Tuesday, June 18, 2013
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.