded that it was not in a textbook, a sermon or a prayerroom that I really discovered who He is. It was in Patch’s calloused hands, Chris’s caring touch, Mike’s childlike energy and Sylvia’s righteous anger. And it was there that I learned who He made me to be, who I am in Him and I remember why I feel this discontent. Then I hear Him whisper, “Not long now”.

Jesus Had Blue Eyes (or, “Plus One”) by Erika

End of a Streetwork Era

Since the middle of my first year at university I’ve been involved in a ministry of the campus Christian Union called Streetwork (not to be confused with a charity in the city that goes by the same name). Almost every Friday night a team of students would go out with hot chocolate and biscuits to meet with those begging on the streets and show them the love of God through a simple conversation and listening ear.

It’s been a pretty major part of my life ever since and for the past two years I’ve been one of those responsible for its week to week running. However, after some careful consideration, the decision was made a couple of weeks ago that we would not continue with Streetwork in the new academic year and last night we ventured out one last time.

It’s been an odd ministry to run. It doesn’t really fit with the CU’s vision or come under their remit so we’ve pretty much had free reign at their expense. While this does have some advantages it means that there’s little driving force behind the whole thing. We’ve been fortunate to have a small group of very committed volunteers but outwith that small circle there’s been little vocal enthusiasm. Also, it has been difficult at times to discern our purpose or motivation. Our hope is to share something of God with those in need by meeting a relational and spiritual need often not met in soup kitchens or food lines but it sometimes feels that we as volunteers may be getting more from it that those we are supposed to be serving. Maybe that’s okay? Maybe it’s not? There is also little to no way to build on what we do: we can’t plug them in to other more practical programs and there’s only so much of a relationship you can build on a chance meeting every couple of weeks.

A friend once told me that if you’re going to finish something, you’ve got to finish it well. So, rather than just let streetwork peter out as the semester came to an end as we tried to scrape by, we gathered as much of the team as possible last night and went out in style. It was surreal but wonderful to gather for orientation, to go out together, to debrief and pray together one last time. There is pain in it but also joy because God has been so faithful throughout it all and done such work in and through us all.

There are so many nights I won’t forget quickly. Like meeting L, she was thin and pale, couldn’t have been more than 21. She was very quiet and conversation wasn’t easy but someone else on my team ended up doing press-ups on the pavement beside her and when we joked with her her smile could have lit up any room. Or one night when we were on North Bridge speaking to G and his huge boxer dog. All was peaceful and we were having great chat when next thing we know we’re surrounded by about six guys, all looking for hot chocolate and some attention. Some people were praying, some were talking, all in this big guddle on one of Edinburgh’s busiest roads. Or J, sat outside a store one night, so high and out of it, telling us his plans to move to Barbados. I saw him a few months later, selling the Big Issue and getting his life sorted. Only last semester I was able to get to know T over a few months and the last night I saw him, the day before his court date, we discussed issues of God and faith and he shared his real name with us. Or my friends S and S who’s attitude towards us has transformed completely in 6 months so that now we can sit with them for thirty minutes each while they pour out their hearts.

We have been in positions of incredible privilege these past few years. I know that our hearts have been transformed, that God has not once let us go home unchallenged or without revealing more of Himself to us. And, as I look to careers in housing and homelessness, my life has been irrevocably changed by all of it.

Praise be to God!

SF2011: Patch

I want to start telling you the stories of the people whom I’ve met. They’re the reason I came and the evidence of the work God is doing. He has used each of them to break me, mold me and remake me.

The first wonderful man I want to tell you about is Patch.

We met him a few weeks ago as we did an activity called “homeless sacklunch” in the civic centre, just at the bottom of the United Nations plaza, in the midst of the market there. We had been having trouble finding anyone to share lunch with, circling numerous times before seeing an older, burlier looking man standing with a cart that was piled high on the edge of the side walk. A little timidly we approached him and asked if he’d like to eat with us; he said yes but that he wouldn’t sit down, so we just stood.

For some reason, as we discussed his family and childhood; the way he had grown up on a farm and had ridiculous competitions with his brother; the plants he was growing in the pots in his cart (pumpkins, corn and palm trees); he really reminded me of my dad. He couldn’t be all that much older and beneath the beard and cap, under the harsh exterior, there was a gentleness, a quietness, a compassion and childlikeness to be rivalled. He was so proud of his plants, so full of love that he was desperate to care for something, anything.

Before we left him we offered to pray with him. He said that there was nothing that he needed prayer for but that we should pray for everyone else who needs help. Caleb prayed for him and as he prayed for the growth of his plants he took both us into a big bear hug. Then, as Caleb came to pray for everyone else, as he had requested, Patch let out this huge growl. We were standing in the middle of civic centre, surrounded by tourists and business people, market stalls on either side of us but he just roared like a lion as Caleb and I laughed with joy at his enthusiasm.

All this was about a month ago and, though we’ve been keeping an eye out for him, there’s been no sign of Patch. Until two nights ago. I was with a group at the civic centre again and there he was. He had spoken to some of my group members whilst I was with another guy and he had started to walk away. As soon as I was finished I ran over to the others to ask if it was him and, as soon as they confirmed that it was, I tore up the UN Plaza to catch him.

He didn’t remember me at all. But was pleasantly surprised at how much I knew about him.

I asked him how his plants were getting on and he said that everybody needs something or someone to care for and plants are the easiest things to do that for so he had given them to really good homes. I asked him if he still wanted to live on his farm and he said no because he would just sit in a rocking chair all day watching the fields of corn and he would get bored because he doesn’t like doing the same thing all day every day.

His hands hadn’t changed a bit. His nails were still sharpened to points and his palms were still black, encrusted with the dirt of the street. As I shook his hands they felt like a kind of sand paper or really rough leather. But beneath the harsh exterior remained a beautiful, gentle soul.

I did a little jump of joy as we walked away, so excited to have met my friend again and to be able to remind him that someone is thinking of him.

SF2011: Not Scared

The Tenderloin is a place to be avoided.

It’s full of those people who our parents always tell us to avoid. You’re meant to keep your head down, your bag close and to walk at a brisk pace as you go past them. If there’s a group of people gathered, it’s probably wisest to cross to the other side of the street.

Even better, just don’t come here.

Don’t subject yourself to the drugs and violence. You don’t want to see people shooting up or lighting their crack pipes in the doorways; you don’t want weed smoke blown in your face. You don’t want to see people prostituting themselves or have abuse shouted at you across the street. It’s a scary place.

And yet, I’ve never felt personally threatened. I walk out the doors, the relative safety of YWAM and feel no fear. These streets feel like home and, whilst I know I should be scared, I feel at peace and comfort when I’m out there. Obviously, I don’t take unnecessary risks such as going out alone after dark and we’re never allowed to purposefully go out on ministry alone but popping out to the corner store or the coffee shop isn’t an issue.

This week I’ve had two encounters on the streets with guys who have spoken to me about people being scared of them.

On Tuesday I was out doing Hot Chocolate ministry on Market Street (the main shopping street through the city). I walked past a guy in jeans and a red nintendo sweatshirt, unshaven, toothless, quite obviously homeless. I looked him in the eye and gave him a half smile. We walked past each other but after around 5 feet he turned and shouted, “Hey, thank you!” I was a little confused so we walked back towards each other. I asked him what he was thankful for and he said it was because I had looked at him, straight in the eye, rather than avoiding his gaze. I was a little astounded. I tried to explain that it was normal, that I wasn’t doing anything significant but he was adamant that he was really grateful.

Yesterday I was walking to the corner store and a homeless guy was conversing with some people (who didn’t look as homeless). I didn’t quite look at them, I was in a rush and didn’t want to interrupt their conversation. But this big African American homeless guy shouted after me, “You can look me in the eye, you don’t need to be scared you know!” And I shouted back that I wasn’t. Because I can genuinely say that I’m not.

It’s difficult to explain how scary this place is and yet how not scared I am. These people who we’re told to avoid our whole lives are beautiful, wonderful people who hold the very image of God within them. They are so similar to those of us who have a bed or a less obvious addiction.The Tenderloin is a community full of danger but also so much more closely knit that the idealised suburban utopias. A community that is violent but caring, angry and yet compassionate. Fear isn’t necessary.

Brett

This evening I met a homeless man called Brett. I’ve seen him before, almost everyday I walk past him on the way to lectures as he sits outside Tesco, but tonight I stopped to talk to him.

His story was quite amazing, full of pain and sadness, but also some hope in him having become a Christian in recent months, started going to church and recently getting in touch with his family again. We spoke for five minutes or so and then, in front of the doors of Tesco, I was privileged to be able to pray with him.

Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ – Matt 25:40

The toffee apple bakewells (his request) which I bought for him were nothing compared to the blessing and challenge he was for me tonight. It’s true what they say about seeing Jesus in those you least expect too and being blessed when you’re the one trying to be a blessing.

He has faith in the face of real adversity, hardship I can’t even imagine. He’s led a difficult life but lives in faith in God’s redemptive power. He needs what I could afford to throw away.

I walk past him, and many others like him, everyday. Jesus loves them all. Jesus would stop for each of them.

The world casts a huge chasm between us – rich and poor, educated and uneducated, safe and vulnerable. But tonight I was praying with a brother in Christ. A brother loved as I am loved. A brother worth as much as I am worth. We are not so different – any set of circumstances could have led to us being in opposite positions – God sees us just the same.

Hebrews 13:2 “some have entertained angels unawares

Isaiah 58

homeless

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you;
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’
If you take away the yoke from your midst,
the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
if you pour yourself out for the hungry
and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness
and your gloom be as the noonday.
And the Lord will guide you continually
and satisfy your desire in scorched places
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be
like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters do not fail.
And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to dwell in.

Under the Overpass

Just finished this amazing book, “Under the Overpass” by Mike Yankoski.

It’s about this guy Mike and his friend Sam who leave their comfortable, upper middle class lives at good Colleges to go and live on the streets of  four American cities for five months.

The idea came from a sermon about “Being the Christian you say you are” and Mike had to ask himself, “What if I stepped out of my comfortable life with nothing but God and put my faith to the test alongside of those who live with nothing every day?“. He had to consider if he could be like Paul and learn to be content in every circumstance (Philipians 4: 11-12). After a few months, talking it over with some people, getting a group of advisers together and recruiting Sam to join him, they set off and spent the next five months homeless.

Two challenges majorly stand out from this account of their experiences:

Firstly is their sheer faith! There’s that first step out of of the boat – how many of us (and I’m one of them) spend all our time dreaming and talking about what we “should” be doing but never have the guts to give everything else up and do it? Then they keep walking – everyday they had to trust in God for their every need. So few of us know faith like that, we “trust” God with stuff that’s either far too big for us to do anything  about – like the future or the salvation of others – or the little things we realistically already know about – like food and clothing and stuff. But these guys were completely reliant on God for everything – their food, their safety, finding somewhere to sleep, their health, having enough money to get from one city to the next – everything!! Do we have that kind of faith?

Second challenge comes from the reception they got from other Christians. It wasn’t those in the churches, with plenty to spare,  who welcomed them with open arms but other homeless people who would share what very little they had. Usually, no doubt with banners declaring the love of Jesus overhead, church leaders and attendees would either give these smelly, dirty, hungry guys a very wide berth and ignore them or, ask them to leave the property. What would our reaction be if two, to put it bluntly, disgusting looking homeless folk walked into our church? Would we be a congregation of hypocrites like they so often encountered? Or would we love them – welcoming them with a hug and offering them to share lunch and dinner with us? I know what I’d like to say but I’m not sure I could with certainty.

Don’t worry, I’m not running off to live on the streets . . . not yet any way 😛