Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Homelessness and Friendship

Mark showed up at our church the same as many others do in his situation - he's homeless. On any given Sunday there are about twenty to twentyfive homeless people at our church, many there to worship, some to grab a shower and hangout, others just for sake of a change of scenery.

Ministering to homeless people requires the development of certain kind of discernment. You hear a lot of stories from people on the streets and it can be difficult to tell what's true, a lie, or psychosis (really, this is not limited to homeless people).

The story I heard from Jennifer (a lady in our church deeply involved in ministering to the homeless of Kansas City) was that Mark just got our of prison (20 years), the whole world has changed, he doesn't know how to adjust, and he's been homeless for a couple of months. I didn't really know how I was going to respond when I saw him. My usual approach to situations like this, especially with our homeless friends, is to hug them and tell them that I'm happy to see them. I did this with Mark and realized after eight, ten, and fifteen seconds of him not letting go that something was different here.

Through his tears he began to tell me his story, a conversation which we had to cut short that day but one we picked up later on over lunch. After he got out of prison, he went home to Alabama and met a girl. He admitted that he was lonely and liked the attention. But she was addicted to pills and this got him into trouble. Around the same time as things started to get bad with this girl, he got laid off from work (he's a welder). He took his unemployment money and came to Kansas City in hopes of getting away from this girl and to start a new job. His living and work situation broke down entirely in KC and he found himself on the streets. He was homeless for three months before "Old Man Ed" told him about the van that brings homeless people to church.

I'm happy to say that Mark got on a Greyhound bus yesterday heading back to Alabama. The girl is out of the picture and he's got a lead on a job, which he will hopefully start this Friday. Asking people in our church for money to buy a bus ticket is about the easiest thing in the world to do, especially when he's got a house and family and a job waiting for him on the other end. All Mark wanted to do was get back home and we helped him with that.

Part of the problem of homelessness in our culture is that we categorize it. We put people in the category and then we try to solve the category. There are a whole host of reasons why homelessness exists that I won't try to sort out right now. But for my money, the place to begin is with the people themselves. Mark's was the perfect example of how things can go wrong and how hard it can be to get out. He would tell me that he didn't want to end up like some of the other guys around him that had given up and given themselves over to substance abuse. But he did recognized how strong the pull was towards apathy, especially when so many ministries and approaches to homeless (again, as a category) are organized around handouts.

I realize that every person who lives on the streets has a different story and that each person is there for a different reasons, but then that's my point: for each person, there is a unique circumstance that has to be taken into specific consideration. This is why we have to break out of the category game. It's not homelessness, it's Jacquie, Jacob, Old Man Ed, Mark, Cutter, Peter, Quiola, Joe, Jamelyn, Wolly, Anne, Turtle, Crystal, Gary, and Greg. Mark reminds me that sometimes there's an easy fix to a situation. I'm not worried about Mark once he gets back to Alabama. But for others it's more complex and not so easy to fix. Either way it begins with friendship, with knowing the names and face of people so that it begins to hurt a little when things happen to them on the streets.

Mark kept telling me he wanted to pay our church back. I told him no. After his initial persistence I finally conceded and said if you want to pay it back then do something for someone else later on. He told me he would. So, if you're ever in Alabama and a guy named Mark helps you out, give thanks to God.


Friday, May 10, 2013

Redemption Church was featured in an article about ministering to the poor and homeless!

Below is an article by John Ashmen, President of Association of Gospel Rescue Missions (AGRM). We recently had him out to speak at our church about ministering to the poor and especially the homeless. He decided to write in his regular newsletter about his experience of being at our church and about our church's ministry to the homeless. Check it out!

Coming to a Church Near You
By John Ashmen

It’s a typical suburban church building in a typical suburban neighborhood. It sits on a sometimes-busy street lined with ranch-style houses. The local grammar school is a Frisbee-throw away—if you can clear the fence.

The grass out in front of the church would probably take 40 minutes to mow, depending on how many times the laborer stopped for lemonade. Out back is a typical macadam parking lot that looks to hold about 60 cars. Behind that is a concrete overflow lot that could probably take another 20.

Wherever you stand on the property, the roofline hints at the history of the place: an original sanctuary to the north, a new worship center to the south, and a Sunday school and office wing that connects them, all made of typical red bricks and all probably built about a decade apart.

But what’s going on these days at Redemption Church in Olathe, Kansas, is far from typical. This seems to be the fault of a guy named Jim.

A few years ago, Jim and his wife, Jennifer, encountered some homeless men on the street. During their conversation, Jim suggested that they go to church. He then recommended a church where he thought they might slip in unnoticed. Jennifer abruptly scolded her husband in front of the men for not suggesting their own church. After a few awkward moments, Jim offered to pick them up the following Sunday and take them to Redemption.

At first it was a couple of men. And then it was a couple more. Soon, “Christian Jim” (as he is now know among the homeless population) was making regular Sunday morning runs in a customized van, piling in homeless folks and entertaining them en route with gospel music from the 30-speakers sound system in the long white Dodge.

Today, about 20 percent of the congregation of 150 is made up of homeless people. Other members now drive their vehicles down to the homeless camps along the Kansas River and collect congregants. About a dozen of those who attend regularly have embraced the gospel and now follow Jesus.

I was at Redemption Church this past Wednesday night. A dozen staff and key leaders invited me to join them for some savory Kansas City barbecue. As we ate, I absorbed their excitement and responded to their anxieties.

“I think we’ve started something here that we can’t stop,” said one woman. “But based on what Scripture calls us to do, I don't think we should stop. What do you think?”

“This is the reason my two teenage boys are excited about church,” declared one of the men. “If I told them we were going to do away with the Bible and start using the Koran in church, they would probably just shrug. But if I told them that we were no longer going to bring homeless people into our fellowship, they almost certainly would stop coming.”

“Down the hall you’ll see that we built a large bathroom with a shower,” a younger gal pointed out. “Some of us are now part of the ‘shower ministry,’ I guess you could say. We offer hygienic care so that both the people getting the showers and those they will be sitting next to in the service will be comfortable. Should we add more showers, or is that a crazy idea?”

Before dessert, I offered Pastor Tim, Associate Pastor Scott, and the others several things to consider:
  1. Be deliberate. Think through then write out your ministry philosophy. Have your church leaders review and approve it. Be careful to communicate that you are foremost a church. Don’t create false expectations for anybody in the congregation—the homeless or the home-secure.
  2. Declare your convictions. Proclaim your orthopraxy in conspicuous ways—maybe through photos, slogans, and the like—so visitors and new families know why your church is not typical as it pertains to attendees.
  3. Be safe. Security is foremost. Take nothing for granted. Attitudes and behaviors of people you think you are getting to know can change from week to week. Make your nursery and primary education wing for parents and children only.
  4. Don’t offer meals every Sunday. Quite a few places will feed homeless people. They know where they are. Show that you are a church family first. Do an all-church supper maybe once a month, but invite everybody.
  5. Don’t overextend yourselves in services. Maybe concentrate on shoes and socks and foot care. But know where to find the services you cannot provide. 
  6. Tailor Sunday school classes. Remember that education and life skills lead to employment and independence. There is nothing wrong with teaching reading in Sunday school.
  7. Think “we.” Try to move away from a mentality of “us” serving “them.” Homeless individuals want a sense of community more than they want to be your “mission field.” Preach often from James 2.
  8. Use the arts. Music, drama, poetry, paintings, and such have an amazing effect on people who are not used to long lectures. God gave us the arts, and they definitely can be part of our worship. 
  9. Create a “living room.” Have an area in the church where homeless people can sit relax, converse, and generally mingle with the rest of the body of Christ before and after the service. Such a setting helps build community. 
  10. Communicate with local campuses. Get the word out to students at local colleges through the ministry services department or campus ministries (i.e., InterVarsity, The Navigators, and Cru) about what you are doing. Without a doubt, many will want to join such a faith community. Being with the poor is where many of their hearts are.
  11. Don’t attempt to handle recovery. Love them first. Don’t try to cure them from their addictions. That is something that takes training and expertise beyond what most—if not all—members of your church have. 
  12. Partner with a local rescue mission. AGRM has two member missions in Kansas City. They know addiction recovery. Get to know those who minister at the missions and tell them who is attending your church. It’s likely that they know some of the folks, and they would be happy to offer some insights.
We weren’t done. Following the leadership meeting, we went to the worship center where another 50 or so people had gathered—pretty good for a Wednesday night these days—to talk about Invisible Neighbors. (Everybody who came received a copy of the book.) My 30-minute talk was followed by another hour of questions, tearful testimonies, and fellowship.

I deeply believe that what Redemption Church is doing is a foretaste of things to come. Why do I think this? Every week at AGRMwe receive multiple inquiries  from churches wanting to know how they can serve the poor in their communities and bring them into their fellowships. They ask: Can you help us with resources or give us advice? They lament: We have no place else to turn.

In your next executive staff meeting, imagine what it would be like to have 10, 20, or maybe even 50 churches in your community really partnering with you on a Redemption-Church level. It certainly isn’t far fetched.

Read AGRM’s vision statement and concentrate on the final phrase. As we approach our 100th anniversary in the association, I urge you to make this a matter of prayer.

AGRM will foster and feed a movement of diverse, energetic disciples who will see the practice of hospitality to the destitute as both a catalyst for life transformation in Jesus and a fundamental expression of their Christian faith, thus propelling the church into the lead role in society’s quest to alleviate homelessness.

There is definitely more to come.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Bottom Line: The Rich Have to Share

Back when I was a bellman/valet, it was the middle-class, working people who were always the best tippers. Seriously, living in KC, whenever there was a NASCAR race we were stoked! The same with a big event in the convention center where the vendors needed help unloading their stuff. We gladly gave up two hours to help because we knew the payoff would be worth it.

Working for tips always felt like a kind of slave labor, but somehow in our capitalistic culture we've figured out a way to make it work, at least for the time being. I have serious reservations about how sustainable is such a way of life. In other words, ultimately I'm not convinced that a better wage labor system is the answer to our problems.

What got me thinking about these things was a recent Pew Research poll indicating that from 2009-2011 the rich got richer, and the poor poorer. This won't surprise a lot of us of a middle/lower socio-economic status, but numbers always help when it comes to seeing how things really are.

I imagine these numbers vary from poll to poll, but I think it's right to recognize an increasing wealth gap in the U.S.

The bottom line is, I think, until the world changes or something other/better than capitalism comes along ... the rich have to share.

For those already doing this, you're awesome! Teach your other weatlhy friends that it's not the end of the world, that they can be responsible with their hand-outs so that they are not wasted perpetuating a cycle of poverty. Or better yet, just become friends with the poor themselves. You might actually find yourself on the receiving end of something greater the just wealth redistribution.