Reggie fidgeted with his paper cup of coffee, watching as his friend Chuck stirred sugar and cream into his cup. Apparently, Chuck liked a little coffee with his dairy and sweetener. Reggie knew Chuck from the church they both attended. Having recently joined First Bible Church, Chuck was investigating ways that he could serve. Reggie served as the coordinator for FBC’s longtime monthly homeless outreach.
The energy of the crowd filling the independently owned coffee shop was loud and boisterous. People were talking all around the two middle-aged men who were comfortably settled at a small round table.
“Can I pray for us?” Reggie asked.
“Certainly.” Chuck smiled.
The two men bowed their heads as Reggie spoke a brief prayer asking God to bless their time together and for their conversation to be honoring of God. He closed by thanking the Lord for the coffee and the time of fellowship. Reggie had barely uttered “Amen” before Chuck blurted out his question.
“Why are people homeless?” Chuck asked as he sipped his coffee to make sure the taste was exactly right.
“That’s a big question with no easy answers Chuck,” Reggie responded.
“There must be a reason. In your years of leading this ministry, what have you learned ab0ut why people are homeless?”
“People like to pinpoint a single this or that. It’s just not that simple, Chuck.” Reggie peered over the top of his glasses, taking a measure of his church friend. They were near the same age, although Chuck’s thick mane of gray hair gave him a more distinguished appearance. Both men had strong business backgrounds. Chuck, however, had hit it big in the software technology industry. A few years earlier, Reggie had left the corporate world to focus on ministry and helping people.
The Gospel of Matthew 25:31-46 (ESV)
The Sheep and the Goats
31When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, He will sit on His glorious throne. 32All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate the people one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33He will place the sheep on His right and the goats on His left.
34Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35For 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 took Me in, 36I was naked and you clothed Me, I was sick and you looked after Me, I was in prison and you visited Me.’ 37Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You something to drink? 38When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? 39When did we see You sick or in prison and visit You?’ 40And the King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of Mine, you did for Me.’
41Then He will say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42For I was hungry and you gave Me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave Me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, I was naked and you did not clothe Me, I was sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.’ 44And they too will reply, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to You?’ 45Then the King will answer, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for Me.’ 46And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
“Do you feel like the people at church care about the homeless people you serve?” Chuck asked.
“Absolutely. The congregation provides our group with lots of prayers, and members even give us donation items from time to time to take down there. Not to mention, the church provides financial support to the Mission.”
“Interesting,” Chuck added another packet of sugar to his coffee. “I have a bit of a sweet tooth, I’m afraid.” He smiled at Reggie. “Tell me exactly what your group does. Do you feed the people at the shelter?”
“No, we don’t personally feed them. Other volunteer groups work in the kitchen serving the men food nightly.”
“Oh. I see. What is it that you do?”
“We conduct a full-service chapel service, complete with a time of worship, a message, and a time of prayer.”
“Do you usually preach?”
“On many occasions, I’m privileged to speak to the men. From time to time, we have guest speakers providing the shelter clients with a different perspective.”
“Did you say there are only males at the shelter?”
“At that location, yes.” Reggie sipped his coffee. “There is a mission serving homeless women and children down the street.”
“Do you ever go there?”
“We just recently started a monthly outreach there.”
“That all sounds superb Reggie. I’m still curious as to what makes them homeless. Is it drugs? Alcohol? Mental illness?”
“Yes, those are certainly factors. But their displacement may be caused by medical issues, physical abuse, domestic violence, or natural disaster–like hurricanes or tornadoes. For example, after Katrina and Sandy hit, the shelters in Dallas filled up due to the large number of people who had lost their homes and didn’t have the social safety net to stay on their feet. It’s not all drunks and drug addicts. There are a surprising number of our military veterans that are homeless.”
“That’s shameful.” Chuck frowned.
“Yes, I agree. A recent survey performed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development found that over 564,000 people were homeless on any given night in America. Nearly ten percent of the homeless people living on the streets are military veterans. Families with children account for almost one-third of the homeless population.” Reggie paused, letting the numbers sink in. “All that to say homelessness isn’t just drunk hobos or drug-addicted felons unable to get their act together. Many people are one paycheck removed from the wheels coming off their lives.”
“I see. Those numbers are staggering Reggie.”
“What’s even crazier is that people assume homeless people don’t have a job. And we’ve found that not to be true. Many of them do work. They just don’t have the money to make ends meet or to maintain a roof over their head. Of course, some of them panhandle. You see them on the street corner or begging near an intersection. Housing in Dallas, like many cities, has a shortfall, especially when it comes to affordable, basic apartments.”
“Didn’t the city just address the homeless problem?”
“You mean the tent cities?”
Chuck nodded. “Yes. I thought Dallas took action to solve the homeless problem.”
Reggie shook his head. “The only thing the city officials did was dissolve the tent cities where they were. They didn’t solve the problem. They only moved it. If you look around the city, you’ll see that the people who lived in the different tent cities have relocated and set up shop elsewhere. There is a growing number of folks making their home under the I-35/183 overpass. Naturally, pressured by the city, the people living in tent cities dispersed and now are spread out more, making them less visible. From the city’s perspective, they took action and removed the eyesore from public view.”
“How does your chapel service solve homelessness?”
“It doesn’t,” Reggie replied. “We don’t go down with the intent of curing homelessness. Our mission is to give the men hope and encouragement and help them grow closer to God. Regardless of their current situation, this life is temporary. Like any of us, they need to know that there is a God who loves them and who cares about them and that even though it might be hard to see, God hasn’t forgotten or forsaken them.”
“So, you consider their problem to be a spiritual one?”
“They need saving just like the rest of us,” Reggie replied. “We all need to hear the message that God loves us so much so that He sent His Son to pay the penalty for our sins and that by placing our faith and trust in Christ we can be reconnected with the God who created us. It’s important that these men have the opportunity to learn that the road back to God leads through Christ, no one else.”
“Does that help them get on their feet?”
“Sometimes.” Reggie drank his coffee. “It reminds them that they do have a purpose and that there is hope, no matter how bleak life may seem in the present. On the other hand, if they were to die on the streets tonight, they would not die separated from God.”
Chuck fidgeted with his coffee. He had listened intently, taking serious note of Reggie’s heart for homeless people. But, Chuck concluded, this was not something he saw himself participating in. It wasn’t really his in his wheelhouse.
“Thanks for your time today Reggie. I admire what you do, but I’m afraid it’s just not for me.” Chuck set his cup down and got up from his chair. “I’m looking for something that allows me to make a more tangible contribution.” Reggie, trying to mask his disappointment, stood up in time for the two men to shake hands properly.
“No problem, Chuck. It’s not for everybody. Thank you for asking good questions and for listening. Our group would appreciate your prayers all the same. You’re always welcome to come down anytime if you decide you’d like to check it out and gain further insight.”
“Thanks, Reggie. Take care.” Chuck did not look back as he left the coffee shop.
Reggie sat back down, pulling a small black Bible from his rucksack. He continued his daily reading amid the hubbub of the coffee shop patrons, slowly finishing his morning cup.
Hmmm… funny… your post reads like a novel – a piece of fiction.
Here’s the thing: I once applied for the position of “chaplain” at our local “St. Benedicts” ministry here in Lubbock. The pay was really low, my qualifications far exceeded the requirements, and I got asked back for two subsequent interviews. To top it all off, I was the only applicant!
At first the exchange seemed exciting. This wasn’t exactly a dream job, but it fit so well with the ministry I was already offering for absolutely NO PAY as I supported my self and my family by other means. It was hopefully going to empower me to move full time into the work I was already doing with only a few new responsibilities.
Here is where my story differs:
My ministry focuses on worship. Fat Beggars is all about bearing the image of God at the place of pain, shame, and despair in our community. This has led us to the streets among the homeless primarily. THE WORSHIP is not just an addendum on life, it is the center around which everything else turns. We don’t neglect “tangible” needs, but they are an after thought for our ministry. Every other outreach in town brings the tangibles in first and offers worship and/or prayer – MAYBE – and as an after thought.
That said, though, I happen to be of a rather strong opinion that giving to all who ask is both biblical AND directed by Jesus personally (Luke 6:30). I do not think giving money to bums causes them harm; it is a practice I insist is pleasing to God (Mark 10:21 among other passages). I have often given a few dollars away as part of my ministry.
St. Benedicts hosts a church alright, but their big thrust is feeding. They feed 7 nights a week and coordinate 7 organizations who provide volunteers to cook and serve (6 churches and 1 restaurant). And they are known for serving particularly high quality food! Eating there is almost like eating in a nice restaurant, except 99% of the patrons are street homeless and/or working poor. I could not be more enthused about joining their ministry.
BUT… during the 3rd interview when one of the board members asked me if I would ever give money to a beggar, I said, YES and quoted several passages of scripture to support my answer. And as I was talking, I could see the eyes of 3 different board members became downcast and one even began closing up her notebook/planner and packing it in her bag. There were no further questions.
The key guy/contact person finally said, “Okay, I guess that will conclude our visit today. We will discuss your application this week and contact you Monday with an answer.”
I could already tell something had turned sour. I could only reflect on it and assume that they did not like my answer to that one question. Sure enough, Monday I got a call. The guy even made it clear that I was the only applicant, but that the board did not think I was a “good fit”. They felt they should keep looking.
So, at all the key points, I sense my story and yours turn just the other direction from one another. But still they seem like almost mirror images.
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Agent X (I’m presuming that’s a pen name?), thank you for sharing insightful experiences. Yes, the post is a fictionalized story discussing a question I get asked a lot because of my work as a service provider for a local shelter, leading a small group chapel service once a month. Our ministry initiative focuses on worship as well, and includes sharing the God’s word and praying with the men individually for healing and other needs. Our mission is to help connect the men at the shelter more closely to God, trying to address a spiritual need. At the same time, we recognize they have physical needs as well, that from time to time we are able to meet through donations of clothes and other items.
The story is an amalgam of different conversations I’ve had and heard throughout a number of years of ministering to our local homeless population. It’s intended to simply communicate some firsthand knowledge and experience about homelessness with a broader audience.
I don’t disagree with you regarding your points about giving money to the poor or to street beggars. There are people who I know that keep some gift cards handy and others that keep bottled water in their car for these encounters. I think giving is biblical and there is nothing wrong with giving as long as you’re doing it from the heart. What people do with that is something they are accountable for. As for what to give, I leave that to the individual doing the giving. Thanks again for taking time to share your thoughts. It is greatly appreciated.
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Yes, I hide my identity on line. It presents certain problems but prevents others. Basically, this way I can openly discuss the fact that I give a bit of cash to bums without violating Matthew 3:1-6 and therefore puffing up my own ego. The Secret Agent for Jesus idea was started by a blogger many years ago called Agent B. His blog is a ghost blog now, but he was very specific about hiding his identity.
I recognize that my identity is not locked up air tight. But I have taken measures to mute it. Thank you for using it and not being offended.
Your fiction had me a bit throwd off at first. I wasn’t certain if it was fiction. And of course my story is different but paradoxically the same. So, I was drawn to it. Thanx for clearing that up.
But mostly, thanx for caring. Caring is by far the biggest hurdle to street ministry. There are a lot of details beyond that which we might debate (some of which is important, some not so much), but you cant get that far if you don’t care, and between contempt and apathy, that is a huge step!
Also, thanx for the work you do. This work is meaningful as all get out, but largely thankless. Both my ministry friends and I often commiserate on the fact that frequently we shut down conversations with our tales from the streets. A lot of times even after we have been asked!
I look forward to more…
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X, thank you so much for your kind words of encouragement. I shot over to your blog briefly and look forward to exploring it more in the future. Multitude of blessings-the Devotional Guy
Great observation on why people are homeless. Understanding homelessness is not for everyone you must have the love of Christ in your heart. Maybe if Chuck would have taken you up on your offer he would understand a little better.
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Thanks Remona. I appreciate the great feedback on this post. You’re right on about your observations.
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