BURLINGTON, VT – Street ministers like myself soon realize that the street has its own culture, its own community, that is often very different from the “mainstream culture” including the Christian evangelical culture. What we find is that those who have been on the streets a long time are part of that culture. It is very deeply rooted in who they are.
Some who come to Christ can and will get off the street and into mainstream culture again, but the reality is many will not. They just don’t fit in with the mainstream anymore. But that does not mean that real conversions don’t take place or that real spirituality does not take place on the street. It just means it looks different. The street folk to whom we minister, those who claim to be followers of Jesus, know who they are. They know they are sinners, losers, addicts, and that they do not measure up nor will they ever measure up to society’s standards. But they are the ones who will quickly say “God have mercy on me, a sinner.”
I remember when a group of the homeless asked me to do a Good Friday devotion in an alley in our city. Over 50 came out to worship. One of the long- time homeless, an alcoholic, had tears in his eyes and shared with us what would be the sermon for the day: perhaps the best sermon I have ever heard! He said, “All of us here are losers. We are sinners. We are not good people. But this Jesus, the Son of the Living God -- He was perfect, and He loves us so much. And He knew we are not able to clean ourselves up, but that is exactly why He came for people like us. I am not worthy to be here, but He calls us anyway. And I love Him, and I will be ever grateful for what He did for me, and I await the day I can jump into his arms and never have to worry about another thing.”
After the service was over, I thought to myself that this man – this long-time street person, this man who has been into treatment over 50 times in his 66 years, this man who fought for our country in Vietnam and came back from war forever damaged – he understood the truth of Scripture. He understood the finished work of Jesus on Calvary’s cross. He had a spirituality and a faith that is strong and living, and helps him in his very difficult life on the street. And there are many like this man who live out their faith on the street.
But I can hear some say, “If this man were truly saved, he would be clean and sober, off the street and have a job, be in a real church and pay his tithe.” All I can say is perhaps. But after forty years on the street ministering to all kinds of people, I have seen and experienced genuine faith and real love among the homeless even in the midst of addiction and the ugliness that the streets dish out. That Good Friday Service so many years ago was the most powerful worship experience I have ever had in any church. The streets have become my church, my parish, and for the people who call the streets home, I am honored to be their pastor.
If you want to help the homeless, be their friend. Look at them, don’t ignore. Share a smile or a friendly hello, or perhaps take one of these precious people to lunch. Get to know them as a person and find out their story. Listen to them. Never ever give them money – their addictions will win over, and that money you gave them will not go for food but for drugs or alcohol. We use $5.00 McDonald’s gift cards. I carry them with me at all times and give these out freely to all who need them because they can only be redeemed for food at McDonald’s.
Luke 18:9-14 states that Jesus told this parable to someone who trusted in their own righteousness and regarded others with contempt. He said, two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee standing by himself said, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people; thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give a tenth of all my income.” But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” Jesus said, “I tell you this man went down to his home justified rather than the other, for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
David Russell is the director of Burlington Street Ministries in Burlington, Vt. This article first appeared in the New England Baptist Newsjournal.