Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Everyone Counts

On the last Monday of January every year, the city of New York recruits about 2000 volunteers to canvas every square inch of the city- all 5 boroughs- taking a census of the number of homeless people who are not in shelters. They do this in January because only the die-hard chronically homeless will be out. And they do it from midnight to 4 AM because if someone is out on the streets at that hour, they probably don't have a place to sleep.

I signed up to work on Staten Island. The training was at a Jewish Synagogue. I was put together with 5 other awesome volunteers. We drank coffee, ate donuts, and went through detailed training. Then we went to our assigned location, which was in and around the Staten Island Ferry terminal. We spent most of our time indoors because in the 20 degree temperatures, by midnight, most people have found a place to sleep indoors. The police let them sleep on the floors and on benches until the morning rush.

We probably interviewed 50 homeless people. One couple stands out. At the end of the interview, we were instructed to ask if they wanted shelter that night. If they did, we would call for a van that would come and pick them up. This couple, probably in their late twenties, said they wanted shelter. So I made the call and then the protocol was that I had to stay with them until the van arrived. That took about 45 minutes. As time went on, they opened up and I learned their story. As is often the case, there is a lot of pain surrounding their situation of being homeless- and there is little hope. They were hungry and gladly accepted all I had with me, which was a Milky Way candy bar (which I had planned to eat sometime around 3 in the morning- so they spared me that unpleasant experience!). The van finally arrived, only to have them discover that it was from a shelter that they had been in previously, and had been kicked out of previously! They were on the same page in that they refused to go to that shelter, and that shelter refused to take them. So- it was going to be another night for them without a bed. As I went to leave to continue to canvas the area, something unexpected happened. The woman stepped toward me, wrapped me in a bear hug, started to cry, and would not let go. As we stood there and through her tears, she kept thanking me. Why? What had I done? Why was she thanking me? All I had done was listen to her story and spend time with her. And that I guess that meant something to her- more than I can still understand. I think that the homeless are typically avoided. Probably they experience or perceive judgment from others. They are isolated and cut off from "normal: human beings. I know that is how I have often responded to the homeless. But they are no different than me. And Jesus gave us clear instruction about what we are to do with the homeless (see Matthew 25). I feel I gave this woman very little- but for her it was a lot. Time. Kindness. A listening ear. And it touched something deep in her.

At the end of the event, I was given a sweatshirt with the words "Everyone Counts" on the back. Simple, true words. Everyone counts to God. He is not a respecter of persons. He thinks of, values, loves this woman no less that me. In this city I encounter homeless people pretty much everyday. I hope this experience will help me to realize that while I cannot give them all money, food, shelter, I can give them what I always have with me- myself, and bit of my time.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Don't Walk By

This past Saturday, Communitas participated in a campaign called “Don’t Walk By”. We joined about 300 other people who came together from all over the city to go out on a three hour “search and rescue” mission on the streets of Manhattan. In the frigid single-digit temperatures, groups of 5 or 6 walked block after block looking for homeless people trying to survive through the cold night. Some estimates suggest that there are over 75,000 homeless in NYC. Our focus was the Wall Street area. We would approach the homeless and offer to take them to a place to get a hot meal and a warm bed.

As we walked the narrow streets which carve their way through the skyscrapers of lower Manhattan, I had a sense of God looking down, seeing each person hidden in the cold and dark, and a group searching street by street. As I pondered this, I thought of Jesus words: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” In Jesus, God revealed himself as the one who leaves the ninety-nine “found” and goes in search of the “lost.”

Perhaps nothing better captures what Communitas is doing in NYC. We have joined Jesus in his search and rescue operation. We pass them on the streets, ride with them on the subway, eat with them in the diner. They are the poor and the rich, coming from all points on planet earth. God knows each one by name, and he is searching for them, that they might know him. How sobering and challenging to think that WE are the means by which he reaches them!