What can I learn from homeless stories?
Their stories are as varied as their circumstances, but there are two things we learn from homeless stories:
It could happen to me.
Homeless people aren’t much different from anyone else.
Working with the homeless can be fascinating once we get past our own preconceptions. Some homeless have graduate degrees. Others served with honor in the military. Still others once held high-paying jobs.
Until a catastrophic illness exceeded all insurance claims.
Until an ugly divorce stripped them of their families and their money.
Until they entered a death spiral of drug addiction or alcoholism.
Until they felt abandoned by God.
Homeless Stories – Each one is on a journey
The homeless stories that really matter may be those we help write ourselves, by becoming involved with them.
Some homeless stories start simply and logically. One man decided to take a job in a new town when he had no transportation. He pitched a tent in woods close to the job and walked in every day, expecting to move into an apartment once he had saved up the money. Instead, he fell in with some drug users. His spare money went into drugs and beer. He missed work too many times and got laid off. So he stayed in the woods.
My wife and I befriended a woman who had been homeless for 14 years. We brought food to her camp and introduced her to our young, autistic son. She loved to sit with him on her lap -- a rare opportunity to see a child. On our son’s birthday one year, the woman presented him with a puppy. It was a stray of unknown breeding, yet it turned out to have the rare qualities that made it a service dog for the boy.
When my wife was facing possible surgery, a homeless man who was temporarily staying in our house stepped up immediately. “You don’t need to be strong,” he told her. “Let us be strong for you for a change.” The man cleaned the garage that day, fixed two doors around the house, mowed the lawn, and volunteered to be with her when she went to the surgeon.
We last saw Duane -- a homeless man suffering from three forms of cancer -- on Easter Sunday. After finding his cancer was out of remission and after spending a weekend in jail, he was back on alcohol and heroin. That Sunday, Ed (a man from our church) was supposed to take Duane to church, but the two never connected.
This was still bothering Ed two weeks later and I told him Duane had disappeared. We all feared the worst, and Ed blamed himself for not being more diligent in finding Duane.
Ed's children are in Christian Youth Theater. They were working on a Christian version of "Oliver Twist." At the last minute, they needed someone to play the man who takes Oliver into his home. Ed, who had never been in a play before -- let alone a musical in which he would sing -- agreed to play the part.
As Ed learned about the play, he saw parallels between the homeless orphans in "Oliver Twist" and the homeless we minister to. He wanted to share the play's message of forgiveness with them, so he asked us to bring as many homeless as we could round up to the play.
As I headed toward the warehouse where we hold our weekly homeless Bible study, I was not the least bit surprised to see Duane sitting on the sidewalk. I just shook my head, whispered "Thank you Jesus" and ran to give him a hug. Duane said he had been touring the country, looking for treatment options, and visiting family members to say "good bye." In Tacoma, Wash., he said his heart told him to go home. "For once, I listened to my heart instead of my head," he said. "So here I am."
We packed eight homeless into two cars and, arriving a bit late, crept into the back rows of the auditorium. The homeless were captivated by the play. They laughed louder than anyone in the audience at the humorous parts, and choked back sobs at the parts focusing on forgiveness and redemption.
At one point, the small boy playing Oliver sang a song with the refrain: "Once you are in the light, you can't go back to darkness anymore." Duane, tears in his eyes, shouted "AMEN" from his seat in the back.
Another man who has been struggling to give himself to Jesus started singing along with the children -- singing songs none of the rest of us had ever heard! It turns out he was once in the same play as a youth and was so touched to hear the same messages again!
After the play, Duane and Ed were reunited backstage. Ed was relieved to see Duane alive. Duane was relieved to be back among his Christian friends.
"I may be a fool, but I ain't a total fool," Duane said as we left. "I've been all over the country, but what I need is right here."
Homeless Stories – Valuable Lessons
One thing we may learn from these homeless stories is that God has not forsaken them. They are in the woods, on street corners, and on subway grates for His greater purpose -- the same purpose that puts us in our homes, at our jobs, and with our families. If you’re looking for a powerful way to help the homeless of the world, please consider the sponsor a child opportunities offered through Compassion International.
Mother Teresa, who worked with the poorest of the poor in Calcutta for most of her life, said God makes no distinctions between rich and poor. In fact, the rich are often poor in spirit, while the poor may have many qualities the financially wealthy lack. She wrote, “We have no right to judge the rich. For our part, what we desire is not a class struggle but a class encounter, in which the rich save the poor and the poor save the rich."
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