Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Church and the Homeless in the Wilamette Valley

In the Wilamette Valley, which includes both Portland and Salem, there are approximately 2000 churches. Some have only twenty members, some have thousands. Given the reputation of Oregon to be an "unchurched" area, there are a huge number of self-sustaining churches.

In the Wilamette Valley, according to the best estimates, there are 2000 homeless people every night. This number fluxuates and there are a lot of varieties of homeless people, but the number is a fair estimate.

Is this coincidence?

If this is correct, then if each church, on average, just ministered to and assisted just one-- ONE-- homeless person, then the whole outlook of poverty and homelessness would change for the whole Wilamette Valley-- for all of Portland and Salem.

I wonder if this statistic could be replicated throughout the United States? If every church in the U.S. would take poverty seriously and just take one one-- just one-- homeless person per congregation, then the whole landscape of poverty in the nation would change.

And the nation might actually recognize that the church is here to create a positive impact, and not just to suck resources into the personal egos of religious ideologies.

What Is The Church To Do About The Homeless?

The homeless are both the bane and pity of our society. They stand out as the lowest, the outcast, those who perpetually don’t fit in. In 2005 there were 744,000 homeless people in the United States, yet not all of these people are homeless today.
Not all of these homeless are the same. Some will only be on the streets for a night or a week or a month. These have lost jobs and fallen on hard times. For others, they have a network of supporters sufficient enough to give them a place to crash for a period of time. But for many, the hard times perpetuate over years, sometimes even decades. These are the chronic homeless and they stand out as the most obvious failure of our society.

James was living on the streets of Gresham. He was an alcoholic, a violent man and a thief. But one day, in jail, he had a vision of Jesus, praying for him, calling to him. He knew he had to change, to live differently, but he didn’t know how. He approached the pastor who ran a meal and a worship service he attended once a week, and the pastor prayed for him and gave him counsel. He cut back on his drinking and stopped stealing, but he still had difficulty making the rest of the changes he needed to make. And no one would hire him because he looked like a bum.

How are we supposed to react to the homeless?
Many of us look at the homeless in disgust, knowing that if they would just shake their addiction and apply themselves they could get a job and get back on their feet. Others of us look at the homeless and feel sorrow and sympathy wanting to help, but only able to throw a dollar their way.
But as believers in Jesus Christ, how are we supposed to react? Many believers think that if the homeless would just commit themselves to Jesus, then their lives would get straightened out and they could be normal participants in society. What many Christians don’t know is that at least a third of those who live on the street already have committed themselves to Jesus and are doing their best to live a Christian life. Yes, some are addicts, but not all. Many are mentally ill, but we cannot blame homelessness exclusively on mental illness, either.

How does Scripture tell us to react to these poor and outcast of society?
• We are to show respect to the poor. James 2
• We are to respond in love and compassion to everyone in need. Luke 10
• We are to offer help, especially to believers. Galatians 6:10
• We are to offer hospitality, clothing, shelter and food. Matthew 25:31-46
• We are to offer fellowship and peace. Romans 12
Most of all, according to Scripture, we are to love. This doesn’t always mean giving money or food, although we shouldn’t be closed to that. But it does always mean being patient, being kind, not putting ourselves over the other person, but bearing other’s burdens and enduring with them. I Corinthians 13

Bill lived in Vancouver, but worked in Gresham. He had often seen a homeless man walking by his office as he worked on his computer. He recalled that his church in Vancouver wanted to begin a ministry to the homeless, but didn’t know where to begin. Bill decided that he would begin on his own. The next time he saw the man walking down the street, he approached him and engaged him in conversation. James was friendly and though he was different, he was pleasant to talk to. Bill took him out to lunch and began to hear about James’ life and issues.

A New Paradigm
As the people of Jesus who reached out to the outcast, we are not to stand at a distance from the homeless. We must not separate ourselves from the lowest in society—whoever they are. Can we continue our practice of throwing evangelistic messages and food out our door to the cold and grief-stricken, while we stay warm, comforted and well-fed in our buildings? Some of these outcast we need to embrace as brothers and sisters, and others we need to embrace as the poor who need our help. As the people of the Book which teaches compassion, we must stand with those on the street.
But how are we to do this? Thousands of homeless are just too much for any church to bear, let alone the small percentage of the church that are stirred by the Spirit to assist the homeless. But the Lord has not called us to help the massive crowd, only those we know. To assist the homeless is not a matter of a huge ministry with hundreds of thousands of dollars. Rather it is a one-on-one ministry.

James took Bill to his street church and Bill’s eyes were opened. There were maybe a hundred homeless in Gresham, and many of them were believers who worshipped the Lord in their own worship service. Bill then made a decision—James was a fellow believer and needed his help. He offered James some landscaping work, which James readily accepted. When the freezing winds kicked up one night, Bill drove over to pick up James and a couple of his friends for the night. Bill became James’ good friend. James learned from Bill and from his pastor ways other than violence to deal with his problems. James ended up living with another member of the church, John, and doing labor for Bill, John and the church. He would obtain his room and board from John, and gain a little bit of money on the side from Bill and the church.

A Personal Welcome From the Church
This story should be replicated in every church. If every church in our urban areas had perhaps two people among their congregations who would be a friend and support for a single homeless person, then our whole society would change. The homeless would no longer be outcast, nor strangers in our midst. They would be members of our churches, participants in our society and our friends.
Very few churches have the resources to have a shelter. And it is not necessary for every church to have a food ministry. But there is one need of the homeless that every urban church can help—their isolation. The strength of the church is not our money, nor our political power. Rather, the strength of Christians has always been their love, their sacrifice and their welcome. If we take these strengths and focus them on the homeless, then the American urban landscape will change. The church will have a new people. And Christ will be glorified.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

How We Got Started

I was recently asked how we got started in homeless ministry.

The quick answer is this: God tricked me into it.

My wife and I had been planning and preparing to go to Bangladesh to minister to the poor both physically and spiritually for about 8 years. Suddenly, all of our plans fell through and we were left with nothing to do.

So I did what I often did when left to my own devises—I preached a message to the church they didn’t want to hear.

I began handing out tracts in front of churches. Mostly they were about the need to meet the needs of the poor and to surrender our wealth. After doing this for a number of weeks, I realized that we weren’t actually ministering to the poor in any way at the time. So I prayed a sincere prayer: “Lord, help us meet poor people here in Portland so we can minister to them. Perhaps a homeless person whom we could have for dinner a night a week.”

As is usual for our sincere prayers, God answers in ways we didn’t expect. That afternoon my wife and I met Ed.

Ed was a drunk who lived in our area, and though we never took opportunity to meet a homeless person before, Ed thrust himself upon us. We invited him to dinner.

He came to spend the night. That didn’t work out so well, as his yelling kept us up all night. Mind you, he was asleep, but we had issues.

But he did come for dinner that night.

And the next night.

And the next night.

And the next night he brought a friend.

Eventually, we got to know all the homeless folks in the neighborhood, and have them for dinner. Sometimes with Ed, often without him. For two years, we had homeless folks in our two bedroom apartment for dinner, and, on rare occasions, staying in our living room. We sometimes spoke of God’s word, but more often we didn’t. Our purpose wasn’t to preach, but to serve. And to listen.

Because of that listening, over a long time, we were able to prove the need of a worship service that would preach God’s word and would offer an opportunity for street people to worship. It’s pretty intense, but that’s the work God placed upon us.

To A Facebook Group

To the author of the Facebook Group, "If you join our group, we will give one dollar to fight global poverty", who hopes a hundred thousand people will join the group so they can give $100,000 to fight global poverty:

Giving a hundred thousand dollars to fight world poverty is awsome and noble.

But why should such a God-led gift be used like a publicity campaign? Why should the gift be limited by people joining a group in Facebook?

If you want to give, then give.

If you want to promote assisting the poor, then do that.

But don’t make a bunch of people think that they are “helping the poor” by joining a Facebook group. It just isn’t true.

Obesity and Poverty

Believe it or not, poverty is a leading cause of obesity, which leads to increased health problems and a decreased life expectancy.

There is a statistical relationship between poverty and obesity in the U.S. (

In developing countries, where the issue is still hunger, there is also an issue of increasing obesity,
( ;

What does this mean? It means that if you live on a low income, you are more likely to be obese and thus to have a lower life expectancy and a lower quality of life. Obesity is increasingly not a lifestyle choice, but the result of limited choices.

Many of us consider obesity to be the result of overeating or of making poor choices in eating. This is still true for some, but most of the time when we see an obese person, it is because they are limited in their nutrition choices.

I have noticed that in most free meals that are offered the homeless and low income folks in the Portland area, the fat content is high, the carbs are high and the actual nutritional content is low. This is the same kind of choice that developing countries have. Many countries are importing the high fat, low nutrition choices the developed countries have rejected.

Supermarkets put on sale and make readily available at the end of aisles high calorie items that have little or no nutritive value. Thus, the genocide of the poor proceeds by allowing milk and eggs to increase in price, while Pepsi and Little Debbie cakes are more economically accessible. If you have a hundred or so dollars a month to spend on food, one would always make the choice to go for quantity rather than quality. Better one to eat sugar than to go hungry for a few days.

For those of us who are serving the poor, especially offering meals or food boxes, we need to think about what we give—not just that we have enough to give, but that we offer nutrition. Let’s make the attempt to offer dark greens, broccoli, low fat proteins and whole grains. Let’s avoid serving cakes, white bread, sodas and even most juices. Yes, the bad nutrition items are easier to get cheaply, but let’s not participate in the destruction those whom we are supposed to be assisting.

Friday, July 4, 2008

A Rose By Any Other Name

Types of Homelessness

Being homeless means being part of an alternative society. There are many aspects of homelessness in our society, including:

• Homeless families.
There are families on the street, sometimes with just a mom, sometimes just a dad, sometimes with both parents. Usually these are families who have fallen on hard times, having lost a job or their housing. Families don’t usually stay on the street very long and can get off of the street with some help from a church or the government.

• Homeless youth.
This is a growing population. Many homeless youth have left their families or foster care homes because living conditions there were unacceptable to them, perhaps from abuse or perhaps because they wanted to live an alternative lifestyle that was unacceptable to their guardians. Usually these kids can get assistance if they want to get off the street, but many are content to live their chosen lifestyle.

• Couch surfers.
This category could be adults or youth, families or singles. These are people who have enough of a support network that they can at least get off the street, but they are people who cannot find a place to live, are usually having a hard time obtaining permanent employment and can receive almost no services or help from churches or the government.

• Chronically Homeless.
This is who we think of as “classically” homeless. They usually have addiction or mental health issues, live in camps around urban areas. These folks have been homeless from a year to forty years, having become hardened by the constant rejection and pity they receive.

Be Real

Interaction Tip:
No matter what kind of homeless person we are dealing with, no matter what issues they are dealing with, they need our understanding, not our pity and not our simple solutions. Let’s try to see the complexity of their situation and to appreciate them as a person, not as a stereotype or as a problem.


Everything has a consequence. What goes around comes around, if not now, then later.

Justice is not a microwave dinner. There’s karma, but it is rarely instant.

Most Westerners think that Easterners consider karma to be a good thing. The Hindus understand that karma is a cycle that is better to be escaped. Jesus is the only one who offers us an out of karma while we still live—it is called repentance and forgiveness.

-Questionable Wisdom

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Post Burnout

For the past four years, I've been going through burnout. I think I mentioned this before, and I certainly think that it is something that anyone who is working in a hard-core full time ministry experiences. But I've also felt that I have moved into a "post-burnout" phase. Not that I've changed that much, but the serious fatigue and insane anger/depression seems to have passed.

Or so I thought.

In the past, I have mentally "pushed" inappropriate and difficult thought processes aside. I can have overwhelming urges to look at pornography, and I might stumble, but since that is unacceptable I would push such urges aside. Later, I might have a serious memory problem, but since that doesn't work for my ministry or family, I would force my mind to remember. Then I might have irrational bouts of anger and depression. Again, I would push that aside, and work through it with exercise and meditation.

Until the worst seemed to just go away.

Sure, I would still have some "bad days" and be tired, but at least I'm not afraid of being thrown into a hospital, or whatever.

But the tiredness and fatigue would just get overwhelming. And I do have some physical symptoms-- the low testosterone being primary. And low testosterone could be a symptom of another physical problem. So, earlier this year, my father provided financial assistance to help me discover a deeper problem.

We did a battery of tests and found I had high cholestoral (big surprise, there, he mumbles sarcastically), but no distruption in blood sugar, thyroid, or iron.

We prayed with my family and with others, but there was no immediate help from the Lord for healing.

We went to one doctor and he immediately diagnosed "sleep apnea." But after an expensive sleep study, I just got the results today. It didn't confirm anything. I definately do not have sleep apnea, and the study nor the experience of the staff determined any physical cause. My O2 levels are fine, my heart rate is fine.

I have to say that I am pretty frustrated about the findings because so often my fatigue feels physical-- but recognizing the weight of the responsibilities I sense, perhaps it is all pretty much in my head. Stress, of course, causes physical symptoms, especially over time, but since no physical symptoms can be found I just have to admit to myself that my "post-burnout" phase is nothing of the sort. I'm STILL going through burnout, it is just that my body is being forced to function the best it can.

So we are back down to some combination of fatigue/depression. Im working with my wife and another person in my church to see about breaking down all that I do and seeing if I can share the load and take more breaks.

I don't feel like I or the ministry will collapse if I don't get this taken care of. At least not right away. This is how I DID feel, up until about a year ago when I started taking testosterone and adrenal supplements. But I still have too many days when I am excited about the ministry, but just don't feel like I have the energy to actually do it.

Years ago, when I was working as a shipping clerk at a new company, I had to create a system for them and deal with all that came my way. At first, it was completely overwhelming, all new, and I thought my mind was going to break. But then, over time, I figured everything out and while it was never easy, it was managable.

That's what I thought my ministry in Anawim was. A difficult, new situation, but over time my mind would adjust to the difficulties and the work would be smooth sailing from then on. However, this work didn't turn out that way.

It seems as if my mind is a bubble in a box made of sticks, but no sides. And the bubble has too much air in it, so every time I push the bubble back into the box where I want it to be, the air just pops out somewhere else, and I have no idea where it will pop out next.

I can take care of fatigue, but then I'll deal with anger. I can take care of anger, but then I'll have to deal with overwhelming temptation. I can take care of that, and then I'll have to deal with overwheming depression. If it was just one thing, I could target it and deal with it. But I never know what will come up next.

Perhaps it is because dealing with the homeless and the mentally ill is just too large of a ministry to create a "system" for and so it is always new, and so my mind can never rest. Perhaps I am just never satisfied with what we give, because new needs and people arise and I always want to improve what we offer. Perhaps because there IS no answer that I get depressed, especially (like this year) when I see many deaths and many people who are on the edge of death.

I don't know. But I won't stop. I just need to figure out how I can be the best, most effective person I can be so that I can do the work God has called me to do.