Homeless

Super Bowl Party for the homeless…and the rest of us!

David teaching one of our homeless guests how to play Bingo

The Super Bowl for the City party is in the history books, and though I may not remember who won it in a few years, I’ll remember how I spent this Super Bowl. It turns out that hanging with the homeless for the game is a whole lot more fun than my usual guest list!

The first few minutes are always the toughest. That’s when you realize that this isn’t just another party, these aren’t just nameless people, and the gulf that divides us is both broader and narrower than you can imagine. Those first minutes are terrifying: talk to them? Do they want me to? As it turns out, they do. They really do.

My first conversation with a guest was with a man named Charlie. He was a white guy with gray and black hair. I first spied him getting a hair cut at our hair cutting station (manned by a local stylist school students). The cut gave me the opening I needed. “I like your new hair cut.”

This was the haircutting station

“It’s good, it is,” he responded. “You people are doing something amazing. You’re gonna be blessed.” This felt backwards to me. Wasn’t he the one supposed to be blessed? I sat down and chatted with Charlie. Turns out that he had studied to become a priest, before deciding the Catholic religion wasn’t for him. I was surprised he’d lasted that long. When Charlie was six a nun accused him of lying. “Stick out your tongue,” she said. “See…it’s black. I can tell you are lying and God’s going to get you.”

“My tongue isn’t black, I’m not lying, and I know this much: God isn’t going to get me. He loves me and you don’t.”

Charlie’s eyes were yellowing and kind of watery. He looked like he’d had a rough couple of years. But he told me he wasn’t there for the Super Bowl (“Don’t care who wins”) or the meal (“I can eat anywhere”). He was there to talk to people, normal people. It was one of the few chances he has to sit with people and strike up a conversation.

Charlie and I sit and chat

So simple to sit and talk. So simple and so hard.

The night was filled with little conversations like that. There was the dancing woman who seemed determined to show everyone each layer of her clothing, causing a little drama when she got to the last layer. There were the die-hard football fans in the front row. Two guys argued about why in the world we’d want him to wear a nametag with his name on it. “They just want to address you by name! It’s ok. No disrespect.” There were the foodies thronging at the table and stashing whatever looked like it would travel. All over the stadium there were back packs and bags, bicycles stuffed with stuff, and even a stroller stuffed with at least three dogs, though I honestly couldn’t tell if the dogs belonged to a guest or a volunteer! By the end of the night it didn’t much matter.

Ben Hood, one of our volunteers, serving during the game

And oh yes, there was Paris.

Paris was an outgoing black guy who liked nothing more than to sit and watch both the game and the goings on. He gave me an education. I sat with Paris for quite a long time, getting treated to his Barry White imitation and his monologue on life. A highlight may have been the moment he introduced himself to my husband as “I’m her lover; now don’t get mad and fight me.”

Paris and his buddy Eugene.

In the end, it was Paris who taught me the deepest lesson of the night.

As part of our outreach, we’d collected blankets to give away to our guests. This was vaguely prophetic as the temperatures (for Florida) plunged into the low 50’s and it was COLD! So our guests, ironically, were wrapped up in their various new blankets while we volunteers had a taste of what it was like to be cold. Sitting with Paris, he kept asking me if I was cold. I finally admitted that I was, and he tossed me one of his three blankets he had scored. “Well silly white girl, put that blanket around you.”

Oh! That’s when I realized it. If I put that blanket around me, I’d look like a “Guest.” With little else to distinguish us, those blankets were the easiest way to tell who was a guest and who was a volunteer. And while some of the volunteers would know me, certainly not the majority.

What will you do in that moment? You have a choice to be identified not with the helpers, but the helped. Not the powerful, but the humble. I wanted a badge, a wrist band, an identifier. I wanted to keep my identity. I turned down the blanket. For awhile. But I got cold and I had been thinking about why I wouldn’t take that blanket. So I finally accepted Paris’s hospitality and charity, and borrowed his new blanket. Sure enough, it wasn’t much later that one of our volunteers sweetly asked me my name and if I’d like some chips or crackers. I smiled, said “No thank you!” and resisted the urge to say “By the way, I’m a volunteer. Elder’s wife. I’m just cold.”

Paris seemed to get that. And if he didn’t, I sure did. God was speaking furiously to me. He was talking about how it feels to be identified with the people you are trying to help. To take on the outer clothing of the homeless for just a minute or two. It was a powerful lesson, only partially learned.

Super Bowl in the City. It didn’t make much lasting difference in the plight of these folks. It didn’t change much except to provide a few services they may have needed and a night of pure entertainment in lives that rarely indulge in such a thing. The addicted left mainly addicted, the homeless left homeless but with a new haircut perhaps. But it was a bridge. It humanized the stories. The party brought together people who needed to learn from each other. And hopefully, that Super Bowl party may have planted a seed of God’s love and life in the kingdom.

And we’ll always have Paris. :)

I’m pretty sure Jesus will be at my Superbowl party!

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Kind of a dramatic statement, isn’t it? But inbetween the cheering, the commercials, the dips and the wings, Jesus is definitely going to be at my Superbowl party.

Why?

Because David and I have decided not to throw our own party this year. Instead, we are going to Christ Fellowship’s Superbowl in the City party. It’s an outdoor event with an even mix of guests and volunteers. And oh yes, the guests are the homeless of West Palm Beach. With a great outdoor venue and the game on a large screen, the homeless guests will have the rare opportunity to sit down and eat a meal and enjoy the game. There will be a few resource tables set up for them in case anyone is needing help, but in general the point is to enjoy spending time watching the game. In fact, as Pastor John Poitevent pointed out: “Don’t forget these are guys watching football. If you’re going to refill their drinks, do it during the commercials.”

Yes, I might miss my own Superbowl party with dips and chips and my own spot on the big comfy couch.

Yes, I might (will) be nervous interacting with our guests at the Superbowl in the City party.

Yes, I believe Jesus will be there hanging around with us. Makes it all worth it.

This is a video of Bridgetown Ministries, in Portland Oregon. They do a groundbreaking ministry to their City every Friday night. Around 3 minutes into the video they show the footwashing stations, something we will also be doing on Sunday night.

Community: who needs you to speak for them?

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A picture is worth a thousand words? Perhaps. But lately I’m thinking the thousand words might be quite valuable, too.

I’ve been processing the experience I had at the Journey of Generosity workshop this past weekend. As is sometimes the case, the lesson God had for me became crystal clear in the first hour of our 24 hour retreat. Bob Coy, Pastor at Calvary Chapel in Fort Lauderdale, spoke via a videotaped presentation. He began to tell the story of 100 people. You’ve probably heard it before. It begins “If these 100 people in the room today represented the world as a whole, 70 of them would speak Spanish.” Bob continued on making percentages real by applying them to the 100 people in the room, and it ends with the reminder that 6 people in the room would control 50% of the world’s wealth. And we are all one of the 6. But there is 1… a little boy … who is dying. Because he is hungry. And the 1 little boy’s daddy looks to the 6 to ask them, please, for food.

I’m sure you’ve been in one of those discussions before. I had. And along with a healthy dose of guilt for being in the 6, there is usually a strong desire to help the 1. Followed by frustration. Because in the end, it’s still percentages. And not only, in real numbers, is the need so overwhelming, but I am so small!

And yet…

Should that 1 little boy walk into our home, and should we hear his true story and see the tears on his daddy’s face, in that crystal clear moment, not one of us would refuse to help him. We would give anything to feed — such a simple act — this little one.

We only pass by because we haven’t really heard the voice call.

Now we’re back to the thousand words. In the community of our church, our neighborhood, our country and our world, there are stories waiting to be told. Small needs that can be met; large needs that can be met by all of us together. They need words to describe the needs. That’s where God spoke to me.

Apparently there’s 1 little boy in the corner of the world waiting for me to write his story and give him a voice.

I have no clue what this means, but I’m being gut-level honest and telling you what I learned at the Generous Giving conference. I thought I’d be writing a check (and I will be, I’m sure). Writing checks doesn’t take 1000 words, and it’s a lot easier. Instead I have some voices to find.

Twitter, Andy Stanley and Spare Change

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I have a Twitter friend named @invisiblepeople. This person whom I have never met profiles the faces of homeless people across the country. Every time I see one of his or her status’s cross my phone, I’m reminded to stop, be thankful, get involved. Twitter has helped me “see” homelessness more than ever.

Last week David and I were wandering around downtown Boston waiting for my kids. We walked by a homeless man selling Boston’s homeless newspaper, Spare change. We’ve learned, as you know. We stopped and bought a couple of copies of the paper before continuing our stroll through the streets.

Later that day I was reading Andy Stanley’s “Principle of the Path.” Suddenly something he said jumped off the page. It was simple: you really “see” what you focus on. Not a radical concept, but it convicted me. Because all day I was realizing I had bought my two newspapers, but I didn’t really stop to see the man selling them. We exchanged very few words; I don’t remember what he looks like. I devalued that man because I ddn’t stop to see him.

Since that day I’ve heard several sermons about invisible people. Reading the gospel of John, I’ve watched Jesus stop and focus on the people other people miss. And there’s my old Twitter friend @invisiblepeople sending me constant reminders.  I know when to take a hint.

This weekend is the large Florida Parent Educators Association homeschool conference. It’s my — and I’m guessing here — eleventh year attending? I have a feeling there’s a new assignment waiting for me here. And I have a feeling I need to keep my eyes wide open so I don’t miss it.

Coffee Shop News

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Hello everyone! I’ve missed you! I deliberately took most of Easter week off from the blog in order to practice the concept of Sabbath, resting, allowing God to speak into a space of time and energy. But I’m back and brimming with tidbits that don’t fit into whole posts. So enjoy the chatter around the coffee shop today.

  • Last year I went to a conference called Q. At the time, I knew Q was having an impact on my life, but a year later I’m amazed at the shift in my perspectives and attitudes. Perhaps the most fulfilling result of Q has been all the internet friends who I either met there for the first time or met subsequently through our blogs and twitters and facebooks. One of my first tablemates at Q, Lawrence Tom (or LT)  is an American Born Chinese Pastor. We’ve stayed in touch over the year, and his faith encourages me to keep stretching. Today he posted a twitter about a NY Times article that profiles homeless people selling papers as a way to pull themselves up. It seems to me that this topic keeps popping into my life, though I’m not sure why! Anyway, it is an interesting article.
  • Speaking of Street Roots and my short conversation with George, you can read their response to my visit on their blog here.
  • My friend Melody from Seattle told me that you can buy the new Starbucks Via instant coffee from Costco now, at a cheaper price than in the stores. Of course, those of us not in Seattle have not seen Via in the stores yet, though you can order it online at Starbucks.
  • I’ve got a backlog of posts swirling in my mind for the next week or so. Sneak preview? Easter Changes Everything at Christ Fellowship; I traveled to Seattle to make the pilgrimage to the mother ship of Starbucks; Connections with family in the northwest; running on a treadmill reminded me that someone is always watching…there are others, but that will do for now!
  • Finally, while I was distracted traveling and spring breaking etc., I completely skipped over the one year anniversary of Coffee Shop Journal!!!! Wow! I’m still in love with the day to day interaction out in the blogosphere, so I’m predicting more anniversaries to come. I think that will need to be a post in and of itself. But I also think one year needs celebrating. Maybe a blog redesign?

That’s all for this post-Easter Monday afternoon. For one brief moment in time it is quiet in the house, with no distractions. I’m going to soak it in and listen to the sound of the warm clothes in the dryer and the coffee pot brewing me some Bella Vista. Life is so good.

Selling on the Street

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Writing about the homeless is tricky. For one thing, they are a remarkably internet-savvy group. Every time I write about them, I hear from them. This delights me, and terrifies me all at the same time. It delights me because traditionally homeless have not had a voice for themselves, but in this internet age, they have an electronic presence. This gives them a way to speak. It terrifies me because, well…I’m not homelesss and I really don’t have even a bit of understanding what that would mean. I know I run the risk of sounding exactly like the person I am: a middle-class suburban mom touring the streets of Portland. So to all of you who will read this — the guy who runs that homeless blog, Street Roots, Real Change, anyone else — I’m sorry in advance!

In any case, I was determined to follow through on my promise to find a vendor selling Street Roots in downtown Portland. Street Roots, if you read my original post based on a story in Relevant Magazine, is a paper produced by and for the homeless in Portland, Oregon. Street people can buy copies of the paper for 25 cents and sell it for a dollar, giving them a legal and quick way to make some money. What a difference having a little bit of money can make!

David and I were meeting our family in the Border’s Coffee shop when we stumbled across George. He’s the man in the pictures. “One of two black guys selling Street Roots…find me here or at the courthouse” he says. George has a great personality. Honestly, he’s the guy you want to invite to your awkward dinner party because he can keep the conversation going. George has been on the streets six months, but he’s been hanging around the homeless longer than that. He’s always had a heart to lift these guys up. “Be positive. That’s what I tell them,” he tells us. “You can’t get out of this by having a bad attitude. And with a good one, you can do anything. I’m OK.” George keeps some of his spare clothing in the basement of a young couple who befriended him, and he says he’s managing well. He must be, because he has six siblings, all of whom would take him in. He prefers to stay and work with the people he loves. “I’ve got a job in a couple of weeks. I’m going to be renovating an old building, and I’ll be able to hire fifteen homeless guys to work with me, I think.” George hopes to get some of his own writing into Street Roots, and he also pointed out his buddy, a man whose artwork is published in the paper. I left George and found myself hoping to read his name in a byline soon.

Street Roots itself, by the way, was a hoot. I sat in the Borders cafe and read the paper half way through before realizing it was their April Fools edition! I laughed out loud at their description of the city council of Portland’s acquisition of new chairs, and how this large civic project was accomplished. The April Fools edition poked alarming fun at just how foolish we must appear to people struggling to get by, and I appreciated the skill and wit that went into its production.

Yesterday David and I journeyed to Seattle (yes — the mother ship of Starbucks), where I found a similar homeless paper called Real Change. There we spoke to a man trying simply to raise $99 for a bus ticket to Orlando to get home to family. Real Change offered him a way to do that. I like the concept behind these two papers: give people a way to earn a little money with real dignity.

Two days and several conversations with several Pacific Northwest homeless folk, including one young teenager, certainly don’t make much of a difference. But I feel different. Each story changes me inside just a little bit. I’m hoping it means that I won’t be in such a hurry next time I pass by a guy trying hard to make a little money. I’m hoping I’ll remember stories.

Street Roots: newspaper by and for the homeless

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Most businesses are run by people who look a lot like you and me. Not Street Roots, a newspaper produced by and for the homeless in Portland, Oregon. It’s sole purpose is to be a voice for the voiceless and provide financial opportunities to the truly unemployable in Portland. Vendors — also homeless — can sell the newspaper for a profit and provide some basic needs for themselves. Some have even changed their entire way of life because of this opportunity.

David and I are in Atlanta, but headed to Portland tomorrow. I’m going to try to find someone selling a copy of that paper. I wonder if I’ve ever walked on by a person trying to make their living that way before? It’s entirely possible. And convicting. Am I in such a rush that I don’t even hear what the people around me are saying?

Relevant Magazine has an indepth profile of the newspaper and the people it affects here.

Street Roots has its newspaper online here. Check it out!

And yes, a Street Roots blog…

What Would You Do? Learn their name!

I watched an episode of ABC Primetime’s “What Would You Do?” tonight. I could probably write forever about the moral dilemmas they pose to unsuspecting passersby. One scene struck me in particular tonight. An actor poses as a homeless man collapsing on the street. The question is, how long will it take bystanders to call an ambulance? Turns out, quite a long time. To exacerbate the matter, the producers put a can of beer in the actor’s “passed out” hand. With this scenario, it took much longer for a bystander to call for help.

And then…

And then a homeless woman herself stopped next to the collapsed man and asked passersby to call an ambulance. Eventually (nearly 100 people later), the homeless woman gets a stranger to call in for help. While waiting for the ambulance, the homeless woman literally invents a name for the passed out man and begins comforting him. “Billy, you’re still here. You’re going to make it. You’ll be ok Billy.” When the woman began using “Billy’s” name, other bystanders began to follow the woman’s lead and help out as well.

Wow.

The power of a name, even if it isn’t a real name.

There is a lesson there for us in dealing with people we meet. Their names are their right to exist their personality, their life. How small a thing it is to find out their name and use it.

Christ Fellowship City Place: the church over a coffeehouse

This is David and me at City Place in West Palm Beach, FLCity Place is a beautiful meeting of cultures.

Visiting Christ Fellowship’s various campuses always causes me to come away shaking my head, amazed at the radically different personalities that have developed from one heart and one ministry. The City Place campus, also called the Ascent, seems like the bohemian, artsy little sister of the Christ Fellowshp group.

City Place itself is a mid-sized commercial redevelopment program, an outdoor lifestyle center that is about as hip as you can get in West Palm Beach without descending into gritty. The movie theater in City Place draws a huge crowd, diverse on a Friday night. Because of City Place’s location, it also can draw homeless or the folk from across the bridge in Palm Beach itself. Smack in the middle of this culture clash sits the Harriet Himmel Theater. Christ Fellowship houses its church in the theater every Sunday, from an early morning 9:00 service to the evening Ascent service for college and young adults. It is a hopping spot.

Today, at all of our campuses, we began sign-ups for our LifeGroups. At City Place John Poitevent (Campus Pastor) spoke on a fairly obscure passage in Colossians 4 where Paul lists the names of those people who have been ministering with him during his time in prison. As John preached, it became obvious that Paul’s cast of supporting characters are still around today: those who start but drop out soon, those who are Mama’s boys, those who travel to bring information to others, those who open their homes. As a kind of grand finale to the message, John had LifeGroup hosts come up front and tell about the purpose of their groups.

That’s when the goosebumps started.

They were a motley bunch, alright. Very diverse in their appearance and stage of life. All of them were excited about doing life in community, and their varying purposes of their LifeGroups stunned me.

“We are going to feed the homeless in Lake Worth every Sunday afternoon. We leave when the food is done.”

“We want to give college-aged girls a place to find support while they chase after God’s purpose.”

“We’re going to use dance and worship to bring glory to God.”

“We’re going to explore the biblical ways to reduce tension and stress as we live our lives. And oh yeah, there’s a martial arts component to this LifeGroup so be prepared to move.”

“I love to cook: come for a complete home cooked meal and then we’ll discuss God’s life.”

“I hate to cook: can someone bring food?”

“I don’t cook either, but we’re going to learn about the Living Water and then find a way to share it.”

None of them were alike; each group had their own purpose. They were wide in their diversity and awe-inspiring in their unity. I was entranced. I looked around the theater — criss-crossing beams overhead, wooden floors and dimly-lit chandeliers — and was humbled by the authentic community represented by this church-in-the-middle of the city. Then I remembered it was my church, and I wanted to cry.

Leaving, David and I literally had to push our way through the lines of City Placers signing up for a new adventure in LifeGroups. We walked down the stairs and looked at City Place itself — Starbucks tucked under the theater along with a few other shops, restaurants lining the roads and people everywhere. A church, a coffeehouse and a mission. It doesn’t get any better than that.

The Ascent at City Place

Helping the Homeless in West Palm Beach find their way back Home.

Christ Fellowship’s City Place Pastor John Poitevent and his friend Ross

I reprinted this recent entry from my church’s “Stories” newsletter. I was touched by John’s thoughtfulness in dealing with Ross. John was one of the Christ Fellowship Pastors who went to Q with us last April. This story is such a great picture of living out the life of Jesus in the kingdom one life at a time. You can read the original article here, along with a few other Christ Fellowship stories.

Ross prays for you when he goes to sleep at night – in his own bed, under a sturdy roof, in his sister’s apartment 15 miles outside St. Louis. Thanks to hearts beating with the love of Jesus Christ, hearts right here at Christ Fellowship, he’s home with people who love him and had been trying to find him. For years.

Not long ago, Ross’s home was a 6-by-6-foot dome tent in the woods south of Okeechobee Boulevard in downtown West Palm Beach. He shared the tiny space with another homeless guy, but they could only go there after dark, so they wouldn’t get caught by the police. They had to sleep in their clothes, because you never knew when somebody might show up looking for a fight.

During the day, Ross traveled between places where he could get a free shower, coffee, a doughnut – or city parks and the library where he could find shade or air conditioning. Then one afternoon, he came for one of the meals that Christ Fellowship is helping provide to the homeless in partnership with First Presbyterian. He happened to sit down across the table from CityPlace Campus Pastor John Poitevent.

“We started talking about things,” Ross says, and soon the subject of family came up. It had been seven or eight years since Ross had talked with his sister Anne. Though he missed her, he had no idea how to find her after so long.

But John did. He copied down all the information Ross had – Anne’s work history, maiden name, married names – and went online. A computer search led him to a nurse’s association in Missouri, and that led him to Anne.

She was thrilled. Anne and another brother had been trying for years to find Ross. “I was just overjoyed to know he was all right,” she says.

Conversation, and then an invitation

John arranged for Ross and Anne to talk, and Anne eventually suggested her brother come home to the St. Louis area. That’s when things started to happen. Fast.

Someone from a Christ Fellowship Small Group donated frequent flyer miles to cover his airfare. Someone else provided a duffle bag with toiletries, and others gave money for Ross to get some new clothes. Only a few days after they’d met, Pastor John and a small group of people from the CityPlace Campus put Ross on a 5 p.m. flight to St. Louis.

It was a terrible flight, Ross recalls, made worse by his worries about how he’d be received after so long. As it turned out, “everybody’s been wonderful to me,” he says now. “It’s been just like I never left.”

At last, a paycheck

And Ross, who hasn’t been able to work for more than a year because of a painful skin condition, now has a job in a warehouse.

“I drew my first paycheck when I was 13 years old,” says Ross, now 53. “That year I didn’t work was the first year since then that I didn’t make any money. I was so depressed. Now I’ve opened a bank account, I bought a bicycle, and I have practically everything I need.”

“Ross has done really well since he’s gotten home,” says Anne. “He’s a hard worker, and he’s getting back on his feet.” She really wants the people of Christ Fellowship to hear her when she thanks them for helping her brother. “Ross would still be out there lost,” she says. “Now he’s safe at home.”

Pastor John puts it this way: “Our investment in his life renewed his hope that God has a plan for his life, which gives him the faith to make the right choices. When you don’t think that God has a purpose and a plan for you, why not sleep in a tent in the woods?”

A gift from God

Ross knows it has all been a gift from God – finding his family, getting a job, having a home. “To make it come together so fast, so complete, it just couldn’t be anything but a miracle,” he says. “It has to be His work.”

He thinks often of the people at Christ Fellowship. “I go to sleep and I pray for their safety and their well-being,” Ross says. “I hope God keeps working through them, because He actually used them to fulfill His wishes for me.

“I have a whole new attitude on life. I love getting up in the morning and going to work. I’m just so thankful to have what I have.” Then Ross gets quiet, and a tiny bit of emotion creeps in, thinking how so many people don’t even have the basics – “people I know and love there in West Palm who are still on the streets.”

Ross doesn’t have to say it for you to take his meaning: Please don’t forget my friends, who still need homes, and food, and love.