“Its 6:45 a.m. gentlemen, 15 minutes to be dressed and out the door” a staff member at The Salvation Army Shelter yells. “What are you going to do today?” I ask someone. “I don’t know, CNN Center first and then maybe the Library” answers another. “Is there some place we can go and get out of the weather for the day?” I ask back. “Not really” is the response. And thus begins my journey in the world of the homeless.
A few days later I heard the phrase “the Five Points Shuffle” describing this journey: you get shuffled from location to location by businesses, MARTA staff, the police and sometimes even service providers. There seems to be little sympathy or understanding for the plight of those most vulnerable in our society. The homeless are seen as drug addicted, mentally ill criminals that need to be hidden from the eyes of decent, law abiding citizens so as NOT to interrupt their comings and goings, rather than children of God – neighbors – seeking love, acceptance and belonging. They are exactly the ones we are commanded to love.
Out of this reality is where “Retreat from the Street” was born. We recognized a need for space where the homeless could find peace away from the chaos that is life lived on the streets. A space that offered retreat from the elements, the endless wandering, being jailed for crimes as senseless as loitering or jaywalking (crimes that you and I would never be jailed for), crimes perpetrated against them (homeless people are the most likely segment of our population to encounter muggings, violent assaults, theft of their meager belongings), sexual abuse and murder.
It became clear, God was calling His church to be attentive to these outcasts, to provide the space where the most vulnerable of our neighbors could get their heads clear of the clutter; a quiet space to begin to consider the course of their lives, to get a hot cup of coffee on a cold morning, to sit and hear the voice of God speaking life into their hearts. With its location in the Old 4th Ward of midtown Atlanta where a large homeless community walks the streets and a chapel that could be utilized for this type of ministry, St. Paul’s Presbyterian church became that place. With the blessing of Pastor Chris the doors of “Retreat from the Street” were opened in late October.
Early on very few people spent any time inside, instead choosing to grab some coffee and a sandwich and leave, but slowly as they saw consistency and authenticity they began to stick around. As the relational part of this ministry took on better form we began to institute a more formal theme to the work. Now we serve more than 70 different individuals throughout the week and 25-30 regular men and women that have taken ownership of the ministry. They are involved in bible studies, both group and individual, some go into the sanctuary for personal prayer, many others ask for prayer, they clean the facility daily, painted the sanctuary, and serve one another by helping with food, coffee, creamer, sugar, fixing plates, washing dishes, etc.
Being treated with dignity, finding purpose in life, experiencing love from us, and maybe more importantly from each other, has proven to be God’s prescription for the tearing down of strongholds and breaking of bonds. Several have entered long term, residential drug/alcohol rehab programs while others have sought and found transitional housing from which they can seek to re-enter community, and still others are reconciling with God and their families.
If we, as professing Christians, believe that God does not give up on His children, using every chance to bring about His purpose in glory then we need to reconsider our beliefs and actions towards the most vulnerable (“least of these”) neighbors of ours. We are told consistently throughout the bible to “love your neighbor as yourself.” This means for us that we MUST engage this command in any way we can – physically, materially and financially. If being a Christian cost you nothing, neither time nor resources, and all you desire from it is for your personal benefit then your religion has no value and you might as well spend your Sundays doing something else. If, on the other hand, you seek to do the will of God it will cost you and sometimes dearly (sacrificially). Pray about these things and how God might be calling you to a greater commitment to your neighbors.
Be sure to follow us on Facebook at Church on the Street. If God calls you to know and love these throwaways then contact us to find out the many ways that are available for you to truly reach out in love.
Leviticus 25:35 If one of your brethren becomes poor, and falls into poverty among you, then you shall help him, like a stranger or a sojourner, that he may live with you.