Imagine if you were homeless.
Imagine if you were homeless.
There I found myself, 47-years-old, sitting on a sidewalk begging for change in New York City. The air was cold and the longer I sat there, the more the chill cut to the bone. I had no idea where my next meal would come from. The sea of humanity swept around me as I blended into the background with my cardboard sign. No longer human, I was part of the familiar landscape of this renowned city. They say that if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. I found myself amongst those who blended into the background, like part of the concrete, because they definitely weren’t making it and there was no light at the end of the tunnel either. How did I find myself here?
In the beginning of January, 2018 I put aside time to pray concerning what God would have me do in this new year. I asked for direction concerning myself, my family and the organization I lead, New York City Relief. As I listened to the voice of the Holy Spirit, I felt he was leading me to go live on the streets of New York City amongst the thousands of people with no place to turn. My thoughts were, “If someone like me doesn’t do this, who will?”
I believed that there was much to learn about people challenged with homelessness in New York City and much to learn from those same people. Even though I have worked with the unhoused for 14 years, I also know that I have done that from the safety of the “bubble” of how we do outreach with our organization. I wondered what we were missing and what the voiceless would say if they were given a voice.
The more I prayed about it, the more I knew that this could not be a social experiment or PR stunt, even though it might appear that way to some. This journey was to be a spiritual pilgrimage. I believed that if I really saw the homeless, I would see Jesus. If I really heard the homeless, I would hear Jesus. If I would take the time to know the homeless, I would come to really know Jesus.
I had no idea how entering into the brokenness of others would impact me, but I can tell you that it continues to impact me today. I do not claim to know or comprehend what it really means to be homeless. One week only gave me a glimpse into this other world where Jesus has always lived:
“I live in a high and holy place,
but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit,
to revive the spirit of the lowly
and to revive the heart of the contrite.” Isaiah 57:15
My week on the streets was filled with heartache and hope. I had significant encounters with God. I experienced his presence constantly through the people I met. Some were those battling homelessness, some were people who gave to me as I panhandled, staff and volunteers from various soup kitchens and shelters and random strangers on the streets. I also experienced God’s presence heavily as I sought him alone in prayer and scripture. I pressed into his heart, hungry to see his face. I was not disappointed.
Each of the seven days, I took time to journal about all of my experiences in order to document what I was learning and where I saw God at work. I am breaking up this experience into many parts for you, the reader, to digest. Each month I will share part of my journey along with the lessons I learned from the friends I made. Maybe these articles will help you to see, hear and know those who exist on the fringes of society. Maybe God will give us the grace to feel what he feels about these modern-day lepers. Hopefully, we will gain insights into our own brokenness and feelings of isolation and know that Jesus is here for us also. In this way, the poor may become a mirror–helping us to see into our own souls. Maybe the poor will be used as tools in God’s hands to cure our blindness and heal our pain.
Day 1, March 11, 2018: Enter The Underbelly
After taking a train into Manhattan from New Jersey that Sunday morning, I jumped on a subway and headed to my first stop, a church made up mostly of people struggling with homelessness called Communitas. I got off at the wrong stop, then wandered around until I found the church which meets in the chapel of the New York City Rescue Mission. Because I was late, I missed the coffee time before service. The coffee was gone, but I ate half of a leftover bagel. The room was mostly full of about 80 people who sat quietly listening. You could see the weariness on their faces. They didn’t have many other places to go, and this was a refuge for them from the streets. It was a nice room with big screens which they used to play videos of worship songs being performed live at big events. After the music, the pastor, Christine Mayes encouraged the congregants from the microphone to seek God, not use the time to take a nap. Although she was sympathetic to those who were legitimately tired, she wanted them to receive something spiritually powerful. She was very caring and genuine.
Pastor Chris asked for testimonies and a man battling homelessness spontaneously stood to share with the group how God was taking care of him. I was impressed by his faith in the midst of very challenging circumstances. According to this verse, I shouldn’t be surprised:
“Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?” James 2:5
Chris’ husband, Dr. Craig Mayes, gave the message that day. Craig is the former CEO of the New York City Rescue Mission, now Chief of Staff at The Bowery Mission who they merged with recently. Craig shared about becoming mighty men and women for God like David’s top three men and encouraged the audience to love and sacrifice for others. It was a very relevant and engaging message for the group that was well received. Overall, the whole environment that the Mayes created was peaceful, unlike some other services for the homeless that I visited that week. It was an atmosphere of warmth, and though some did take the opportunity to doze off, others found the solace and encouragement that they needed. It was an oasis in a city that can sometimes be hostile to it’s most burdened citizens. Communitas provided a space where they could lay their burden down for a few minutes and relax with their community.
After the service, the mission served lunch downstairs. While waiting for lunch to begin, I picked up a free Gideon Bible in the chapel to carry with me all week. I brought very little with me for this pilgrimage-only the clothes on my back and a backpack with a few Christian teaching books in it. The clothes I wore were some secondhand items that had been donated to New York City Relief-a ratty orange sweatshirt and a coat. The coat was a generic looking blue number and it was only when I was on the streets that I figured out that it was actually a woman’s coat complete with drawstring and zipper on the left. I wore a misshapen winter hat with a bill and some gloves with cut off fingers. Some key items I brought were a plastic container without a lid and a black Sharpie marker. More on these later. I was going to bring a blanket too, but in my haste, I forgot to bring it–doh! That was going to be a problem. It was still cold out in March–especially at night. The temperature outside was in the high 20’s to low 30’s all week, so below freezing.
After a big delicious lunch at NYC Rescue Mission I headed out to Madison Square Park. On the way I found cardboard on the street which I picked up to make a sign for panhandling. It was my plan to only eat what was given to me and only buy what I could afford from begging that week. I carefully tore the cardboard into a small enough size to carry in my backpack, but a large enough size to get people’s attention.
I had never panhandled in my life and wasn’t sure if people would give me anything. It was a weird feeling knowing that I was about to step into a new role that was completely foreign to me. I had seen people begging with signs many times over the years, and wondered what that must be like. Now I was going to found out exactly what they were going through.
I thought about what to write on my sign. I was determined not to lie in any way. I was not really homeless and decided not to say that to anyone. If anyone asked me, I would simply tell them that I was living on the streets which was completely true at the moment.
In a moment of inspiration I wrote on my cardboard, “IMAGINE IF YOU WERE HOMELESS. PLEASE HELP.” With my sign I asked others to do the very thing that I was trying to do-imagine what it must be like to live on the bottom, dependent on others generosity and strive to just survive from day to day. At the bottom of my sign I wrote, “God bless you!” I saw this written on the bottom of almost every beggar’s sign that I had ever seen. It gave authenticity, but I actually meant it too. I wanted God to bless those who were kind enough to help me out.
After finishing my sign, I read three chapters in my new Bible while sitting in the sun at the park. Then I made my way to Penn Station, where I would beg for the first time in my life.
Stepping Down To The Bottom
I picked a spot near a corner, not far from the main entrance to Madison Square Garden. Little did I know that the Knicks were playing that day. An ocean of people poured out of the Garden and walked right past me. Many never saw me. I mostly saw their shoes as I sat on the concrete with my head down and my sign in my hands. I was surprised as one person after another put money in my plastic container. Most put coins in quickly and dashed off before I could thank them properly. Not only did they not want to engage with me, I could tell that they were uncomfortable even looking at me. It was a humiliating feeling to be so low that people felt leery around me. I was no longer a “safe” person. My character was questionable. Begging is a shameful activity. Sometimes people walking by would catch eyes with me and quickly and awkwardly look away. It reminds me of when Isaiah prophesied about how Jesus would be treated:
“He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.” Isaiah 53:3
It’s a blessing to give, but receiving feels lousy. No one wants to be dependent on others. It was during some of these times begging that I remembered that Jesus was dependent on those who supported him financially during his three years of active ministry. He received their charity graciously. The Bible mentions several times that it was in this kind of lifestyle that he found himself hungry, with not enough food to eat.
Even though many people were brusque, I was extremely touched that they would take the time to help me out with a dollar or some spare change. I would quickly say, “Thank you, God bless you.”, as they marched off. I began to cry as I begged-partially in thankfulness for people’s kindness and partially because of the realization of how many people beg like this for many years of their lives. How do they do it? I prayed quietly for each person who put money in my cup-that God would bless them and provide for all of their physical, emotional and spiritual needs. One young man gave me ten dollars which really blew me away. I was equally amazed when a small child put four pennies in my cup. I went through a whole range of emotions as people offered me these gifts. I collected a total of $24.56 that day.
Several people gave me food. I was given an apple and a sealed bag of peanut M&M’s. One man even asked me if I would like a hotdog. The interaction with the man was very touching, because I could feel his compassion for someone in trouble. He took the time to go and order me a hot food and boy did it hit the spot. People like him cared enough to do something about my pain. Rather than turn away, they moved into action. Reminds of me of the verse in the Bible that says,
“If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” James 2:16,17
I don’t know if faith was a factor in motivating people to feed me, and at the time, I didn’t care. What moved me was their actions, because they were helping me to survive. Part of the reason I could deal with all of the people passing me by is because of the few who would stop to acknowledge me by reaching out a helping hand.
I began to cry as I begged-partially in thankfulness for people’s kindness and partially because of the realization of how many people beg like this for many years of their lives. How do they do it?
Other people gave me unpleasant gifts-half-eaten food and cold french fries. I suppose they thought they were being kind and that if I was starving, it would help. In reality, it made me feel like garbage because they saw me as degraded enough to eat their trash. I tried not to judge and to assume they had the right intentions, but it was tough.
It was evident to me that all of the ticket holders to the Knicks game that day had each been given a personal sized bag of Garden Veggie Straws, a type of snack food. I was grateful for each bag they gave me, but soon became overwhelmed when I collected 14 bags. This was humorous and strange to have so much “food”. After I ate a few Veggie Straws I discovered why they were so happy to share them with me. They taste a little like Styrofoam. Still, I was thankful for their generosity and figured I could share them with others who were hungry later.
My head was spinning from all of these encounters with strangers when my most shocking interaction took place. A man who I assumed was homeless asked me if I was hungry. I showed him the 14 bags of Veggie Straws and said that I had a lot of food. The man said, “Don’t eat that crap. Have some real food.” He handed me a big plastic bag full of fresh food sealed up in containers and plastic wrap. There were gourmet deli sandwiches, salad and soft pita rolls. I was dumbfounded and asked him for his name. He said it was Asa. I thanked him for his incredible generosity.
Asa obviously didn’t have much, yet he gave me somethings that were extremely valuable. Who was this guy and why would he do that? It was the last thing that I expected. It wasn’t the last time I met him that week or the last time he helped me. After my pilgrimage was over I discovered the story behind the story and found out why he was so selfless. More about Asa will be revealed in future articles.
I made my way over to a discount store and bought myself a snuggly blanket for $8. I knew I would need it that night and was glad that I had collected enough money to purchase one. The only color I could choose from was a crazy pink pattern, but I didn’t care because I just wanted to stay warm.
It was an emotional first day on the streets and I had gotten through it. The night was coming, however, and I knew it was going to be a tough one. I would be attempting to sleep on a moving subway train and that was daunting. Would I sleep at all? I didn’t know. This was only the beginning of a long, exhausting and profound journey.
Stay tuned for my next article in this series titled, Night Train.