BIG CITY LIFE
The first time I lived near a big city was when I was 21, it was Portland Oregon. I remember driving through the city and seeing men wearing dirty clothes, pushing shopping carts full of belongings. Some of them muttered foul things under their breath. Some were not so polite or quiet with their mutterings. Growing up in a town of 800 people in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula did not give me much experience with this. The weather in Portland was much more suited to living a life unencumbered by permanent shelter. I was fascinated.
A CLASS ON CLASS
My pastor who was also my boss, told me of a place I could go to learn more about homelessness and what could be done. It was called, Lutheran Witness on Burnside and was run by a Lutheran pastor. I was invited to come down and experience a class he was teaching to Catholic Seminary students on ministering to those on the streets. I agreed and tagged along on an outing that they had planned to meet and talk with people on the street.
Our teacher sent us out to get to know those standing around near the entrance of a shelter. After about an hour of failed attempts, he showed us how he does it. He went into a corner store and returned with two 40oz bottles of something called, “Colt 45.” He sat on a nearby bench and opened one of the bottles. Within a minute a small group had assembled and as they sipped the beer, they also shared their lives. Some of the seminary students seemed a bit put off by this approach. Our teacher later explained that many of those on the streets were in stage four of alcoholism and needed this drink to survive. He said that he was simply meeting them where they were at.
When a new class started up in a few months, I was invited to take the class as a guest. I went for six weeks down to the small office and learned about life on the streets. We had several guest speakers who were clients, who came and shared their stories. Most of them became homeless due to some kind of addiction and had used up any and all help from family and friends. One man was a physician who got addicted to pain meds. He used his prescription pad to obtain pills under false patient names. When we was caught, the second time, he lost his job and his wife and kids.
The final exam was a ten page paper, or… there was a more adventurous option. It was the opportunity to live on the streets for three days without money or food under limited supervision. As one who didn’t like writing papers, I opted for the streets. As a guest, I didn’t actually have to do the final, but after much peer pressure by those seeking the priesthood, I didn’t want to let my fellow Lutherans down.
We met on a Thursday afternoon and were given different clothes and shoes. We were told not to shower that morning and not to bring any valuables. It was more than a little scary but we were given plenty of rules to keep us safe. We headed out in groups of two or three and were given a map and a phone number in case of emergency.
The first night we spent in a homeless shelter. We were given a bible study and a hot meal. I didn’t eat much as I was not yet hungry enough to eat what they were serving. It was a loud and unsettling experience with people coughing and muttering much of the night. I worried about the thin mattress on the floor I was sleeping that might contain some incurable disease. Needless to say I didn’t sleep well. At seven in the morning we were given a cup of coffee and some day old bakery before being herded out into the streets. The day passed slowly and lunchtime I was rethinking my picky eating preferences.
In the evening some groups of Christians came around with offers to pray with us. They came with more than a bit of pity and often a bit of literature outlining God’s plan for our salvation. Some also came with sandwiches and hot chocolate. I realized that if you acted like you didn’t know Jesus, you could get an extra sandwich. I also learned that when your physical needs were not met your spiritual needs didn’t much matter. I made it through two more nights though I opted for sleeping outside under a bridge instead of the shelter. It wasn’t much better but I did learn the much under appreciated skill of sleeping with one eye open. I figured out with help from others on the street where to find the things I needed like food and a public restroom.
One of the most important things I learned is that people on the street are not all dangerous and scary. Most of the fear I encountered was fear I brought with me. I expected to find only isolation and disconnection, what I found was community. I made many friends in a short time and found most people to be kind and generous with what little they had. They accepted us as friends and looked out for our safety. I expected to find the ugliness I saw before I met them and instead I experienced Jesus. There is a deep hunger in all of us. Those of us with means often fill it with things far less satisfying.