A “Pitts” Stop in the Steel City
SATURDAY NIGHT’S ALL RIGHT WITH ME…
Jesus Christ loves you very much,” the person on the phone answered. I responded, “Can you tell me if you have any beds open tonight ?”. “Hold on,” I was told. Another voice came on the telephone. “Can I help you ?” He asked. I repeated myself again,”Can you tell me if you have any beds open tonight”? “If you wanted a bed,” the man told me, “you should have been here at 6:00 p.m. You’re not likely to get a bed at this hour. Call the Pleasant Valley shelter. They don’t open until 7:30.”
I called the Pleasant Valley shelter and asked, “Can you tell me if you have any beds available?” “I don’t know,” the man responded,”it’s not 7:30, we won’t know until after 7:30.” “What time can someone stay to in the morning?” I asked. “8:00,” the man answered. “Where do the folks go at 8:00?” I inquired. “I don’t know,” the man said,” I guess home or some place.” “They go home?” I repeated. There was a long silence.”I don’t know,” he said, “they go somewhere.” I then apologized for troubling the man. It was obvious by his tone that my phone call was an intrusion into his day. I thanked him for his time and said goodbye. So began my fifth journey to the subculture of streets. This time it was the city of Pittsburgh PA.
Each year I go to to live with homeless people because I have realized that, although I have been working with the homeless for 13 years now, I too can become insulated to the reality of the pain, uncertainty, and fear that homeless people feel. I have come to see in myself this tendency to be insulated as a result of being comfortable. As a result of continued insulation, I (like others ) become out of touch. The consequence of being out of touch is to lose perspective. The end result of this loss of perspective is what Isaiah in chapter 58:9 calls “the pointing of the finger”. I go to live with homeless people to regain perspective, have my compassion renewed and my reservoir of compassion replenished! In short, I go for a reality check.
As a Christian, I believe that since Christ incarnated himself into “our world” in order to be a bridge for men and women to have a relationship with their maker, we too then, must find ways, for the same reason, to incarnate ourselves into the world of those whom we care about; those whom God has called us to reach out to. We must enter into their world so that we can understand their world view and presuppositions; how they think which results in how they feel. This is essential if we hope to bring them the good news of new life in Jesus Christ. This I believe is the true meaning of Christmas. I believe that in order to fully understand the world view of the homeless, we must first “feel or suffer with them” on some level so that we can identify with them in their pain in much the same way Jesus identified with us. It is through this identification with those who are hurting that we discover a new sense of compassion. This compassion results from our understanding that their needs, although defined differently from ours, are at the most basic level much the same. We can not learn to love our neighbor until we first see our neighbor as fellow human being, created in the image of God but marred by sin and broken. And it is not until we can connect to our own brokenness that we can truly help others recover from theirs. My first goal in going to the streets is ultimately very simple: to learn how I can grow in love for my neighbor and create structures and opportunities for others to do the same.
The journeys to the streets in years past have helped me to “re-evaluate” my own approach and ministry with the homeless thru Good Works Inc., our rural shelter which serves the homeless in Southeast Ohio. I am learning to ask the tough questions about what we may need to change in our approach and attitude, and how to go about doing that. Finally, I go to the streets in order to experience how one feels on the receiving side of street life: of the missions, of the common people, and of the church’s response to the homeless. It was not until I felt vulnerable sleeping next to the man with a knife in Lexington Kentucky a few years ago that I got in touch with the reality of fear so many experience. It was not until I experienced the lack of privacy that I fully understood the necessity of privacy. It was not until I was exploited personally in my day labor job stripping tobacco that I fully understood the power of exploitation and the vulnerability of the homeless. Furthermore, I was able to see the potential in myself to behave like my oppressors. Except for the grace of God, I could behave like any one of the men and women I am about to describe in this story. Each of my experiences (Akron, Ohio in 1992, Indianapolis, Indiana in 1991, Charleston, West Virginia in 1990 and Lexington, Kentucky in 1989 have helped me to gain a new point of view on the feelings of strangers. “Do not oppress an alien or stranger; you yourselves know how it feels to be strangers,” the Lord said through Moses in Exodus 23:9 (NIV), “because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
I was dropped off around 7:15 p.m. into the Northeast section of Pittsburgh Pennsylvania by my friend Ken Wagoner. Ken and his wife Rosy are campus ministers working as missionaries with the population of international students known as the Mainland Chinese. I had met the Wagoners only once, seven years ago, during the early 1980s when I worked with International Students during one of the trips I took with Chinese students to Washington DC. We have been exchanging newsletters and respect ever since. I went to Pittsburgh for two purposes, one of which was to attend a seminar sponsored by the Navigators. The seminar was required if I wanted to continue to teach a discipleship class called the 2:7 series. I had spent Saturday at the seminar learning about Jesus’ call to discipleship and the Navigators’ vision to “know Christ and make him known”. But I had also come to Pittsburgh to live “on the streets” with the homeless. It had been a year since my last experience in Akron, Ohio and Pittsburgh had become my next city of choice. It was by divine direction that I found out at the last minute that the Navigator seminar location was changed to Pittsburgh and happened to coincide with my prayers about visiting that city to become homeless by choice. Although this was my fifth experience living with the homeless in shelters and on the streets, I never quite feel prepared for the uncertainties I always experience. I was later to discover that this trip would prove to be the most fruitful of them all.
As Ken Wagoner and I drove through the city, the first homeless shelter we drove to was Harbor Light Mission (sponsored by the Salvation Army). The shelter was located in what appeared to be a very un-lit, industrial section of town. There were no retail shops for blocks and no sign of apartments or homes. All of the buildings appeared to be warehouses of some kind. The atmosphere looked very uncertain and uninviting. I felt some real hesitations about being dropped off in that neighborhood. So I asked Ken if we might drive on to the shelter of my second choice, “The Light of Life Mission”. As we continued our drive through the inner city, I observed pockets of people: young girls standing on the street corner talking and waiting for something; young men standing at the phone booth looking for someone. I got a feel for the darkness of the inner city. I felt anxious.
My initial plan was to visit the Light of Life mission and see if they had a bed available. If they were full, I would then walk the 10 blocks to the third shelter of choice, The Pleasant Valley shelter. We soon arrived at Light of Life. Ken dropped me off and I went inside to inquire about bed space. One of the gentlemen who appeared to be in charge told me that I was very fortunate. He took my name and social security number and told me to wait in the chapel until I was called.
The chapel was a room the size of a large dining room. In the front there was a small stage with a pulpit. In the rear were boxes of clothes stacked to the ceiling. Along the sides were pews and bright red van seats and in the middle were rows of metal chairs.
The Light of Life mission is a three story building located across from an urban park near an elementary school on a busy street called East North Avenue. It is located on the north side of the city of Pittsburgh and is within close view of the only remaining large screen triple X movie theater in the area. Women who appear to be prostitutes hang out near the corners. The neighborhood is dirty and feels unsafe. Many of the buildings in the neighborhood are boarded up, including the Moose Lodge next door to the mission. Down the street a short distance is the Salvation Army day shelter where many of the homeless go during the day to face the enemy of time. A longer walk from the day center is the Harbor Light program, also operated by the Salvation Army. This is where most of homeless I met from the mission go on Sundays for church and a good meal.
Since I had arrived later than the usual check-in time of around 6:00 p.m., most of the men had already been given their bed assignments and were downstairs in the sleeping quarters. When my name was called, I walked through the hall and passed by one of the eating areas to the steep and winding stair case which descended to the basement. At the bottom of the stairs was a desk near a small room. The room was used to store the men’s clothing each night. Two men stood behind the desk and asked if they could help me. I told them I was assigned bed 36. They gave me a towel and instructed me to take off all my clothes and to shower. Most of the men were already in their beds. There were still about at least ten men finishing their showers as I walked into the bath area. The bathing area, sink and toilets are all open. Homeless people have little privacy. Privacy is a commodity which is purchased by those who have money. If you don’t have money, you can’t purchase much privacy. One needs some privacy to keep one’s sanity. Show me someone with no privacy and I will show you someone on edge, stressed and vulnerable to emotional problems. Having to continually sleep in constant fear wears down the body and makes one
The floor was wet and I got the feeling I was stepping into something unclean. The shower water was very cold and I felt little incentive to stay under the water very long. I wet my hair and returned my towel to the desk. I was then provided with a bed roll consisting of two sheets and a pillow case. On bed 36 there was a pillow and a blanket on a lower bunk of the mattress. In my room there were about 26 men in bunk beds. In the adjoining room there were another 20 or so beds.
The first person I noticed was Martin, a severely mentally disabled young white man with a loud voice. I suspect Martin was both mildly mentally retarded and developmentally disabled. He reminded me of many other “Martins” who had come to Good Works over the years. It was apparent to me that Martin was unable to control his speech. Like a two year old child, he simply spoke whatever he was thinking at any given time. This seemed to both irritate and amuse the other men. Martin became the center of the men’s attention and took the brunt of their anger and frustrations. Some of the men enjoyed picking on Martin. It was unclear to me whether Martin fully understood how much he irritated the men. In all of their dealings with Martin, I never got the sense that any of the other men’s actions against Martin were racist.
Because I had dressed in layers to shield me from the frigid temperatures, it took a while to remove my clothing. I had put on long underwear and old corduroy pants. The zipper had broken on the pants and I had to walk around with an ‘open fly’ for a few days until I could eventually exchange them. I was told to turn in all my clothing to the desk and to attach everything I had worn to the one wooden hanger they provided. This would be kept securely in the small room behind the desk in the basement until morning. I was provided with a gown to wear, much like one would receive in a hospital. It was the type of gown that you put your arms through the front and it ties in the back. Most of the men also wore gowns although some wore just their underwear. The sleeping room was very hot. At first this didn’t bother me, but it later made me uncomfortable. As I got into bed 36, I met the man next to me named Willie. He was an African-American in his early 40s who told me he had been living on the streets in Pittsburgh off and on for a few years. He shared his brief history of drugs with me. Above Willie on the bunk next to mine was Ken, a 28 year old African -American who liked to talk about the ladies. About 90% of the men at the shelter were African American. It was another reminder to me that I am insulated from the fact that poverty in general seems to strike at young blacks harder in this country then young whites.
From the words and attitudes displayed by the men I got to know, I came to understand the world-view some of these men have about women: They are pieces of meat to be used for personal pleasure and discarded when finished. Over the weekend, I spoke with a few of the guys about AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. I got the impression that few precautions were taken.
While there was the obvious attitude of caution among each of us in that room, I found that the rule of thumb was “mind your own business and no one will bother you.” After Willie, Ken and I exchanged a bit of our stories, Tom, one of the staff, came by and spoke with Ken. Tom was a mild-mannered gentlemen in his mid-to-late thirties who demonstrated he loved Jesus. It appeared to me by his manner and approach to the men that Tom had experienced the brokenness that only God can bring into a person’s life. He struck me as one who had experienced Psalm 119:67 &71 “Before I was afflicted I went astray but now I obey your word. It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees.” Tom was a gentle and humble man and he seemed to minister “life”. The men seemed to like him. His gentleness impressed me. He was not eloquent with his words, but he did radiate a good example of the caring Christ. Tom prayed with Ken before bed and afterwards had a closing prayer for all the guys before shutting off the lights. It was around 9:00 p.m. and bedtime. I later learned from Ken that some of the staff at the mission felt Tom was ‘too soft ‘on the men and easily manipulated. I have come to believe there can be a fine line between being manipulated and having real compassion. To understand the difference, to truly understand compassion, one must subject oneself riskingly, often in an unguarded way, to the possibility of manipulation. I suspect Tom had a lot of compassion to go around. True compassion means to suffer with. I never did get a chance to speak with him as I had hoped.
The system of sheltering the homeless in the cities I have visited appears to cater to the chronic and not to those in crisis. The homeless who stay in the shelter system live on a different time schedule then many of us. Living and conforming to the “the system” means jumping a lot of “hoops” in terms of eating, attending meetings and going to bed early. I guess this is another one of the costs of being homeless. I remember the words of the man at the desk of the Salvation Army shelter in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1991 when I asked for help at 10:00 p.m. “If you wanted a bed, you should have been here at 4:00” he said. All of the missions I stayed in over the past five years required the men to be in around 5:00 p.m. for dinner and 6:00 p.m. for a bed. Once they were assigned a bed, they couldn’t leave the mission. While I respect this structure, I find that it caters to the chronic and not to those in crisis. But the ability of these men to “jump the hoops” for their basic needs indicates to me that given the opportunity, they can do what is necessary to better themselves. The approach is clearly what psychologist B.F. Skinner calls positive and negative reinforcement. Like Pavlov’s dogs, these men are taught what will give them rewards and what will punish them. This was illustrated marvelously the next day when all the men who “volunteered” to attend church were rewarded with various kinds of foods and “freedoms.” I wondered if some of the outward conformity to the system was being translated to inward conformity to the will and word of God.
How do men and women really make the decision to give their lives over to God? What role does reward and punishment instigated by institutions have? What is it that ultimately measures the change? Outward conformity to rules and meetings? Confession of inward intentions? Realization of and believing “the right stuff”?
It was very difficult for me to determine who might be first time homeless and who had been on the streets for a long time. Like my experience in Lexington, Kentucky in 1989, I again saw how the system can be partner to the sub-culture of homelessness which entraps men and women socially much like a religious cult. If people are homeless because of broken relationships, then they are simply easy prey for a new set of social relationships which tend to keep them on the streets. How can we as the Christian Community demonstrate true compassion? How can the Christian Community intervene and create a new social community for the homeless who have been so alienated? Only by laying down our very lives. I see no other way. True compassion means “to suffer with”. Until we intentionally make room in our own social network for those who cannot repay us (Like 14:12), the church will remain powerless in it’s transforming influence to address homelessness.We must stop viewing compassion as a “calling” and realize it involves laying down our social lives. Unless these men can break through the peer pressure and leave the social community of street life usually associated with drugs, theft-for-survival and sex-on-demand, they will stay there a long time. Ken told me that because of the broken relationship with the women in his life, he has spent almost three years living off and on in the shelter system.
Well… ‘lights out’ was rapidly approaching and the room was very hot. Tom had cracked opened a window before he left and this helped somewhat. I couldn’t help remembering the warnings that came across my desk some months back about TB. They indicated that TB was being spread in shelters with limited ventilation where a lot of men were sharing a small sleeping room. I wondered whether any of the men had TB and whether I might be exposed. I then realized that our men’s room at Good Works, while it only sleeps seven, also has poor ventilation. I wondered about the risks that our men were facing and how I might address this problem.
Six a.m. came early, but I felt rested. Going to bed at 9:00 p.m. every night is a good incentive to feel rested. After the wake-up call, assisted by the bright lights shining in our faces, we all turned in our sheets so they could be washed and we picked up our clothing. Getting dressed that morning was a slow process for all of us. As I put on my clothes, I felt that sensation that most of us in the middle-class experience very rarely: putting on the same dirty clothes we took off the day before. I wondered if I might be offered a change of clothing.
I proceeded upstairs back the way I had come down the night before. As I walked slowly through the hallway, passing the kitchen, I was approached by what appeared to be a staff worker who scolded me for walking through the hall to the chapel. I got the feeling he thought I was trying to ‘get away’ with something. I was reminded how much the staff is “on guard” against being manipulated. I later learned that all of the men must leave the building through the back door, go outside, walk around to the front and enter the chapel by the front door. The idea didn’t appear to make much sense but I decided to follow instructions. Just as I turned to leave, the staff worker told me he would make an exception since I was almost at the chapel anyway. He told me to just walk on through. I presumed there was a reason for this untold and unwritten rule so I pursued the matter further the next morning with another worker. I was simply told that this was the policy. After three tries I still couldn’t get the staff workers to explain the reason for the rule. I felt treated like a brainless idiot. “I can respect the policy,” I thought, “I’m simply interested in the reasoning.” I concluded the matter verbally with the staff worker hoping for a reasonable response by suggesting that there was probably something illegal going on in the kitchen that the mission didn’t want the residents to see. This comment was met by a silent stare. I reflected on my own tendency to disregard sincere questions from our residents because they irritated me. I was reminded how I need to take more time to explain the reasoning behind our rules and policies. I wondered about what expectations might be unclear to those who come to Good Works.
The “don’t walk through the building” rule was only one example of the many unclear rules and expectations I found during my experience.The Pittsburgh mission, like others I have stayed in, have little-to-no orientation policy for their new residents. I learned that the rules of the Light of Life mission were more “caught” and not taught. On several occasions I found myself in the wrong place being scolded but not realizing I was in the wrong. For example, after using the bathroom I was scolded for remaining at the drinking fountain while I read the bulletin board. Later I was scolded for sitting in the wrong chair during a chapel meeting. There were no signs or posted rules to indicate I was in the wrong. And at times, it was hard to tell who was in charge. I often wondered if I was being bossed around for the personal power needs of another resident, program staff or employee. Good communication from the staff to the homeless is very important. How we communicate is as important as what we communicate. The attitude conveyed in enforcing the rules is as much the message as the rule itself. Do we as workers convey the arrogant attitude of the “expert” who, with their expertise will show the homeless “the right way”; or can we in humility become “one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread”? I’d suggest that the real test of our “talk about Christ” is revealed in the attitude of humility (Philippians 2).
Most of the missions I have visited pride themselves on the fact that they don’t receive any government monies for their services to the homeless. They proclaim that they are free from government restraint over their preaching of the Gospel. While this may be true on some levels in terms of what is imposed verbally and structurally upon the homeless, in my view, this has little bearing upon the life-witness and example of the volunteers and staff. Who is placed in authority over the homeless and provided a platform to rule, from preaching each day to enforcing the “must shower” rule, is a witness of the ministry.
Why does a Christian mission that prides itself on non-government involvement place a power-hungry, demanding non-Christian to be in charge of the residents? Because given the limited budget for personnel (especially in some smaller missions), many organizations must rely upon their more seasoned or “program” clients (those who can outwardly jump the hoops) to manage the newer ones. In both Charleston and Indianapolis, for example, the persons with whom I had the most contact, who provided the orientations and who gave me the largest impression of the ministry, were themselves confessed not-yet-Christians who behaved no differently in word and in deed from the other men I stayed with in the shelter. The real witness of the mission in my opinion is not their creed or their required services but their atmosphere or non-atmosphere of Christian community. Their witness for Jesus Christ was demonstrated by the kind of people whom the administration placed in authority over us and their attitudes, actions and examples. The man who refused to give me my clothes earlier one morning in the winter of 1990 when I stayed in Charleston, demonstrated his need for power and control. He appeared to enjoy the fact that he had the authority to deny me the privilege to leave the shelter early.
Am I implying that missions don’t have personnel problems? Of course not. Am I indicating that I and my staff or volunteers don’t face the temptations of power and control? No. We discuss this matter often. Am I saying we should never call for or give responsibility to our residents? Of course not. I am simply arguing that those organizations that celebrate that they are free from government regulations aren’t free from the hearts of fallen men and women and the sins of greed, power and exploitation that is within all of our reach. The missions I have stayed in who operate their transient shelters using the chronic homeless in the “program” as personnel, sometimes pay another kind price that detracts from its witness. It is unwise for any ministry to find security in the phrase “we don’t accept any government money” if they mean to imply that non-government involvement protects the ministry from the nature of sin. The government is not the enemy per se. Government monies of themselves do not defile a ministry. Jesus says that it is “what comes out of a man that make him unclean. For from within, out of men’s hearts, comes evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man unclean” (Mark 7:20-23) The world, the flesh and the devil — these are our enemies (I John 2:15-17). If the message of the ministry is still being modeled by those who love the world, their flesh, and are following the devil, then the ministry loses it power to model the transforming message of reconciliation. What should be the goal of our ministry with the homeless? As stated by International Union of Gospel Ministries (the connectional structure which supports most city missions), the goal is for each person we serve to have the opportunity through the transforming power of the Holy Spirit to become a full, active and participating member of the body of Christ.
Those missions which require a person to sit through a religious service in order to receive a meal and a bed may believe that “the Word won’t return void” (Isaiah 55:11), but in my view, they fail to understand that their ultimate witness is larger then what is spoken at the services. I remember the demeaning message I heard at a mission in Akron, Ohio in January, 1992. We were told that just that day, the news provided a report on the Gulf War statistics and “we” won. The message I heard was: “God is on the side of winners and if you mess with God and are on the wrong side, you will lose just like Iraq did in the Gulf War”. I didn’t feel moved closer to Jesus by this form of preaching.
According to the parable of the sower, when one plants the seed (which is the word of God), one must first consider the soil (the hearts) and whether that soil has been properly prepared for planting the seed. Even if one uses the perfect seed of the word of God, there is no guarantee it will yield any fruit if it is planted along the path, in rocky places or among thorns. A large percentage of our work with the homeless who have been violated, abused, exploited and emotionally ripped-off by their own sin and those who have sinned against them is plowing: preparing the soil by getting the rocks out of the soil of their hearts so that they can receive the word when it is planted. With faith in God and the discernment and wisdom that only the Lord can provide we must seek to determine where each person is: whether they have been plowed, planted, watered, or harvested. Those who are harvested must be nurtured in growth, those who are planted must be watered and so on. It is as inappropriate to assume that just because someone is homeless they are not a Christian as it is to assume that just because someone goes to church they are. At Good Works, we continually serve persons who have some kind of relationship with Christ but are in need of a nurturing community to guide them, help them grow, and keep themselves balanced.
Not everyone who is in emotional or physical pain is able to hear and understand the Lord’s unfailing love for them and their need of a personal response. The Israelites, when brought the great news of deliverance by Moses in Exodus 6 that God promised to deliver them from slavery didn’t respond with gratitude or joy. The writer says “…they did not listen to him (Moses) because of their discouragement and cruel bondage” (Exodus 6:9). Sometimes, people’s pain speaks so loud that they can’t hear or understand our message no matter who says it or how it is presented. Some people need from us our ministry of presence that simply seeks to be with people to help them return to a place where they can hear again. I suspect this is one aspect of what Jesus was referring to in Matthew 25:35-26 when he spoke of inviting in the stranger, looking after the sick and visiting those in prison. Jesus placed as much value on these behaviors as he did on feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. We ought to have this mind in us which was also in Christ Jesus.
If one is going to be required to attend a sermon in exchange for food and shelter, doesn’t the act of requiring this undermine the message of the free gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ? While it is true that Jesus fed the 5000 after he had finished preaching, it is also true that they didn’t come to him because he was providing them with a meal. They sought him because they were spiritually thirsty, amazed at his teaching and not exclusively physically hungry. They didn’t sit through his sermon with the expressed purpose of getting something to eat. I’m not suggesting we should remove our expectations and requirements upon the homeless who seek out help. I am only suggesting that it is unethical for us to tie food and shelter to the specific requirement of hearing a sermon. If we are going to require anything, why not state clearly that the homeless must meet one-on-one with a trained representative of the organization to discuss their life if they want to stay more then a few days. This will force the homeless to face themselves and their problems in an atmosphere of personal caring and accountability. Not once during my five times living with the homeless was I ever asked to meet with anyone to discuss why I was homeless. Had I been required to discuss my life as a condition of continued services, I would have found this much more ethical then simply denying me food (which happened in Akron) because I would not sit through a sermon.
All of the men crowded into the chapel. There appeared to be many more men in the room than would fit comfortably. There was an odor in the room. Everyone had morning breath. Some of the men were well groomed. Others (like myself) looked and smelled shabby. The chapel speaker on this early Sunday morning was Phil, a short thin man who appeared to be in his sixties. My first impression of Phil was that he spoke to us from a YOU perspective instead of a WE perspective. He seemed to continually imply by his attitude and words how different he was from the rest of us. I felt like he spoke down to us. I felt demeaned by his preaching. He said things that didn’t make much sense and seemed inappropriate to me. At one point, he said that the majority of Christians are frustrated because they want to be. He had an argumentative spirit about him. I got the impression he was one of those people who “had to be right” about everything no matter whether he was right or not. He seemed to portray himself as “the expert” who, with his expertise, would show the rest of us idiots the right way. He repelled me from Jesus by his cutting remarks, over-generalizations, and petty debates with the men after his sermons. I think the men could see through his arrogance. I got the impression he wasn’t respected because his witness for Jesus was mocked. I later learned from one of the men that Phil used to speak daily, but was recently asked to speak only a few times a week. In reality, Phil wasn’t much different at all from the men he spoke at; he only
Phil spoke what I call a typical “worm” sermon. We all were made to feel like worms. The problems of sin that we all faced were only personal and private. If we would clean up our act and turn to Christ, our lives would change.While this may be true, this message is not the whole truth. He made it all seem so simple and easy. I wondered if Phil had any real idea what these man faced. Any reference by the men to the questions of public sin and oppression such as corporate economic greed, low paying employment, high cost housing, the enslavement of welfare, and the fatherless families many of them came from, was responded to by an overly simplistic answer that God is in control and He does what He wants. I felt as if he were saying “tough luck.” The message was another “you are on the wrong side of the Lord” sermon. “All of your problems result from not following Christ; follow Christ and all of your problems will be solved.” It was the message of John the Baptist completely out of context. Unlike those who John the Baptist spoke to, these men weren’t religious hypocrites! They were more like Zaccheus, a tax collector and a sinner that Jesus chose to eat with. In my view, some of these men were followers of Jesus and others were struggling and considering Him. I wondered how they responded to his message. I then wondered if I was judging Phil and if Jesus was grieved by my own attitude.
After Phil was finished preaching, he announced that there was a church service that evening and those who wanted to go should be at the mission at 6:00 p.m.. He then sent a postcard around the room and told the men to put their name on it. He told us that those who go to church will have a bed held for them at the mission and will receive food afterwards. It was to be a baptism service where many of the people at the church were going to share their story about their faith before they were baptized in water. Phil really encouraged the men to go. I signed up thinking that the service was held at the mission.
It had been raining all night and when breakfast was over it was pouring outside. The mission provided a healthy portion of corn flakes, coffee and orange drink for breakfast. I felt grateful to have some food in my stomach. We received word that we had to leave the shelter immediately after breakfast. I walked with Willie to the Harbor Light Mission which opened at 9:00 am. I learned from Willie that most of the men go there on Sunday mornings because they can sit there in peace, read the paper, and if they wait for the church service, they can eventually have a good lunch.
I did not find much antagonism toward Christianity among the men I met. On the contrary, I found a real respect for Jesus. I got the sense that many of the men knew he was real and was willing to listen to their prayers. Many of the men displayed a humble presence. They appeared to be struggling and seemed open to Christ. It was clear in my view that many had made a decision to follow Christ at some point in their life, but their option and choice of social community held them back from living for and following him. I reflected about the role of our social community. I thought about why the middle-class church has so much trouble integrating the poor and homeless into its social community. Maybe the gospel has yet to penetrate our classism. I wondered why the many men in the shelters I had visited who professed to follow Christ didn’t walk with him. I wondered if it was something to do with economics and relationships. How can the middle-class church break through the barrier of “class” and reach out to the poor? Why is “class” and “race” never even an issue in many discussions of reaching the poor with the Gospel? What obstacles are in my own lifestyle and the lifestyle of my co-workers in the church? Am I blind, too? How can saved street people be integrated into our middle-class church? Must they first become middle-class to be accepted? How can the middle-class church reach out and build bridges rather than walls? Is the church in America more American than Christian?
Dodging the rain drops, we arrived at the Harbor Light mission just around the time they were opening their doors. We all sat around large round tables. Some read the Sunday papers that were given away earlier in the morning, others went to sleep; still others played cards and talked. There must have been 70 of us in total.
The hours passed quickly as the men around my table fell into conversations ranging from Dungeons and Dragons to computers, tools and of course, women. Some older women had arrived and were seated at a table next to us. Some of the men at my table had nasty and degrading things to say about their appearances. I wondered if these women were from the neighborhood or possibly from one of the womens’ shelters. I never did find out. The chapel service began around 11:00 a.m. and soon everyone filed into the sanctuary. The service was packed with at least 200 people. I got the impression that most of those who attended the service lived either in the shelters on the north side or the adjoining neighborhood. An elderly woman began the service by leading singing. There were no musicians and her singing was very off key and at times without rhythm. But I really sensed the presence of God in that place. I felt joy in my heart as I observed her unprofessional style. I sensed that God was communicating something eternal to us through that lady. Jesus was very real to me through her “off key” ministry. After the singing, the Captain of the Salvation Army came to speak. He spoke from a WE perspective often sharing his own personal struggles in his sermon. He appeared real to me, touchable. I could see why people listened so intently to him. His words were truly uplifting and the name of God was honored in that place. I don’t so much remember what he said as I do the attitude from which he spoke. It was so different from Phil’s sermon earlier in the morning. I wondered what the homeless remember from the thirteen or so sermons they hear each week. I was reminded that what we are speaks louder than what we say.
After the service the folks migrated back into the dining area through the line and to a table with their trays. I could sense the excitement and anxiety as people pushed forward to wait their turn for a tray. The lunch provided was ham, beans and applesauce. I realized that most of the homeless order their days by the when, what and where of the meals offered in the city. I saw truly hungry people gladdened by thoughtful and tasty cooking. I also saw attitudes that grieved me. While I have yet to be convinced that the homeless are starving in this country, it is clear that many do go hungry. I did observe the desperation of those who feared they wouldn’t get their share or wouldn’t get enough. I saw how one’s life on the street tends to revolve around food. If you miss a meal (as I did later in the day simply because I wasn’t aware of it), there are usually no second chances and no other options. You usually have to wait until the next day. By the next day, real hunger has turned into desperation and the attitude is “dog eat dog” – every man for himself!
In some ways, the homeless in this country live better then half of the world. They just don’t realize it. I felt great appreciation for my own home and the privilege of having nutritious food each day. I thought about those who come to Good Works and wondered if they would ever realize how fortunate they were to have such access to good nutritious food from a caring community.
The Harbor House closed after lunch and, according to those in the know, there is nothing do but visit the mall located a few blocks from the mission towards the downtown area of the city. Thus, Willie and I ventured through the rain to the downtown mall. Willie was a quiet man who seemed to accept me as I was without a lot of questions. I enjoyed his company and was grateful that he was willing to let me tag along with him. Willie told me that most of the people in the mall that Sunday afternoon would be homeless. He was right. I was able to identify most of the folks sitting on the benches as folks I had either eaten with or stayed with at the shelter. The mall was swarming with homeless men, women and even some children. It was the only open place to go within walking distance of the shelters. Willie took a seat on the bench and I took a walking tour. When I returned about five minutes later, a young woman, about 20, was seated next to Willie our bench. She was “coming on” to Willie and soon the two left for a walk. Willie said to wait and he would be back. I waited about two hours but he never returned. The young woman returned but there was no sign of Willie. I was tempted to ask the woman where Willie was, but I didn’t . I wondered if he was okay. I wondered where homeless people go to “get it on” when no place is open? I never did find out.
As I sat on the bench in the mall, I observed families shopping, policemen walking and Julie. Julie was a young woman in her late 20’s who paced up and down the mall all afternoon. Initially, she ignored the homeless men as they called out to her, but eventually she stopped with a smile to talk. The talk was full-speed flirting. The motives of the men were clear to me and I suspect they were clear to her as well. I had heard them talk about women as meat to be used and discarded. Julie appeared to be an exploit waiting to happen. As Julie circled around and around, she watched me. Eventually she said hello and asked how I was. I told her I was doing great and left it at that. She moved on. Eventually I got tired of sitting and began touring the mall again myself. Julie and I passed each other several times but didn’t exchange words. She was a very lonely young woman who appeared to me to be emotionally and mentally disturbed, looking for love in all the wrong places. She reminded me of all the other “Julies”, lonely and vulnerable, who come to Good Works each year. Many of these women are so confused and hurting that they continually make poor choices about their relationships with men, continually becoming entangled into sexual, emotional and physical bondage. They have learned that to be used (indeed, even abused) is to be loved and because of their low view of themselves, accept abuse as a way of life. Like cute little puppies who have never seen the outside of their cage, many of these women have little insight into the fact that they don’t need to live that way.
Eventually I left the mall and returned to the area of the mission. The mission didn’t open up until 6:00, so we had to wait outside. It was very cold on the street that day. I had missed the 4:00 meal sponsored by the Salvation Army. No one told me about it. It was another reminder that information on the streets is more caught than taught. I don’t remember seeing any bulletin boards at the mission which stated the times and places one could get something to eat. My information was mostly by the word of mouth from other homeless men. This is fine if you have a high level of trust for strangers, but it takes time to build that trust.
We all met up again in front of the triple-X movie theater. I offered to buy Jeff, a man I had talked with earlier in the day, and Willie a cup of coffee so that we could get out of the cold. We went looking for some place that was open but when we realized we would have to walk a long distance to get coffee, we decided against it. We walked the half block to the mission and waited outside. Soon the other men began to return and we all waited on the street. Phil, the preacher from the morning walked by and yelled to us, “Jesus loves you.” He then showed everyone a verse of a song he had written on a piece of cardboard which said, “He’s my rock, He’s my fortress, He’s my deliverer, in Him will I trust.” The men and I were very cold and one asked Phil if we might come in early. There was no immediate response. I wondered what the men thought of Phil’s comments as they shivered in the cold.
A few of the men had two or three large bags that they had carried around with them all day. Since the mission didn’t allow them any place to store their belongings , they had to carry all of their stuff with them each day. This increased the heavy burden for them and reinforced the stigma many people have of the homeless. I watched the men as the carried and guarded their belongings in fear. These men were more then just homeless; they were held captive within themselves by the fear that they faced each day about their only earthly possessions.
There were several elderly men in the group. These men seemed to keep to themselves. I was struck by how very vulnerable these older men were, both from the elements and from the possibility of being taken advantage of. Some were well groomed; others were poorly groomed. All had a common frailty about them.
Some of the men had a playful spirit about them. Some told stories to small groups about their day while others listened and smiled. Willie, my friend from the bench at the mall, told how this girl had come on to him at the mall and how she and him went away to have sex somewhere. He never did say where. I wondered again where homeless folks go to commit immorality when it is so cold outside.
There was some talk about a van that came every Sunday from a Church somewhere outside of Pittsburgh. The men said that the van brought hot soup and sandwiches. Because I had missed dinner, the van thing appealed to me very much.
Some of the men kept to themselves. It was clear they were travelers and had no intention of interacting with the others. These travelers dressed “road ready” even though they hadn’t left the area yet. I have always characterized these men—like Cain from Genesis 4—as restless wanders. They fear intimacy and reject accountability. Some are looking for something they have yet to find. Some really don’t even know what they are looking for. They are running from themselves. The most loving thing we can do for these men is to force them to face the truth about themselves.
Some of the men were chronically mentally ill. They talked to themselves and every time someone went near them, they turned away in fear, refusing to interact with the others. Fear had seized them and the ‘cat had gotten their tongues.’ There was one young man from Korea. I tried to talk with him but he was so frightened that he avoided all contact with others. People who live in this kind of fear for prolonged periods of time do go crazy. Are they crazy and thus find themselves homeless as a result or have they become homeless, experienced the loss of identity, fear, isolation and hopelessness and have gone crazy?
Finally, there was Martin, the chronically mentally disabled man I had observed the night before. He had again started irritating the others and Willie picked up a garbage can and started chasing him into the street. Martin ran and was almost hit by a car. This happened two or three times. The other men applauded Willie for his actions. I got the impression that no one liked Martin and that he had absolutely no friends in the world.
The mission eventually did allow us to come in from the cold a few minutes early. We all piled into the chapel and warmed ourselves. The large screen TV had some sports on that the men seemed to enjoy. Soon it was time for the infamous “van” the men had been talking about to arrive. I saw a number of men and women head towards the park so I decided to walk over there myself. Soon, two vans pulled up filled with people and food. It was very cold and some of the men had rushed out from the mission without coats. It took a few minutes for the people from the vans to organize themselves but soon a line formed and plastic bags were handed out to all of us. As I waited in line I observed some of the men trying to take cuts. There was an atmosphere of tension as cold men waited for hot food. The van was a real blessing and a fantastic, tangible witness of God’s love. They provided two sandwiches, three bananas, twinkies, two donuts, and hot soup. It was more than enough. I asked the folks where they were from and they said that their group was called “The Church” and was located about an hour from Pittsburgh. Just as I started to commend them on their witness, I was handed a tract which explained how I needed to know Christ. I told the man who provided the tract that I was a follower of Jesus myself and I was very encouraged by their love. He shared that they were simply doing what the Bible commanded them—to provide food and clothing to the hungry. I think he may have been surprised to learn that I was a follower of Jesus.
I returned to the mission and learned that the church service I had heard about earlier did not take place at the mission and the group had already left. Just as I resigned myself to not going, I learned from Tom, the mission staff worker from the night before, that the church was just a short walk from the mission. He encouraged me to go and assured me a bed would be held for me. He pointed out the location of the Christian Missionary Alliance Church by showing me the tall steeple that one could see from a distance. I went walking. The hike was short and I arrived after the service had already begun. I decided to sit up close away from the others from the mission. The pastor announced that there were about 21 people who were going to be baptized in water. The sequence began: The pastor would call the name of the person who was to be baptized and they would walk into the baptismal filled with water located at the rear of the stage behind the place where the choir sits. Each person answered the pastor’s question of how and when they came to Christ and whether they confessed Jesus as their Lord. It was very exciting to see so many changed lives. I understood why Phil wanted the men to go to the service. God was glorified in the many testimonies shared. Between each person’s baptism the song leader would lead us in a short worship song. I knew almost every one and sang with a joyful voice. I had to leave the sanctuary twice during the service to use the bathroom.
As I walked in the hallway, I observed the photographs of the many missionaries supported by the church. When the service was finished, the people began to file out of the pews and into the hallway. As the Church people passed by me, each person ignored my presence. I felt like saying something like, “Go ahead, walk by me, I’m not a real person anyway.” I was reminded of James 2:1 “If a man comes into your assembly dressed in fine clothes and another man dressed in shabby clothes and you say ‘sit here by my footstool,’ have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil motives?” The lack of acknowledgement from the people I had just sat and sang with to even say hello bothered me; indeed it saddened me. I felt avoided. It was another reminder to me that the Church is middle-class. Just then I saw someone I had met at the Navigator 2:7 seminar the day before. Shawn had sat next to me at the eight-hour seminar on Saturday and we had plenty of time to visit. During our lunch break at the seminar, Shawn and I had taken a walk and I had shared with him my plan to visit the homeless for a few days. He had told me that he knew some homeless men from one of the shelters. I had never put two and two together until I saw Shawn again at the Church that night. Shawn came over and we talked a bit. I felt very good when I saw Shawn. I felt a sense of confirmation that God was with me.
Soon I was told that the men from the mission had all been asked by Phil to go downstairs and to gather in a Sunday school room for some sandwiches. I followed. On my way downstairs, I saw a young couple who looked familiar to me. I knew them from somewhere, but couldn’t place where. We talked a bit and discovered we had met three years ago at Asbury Seminary while I was on my sabbatical. They told me that they were taking a weekend off from the church he pastored on the outskirts of Pittsburgh and were visiting the Christian Missionary Alliance church that night. Their presence was another reminder to me that God was with me. I was struck by the way that Lord used some people to confirm that He was my helper (Hebrews 13:6).
Phil was just about to pray a blessing on the food as I came in the door. He began his prayer by asking God to find the person who stole the money, coat and keys from one of the coats in the hallway during the service. He prayed that if one of the men from the mission was responsible, that the Lord would deal with him so that he would return what he had taken. Phil then prayed that we would all be able to continue to come back to the church, even though some of the church people thought it was the homeless who took the items. This prayer went on and on about this and I became angry. When Phil was finished, I asked one of the men what was going on. I learned that this was Phil’s way of announcing that someone had stolen a coat, keys and money from the coat rack upstairs during the service. I felt irritated by Phil’s chosen mode of communication. Why did he need to make his announcement in the form of a prayer? Couldn’t he just be straight with us? Just then, one of the associate ministers came into the room and made a humble appeal to all of us for any information we had about the thefts. He did not accuse anyone but simply asked for our help. I felt that he was genuine. After the minister left, a heated discussion emerged. One of the homeless men indicated that his $150.00 coat had also been stolen recently and that the church didn’t seem too concerned about this. I later learned that the Pastor gave this man $50.00 to replace his coat. He did not seem grateful. We were told that this type of theft had been going on for several weeks.
As we left the building to return to the mission, I observed an anxious young member of the church talking with one of the ministers about his fear that his car would be stolen from the church parking lot. He was apparently the victim of the theft of his car keys. I really felt for him. I could sense his anxiety and anger. I wondered how he would deal with this trial and whether he would form a negative opinion of the homeless through this situation. These kinds of “violations” in our lives pick our fruit and reveal what is really in our hearts—our view of possessions, our hidden attitudes toward others and our unresolved resentments.
We walked the few blocks back to the mission. Most of the men had already gone downstairs to the dorm-like sleeping rooms. We had to wait until our names were called. Ken, the young man who had slept on the bunk next to mine, was not able to stay at the mission that night because there was one too many men. I felt responsible. I later learned that Tom (the staff worker) drove Ken to the YMCA shelter located in the Hill District of Pittsburgh to spend the night. I had heard some nasty things about the Hill District and I felt bad that Ken had to stay there. The men who spoke about the Hill District told stories of violence, drug abuse, and theft. The common feeling was this was the shelter of last resort. I heard later the next day that this YMCA shelter had no heat.
Upon arriving downstairs into the mission sleeping quarters, I smelled something burning right near the desk. I alerted the staff worker and he, too, acknowledged the smell of smoke. It then occurred to me that I was never shown any fire escape plan and I didn’t even know if there were other exits. I asked the staff worker if there were other exits and he showed me where they were. This was some reassurance. On this night I was in a different bed , #5, located in a different room. I had the top bunk. It took me a few minutes to put the sheets on my bed. It was about two years ago in Charleston that I also had the top bunk of a bed. I had a short flashback to that whole experience. I remembered my anxiety and fear, having to sleep next to a man in the Charleston mission who had given me a silent and nasty stare after I said hello to him. I went into the cold shower, washed my hair and returned my clothes to the front desk. There were no words of assurance about the smell of smoke. I just went back to my bunk and listened to the men as I fell asleep. They were arguing about drugs and women, indeed certain types of women who were crack addicts.
It had now been 24 hours since I first arrived. I felt good about making it through my first full day. The lights went out and everyone fell asleep. “Good night, Lord Jesus,” I prayed. “Thank you for watching over me today.” I felt so grateful to get a good night’s sleep.
I was already awake when the lights came on at 6:00 am. We stripped our beds and exchanged our dirty sheets for our dirty clothes. The slow process of putting on the layers of dirty clothing took time. I asked for a comb, but there were none available. Once again, my hair looked like it had a great deal of electricity going through it. I felt dirty. Just as I finished up, someone pounded on the outside door. A few of the men opened the door and in came this young man who was obviously high on something. He had not stayed in the shelter that night and it was unclear to me what his purpose was in coming in. He was loud, foul and unpredictable. I couldn’t tell where his kidding left off and his potential for violence began. I decided not to stay around and find out. I migrated out the back door around the building and back through the front door into the chapel. The TV was tuned to the TODAY show and the men watched a news report about William Sessions, FBI director, and his attempts to clear his name. As I went to sit down, a voice spoke harshly to me that I was in the wrong seat and that certain seats were reserved for those in “the program”. I asked how one was supposed to know which seats belonged to whom since none were marked. There was no reply. I found another seat and we all waited in the crowded chapel for at least 30 minutes until the morning preacher came. Some slept, some talked and others watched TV.
Around 7:30 am, the preacher arrived, an African-American man who appeared to be in his 30’s. I remember his talent for music. He asked for a volunteer to open us in prayer and one of the homeless men from the program prayed like he really knew and loved the Lord. The preacher spoke to us about loving God and loving our neighbor. He was not eloquent, but he was sincere. I was encouraged by the simplicity of his message. Following the sermon, we lined up for breakfast. Martin, the severely mentally disabled young white man, started asking some questions in his irritating manner and one of the other homeless named Chuck told him to shut up. I remember him yelling in anger at Martin several times to shut up, to shut the f— up.”We’ve heard all we are going to take from you today,” he said. In the short moment of silence which followed, I publicly yet sarcastically thanked Chuck for being such an example and demonstrating what it really means to put into practice what we’d all just heard about loving our neighbor. There were some snickers from the group followed by a long silence and a look from Chuck that could kill. I wondered if he might remember my comment and cause me trouble later. The rule on the streets is “an eye for an eye”. I wondered if he would hold a grudge. I realized that there is a cost to sticking up for the vulnerable.
As we walked down the hall towards breakfast, I saw two different kitchens and eating areas. One was apparently reserved for the people in the program and the other was for us, whom they called the Transients. Our breakfast on this day was scrambled eggs and sausage along with coffee and orange drink. The meal was prepared for us by the men in the program. Following breakfast, I journeyed with Willie, Ken and Jeff down to the Salvation Army day-center located near the triple-X movie theater only a half block from the mission. I was told that we could stay there until 2:30 p.m. when they close for basic education classes. The day center was located on the second floor of a large building owned by the Salvation Army. There were plenty of chairs and tables for everyone. A telephone was available for local calls. Two pool tables were available for recreation. At the entrance of the large room were two desks where the day staff sat. I was asked to sign in. By the time I arrived, most of the men were already watching the Geraldo talk show on TV. It was a mock trial against the man accused of having sex with a 16 year old minor in New York named Amy Fisher. Most of us just watched and relaxed. Ken passed around some pornography he had with him. Most of the men gathered in smaller groups around tables and the pool table. The few women seemed to keep to themselves. After Geraldo the staff abruptly changed the channel to a movie called ADAM. It was the true story of a six year old boy that was kidnapped from a mall in Florida and eventually senselessly murdered. As I watched the anguish and the pain acted out in this true story, I kept thinking of my own wife and son. I wanted to be home right then. I wanted to be hugging and kissing my son Timothy. The movie became harder and harder for me to watch.
Soon it was abruptly turned off by the staff worker as he announced that it was time for lunch. Jeff and I had not understood that there was a separate sign up sheet for lunch. As a result, we were the last to eat in the crowd of about 70 folks. Lunch was hot and that was all which mattered at that time. After lunch we all watched the local news. Near the end of the new program, the staff worker suddenly turned off the TV and asked all of us to help carry in some food which was being delivered by a truck in the front of the building. Most of us walked downstairs and did our part to help carry in what we could. I was handed two trays marked “beef”. When I finally got it up to the kitchen, a lot of the juice had spilled all over my pants. I felt wet and sticky. I asked one of the staff workers if I could possibly get another pair of pants and he found me something in their small clothing closet. I quickly changed clothes and returned to the TV room.
Ken was talking about going to the mall so I asked if I could tag along. Ken is a 28 year old African-American who told me he had been living on and off the streets for the past few years. He had used drugs off and on but wasn’t using at this time. He seemed like a safe fellow to spend some time with. I joined him in going to the mall and watched his masterful skill at one of the most difficult video games. He must have played on 1 token for a half hour. We saw Julie again at the mall. She was walking around and around in a daze. After he finished with the video game, I offered to buy Ken a burger so we went to Wendy’s and talked. I tried my usual technique to get free coffee but it didn’t work. I was able to get the man next to us to donate his newspaper when he finished. Ken talked about women and the city and I listened. He told me about the different crack-addicted women he has been with. From there we went to the library to read the paper. I was struck that the majority of people in the library appeared to be from the mission . This was all part of the routine for Ken on a lazy Monday in January.
In answer to many of my questions about the homeless of Pittsburgh, Ken had told me about the Wood Street Commons, a single room occupancy (SRO) building which has 259 rooms located in the middle of downtown Pittsburgh. I had heard about this program from some people in Athens with whom I had recently been working to develop something similar. Ken volunteered to show me the way to this place on the condition that I called ahead and made sure there was someone available who would talk to me when I got there. I made the call and spoke with a man named Denny. I explained that I was in town visiting for the afternoon and inquired as to whether there was anyone on the staff available to speak with me concerning their programs. Denny assured me that someone would be available to spend a few minutes with me if I could get there soon. I returned to Ken at the library and we were quickly off on the 45 minute walk to the downtown area. This was my first trip downtown . I was finally getting a feel for where I was in the city. The wind was brisk as we walked on the bridge over the river, but as we approached the inner city, the large buildings shielded us from the cold wind. Ken gave me the guided tour, pointing out landmarks on the way. We talked about women and sung some old rock and roll songs as we walked. I started to sing an old Lynyrd Skynyrd song called Freebird and Ken chimed right in. “If I leave here tomorrow… will you still remember me?… ’cause I must be traveling on now… there’s too many places I’ve got to see…”
Soon we arrived at the Wood Street Commons. I had a tendency to forget that I looked kinda unkempt, uncombed and shabby. When I approached the desk and announced that Denny had assured me that I could talk with someone about their programs, Denny himself pointed out another man, Don, whom he said could answer my questions. I asked Don if we might be able to sit down and talk for a few minutes. I explained that I wanted to learn some things about their operations and had a series of questions to ask. Don told me if I wanted an application to move in, I would need to return around 10:00 am the following morning when the applications were handed out. I told Don that I was not seeking to move into the program and only wanted to collect some information on the nature of their program. Don then asked me who I was with. Using my “quick thinking abilities,” I replied that I was with me. His non-verbal communication seemed to indicate that if I represented someone or something larger then myself I would be able to speak with him, but since I was only asking for my own interests, I wasn’t worth his time. I decided to pop the question: “Are you saying that if I am with someone, you will speak with me but if I’m not, you won’t take the time?” “That’s right,” Don said and walked away.
I was reminded of the tendency among social-service people to treat their prospective clients like dirt. I felt de-humanized. I remember my own words written a year earlier after my stay with the homeless of Akron, Ohio. “We no longer live in a society of human beings but of human doings. We live in a time when our value and worth as human beings is gained not by who we are but by what we do. And if you don’t do anything, if you don’t have a title… then you ain’t nothing!” After Don left, I spoke with the security guard name Alfee who took me on a tour and explained the program. He later introduced me to another young man who was kind enough to take me to his floor and show me his room. I asked their staff if they would send me some materials in the mail about their program. I gave them my address. They never sent me anything.
I had given Ken $1.00 and suggested he might get some coffee and meet me back at the Wood Street Commons in about an hour. I didn’t know Ken real well and more then once wondered if he would really return. If he didn’t come back, I would have a very difficult time finding my way back to the mission. Ken did return and we walked back to the mission, stopping occasionally for Ken to state a number (1-10) on the women he saw. I had a chance to share my attitude about women and even my views on monogamy. I told Ken that I was married. He asked no further questions. Soon we arrived back at the mission for dinner.
A TV camera and news people doing a story on the homeless were already interviewing some of the men from the mission when we arrived. Ken and I went straight to the dinner line which was located outside to the right of the building in a courtyard of some kind. Willie and Jeff were in line and we talked about our days and the news people doing a story in the front of the building. Jeff had made it to the physical therapy appointment, Willie had hung around the Sally (Salvation Army) most of the day. I knew I was being accepted as “one of them” and this felt good.
There was a special kind of feeling seeing these guys again. It was here that my compassion was renewed. It was here that I saw these men in a light not too much different than myself. It was here that I felt that we have more in common than in difference. When we laughed and told jokes, I realized that these men in their heart longed for the same things I did: deep and trusting human relationships where they were cared and felt cared for, work which provides dignity and a decent living wage, emotional affirmation for who they were as human beings, access to a good education, and a place to call home where they could truly be themselves, live in peace and use their own resources to help others. I also sensed that some of these men would welcome a right relationship to God and their neighbor if they were shown the way and provided a social structure to maintain right relationships. I wondered what might happen to me and my close Christian friends if we were thrust into a social structure like that of the homeless in Pittsburgh. I wondered if we might turn away from right thinking and right living and ultimately from a right relationship with the Lord in order to survive on the streets. I realized the correspondence between social structure and our relationships with God.
While standing in line for dinner, I attempted to make another conversation with the young man from Korea but he was very resistant. I wondered what he really was afraid of. Maybe he had been hurt, robbed or even raped. I wanted to learn more about him, but I also wanted to be sensitive. I found myself paying more attention to his non-verbal communication then to his words. It is difficult to know when we should press on and when we should lay back in these situations. I find the same struggle in all the parts of my life. I had a special kind of compassion for this man. I had worked for five years during the 1980’s developing a ministry to international students and I was very aware of the situation many of these students find themselves in. Recently at Good Works we helped a young Korean man for several months and I saw both the situations beyond his control and the areas in which he refused to take responsibility .
Street living can be so unpredictable. Sometimes you make friends with someone and they turn on you unexpectedly; other times you make friends and they leave you without any notice and never come back. This kind of living does something to one’s sense of trust. In a real way, the issue is the same for those of us who want to help homeless people. We must bring a large enough emotional bank account to the relationship so that we can withstand a lot of emotional and psychological withdrawals. We must have a firm grasp on the process of giving and receiving forgiveness. We must be in touch with and face our own unresolved conflicts or we will turn our unresolved bitterness and resentments toward the homeless when they “push our buttons.”
Most of the homeless with whom we work and whom I’ve met are like hurting puppies who will bite you as you seek to intervene into their lives. Are they biting you because they are hurting and fear more pain or because they have learned to bite in order to survive? The answer is complex. Reaching out to people who have experienced rejection, pain and abuse will cause us to really be stretched to our limits! Hurting people “spill” their pain onto us when they bump into us. When they walk away, we are often left bruised and stained. Many can’t face the fact that they are angry and disappointed with themselves so they direct their anger towards us. Others appear to have arranged their lives to ignore their own responsibilities and place the blame on someone else. Angry people invade your space with their anger; they impose upon and challenge your kindness. I often find myself in the role of a shock absorber, one who is victimized by the impact of their anger. My spirit is jolted. It is as if I’m punched in the gut and have to catch my breath. After I pray I realize that God’s grace is sufficient for my weakness. This realization, however, often only comes in retrospect.
For this reason, I have concluded that life-changing ministry with hurting and abused people is impossible outside of the context of community. The very nature of our work with the homeless brings us into contact with some Very Draining People (VDP’s), individuals who, because of the way they have chosen to deal with their own pain, drain us of our life and energy if we let them. And unless we establish emotional boundaries and obtain from the Lord a balanced self-esteem, we are destined to ride a roller coaster of emotions and soul-pain which will eventually produce a silent bitterness and resentment resulting in depression.
If you have worked with broken, oppressed and abused people who have been living in misery and coping through manipulation, then you have experienced what I am referring to. The only solution: Ministry to these needy people must grow out of the context of community. It is in community that we can bear one another’s burdens, share vital information and hand off to one another the VDP’s of our lives while we obtain a time of refreshment. It is in community that we can maintain a relational “check and balance system” whereby we are able to say to one another “Don’t you think you are losing perspective and that you were too harsh with that person?” It is in community that we help one another understand how to heal the emotional pain inflicted by the “hurt puppies” of our lives. It is in community that we can, “in the multitude of counselors”, do the most loving thing. It is in community that we can teach and model dignity and responsibility. It is in the context of community that we learn to prevent burn out. My time on the streets each year continues to confirm that those of us who want to be agents of transformation with the homeless must realize that whatever we end up DOING must result from our BEING the body of Christ. What we do and the solutions we impose upon the people we care about must ultimately emerge from who we are as individuals in Christ and as the people of God, his Body.
Am I suggesting that we must all live together and share our resources in order to minister to scandalized and oppressed peoples? Not exclusively. But I am suggesting we must intentionally join and deliberately attach ourselves to others and organize in such a way to maximize our energy. When Jesus said, “I will build my church”, didn’t He mean that he would build Christian community? What is the church if it is not Christian community? Isn’t it the responsibility of the local church to build Christian community? How can we better organize ourselves to ensure maximum ministry with sick, manipulative, despised, rejected and broken people? I suggest the answer lies somewhere in building Christian community. This is my vision for GOOD WORKS INC., A COMMUNITY OF HOPE!
The soup line moved quickly and soon we were seated at the long table in the eating room. Tonight’s dinner was spaghetti with a salad and pink lemonade. This was great! I expressed my gratitude verbally to those who served us. Ken got his salad but there was none on my plate. I asked if I could have some and was informed that they had run out. The man sitting across from me offered me his salad saying he hadn’t touched it, but I didn’t accept. My impulse to reject his offer was based on the possibility that he might be sick and my fear of getting sick. It all happened in a millisecond, but my thinking about my brief action has taken many minutes of reflection. If I had been hungrier then I was and without any money in my pocket, I would have opted for his salad and, like most of the other men, not considered any health risks. I realized that I could afford to consider the health risks, but most of the other men could not. I was reminded that I was homeless by choice, and therefore, would not fully understand these men until I was homeless without choice. I then asked if there were seconds on the spaghetti, (not wanting to admit publicly that I really wanted the salad) and some of the guys laughed at me. In a sarcastic tone I was told that those who hadn’t gone through the line should eat first and if I wanted seconds, I would have to go back through the line again. I felt stupid. I felt embarrassed. I felt like a man from the middle class.
After dinner we gathered outside in front of the building. Some of the men went back through the line for seconds. Soon it was time to gather in the chapel. I was struck by the fact that, unlike my experience in Akron the year before, the chapel service came after the meal. I was getting a good feeling about this mission. Tom , the man of compassion I met the first night when I arrived was our chapel speaker. He didn’t have anything specific prepared so he asked the men if they wanted him to read something in particular from the Bible. One of the men said “Exodus” and Tom began reading from Exodus chapter one in the King James version. He later decided to read the 10 commandments in Exodus 20. About half way through, he stopped and made some comments about the commandments. His humility spoke much louder then his message. In fact, his presence was his message. I felt encouraged by Tom’s attitude and approach. He was so unjudgmental towards the men.
TUESDAY NEVER CAME
A fter the sermon Tom did a head count of how many wanted beds. The count came out with 7 more men needing beds than were available. I took my cue and left the chapel immediately. I had decided that I would volunteer to move on if there were not enough beds. I walked around the corner and got directions from a man to the Pleasant Valley shelter. I then walked the 15 blocks in the dark. It was around 7:00 pm. It was cold outside and I was under-dressed for the weather again. I arrived at the shelter located in an old Church building a few miles north of Pittsburgh. As I walked into the foyer, I immediately noticed one man in a wheelchair and a number of other men standing around. No one was talking and the silence eventually bothered me, so I went back outside. This was the first time I really felt like a minority. I
By 7:30 the place was packed and men were lined up outside. This shelter operated only from 7:30 at night to 8:00 am in the morning. Those of us who were new all lined up and provided our names. The man who took our names and announced the vacancy rate was forceful, sharp with his words and tough.The beds were not provided on a “first come, first serve basis”. On the contrary, those men who had beds last night were guaranteed a bed and those of us who were new only had a chance for a bed if someone didn’t come back. As far as I could tell, the manager determined who could stay by who was visiting the Pittsburgh area for the first time. Even though I met the criteria, I didn’t make the list. Another man who didn’t make the list argued with the manager in a threatening way. He was a large black man, nicely dressed and carrying some bags with him. He and the manager exchanged some harsh words. A physical fight was avoided. As it turned out, there were about 14 of us who were not able to get a bed at the shelter. We were then transported to the YMCA shelter located in the Hill district in a brand new large white van.
The trip seemed like it took a long time and I wondered how I would find my way back to the mission for breakfast. Fortunately, Rick, a man I had met earlier in the day at dinner was also with us. He volunteered to walk with me back to the mission in the morning.
I had heard about the YMCA earlier in the day from Ken, my buddy, who had to stay there the night before.He had told me that there were a lot of drugs available at that shelter and said it was located in one the most violent neighborhoods of Pittsburgh. When we arrived, we were told to sign our names on a sheet in the lounge and follow the other men to the kitchen. We were each provided with a grilled cheese sandwich, some rice and some baked beans. Immediately, the large black gentlemen who had earlier provoked some violence at the Pleasant Valley shelter was “into it” with the cook. He was very critical of the food, its portion size and used a lot of foul language to communicate his disgust. He conveyed his standards in public view and the free food provided was not to his liking. The cook overheard his critical and unthankful comments and soon came out and told him to shut up. The tension was high. The cook was very angry and offered to escort the man outside for a fight.”Do you want to go outside and fight?” the cook asked.It was obvious that the cook had a few friends who were willing to join him. There were only five of us in the room. I wondered if I was in the middle of something I should walk out of before I got hurt. The cook went back into the kitchen and put on some loud rap music. The tension remained high. I decided to leave the room and headed for the lounge. I arrived in the lounge just in time to get one of the last blankets. My buddies in the kitchen were not so lucky. Most didn’t get a blanket or a sheet and some didn’t even get a mattress. We were told to go upstairs and find a cot located on the track which surrounds the gym below. By the time I got upstairs, most of the cots were already taken. There was a mad rush by some of the men to get the remaining cots. Meanwhile, a hearty game of basketball was coming to a close. The room was noisy.The air was cold. The lights
Around 9:00 p.m., the lights went out. It was obviously a time for some to do drug business. I decided to take a walk around. I was still clearly in the minority in terms of race. I wondered how many Jewish boys found themselves in this situation. I hadn’t met any yet.
Along the second floor of the “Y” were a number of sleeping rooms each housing at least 10 men. I later learned from Rick that I was fortunate NOT to get one of these rooms because many men have recently been raped in such situations . I called my friends Ken and Rosey Wagoner and told them where I was staying and when and where to pick me up in the morning. They later told me that they almost came to get me that night. Apparently the Hill district has quite a reputation for drugs, violence and racial problems. I went back upstairs and tried to go to sleep.
Morning came earlier than I expected. I awoke around 2:00 am because I was so cold. I later learned that there was no heat in the building. The temperature outside was around 14 degrees. The temperature inside was falling rapidly. Since I couldn’t sleep, I went downstairs. A few of the men were up reading. A night staff worker named Dick was cleaning the floors. The fire alarm was sounding in the office. I asked Dick why the alarm was sounding and he explained that someone had gone out the fire escape on the 4th floor again and this set off the alarm. The switch to turn it off was located in the locked office. We would have to put up with the noise until 8:00 am when the office was opened. I wondered why no one seemed to be too bothered by the sound of the alarm.
I had to move around to keep warm. I felt that chill that only comes when one can’t seem to do anything to warm oneself. I was glad I was going home. I had already learned more then I had expected. I waited four hours for Rick to wake up and we immediately left for the 2 mile walk back to Northeast Avenue. As we braved the cold air, I was beginning to feel insecure about the neighborhood. Soon we passed a used needle on the street. Rick announced, ” I bet I know what that is used for.” Next we passed a board with a few nails laying on the sidewalk. Rick said that he has witnessed men taking the board and scratching cars on the street during the night. We passed boarded-up buildings, empty lots and one store. We walked at a brisk pace because we were cold and because I was scared. It was a long walk but we finally arrived at the mission. The men were watching the Today show. Soon a new preacher came in to address the group. I was too tired to hear what he had to say. After Chapel, I asked the staff at the front desk for information about their organization and budget. I was told that this was only available by mail and if I would leave an address, they would send me what I wanted. I gave them an address and eight months later received information detailing their million dollar budget. I wondered what address the homeless use if they want financial information about the mission.
Breakfast was soon served and the clock was ticking. Another day had begun in the life of the homeless. I greeted Ken, Jeff and Willie with a joyful smile. I told them I had stayed at the “Y.” We didn’t have much time to visit. As we left the breakfast room, I handed each of them the few dollars I had in my pocket. “Money buys a legitimate reason to spend time inside a restaurant,” I thought. “I hope this little bit helps.” As I handed out the money and said goodbye, all three of these men looked at me in amazement. Jeff and Ken asked me two or three times,”Where are you going?” I answered with a smile that implied I just had to go. Inside I began to feel sad. I had come to feel comfortable with these three men. Without knowing it, they had become my teachers in a four day seminar about homeless men in Pittsburgh. It was no coincidence that all three of them were together when I had to say goodbye. They kept saying, “We’ll see you later, won’t we? We’ll see you at dinner tonight!” In the alley behind the mission, I shared that I didn’t think I’d see them later. Jeff called out to me with the words, “What are you, some kind of angel or something?” I had no reply. I went to the front of the building and jumped into Ken Wagoner’s van which was waiting at the time we had previously arranged. I reflected on Jeff’s last words to me. I felt good that my impact was so positive. I felt sad that I was privileged to leave, but these men had to stay.