Monday, January 04, 2010

Looking out from under a dirty hoody

It happened over a month ago. I've not wanted to write about what I observed, but something tells me that I should.

What is it about churches?

Don't get me wrong, I appreciate and benefit from my church. I'm there most Sundays. It provides me great encouragement and inspiration. For me, church on Sundays at this point in my life serves as a true Sabbath, a time of rest, renewal and regeneration.

In short, Sunday turns out to be a very selfish day for me. I'm not a very good church member. I just attend, soak it in and then hit it hard again on Monday.

But, I'm avoiding the matter at hand.

On the Sunday I have in mind, I dropped Brenda off at the front door, parked the car and walked across to the church.

As I walked up to the side door, I spotted one of the ministers. He appeared to be involved in a rather animated conversation with another man. Getting closer to the sidewalk in front of the door, I realized he was talking to a homeless man, dirty, ragged and needing some assistance.

I'm not sure what transpired before I drew within earshot of the conversation. As I came close enough to over hear what was being said, I realized that my minister friend was in the midst of a rather stern lecture to the fellow.

"And, don't be asking our members for money when they come out of church," I heard him say to the man.

The man's reply was inaudible, but his face seemed sad, reflecting resignation to treatment to which he'd grown accustomed over his years on the street.

"Just go on down the street, now, just go on," the minister ordered the man.

I wish I'd not seen the encounter.

Oh, I know and understand the position of the minister. I've been there myself. I've been a lot tougher on people who've come to me seeking assistance. At times, I know I responded in the correct manner. At other times I know that I flat blew it.

The situation with homeless people trying to squeeze out an existence on the street is so fraught with trouble and complexity that I can't sit in judgment of either the minister or the poor man.

It is the church and its systems that trouble me as I think about all I observed on that Sunday. And, I expect it is my own failure in the moment and in other moments like it that troubles me.

Churches just don't organize themselves to handle the rough, deeply troubling, messy, dirty, smelly, rotten circumstances of life, especially on the spur of the moment, you know at those times when people show up at the end of their rope and cry out for real help just when you're about to do something "really important." Or, maybe it's just that the needs of the organized religious community, especially on Sundays, trump the real time challenges of the street poor.

I walked past the two men that morning. Maybe I should have intervened. Honestly, I didn't want to come off as thinking I knew best or better than my friend. Maybe that's just another cop-out on my part.

What I do know is this: I went into the church, received a good dose of inspiration, went out to eat a nice lunch and came home and watched a football game.

The dirty street person did as he was told, he went right "on down the street," not bothering anyone.

But, I can't shake what I saw.

The sadness in his face, that dirty, scarred, rough face looking out from under a filthy, green hoody--I have this feeling it was the face of God that I saw there on the sidewalk outside my church.

That's what really unsettles me.


Dean Smith said...

I wonder who came to the minister and asked him to take care of this "problem"? Any minister worth her or his salt has encountered this situation dozens, perhaps hundreds of times. Usually, it's because some member complained and asked them to "take care of it" (translation, "get him, or her, away from us"). It may sound a bit melodramatic, but I wonder if anyone asks at that moment, "could this be Jesus?"

Frank Bellizzi said...


I'm like you in that I want to know the whole story, something we hardly ever know.

Your experience is so shocking I guess because it's the sort of thing that preachers use as a negative example. As in, "Don't do this. Be like the Good Samaritan instead."

Dan said...

As a minister I've been in that situation many time. And like you, Larry, I've handled it correctly and incorrectly. I wish I could say that I've never taken the tone that minister did with another person, regardless of what went on before you arrived. But I did once, in 1974 when I lived in Italy. And the situation haunts me to this day when i think of it.
The homeless man in one way was the loser that day. It may well be that the minister was the bigger loser by his reaction, however.

Ron Carlson said...

Hi, This is Ron Carlson, preacher in Duncanville, responding to one of our church folk who read this article:
Good Morning Jerry,
I, too, have much respect for Larry-- have for years. When we came to Dallas in 82', we went to Richardson East and were always encouraged. I am deeply rooted in the ministry at Central Dallas, and I pray for their success often. They are trying to make a difference. God bless Larry and his long-time supporter Jim Sowell.
He's right; the issue is complex.
I've already been wrestling with it this morning. Took my wife to the airport really early, and on way back I lamented the sad state of affairs around SW Mall and its bleak future that is going to trespass into our lives sooner rather than later, and purposed in my mind to renew discussions with churches and politicians (I dislike this part) about how we can help. It is such a mess.
Sunday, our Brother Armando Villareal was robbed at gunpoint in his Subway Store at Camp Wisdom and Polk (5th time in 8 months) by a couple of kids we call worthless. This time he shot back and one is in jail and the other is battling for his life at Charlton. Poor Armando is now a mess; doesn't know what to do from this point forward. I had few answers for him yesterday.
My wife says I should pack a gun in view of the places I frequent and folks I encounter. For now, I travel in the Power of the Spirit.
We've had to force a man recently from begging in our Sunday parking lot. We worked with him for months, but finally we decided he had to go. It was complicated. We tried to get him to a Wed care group and help him long-term, but he wouldn't show. He possessed an unhealthy sense of entitlement. It was our evaluation after sometime that he was a bum and an incurable con man. Yet, I'm troubled we couldn't find a solution. I'm troubled by the thousands just like him.
It breaks my heart every last Thursday morn of the month when we give away mounds of food... so many hurting people with such complex, generational, dysfunctional issues. Bread for the day seems like such a token effort... but they appreciate it.
I so appreciate our ladies who are active with the Homeward Bound outcasts. Susan Steverson told me yesterday they have five new handmade quilts to deliver. It's a whole lot of love. Every Friday night we bus these ladies to the building for Pizza and prayer, and I literally cry when they go back to the shelter, cuz many of them won't be here next Friday, but instead will be back on the street (Dallas Vice is preparing for the migration of up to 100,000 prostitutes to the City who are coming for NBA All-Star Game and Super Bowl to follow... what we gonna' do?). How do we fund and sustain a shelter for these broken, precious women?
Saturday before Christmas I rode the bus with our Apt kids and distributed Angel Tree presents to kids whose dads are in jail. Absolutely broke my heart. Like you, I look at my grandkids with all the benefits this world can offer and wonder why we can't create a system where every child is so favored.
I know this: Living in a fantasy bubble separated from other's very real pain and misfortune is NOT the answer. I hope The Grace Place can be used by God to relieve some folk's burdens. It's a brutal world out there.
I appreciate your heart for the hopeless.
Thanks again for sharing, Ron

Larry James said...

Thanks to all who posted here. Again, my comments were not intended as a criticism, but a reflection on a problem that I often feel "entitled" to avoid, especially on Sundays. There are no answers really, only the need to keep struggling with the reality.

Anonymous said...

I feel totally inadequate about this matter. I have helped some but more "token" than a "passion" for compassion. On the good side, I'm glad that this man thought church was a place to find help. On the bad side, I wish church went instead of waiting for hopeless/helpless to come. I would think your congregation, Larry, would be open to instruction and discussion from you. (I feel like I'm on the pee-wee team bench telling Mantle to step into the pitch.) May God contine to use you, Larry, to make us feel "holy discomfort" and may His Spirit grant wisdom and zeal for us to "go and do likewise."

Anonymous said...

I completely hear you. Like you and others, I suspect there's more to this story. It could be the 'get this guy away from us' that someone mentioned, or it could even be that this poor person has a history there. We had a guy come through with a complex, very sad story about needing to get to his dying parent in another state, and we helped him -- and then he came through a few months later, telling the same story, obviously not the truth. (I'm glad we helped him the first time -- even though we were being played.) Alas, the mess that is ministry, anywhere, anytime. Blessings to you, Larry.

Daniel said...

I feel my emotions pulling me in many different directions when I'm faced with these situations. Our churches are often doing very little to discuss engaging these situations when they happen. I agree with the 9:35 poster -- it is a "holy discomfort".

Karen Shafer said...


So glad you shared this. The best sentence in the post, to me, is this one:

'I have this feeling it was the face of God that I saw there on the sidewalk outside my church.'

This I believe to be true also, having had that feeling many times myself.

I have upon occasion intervened by stopping to speak with police who were ticketing homeless individuals for the various ordinances which try to keep them off the street, with varying degrees of success and response. Have you thought of speaking with your pastor and just listening to his view of things, then sharing your perspective? Your point of view would be unique, I would say, and would seem to me to be very helpful to him, because you have direct experience with homeless individuals, which makes all the difference.

Anyway, it seems complex, but in our hearts we know it isn't.

Yet, it's sometimes so hard to know what to do in the moment. God Bless you for being so honest and forthcoming as to share this.

Karen Shafer