Saturday, January 20, 2007

Homeless in Boulder in a Cold Winter

What is it like to be homeless in the affluent, sophisticated, and spiritually dark town of Boulder, Colorado? Having observed something of this today, I am musing on it.

After finding that my good friend, Pastor Doug White (a church planter) was preaching at "The Lamb's Lunch" at the First Presbyterian Church Annex in Boulder, I drove there at the last minute to see him in action and be supportive in prayer and in person. "The Lamb's Lunch" is a free meal offered to homeless people each Saturday afternoon.

About a hundred souls filled the room, drinking coffee and eating snacks before the full meal was served. Several folks were supplying everyone with name tags while a pretty, middle-aged blonde woman sang both John Denver and gospel songs, accompanying herself on guitar. "A tough crowd" does not quite capture it. It is a unique crowd, one that most of us don't rub shoulders with (or smell) very often. "The homeless" as a category of society, a social problem, is one thing. Being with the homeless, praying for them, or preaching to them is something else entirely--something of the Kingdom of God.

Men probably outnumbered women by about four to one. There were people in their twenties and much older ones as well. How many homeless people reach elderly status is unknown to me, but I'm sure their numbers are vanishingly small. They vanish before then. They were all bundled up and most did not take off their coats, scarves, and hats. Most of their lives are outside in the elements, and the outside has been extremely cold this season in the Denver and Boulder area. Having their warm clothes on is the norm, not the exception. If you get grouchy when it is unseasonably and perpetually cold, imagine (I mean really imagine it; think through it) what it would be like if you lived on the street: when staying warm--even staying alive--is a skill never formally taught, but necessary to learn.

Some were obviously drunk, as one African American who enthusiastically endorsed Doug White's preaching with "amens" and other slurred comments. Most looked haggard, that particular homeless look of the withered face, nearly vacant eyes, and unkempt hair. But not all looked thus. Some seemed alert: talking, laughing, walking about briskly. Each person is unique. As Kierkegaard said, the individual is a higher category than the universal (existentially conceived).

Pastor White spoke a few words through the microphone to rally attention, then abandoned it, relying on his unamplified voice and dynamic presentation, which had been soaked in prayer. He reviewed his previous two sermons here, asking if folks remembered. Some did--not a bad quiz score for this assembly. He then spoke on Jesus eating with and accepting tax collectors and sinners. Jesus is accessible; Jesus accepts the outcasts; Jesus wants to be in a living relationship with you. He came not to call the righteous, but sinners. Several in the audience added comments (some quoted Scriptures) and raised their hands when Doug asked for responses. No one heckled. The Pastor's message probably only lasted about ten minutes, but the truth of Jesus' grace was preached. I prayed for Doug and his congregation, before, during, and after the event, hoping the message could penetrate the souls of these creatures made in God's image, these pariahs in the sight of most "normal" people.

After the message, Pastor White greeted everyone in line for food, smiling (as he nearly always does, but genuinely) and saying encouraging things to people one-on-one. Doug and his wife Lesa (who also attended) know many of these folks through the Wednesday night meal they offer at New Day Covenant Church in Boulder. The singer I mentioned above was going to take the microphone and continue to sing, but "Reverend Friendly" (an older homeless fixture in Boulder) took it for himself and mumbled a few things about one universal God. Then an inebriated man took the microphone and said a few things that sounded like Bible passages. After this unplanned upsurge of homilectical improvisation, the microphone was returned to the singer as people got their food and found their seats. How often do they even have seats to sit on, let along beds to sleep on? The singer sang "Amazing Grace," which compensated for the previous John Denver songs. (If you read this, I wanted to thank you for serving and loving these people through singing, but I wasn't able to do so.)

I also saw a man roving about with a video recorder, pointing it in people's faces and asking them questions. I cannot give more detail than this. Perhaps this footage will become a video shown in a church about "the homeless" in Boulder. It would be better for people to be there. We are already so inured to video, so anaesthetized and lobotomized by it overall. Perhaps a homeless man in Boulder will appear on "YouTude." Then what?

Pastor White exhorts and ministers to this group once a month. He tells me that the ministry cannot find anyone else to do so the other three weeks of the month. Think about that. No pastor from the sponsoring church and no other pastor in Boulder is available to speak to the last, the least, and the lost--the very kind of people that Jesus so often talked with, healed, prayed with, and gave himself for. Boulder is rich in scenic beauty; real estate prices are through the ceiling; it sports a major university. But what is the measure of Boulder with respect to "the least of these, my brethren," as Jesus said?

Ministry at "The Lamb's Lunch" or to the homeless in other settings does not have "high returns" in a worldly sense. They are not model citizens. You would not want to go on vacation with them (the definition that Bill Hybels gave for the kind of people who should be recuited for a seeker-friendly church). If converted, they wouldn't be heavy givers to the church (they would be heavy takers); they smell bad quite often. They may be incoherent at worst. Yet with God all things are possible; the lost can be found; the blind can see. And the worldly rich are sent empty away...

God bless Pastor Doug White and those who served the poor at "Lamb's Lunch" today in affluent Boulder, Colorado. May their numbers increase; may their ability to communicate truth in love increase, even as the numbers of those without physical and spiritual homes decrease.

14 comments:

Clint said...

Dr. Groothuis,

I've been observing your posts for the past 2 or 3 months. I have found this post the most interesting, inspiring and important (and detailed, but it doesn't start with an "i"). Thanks for the post.

Clint

Adam Omelianchuk said...

Doug,

I was very blessed to read this this morning. Thanks for the vivid words.

Blessings!

anonymous said...

John Stockwell,
Amazing.
Preaching equated to pimping.
Why should White not do two good deeds instead of just one?

Douglas Groothuis said...

Stockwell's absurd and idiotic comment has been permanently deleted.

Yossman said...

I just wanted to give him a good piece of my mind. When do comments become obscene?

DG: It's a heartwarming report of what spirit-filled people are doing in the name of Christ. Very inspiring!

Man shall not live by bread alone. In fact with bread alone man shall die.

Cheerful Curmudgeon said...

I did find Mr. Stockwells comments to be interesting and rather pointed. However, for someone outside the context of my role as pastor and also looking from the outside in and receiving the commentary from impersonal communication (such as a web-blog) it may appear different and quite incomplete.
Dr, Groothuis, you mentioned in your commentary that no one heckled at the luncheon. But now you have drawn a heckler on your web-blog. The first time that I delivered a message at the Lambs lunch I did encounter many passionate hecklers. They also did not know me as a pastor (yet) and they were looking in at me from the outside. One heckler was banging a metal cup over and over, choking on congestion as he passionately screamed things to divert me during the presentation. He challenged the message with all of his strength, but I continued with the message and lovingly and peacefully answered his passionate questions in front of the crowd without being diverted. Actually, his questions and behavior made the point exactly! One month later, I delivered another message and this same person helped with crowd control. He raised his hands and passionately screamed: “Shut up, this man preaches the truth”. He wasn't so loving in his response to the hecklers but he became a passionate advocate for the Message of Christ being delivered.
Dr. Groothuis, you know the context, you know my role as a pastor, you know me as a good friend and you were a direct eyewitness at the Lamb’s Lunch event. Therefore, I believe that you offered an accurate colorful commentary of the situation. The apostles had similar experiences with Christ. They knew his role as the Good Shepherd. They were invited to be Christ disciples from all walks of life (e.g., outside in, social outcasts, etc.). They knew Christ as a good friend (and more). They were direct eyewitnesses to His supernatural power, His authority, and His compassion. By the way, in mentioning the similar experiences the apostles had with Christ, I am not equating myself with Christ. However, the similarity is that by faith I am attempting to follow in His footsteps of truth, love, and compassion as a Christian and pastoral shepherd.
Dr. Groothuis, you know many other personal details about this ministry that you did not share in your commentary and these details may help Mr. Stockwell and others who see preaching as pimping. I appreciate that you gave objective commentary about the Lamb’s Lunch and did not violate our friendship by sharing more details about me. I am willing to add a little more commentary about the context of other experiences directly related to this event. Please keep in mind that this media format is still a web-blog and your audience will not get to know me through Internet transmission, nor will they truly know the experience of ministering to the homeless by reading this, nor will they be direct eyewitnesses. I hope these added details help fuel a passion for people to personally attend or serve at Lamb’s Lunch or any other ministry outreach that serves the least, the lost, and those in need of compassion and mercy without condition. These added details will start with “I” because they are a first person unpacking of direct and personal interaction.
(1) I often sit and share a meal with the dinner guests. (2) I serve food to the dinner guests. (3) At their requests, I pray with them. (4) I gave bus tokens to those who asked for transportation help. (5) I brought medical supplies to someone who was bleeding and could not get up and get in the food line. (6) I brought food to someone who was unable to walk to the food-line. (7) I accepted a phone call from someone after the meal who was subsequently put in jail and I prayed for this person and met with this person after they were released. (8) I sat next to a hospital bed and held the hand of one younger person who had stopped breathing five times and was bleeding internally from the consequences of an addiction. I also provided pastoral help with this persons loved one. All of these added details were with people that I have dealt with over this last week from the homeless ministry. I did not give names or other personal details that would breach confidentiality. I also did not release all of the experiences for there were many more. These details are not about exploiting the hurting and the details are not about fabricated stories and impersonal souls these are my friends and God truly and deeply loves everyone of them. So do I! May God bless all of you as you extend loving arms and support and unconditional love to anyone in need.
Pastor Doug White

Yossman said...

Stockwell's mistake is that of creating a false dichotomy between fysical and spiritual bread. Every act of charity is based upon a non-material spiritual worldview. They are always connected.

There are some worldviews that are solely concerned with material well-being without paying attention to the spiritual side the likes of which you will find under former Marxist regimes as well as many Western nations infused with a high dose of socialism. In the former category we know what it has led to, in the latter it is being played out in history. 'Material charity' leads to self-destruction.

From the Christian viewpoint it is utterly wrong to say: "I love you, therefore I give you food, but I will not impose the truth that might set you free from the very bondage that is at the root of your fysical misery."

That in fact would be lack of love.

John Stockwell said...

Thank you Pastor Doug for rising to my challenge and bringing in some reality. I was about to choke on the saccharin plattitudes. Treating people like human beings transcends relgious agenda.

I see that DG is still quick on the censorship button. Without my post, we would never have heard your side of the story.

Small Group Guy said...

Well, I missed Stockwell, but I wanted to say...way to Go Dr. G.

Finally a good exhortation to remember that which God favors MOST... The poor, the homeless, the fatherless, the widow and so on.

2 Tim 4:2 reminds us to "...exhort with all longsuffering and teaching". In my opinion part of longsuffering is sharing the gospel with those who the seed might not grow for years and years and trusting God to do the rest. The homeless are a good example of that population.

It is easy to preach to the guy in the beemer who tithes without financial worry, who enables so much ministry. The question becomes though, enabling the ministry to who?

Douglas Groothuis said...

It is my blog, Mr. Stockwell, and if I deem something deeply disrespectul and offensive and counterproductive, I zap it. That is exactly what your comment was. And it was made with no evidence for the accusation given.

et said...

Yossman said:

"From the Christian viewpoint it is utterly wrong to say: 'I love you, therefore I give you food, but I will not impose the truth that might set you free from the very bondage that is at the root of your fysical misery.' That in fact would be lack of love."

Well, we utterly disagree on approach and the word "impose" but we both agree that the ultimate display of love is to help others find a saving relationship with Christ.

But evangelism is a process that nearly always spans more than a single event. It involves building relationships, gaining trust, and most importantly, *demonstrating* genuine, unconditional love--the same kind of love Jesus has for all of us sinners--while living a Christian example.

When a homeless person witnesses a sincere act of unconditional love, it truly surprises them! I know because they have said so--I sometimes get the opportunity to share a meal with homeless folks--and when it happens, it can spark an interest in finding out more about these strange and unusual people. When they observe over time that you appear to be consistent and genuine, it can lead to opportunities to build personal relationships, which can lead to opportunities to share the good news of gospel, which can lead to the ultimate loving gesture, leading them to a saving knowledge of, and relationship with, our God almighty, through His Son, Jesus Christ.

We don't really disagree on principle so much as process. Simply feeding "the least of these" because they are in need (just as Jesus did), without imposing conditions of any kind is just one part of the evangelistic process and I applaud all efforts to follow this process within the homeless community.

Yossman said...

ET:

I don't really understand your response to my comment. I was simply defending Doug White's preaching to the homeless against a rather unfriendly comment by Stockwell who equated Doug's preaching with pimping. A comment zapped into oblivion by the author of this blog. Maybe you missed it.

I was not talking about this process or that approach. I simply argued that Christian charity is born out of Christian compassion and Christ's commission to us Christians to bring the message of reconciliation to everybody. Our commission includes a host of other things as well, including healing the sick, setting the captives free and looking after the poor.

Whichever process you favor hardly interests me as long as you do justice to the whole commission, which will always include two components: the horizontal as well as the vertical, i.e. the God-man relationship as well as the inter-human relationships.

Some will start with the horizontal others will emphasize the primacy of the vertical. It's an interesting debate as long as we incoporate both into our mission. Too strong an emphasis on one of these will result in either love without reconciliation or truth without compassion.

And as far as Doug White's ministry in concerned, read his own comment above and see how he is building relationship over time and how he sees results over time. He is process oriented. May God bless him and other like him.

By the way, I used the word 'impose' in an ironic sense.

Glen Woods said...

Hi there Dr. Groothuis. I found your blog through a link today. I just wanted to say hello and thank you for sharing your thoughts for folks like me to learn. Thanks!

Blessings,

Glen Woods

et said...

Yossman:

"By the way, I used the world 'impose' in an ironic sense"

My mistake. I don't know how I could have missed that. I'm definitely out of my league here.

Thanks.

ET