In keeping with the unifying theme for this series of posts, I am reproducing passages from Yankoski’s book, Under The Overpass, and looking at his interaction with the church specifically. But as part of that process, I am asking you, my readers, to hold in your mind the Judgment scene Jesus paints in Matthew 25:31-46. This, being a Judgment scene, calls for us to weigh the treatment of the poor in the balance as the deciding factor for Judgment. In a day-n-age when Christians are trying so hard to be “non-judgmental”, this might be an uncomfortable exercise, but so is loving the poor.
In the passages I have chosen today, Yankoski depicts church experiences we might term “negative”. For whatever reasons, the church is confronted by Yankoski’s version of undercover Jesus (which keeps with Matthew 25 nicely), and chooses not to give food, water, and simple care to the poor who it turns out are Jesus dressed up as “the least of these brothers”.
I will offer more than one passage from Yankoski’s book on this post, and I expect it to be a lengthy post because of that. But I think it is worthwhile to read it through and consider the mirror this text holds up to your church. And keep in mind, this Judgment scene is found on the lips of Jesus who is not as non-judgmental as we would like him to be.
In the chapter entitled Portland, under the heading “Church Lock Down” starting on page 114, Yankoski says:
Early on a Friday evening, just after the sun had set, Sam and I were walking from the library back down to the Portland waterfront where we had decided the Friday night crowd would offer a prime panhandling opportunity. We didn’t say much as we walked until we passed a church.
“Oh, my gosh!” I exclaimed, stopping, “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“What?” said Sam. Then he saw what I was looking at. “Oh,” he murmured.
A large gray church rose up behind a wrought iron fence in front of us. The building was old and weathered. Above the mahogany double doors hung a sign in red letters: “No Trespassing. Church Business Only.” A new chain and two huge padlocks secured the gate at the sidewalk.
“It would take bolt cutters and a battering ram to get into that church,” I said, suddenly angry. “‘Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden’? Yeah, and what, die on my front steps?”
We turned to keep walking toward the waterfront. Sure, a church needs to protect its property, but what we had just seen seemed excessive, and sent a negative, uncaring message.
Sam was having the same thoughts. “Let’s say your life is falling apart and you need help. Would you want to go there?”
“Nope,” I said. “Anywhere but there. But the world is the church’s business–and that’s exactly who they’re shutting out!”
“Correct me if I’m wrong,” said Sam, “But aren’t the people in the sanctuary a whole lot more important than the sanctuary itself?”
We walked past a market that sold pop, beer, wine, cigarettes, pornography. The doors were wedged open. Ragged people came and went.
It was one of the places that never close.
In the chapter entitled San Francisco, under the heading “Bloody Sandals“, Yankoski begins a story about how his sandal broke and about his attempts to repair it with some dental floss and a $1.99 sewing kit he had purchased in Portland the month before. The repair job did not really fix the sandal, and he found himself compensating for the damage as he walked in a way that rubbed blisters on his foot which eventually broke open and began to bleed. Further repairs of the shoe still did not achieve success, and at one point he tripped on the sandal and caused his foot to bleed rather badly. This happened just as they were approaching a church in which they hoped to share in worship and maybe find some charity to help with the broken footwear.
We join the story just as Yankoski trips on an uneven place in the sidewalk on page 147:
Despite the intense pain, I joined Sam in a good laugh and limped the rest of the way up to the church, my broken flip-flop getting slippery with blood.
Conversations at the front door stopped as we walked up. I had to ask for a church bulletin from the girl who was handing them out. She looked at us as if we had just escaped from a wildlife preserve. But we headed inside for the service anyway and found an empty pew three from the front. The whole room couldn’t hold more than a hundred, so our chances of going unnoticed were not good.
We still had a few minutes before the service began, and Sam had an idea. “I’m going to ask the pastor if he can help us out with some food. My stomach is growling.” He got up and walked away, but was back shortly, looking disgusted.
“You wouldn’t believe what just happened,” he said. “So, I went and asked for the pastor. He was standing in the back, getting some coffee. I asked him if he could help us out, if he could hook us up with someone who could feed us. I told him we didn’t have any money, that the panhandling here was bad.”
Sam paused and shook his head. “You know what he said? He said, ‘That’s not what we do here. We’re here to worship. We can’t confuse our purpose.'”
“Wow…,” I said, slowly.
“I didn’t have anything to say to that, so I just nodded and walked away,” Sam said.
“Well, I understand his point,” I said, thinking. “This isn’t a rescue mission or a soup kitchen. But I was hungry. Now I’m frustrated and hungry!”
The theme of the sermon was memorable: “Women shall be saved through childbearing.”
In Berkeley, California.
In the year 2003.
At the benediction, the pastor spread his arms wide and with a shiny smile loudly proclaimed, “May the Lord bless you and keep you! May He turn His face to you and give you peace!” I felt like I was going to be sick.
While people filed out, Sam and I kept our seats, journaling and trying to capture the moment and our frustrations.
After a few minutes, three guys came through the pews to talk.
“Hey guys, I’m Drew,” one guy said, extending his hand. We introduced ourselves and told them we were living on the streets. After that, the talk rambled around general topics. When I could see the conversation was going nowhere, I decided to try an experiment. (I’ll admit my reaction was a little harsh, and done out of frustration, but still…)
I set my backpack on the pew between us. Then I reached down and grabbed my broken flip-flop, and set it atop the pack. Some of the blood was still wet, but most of it had dried, caking the sandal in a dull brown.
“Man, look at all that blood,” I said, looking to Sam and pointing to my sandal.
“Bro, does that hurt?” Sam asked, catching onto my experiment.
“A little,” I said, reaching for my bag. “It’s because my flip-flop is broken. You see?” I said, looking up at the guys and pulling on the broken tongue of the flip-flop.
They nodded but said nothing. I pulled out the dwindling roll of duct tape and ripped off a long piece–a really long piece, stretching it loudly across in front of me the full length of my arms.
“It’s such a bummer to walk around all day with broken shoes,” I said, shaking my head. “Bad blisters. Bad blisters.”
For the next two minutes I proceeded to work intently on fixing my flip-flop while the men watched. Nobody said anything. Occasionally I would interject a comment about how lame my shoes were, how badly my foot hurt, wondering aloud if I might have to get it cut off if the gangrene got bad enough. When I finished, I dropped the sandal and slipped my foot into it.
“Well done!” Sam said.
Drew agreed. “Quite a process!” he said.
“Yep,” I agreed and waited.
“Well,” Drew said, looking around, “We’ve got to take off, but it was a pleasure talking with you.” He squeezed my shoulder as he left. “I’m praying for you,” he said. “You too,” he said to Sam.
And the three walked away.
Shocked, Sam and I carried our packs and guitars out into a bright, sunny Berkeley day. As we walked toward People’s Park, I broke our silence with a question.
“Why do we so often overlook obvious ways to show the love of God we so loudly proclaim?” Without waiting for an answer, I charged on. “If someone’s thirsty, give them a drink! If someone’s hungry, feed them! I mean, this is not complicated stuff.”
Sam agreed. “Who is to show the world Christ’s love if not the church?”
“No one,” I said definitively. Then I stopped and looked directly at Sam, who had also stopped. “Do you feel loved?”
“Do you feel fed?”
“Nope. I’m starving! What about you?”
“I’m starving and my feet hurt, and that guy back there knows it. But, hey, he’s praying for us.”
In the chapter entitled Phoenix, Yankoski makes this observation in the opening remarks of the chapter on page 158:
Several of the churches that we encountered in Phoenix left us thirsty too. Of course, the body of Christ in one city doesn’t represent every city, and our experience only tells a slice of the story. But we experienced big programs, big churches, and big talk, without much love in action, at least for two unappealing transients like us.
Picking up the next passage further down the same page (158), under the heading “We Don’t Go To Church”, Yankoski begins one of the lengthier passages I will reproduce on this blog. But it is among the more fascinating. For in this passage, the boys find themselves in a world of vanity that someone calls “church”. Let’s follow Mike and Sam on this next adventure, and maybe even find the video of it (you will see what I mean if you keep reading).
Starting at the bottom of page 158:
Although Sam and I had spent every Sunday morning at a church somewhere on our travels, the lack of community was taking a toll on us. Even at church, we felt isolated because of how we looked, how we smelled, and who people perceived us to be. In fact, walking into a church where we hooped to find genuine fellowship only to be met by condescension or suspicion or disingenuous flattery was the worst kind of rejection.
One night in Phoenix we stretched out our sleeping bags in front of a church’s main doors hoping that early the next morning we would be awakened by a kindhearted churchgoer wondering if he could help us in some way. A simple, obvious plan, we thought, but it didn’t work.
At about seven the next morning, while a dream of wintertime in the Rockies cooled my sweating body, a far away voiced pulled me back to reality. “And before we read from Romans 8, let us pray together…”
Sam and I were still on the steps of the church and already baking in the morning sun. I rolled over to look through the sanctuary windows. A small gathering was standing while the pastor led in prayer. The early service was just getting under way inside, but for us, the voice came from a speaker just above where we slept.
“Sam,” I said, nudging him awake.
“Yeah?” He sat up, shaking his head.
“Did anybody wake you up?” I said, pointing into the sanctuary.
“No way,” he said. We both realized what had happened. Every person inside had gone through a side door. “Nobody woke me up. You?”
The pastor was ending his prayer. “Lord, teach us to look not unto ourselves but unto You and unto others…” With a loud amen that came metallically through the speaker above, the congregation took its seat and he began his sermon.
Already soaked with sweat, we decided to pack up and move on. “Wow,” said Sam., “I thought we were making it easy for them!”
But were we? I’m not so sure now. I think two sleeping transients on the church steps early one morning would make most people uneasy, Christian or not. The need is unexpected, out of place, and a little disturbing. Yet it is exactly here, in the difficult circumstances, that Christ’s love should take risks to meet needs. In A Ragamuffin Gospel, Brennan Manning describes what that kind of love looks like: “To evangelize a person is to say to him or her: you too are loved by God and the Lord Jesus. And not only to say it but to really think it, and relate it to them so they can sense it. But that becomes possible only by offering the person your friendship, a friendship that is real, unselfish, without condescension, full of confidence and profound esteem.”
– – –
One church we visited took up nearly the whole side of a mountain, with buildings spread over acres of beautifully landscaped and irrigated grounds. We walked past large fountains spraying cool water as we entered the main sanctuary. The place sat thousands, and it was packed. A dozen TV cameras were pointed at the stage or roamed the aisles.
The pastor opened the service up by explaining that the ensuing worship concert and teaching service would be recorded for a DVD that would be distributed around the world.
Sam and I sat there feeling extremely out of place. Being ripped in a moment from our sidewalk existence of nothing to do, nothing to eat, and nowhere to be and dropped into a multi-million-dollar worship “production” was too much of a shock.
The program got underway. Everything–talent, facilities, production–was first-rate. Cameras rolled continuously and the lighting rotated through a hundred hues while fog machines pumped a white haze across the vast stage. The two lead singers wore flashy designer clothing that I was sure cost more than Sam and I had lived on for the past four months.
After a while, I rose to use the restroom. I did have to go, but really I needed to escape the thundering confusion in my head.
Fortunately, the men’s room was first-rate, too. I set to scrubbing my hands and face to the booming bass line coming though the walls from the concert. When I scrubbed, the water in the clean white sink turned a dull gray.
Then two large men walked in. They were dressed in black suits and wore security-police earpieces. To my surprise, it quickly became apparent that they were there to see me.
Noticing in the mirror that neither was smiling, I turned off the water and turned around to face them.
“Gentlemen,” I said with a nod.
“Sir, did you just attempt to run on stage?” the man on the left asked.
The question seemed so weighted I had to ask him to repeat himself just to keep from laughing. “Sir, did you just attempt to run on stage and disrupt the service?” The man sounded somewhat agitated.
“No, sir, I did not. I’ve been in here for the last three minutes, and before that I was at my seat in the sanctuary.”
“Are you sure?” the other man asked.
“Yes, I’m sure! I’ve been standing right here trying to clean up,” I replied. Then I decided to go deep. “Did you see me run on stage?”
“Okay then,” the first man said, ducking my question. “Why don’t you finish, uh, cleaning up here then come speak to us outside.”
“Okay,” I said, grabbing a few paper towels and turning back to face the mirror. After drying myself off, I wiped down the sink.
Only one of the men was waiting for me when I emerged, but he walked right over to me.
“Sir, I’m going to ask you one more time. Did you try to get up on stage?”
I told him again that I hadn’t. What was driving his question, I asked.
“Someone tried to get on stage, and the only witness said that the man had dread locks,: he replied. “You have dread locks.”
“That’s true, but I didn’t try to get on stage.”
The man thought for a moment, then said, “Okay, I believe you. Are you going back to your seat now?”
“Yes…” I said, feeling suddenly tentative.
“I’ll escort you back,” the man said, falling in step behind me. When I took my seat, the security guard remained by the door through which I had entered so he could keep an eye on me.
Sam nodded toward the security guard with a questioning look in my direction. I shook my head and told him I would explain later. For the rest of the service, I personally felt very safe, and I observed no other criminal activity whatsoever. Everything went smoothly–cameras, lights, singers, preacher, security guards, fog machine.
It was the perfect church program. And now it’s available all over the world on DVD.