February 1, 2012

Under the Overpass {notes}



"Mike Yankoski's life went from upper-middle class plush to scum-of-the-earth repulsive overnight.  By his own choice.  From the United States capital to San Diego, Mike and his traveling companion, Sam, journeyed as homeless men for five months.  Not for a project or even in response to a dare.  He needed to know if his faith in God was real - if he could actually be the Christian he said he was apart from the comforts he'd always known. 
So with only a bag on his back, a guitar in his hand, and Sam by his side, he set out.  And like any traveler in a foreign land, he returned a different man."
Under the Overpass - A Journey of Faith on the Streets of America is a fascinating, challenging and moving tale of Mike and Sam's chosen homelessness and the experiences they encountered during their time on the streets. 

This was one of the books I asked for at Christmas.  Since I began reading it, Saturday, I have learned more about homelessness than I'd ever known before.

Already this book is highlighted and marked up, passages I want to remember, and return to.  Important lessons disclosed.

Scriptural commands I need to hear, and live.

I'd like to share some of them with you.

In the first chapter {Twenty Minutes Past the World}, Mike discusses the reasons behind his desire to experience homelessness:
The idea had dropped into my brain one Sunday morning while I sat in church.  The pastor was delivering a powerful sermon about living the Christian life.  The gist of it was, "Be the Christian you say you are."
Later in the chapter:
But we were created to be and to do, not merely to discuss.  The hypocrisy in my life troubled me.  No, I wasn't in the grip of rampant sin, but at the same time, for the life of me I couldn't find a connecting thread of radical, living obedience between what I said about my world and how I lived in it.  Sure, I claimed that Christ was my stronghold, my peace, my sustenance, my joy.  But I did all that from the safety of my comfortable upper-middle-class life.  I never really had to put my claims to the test.
Mike contemplated what Paul really meant in Philippians 4:11-12 where he states - "I have learned what it means to be content in all circumstances, whether with everything or with nothing."
With nothing?
 What if I stepped out of my comfortable life with nothing but God and put my faith to the test alongside of those who live with nothing every day?
Hard on the heels of the idea came the questions: What if I didn't actually believe the things I argued with so much certainty?  What, for example, if I didn't truly believe that Christ is my identity, my strength, my hope?
Some statistics tell us the horrible story of homelessness in the United States.
Key findings of the report on homelessness:
"In his book Ragamuffin Gospel, Brennan Manning writes, "We are all equally privileged but unentitled beggars at the door of God's mercy."  Mercy is something homeless people so desperately need.  As Christians, we are called to extend mercy to everyone.
Mike discusses candidly his own thoughts on homelessness, previous to being homeless himself:
...I do know this: blithely allowing this terrible stripping to occur is a blot on the conscience of America, and especially on the conscience of the church.  If we as believers choose to forget that everyone - even the shrunken soul lying in the doorway - is made in the image of God, can we say we know our Creator?  If we respond to others based on their outward appearance, haven't we entirely missed the point of the gospel?
Too many times as Christians this is our response to a real need in someones life, whether we know them personally or not:
We hear a Christian assure someone that he will 'pray over' his problem, knowing full well that he intends to use prayer as a substitute for service.  It is much easier to pray that a poor friend's needs may be supplied than to supply them.
A.W. Tozer (Of God and Men)
How true, and how heartbreaking.  Especially when we have received a directive from Jesus on how to care for those in need
22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror; 24 for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. 25 But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does.
26 If anyone among you thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one’s religion is useless. 27 Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.
My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality. For if there should come into your assembly a man with gold rings, in fine apparel, and there should also come in a poor man in filthy clothes, and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say to him, “You sit here in a good place,” and say to the poor man, “You stand there,” or, “Sit here at my footstool,” have you not shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?
Listen, my beloved brethren: Has God not chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Do not the rich oppress you and drag you into the courts? Do they not blaspheme that noble name by which you are called?
If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you do well;
James 1: 21-2:8
How should we as Christians respond to homelessness?
... I do this because my faith tells me to.  The Bible clearly says, if you see someone hungry, feed them; if you see someone naked, clothe them.  Those words weren't written for us to make books and sermons about.  They're written so people don't go hungry and naked.  And they require action from all followers of Christ, not just the rescue missions. - George a man who helped Mike and Sam
What a down-to-earth, biblical response!

Something to think about:
Remember that the poor are people with names, [They are] people with whom and among whom God has been working before we even know they were there.
Bryant Myers (Walking with the Poor)
We don't go to church, we are the church.  So many problems that show up on the church steps, or in the pews, or between congregations seem to start with misunderstandings about that.  The church isn't a physical building or a doctrinal statement or a perfectly produced program.  It is us - we are the living expression of Christ's presence in the world, His body.  The sooner we realize that, the sooner we'll be able to be the healing body of Christ to our sin-sick world.
Mike Yankoski (Under the Overpass)
In the chapter on their experience in Phoenix Arizona, Mike answers some common questions about street life and what we should or shouldn't do as we assist homeless people
But that raises an important question: Should you give money to beggars?  You run into them in every major American city - standing at the off-ramp on your way home from work, sitting at busy intersections on your lunch break, or walking up to you when you're downtown for an evening with friends.  The simple answer is, "probably not," but I need to quality that... Unfortunately, it's also true that the majority of the men and women we knew on the streets would - within a half hour of receiving a donation - spend it entirely on drugs or alcohol.  A nugget of marijuana or crack is only five dollars, and a forty-ounce beer is only two-fifty.  So your money is probably providing someone with their fix before you get home or back to the office.
That's why I recommend you give something other than cash... Having said that, I think the most meaningful gift might be your genuine attention and caring.
There aren't really easy answers to the question of giving to panhandlers.  On the one hand, we're called to help those in need.  On the other, we're called to be "wise as serpents, innocent as doves."  Being both wise and innocent might mean taking some risks, getting creative, and forgiving yourself if you feel foolish or make mistakes.
Conviction of sins is something we all wish we took more seriously, felt more deeply, responded to more quickly.  One man (Doug) Mike and Sam encountered brought these desires into stark contrast:
Lying there in our bags listening to the waves, we talked about Doug.  His brokenness about his sins was convicting. "I wish my sin pained me as greatly as Doug's does," said Sam.  "Would you do anything about it if it did?" I asked.  "What do you mean?" Sam asked, sounding sleepy.  "Doug longs to be cleansed and free of his sins, but I don't know.  I don't think he's willing to stop doing the very thing that grieves him.  Walking over here tonight, I was wondering if there are things in my life that I am praying for deliverance from but refuse to let go of.  It's a scary thought."
Yes it is.  In my own life I know I desire to feel broken over my sin, but sometimes I become numb to their redundancy.  I want, as G.K. Chesterton put it, "We want a fiercer delight and a fiercer discontent."
In the last chapter Coming Back to Normal Mike gives some insights about his own experience of coming back to a normal life after the grueling months on the streets.
In a very real sense, the problem of homelessness is overwhelming.  Jesus put it all in context when He said, "The poor you will have with you always."  You just can't meet every need you see, or spend time with every homeless person you meet.
So where do we start?  Jesus summarized right living in two powerful statements: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart...and your neighbor as yourself."  As over-spiritualized as it might sound, I really do think that caring for the needy begins with loving God more completely.  It's in knowing and responding to His amazing love for us that we begin to set our priorities straight.
Mike gives four ideas on how to reach out to the homeless in our community:
  1. Find a rescue mission nearest to you.  Call and find out how you can get involved.  Show up an hour early and plan on leaving an hour after you're scheduled to.  Have conversations with the homeless as they stand outside, waiting to get in.  Bring bottled water, baked cookies, granola bars, patience, and a sense of humor.  You'll bless those who cannot bless you in return.
  2. Go downtown with a friend or friends (don't go alone).  Buy cups of coffee or a bag of take-out food, find a homeless person sitting around asking for money, share your gifts, and enjoy a conversation.  No agenda, no plans, no purpose other than to be with that person.  You'll be amazed at what unfolds.
  3. Is it cold outside? Go to your closet and grab the sweater, sweatshirt, or coat you keep telling yourself you'll wear sometime but know you won't.  Call up four friends and tell them to do the same thing.  Then go downtown and hand out your warm clothing to the men and women huddled under the overpass or in a doorway.  As you stand there thinking of how cold your nose is, you'll be amazed at the genuine thankfulness of someone whose whole body is probably numb.  And your giving will warm your soul, too.
  4. Become a spokesperson in your youth group, church, and community for those who have no voice.  Be relentlessly suspicious of your comfortable life, and of the comfort zones that render so many Christian fellowships insensitive and ineffective in our communities.  God calls us all to more.  And you and I can lead the way, one small step at a time.
In closing, Mike challenges us again to be radical in our faith, clinging alone to Jesus as our one form of strength and guidance.
A radical choice to trust in the Lord must extend into all areas of your life, with everyone you encounter during the day.
Some local homeless outreaches:

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Thank you for sharing!