I spent a week this summer as an adult volunteer on a youth mission trip in Asheville, North Carolina, an urban area in the mountains. The trip was officially called HOME or Homeless Outreach Missions Experience. The kids (and I) didn’t serve the homeless or help the homeless; we hung out with the homeless. We also prayed with them, asking for guidance, courage, and strength to beat an addiction or help in dealing with a need, named or unnamed.
HOME is sponsored by a Christian congregation and a youth ministry organization called Carolina Cross Connection (CCC). The congregation’s relationships with members of the homeless community provided the foundation for our interactions. The specific encounters and conversations were prayerfully anticipated and encouraged, though not scripted. For example, we formed friendships by serving ice cream in a park where the homeless often gather and enjoying a meal at church that hosts a free lunch and worship service each Wednesday.
One of the my main motivations for going on this trip was to learn about the process of transformation, mainly how a community can develop and how individuals can experience transformation through involvement in the community.
The experience included education on homelessness. We walked an area called the “invisible box” where service agencies are located and the homeless live. We received coaching on having conversations without referencing professional status, living arrangements, and church involvement.
We also learned from members of the congregation who enjoyed close relationships with the homeless community. On a couple of occasions, we were led in a devotion that involved scripture reading and Bible study.
The first focused on the story of the woman who anointed Jesus with a costly perfume (you can find the story in Matthew 14:3-9). We talked about things that made an impression on us and bothered us. First, when the disciples chastised the woman for wasting the perfume (which could have been sold and proceeds given to the poor), Jesus not only defended her but said that she would be remembered for her kind act. Then, he mentioned that he wouldn’t be around for much longer but that the poor would always be with us.
We clarified that typically Jesus does want us to use our resources to care for others: feed the hungry, visit the sick, and clothe the naked. Sometimes, though, we need to receive gifts and enjoy the present moment, whether that involves worshiping God or enjoying the scent of expensive perfume.
The second devotion came from the story about the devil tempting Jesus, immediately after fasting in the wilderness for 40 days and soon after Jesus’ baptism when God acknowledged Jesus as His son. We talked about the idea that the temptation was not about claiming material wealth or worldly status but focused on an attempt to trick the tired and hungry Jesus to question his position as God’s son. Jesus didn’t need to do anything or say anything special, or above and beyond just being, to claim this status.
And that message is there for us also. We don’t need to do anything to become more of God’s children. We are God’s children. Our status is based on Jesus + Nothing.
During the week, I saw how these lessons applied to creating a sense of community in these ways:
- We realize that we can’t fix other people, nor should we try.
We can’t fix the long-term problems of poverty and homelessness, only God can. Our job is to show others God’s love.
- We treat people like brothers and sisters, like family.
To that end, the meal offered by the church resembles a family gathering rather than a soup kitchen line: generous portions of home-cooked food are served family style as people gather at tables in a slightly chaotic setting that is comfortable and conducive to conversation.
- Whatever our circumstances, homeless or housed, we gracefully receive and cheerfully give.
We shouldn’t see ourselves as always being the givers or always being the receivers. Those with material means shouldn’t see themselves as the privileged who help the unprivileged.
- We embrace that God loves us “as is.”
We all say that God loves us just as we are and others just as they are. But we typically don’t act or think that way. One of the main expressed beliefs of the church as that we are all children of God and nothing we can do or say can alter that status. Those who are struggling with an addiction can be assured that whatever state they are in, they are children of God. Having the status of God’s child that does not mean that abusing substances is okay, just that you are loved unconditionally in all circumstances.
- People feel loved and valued by others.
On our last full day, we shared ice cream and conversation with a couple of people from the homeless community. One of them was particularly outspoken about the attitudes of the Christian church groups and their members in the area; namely, they were the only ones who did not look down on the homeless but treated all as real people, not as something or someone to be avoided and marginalized.
- Relationships are about genuine friendships, not an agenda.
The interesting thing about this community is that there are services benefiting the homeless and poor: a free lunch, free clothing, and assistance in dealing with self-destructive behavior such as substance abuse (for example, AA is offered at the church and many folks mentioned being counseled and helped by the pastor in fighting an addiction). However, the focus is on friendship, not exchange of goods and services.
Particularly intriguing was the way the homeless in their community took care of each other. Very often, we guard what we have from others and I would imagine myself defending what I owned vigorously if I had little. And, though, every day may not have been lived in perfect harmony with others, there was a distinct sense of community among the homeless. We were simply invited to become part of the community to learn what that looks and feels like.