When I was growing up, I often heard friends’ parents say, “Finish everything on your plate. There are hungry people in China.”
Once I repeated this line while joking with a seminary classmate and he retorted, “Name one.” I couldn’t. My cynical friend made a good point. The truth was that I didn’t and still don’t know a single hungry person in China. Advocates should have a relationship with those for whom they are advocating.
This Sunday, I journeyed to my new church in Atlanta, Praxis UCC. Rev. Chris Lyman Waldron arranged for Matthew Works to be the guest preacher. Matthew Works is an artist, writer, and activist for the homeless, who has lived in Boston for thirty years, the last thirteen of which have been spent "out, on the streets," homeless.
The service allowed for some networking. I had invited Mark Galey, the founder and chair of our Fuller Center Greater Atlanta to meet with Matthew and to begin the process of creating volunteer opportunities with FCH Greater Atlanta. I also had the privilege of visiting with Jim Rodgers, former chair of the board of directors for the Atlanta Habitat for Humanity affiliate. We had some other special guests; several homeless people were invited to hear Matthew speak. These folks live in churches up and down Ponce de Leon Avenue in Atlanta. One of the gentlemen introduced himself as Dwight and said he was just walking by, heading back to his shelter for the evening, but Chris’s wife Leah, who co-pastors at Praxis, enthusiastically greeted him and invited him to join us for the service and a meal that would follow.
I had been asked by Chris and Matthew to read the gospel lesson for the service, Luke 2:41-50. This is the story of Jesus, as a 12 year-old boy, getting separated from his parents for three days. Matthew’s unique take on this story was that Jesus was effectively homeless. He said the Bible doesn’t say that his parents found him famished and dehydrated. No, the boy Jesus was fine because the church had the good sense to take him in and feed him. Matthew then asked, “Why are so many of our churches locked up?”
Mathew told us how he lost his job and became homeless, living on the streets of Boston. "When most of you get caught in a downpour, and you are cold and wet, you will eventually make it home, throw your clothes in the laundry and put on a clean, dry shirt." He asked us to imagine what it would be like to be homeless. He said on one particular evening, he and several other men were forced out of a full church shelter and into a cold, driving rain. Some of the men slept under bridges, others found dry shelter with friends. But Matthew was most alarmed by an Hispanic man who had just arrived in Boston and didn’t know where to go. He ended up sleeping in a cardboard compactor. In very broken English, the man said he didn’t get any sleep because he was afraid someone would push the button that turned on the machine and he would be crushed.
Matthew bonded with a street ministry team that would come and offer Eucharist to the homeless people in Boston Commons. Each day, the team from the Episcopal church would roll a nice pulpit on wheels into the park for the service and when it was over, they would roll the pulpit back to the church and lock it up until the next service. One day after a homeless man froze to death in the park, Matthew had the courage to challenge the well meaning Episcopalians. “I understand why you would want to lock up that nice piece of furniture to keep it from harm, but what about us? Why are we left out here in the cold, while you lock up that pulpit?”
Some divinity students supported and encouraged Matthew and now he goes around to churches and seminaries and gives a voice to the nameless homeless people the good church folks walk past on their way to services. I would encourage everyone who reads this blog to go to Matthew’s website and invite him to your congregation.
At the meal, I was blessed to have the opportunity to eat with some of the homeless guests. One man with a guitar introduced himself as “Rockin’ Billy.” I asked him what kind of music he liked and he said his pastor writes most of his stuff and he plays it for his church on Sundays. Then he started singing one of the church songs. It was a beautiful pop/rock melody. He smiled and said, “That’s nice isn’t it?”
I told Rockin’ Billy about my 15 year-old son’s interest in the guitar. I said I wished we lived closer to Atlanta, because my son, Luke, needs a teacher. I told him that Luke was dreaming about a Les Paul guitar. Billy said he was too. If he could get any guitar, that would be the one he wanted. Then he looked sad and said, “But I can’t have a nice guitar because living on the streets, I couldn’t keep it safe.”
Decent, safe housing for all is a difficult–but not impossible–challenge. Thank God for folks like Matthew Works and the good churches who open their doors to the homeless, many of whom are struggling with addictions, but like Rockin’ Billy, are still God’s children.
As I was preparing to leave (I was going to a housing conference in Savannah), Matthew Works said, “Your name is Kirk…. That means church.” I smiled – he knew my name.
Continued in Part Two