I had the honour of meeting Janelle just a few weeks ago at the Mustard Seed where she works. I am always amazed with passionate young adults like her. I asked if I could share her story with you. She speaks to the church, those who say to follow Christ and our response to those living on the streets. We need a new heart towards broken people. I heard a sermon on Sunday that said; “If you want to know where Jesus IS, look at where He was. You’ll find Him among the poor”. Here is Janelle’s story:
Life on the Streets….
About a month ago, myself along with 3 of my co-workers spent a week on the streets. We stayed in 6 different shelters in Vancouver , Seattle and Spokane. Why? A couple reasons I guess. I wanted to get ideas of how other shelters operate and to see how other cities deal with their issues of homelessness. I could have simply done a couple tours, but I specifically wanted to experience the shelter system as a homeless person. You have no idea how many times I have heard a guest tell me, “you just don’t know what it’s like”. And They’re absolutely right. I can spend 40 hours a week at a shelter, but I get to leave after every shift and head back to comfort. Even though I’ll never be able to fully understand many aspects of the homeless life, I wanted to get a small glimpse into what it feels like to walk in the shoes of someone experiencing homelessness.
I took a lot from this experience. When someone asks me about it, I have a hard time giving any kind of concise response. Probably the most profound thing I gained from this experience had to do with gaining a fuller understanding of the love of God. Here’s some of what stood out:
When we were in Seattle we wandered into a men’s shelter looking for information on different resources available in the city. Although we couldn’t stay there, they told us that their meals were open to the public. The idea of getting a free meal was highly appealing to us, especially because soup kitchens were seemingly scarce in Seattle. The catch to the free meal was that we had to sit through a chapel service before eating dinner. At the time, I was excited at the thought of attending a chapel service-I thought it would be refreshing. Needless to say, I was wrong.
We waited for about an hour in a room packed full of people for the chapel service to begin. When the people running the service finally arrived, they quickly made their way up to the stage and without any kind of opening song or prayer or welcome the preaching began. The woman that preached was of the yelling type. She proceeded to yell at the crowd for 40 minutes about how we needed to change our lives around, otherwise we’d all be heading for hell. As the sermon dragged on, more and more snores arose from the crowd, and I myself grew more irritated with this lady as I was hungry and tired after a long day. As the lady began to conclude her talk, reiterating yet again that we all needed to turn our lives around to avoid the fire of hell, I was excited to finally get to eat-but yet again I was wrong. She concluded and then announced that her friend was going to come and share something with us. Oh dear. This resulted in another 20 minute rant about how nobody knew the time when Jesus would return, so we better smarten up and live every day as if he was coming…otherwise we’d go to hell.
What struck me about this experience is how I felt in response to this chapel service. As a follower of Jesus myself, I should have felt a sense of unity with this lady; I should have felt encouraged by her ministry. Rather, sitting in the crowd of homeless people, being one of the ones she was preaching at, I felt a sense of rebellion towards the Church-like I didn’t belong and like I didn’t even want to belong.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first time I felt like I didn’t belong to the church. A street evangelist we had run into a couple of days prior to this prayed that all God would break the power of addictions and witchcraft from our lives. I’m sure these people meant well, but the message that come across to me was “you will only be acceptable to God if you repent”. First off, the simple fact of being homeless doesn’t make anyone more or less in need to turn an repent from their sins than the average person. Secondly, last time I checked, God’s acceptance of us isn’t conditional upon repentance.
In stark contrast to the chapel service at the soup kitchen, the next day we went to a church in the suburbs of Seattle. The message was based on the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). The pastor made a comment about how even before the son had a chance to explain himself, “…while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him” (vs. 20). The pastor pointed out comment that there is no part of the story where the Father asks the son if or how he plans to change. The story is about how God is waiting to embrace us because he loves us just as we are.
As a staff, it is easy to gravitate towards those that desire to change. Seeing people move forward is a really exciting thing and it’s really rewarding to walk alongside these types of people. It is also easy to become frustrated with the people that are complacent and make no effort to change. I see a lot of guests who lack motivation, or who come up with excuses of why they can’t move forward, or who cycle through the system time and time again. Often I am guilty of writing off these types of people. But I think these are the types of people who need to know the transforming power of God’s love the most.
I don’t want any person that I work with to feel like they don’t belong, or couldn’t belong to Jesus. People need to know how deeply they are loved. And I need to love people with the same extravagance that God loves them. I need to let people know that whether they change, or don’t change, God loves them just the same. People need to know that in their brokenness, in their addiction, in their apathy, in their rebellion, in whatever situation they may find themselves in- they are loved. Love gives people value, love brings healing to pain, love moves people to reach out beyond themselves, and love has the power to transform lives.