In this series of posts, I have taken the time to reproduce Mike Yankoski’s accounts of various churches he experienced AS A HOMELESS person. This series has already depicted the good, the bad, and the ugly of church experiences vis-à-vis Jesus and the homeless. Part of what I find so powerful about Yankoski’s book is that he acts like Jesus who claims “the least of these brothers” are him, and paints the picture of the final Judgment of God based on how charitable the sheep or the goats are toward vulnerable poor people. Like an apocalyptic episode of Undercover Boss, it turns out, that poor, needy person you either helped or ignored was Jesus, your Lord! And Yankoski plays that role like a preview of things to come, except that he is NICE about it, where I am playing the Judgment Card he abstained from playing.
In this post, I want to reproduce an account of a church that reached out to Yankoski as he stunk and appeared absolutely haggard, which he was, really, since he actually went out to live on the streets for several months. But this account I reproduce for you now, depicts a church that truly LOVES Jesus and pursues him whole-heartedly in vulnerability and sacrifice. I think we can all learn from this church. I think we need to learn from this church. THIS IS HOW IT”S DONE, YA’LL!!! Take notes on this one. And go and do likewise.
We catch up with Yankoski in the chapter entitled, San Francisco, under the heading, “Berkeley Booh Yah” starting on page 150:
By now the wear and tear of our weeks on the streets had given Sam and me something like the fearsome look of Old Testament prophets. You know–rugged, weather-worn, shaggy, and a little scary. The strange part was that we were beginning to feel the part, too. Across this land we strode (okay, hobbled), looking for a “remnant of God’s faithful people,” those still passionate in both word and deed to honor Him. It seemed as though there weren’t any left, and those out-of-touch but oh-so-religious folks we’d just met in church confirmed our doubts.
Sam and I had just walked into People’s Park. We saw a man on the ground, crumpled in a heap where he had fallen, whiskey bottle still clutched in his hand. Hippies danced naked around a tree while onlookers mocked. Where was God in all this? More to the point, where were His people?
Then we met Russ.
Earlier, someone had told us we’d find a group holding a church service Sunday afternoons in the park. Rumors of sack lunches also helped to draw us on till we found them.
It was a group of about twenty. Some wore khaki shorts and button-down shirts while others were obviously street people. Two guitarists were leading worship. As Sam and I set our packs down, several in the crowd nodded a welcome.
A Christian homeless guy next to us said enthusiastically, “This is where church should be! It’s where the gospel meets the world, because this is where we are!” He motioned around the park, pointing to a drug deal taking place, and to the drunk still passed out on the ground. “Jesus came for us, too,” he said. “It’s a shame when churches kick us out.”
The group leader followed with a clear, simple message while other park people wandered in. When he was done, one of the guitarists started clapping. “Do you know how old the speaker is?” he asked all of us in the circle. “He’s seventeen years old! A true man after Jesus!” Wow, Sam and I were impressed!
Then the church folks opened two large coolers and handed out lunch. The sandwiches were huge and fresh–a rarity on the streets. While everybody ate and visited, the guitarist who had applauded the speaker came over. His name was Russ, and he wanted to know if Sam and I were getting enough to eat. Then, without waiting for a response, he grabbed two more sack lunches and handed them to us. :You guys look like you can eat a lot!” he said.
Tattoos covered Russ’ arms, suggesting a previous and different lifestyle, but freshly drawn across both wrists, two words stood out boldly: “JESUS CHRIST.”
Russ opened an extra large bag of potato chips to share, and while we munched and worked on our sandwiches, he asked questions. He wanted to know where we were headed. We told him Phoenix.
“Excellent! Phoenix is nice and hot!” Russ said with a smile. “How are you guys going to get there?”
“Well,” I said, “we’re kind of wondering that ourselves. We usually just cruise into a city, play the guitar and pan-handle, and save up enough to move on.”
Sam broke in. “But panhandling in San Francisco sucks! We’ve hardly made any money–hardly enough to live on, and definitely not enough to get bus tickets out of here.”
Russ wanted to know more. We described our routines in San Francisco–panhandling in the Haight, hanging out near Golden Gate Park, sleeping by St. Mary’s. “There’s a sweet church that does lunch on weekdays,” Sam said. “Then on Saturdays and Sundays we scrounge. We eat a lot of ninety-nine-cent hamburgers from McDonalds, too.”
“So you guys only eat one meal a day?” Russ asked.
We said yes–unless you count the ninety-nine-cent hamburger as a meal, then we ate two.
“Sounds rough,” Russ said. He looked like he was contemplating what to do next. Then he stood, said he’d be right back, and left. Sam and I kept eating. A few minutes later, he was back, looking excited. With him was the teenage preacher.
“Guys, this is James,” said Russ.
“Great sermon today, James,” I said, extending a hand.
“Thanks, but all glory to God,” said James, pointing up.
“Check this out,” Russ said, so excited he could hardly contain himself. “James and I were talking about it and we want to help you guys out. We want you to come to our church later tonight and stick around for the evening service. Then you can come over to our place to hang out, shower, and get some grub. There are some awesome sisters who can cook a mean meal and they want to help you, too. Then, we’ll see if we can get together enough cash for you to get to Phoenix.”
Sam and I had both stopped chewing and were staring back and forth between Russ and James.
“Are you serious?” I asked, astounded.
“Why?” I asked again.
“Are you in need?” James asked.
“Yeah, I guess we’re in a tight spot,” I said.
“The Bible says that we must reach out to those in need,” James replied. “Jesus loves us, so we get to love you. It’s a privilege.”
If months on the streets hadn’t hardened my emotions, I probably would have started weeping. We looked wretched and smelled worse. I had that disgusting problem with my foot. And these men had no idea we, too, were Christians. Yet they were offering in the name of Christ to befriend us and meet our needs.
“It really frustrates me when Christians talk about their faith in Christ but never let the fruit of it grow in their lives,” James said quietly. “True faith is visible.”
“Yeah, us too, believe me!” I said. “But be encouraged. You two are the first Christians in all our time on the streets who have offered so much help, no questions asked.”
James and Russ looked surprised.
“No one?” James asked.
“No one,” said Sam. “Thanks for living your faith. It is powerful.”
“Well,” said James, “if we don’t, something’s wrong. Jesus said, ‘By your love for one another they will know you are my disciples.'”
We visited some more, and before they left, Russ and James again invited us to join them for the evening. “It would be rad if you came,” Russ said.
Sam and I spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing in the park. Then, as a bank of fog approached across the bay and the air began to cool, we set off for the mile and a half walk to church.
In the foyer, we met with our first surprise. We were greeted warmly. Then we were shown where we could stash our guitars and packs and walked to an empty pew. Then two guys actually sat down with us.
While the four of us were talking, Russ ran up. “My boys!” he said breathlessly. “How ya doin’?” He hugged both of us across the pew. “This is great!” he exclaimed. “I was praying you guys would come. Do you have a minute? I want to show you something. Follow me.”
Russ led us out to the parking lot to an older white car and popped the trunk.
“This is all for you guys,” he said. Inside was a grocery bag full of granola bars, bananas, canned beans, cookies, and peanut butter. Russ beamed as Sam and I stared speechless. “Oh, and this, too,” he said, pulling out an envelope stuffed with cash out of his back pocket. “James checked on-line. This should be enough to get you to Phoenix.”
With that he stuffed the envelope into my hand and gave us a big hug. “I love you guys, really,” Russ said. “And none of that fake crap–I mean it.”
The rest of the evening was filled with acts of love (none of that fake crap): an awesome church service; a beautifully prepared meal; a long, hot shower; good conversation; supplies for the road. Russ and James even made sure we found new flip-flops.
The words “Jesus loves you” take on a whole different meaning when you’re down and out. You hear them differently. You need them more. Just saying them to the next desperate person you meet could change his day. Wrap those words in friendship, a home-cooked meal, bus fare, and you could change his life.