Pastor Steve’s Full Blog Posts
Years ago there was a group of churches, all of whom had food ministries to the poor of one sort or another, and we were discussing how to do our ministries better. The question came up: how can we minister to the poor who come to us? They aren’t looking to the church to be delivered from sin or death, necessarily, but they would like us to help fill their bellies and the bellies of their children. How do we make the leap from meeting physical needs to meeting spiritual ones?
We bounced about different ideas, but nothing practical or reasonable came about. Usually it is administrative staff or those who have a heart for meeting physical needs that are caring for the poor, and these aren’t the folks who are gifted with the ability to counsel. They could give people a piece of paper, inviting them to church, but as we have seen in a previous article, that doesn’t usually meet the needs of the poor. The staff person could refer a person to a pastor or prayer partner, but frankly, the poor person probably won’t contact anyone. When a person is faced with a severe crisis, most of the time they don’t take the time to contact strictly spiritual counselors.
As is often the case, when dealing with ministry questions we can turn to Jesus for the answers. Funny how that works out, huh?
What did Jesus do with every poor person that he met up with? He may have given them some teaching, or words of wisdom. He might feed them or help them in some other way. But every single one he prayed for. He would pray for healing, pray for deliverance, pray for resurrection, even. And prayer is the easiest, most powerful act we can do for anyone.
I note that for myself it is often easier to give someone a can of food or a phone number than it is to remember to pray for the one in need. I’m a pastor, I’m supposed to remember these things. But as a member of a materialistic society, it is easier to think of “real” things than spiritual ones. Of course, God is more real and can offer better help than our local social services or government. And we don’t have to fill out a form or show our ID to get God’s help. All we have to do is ask.
And if we have difficulty remembering this, how much more our poor friends who are faced with back rent, utilities, children to feed or a hole in their tent. They think that the quickest, more direct solution to their problem is to ask for the money or physical thing they need. Prayer seems like a distraction.
What we can do is not try to convince them that prayer is important. Rather, we just invite them to pray. We don’t need to change their belief, we need to show them that we care enough to bring their needs to the Lord of the universe. If we invite them to pray, spending time in prayer is their choice. I am so surprised at how many people come back to me after I pray with them but did nothing else, and mention how much the prayer helped them. I hear ‘thank yous’ for prayer much more than for blankets.
Here is the basic ministry every follower of Jesus can (and should) offer a needy person:
We should ask, as Jesus did, “What do you need?” And more often than not, they will tell their story. We don’t have to correct their presuppositions or pity them. All we have to do is listen and understand. Having someone really understand your problems is the first step of healing.
If we just ask if they are willing to have us pray, 99 percent of all people will be willing to have us pray. And 90 percent will be happy to have us do it. To pray for them means we heard, we agree they have a need and, more than that, it communicates that we think God will meet their need. But the most important thing is that prayer opens the opportunity for God to directly minister to them and to build up their faith. If we pray, and the prayer is answered, then they will thank God and give Him credit. If we don’t pray, God may act, but He will not be glorified.
Help with what we can
We must take James’ warning to heed: If we bless the person in need, but do nothing to help their immediate need, we are faith without works: our spiritual life is dead. So after the prayer we see what we can do to meet the person’s need with what we have. We should not allow a person to hang up the phone or leave our facility without giving them some real help.
“Will not God bring about justice for His elect who cry to Him day and night, and will He delay long over them? I tell you that He will bring about justice for them quickly.” (Luke 18:7-8)
Joan and Cliff walked in late to the worship service. Their clothes had holes, and who knows when the last time was Joan had brushed her pink-dyed hair? During the prayer service, Joan stood up and explained that she and Cliff were about to lose their housing and that they needed finances to help them through. After the service a few people welcomed them briefly, but as there was a board meeting, they were quickly left alone. They never came to the church again. What no one understood is that they weren’t actually there to ask for money, but they were looking for a church to get involved in. They ended up in a large church that they could get lost in.
Rob has been on the street for many years. When he first came to the church, he was smelling of alcohol, wore shabby clothes and interrupted the service, begging for someone to pray for him. The church was flexible, and stopped the order of worship in order for a group to lead the congregation to pray for Rob. The sermon was a little shorter, but no one minded. Rob came to the services for a few weeks and then he confessed to a member that he wouldn’t be coming back. “You guys are great,” he said, “but I’m not the same as you. I don’t belong here.” Although the member strongly disagreed, Rob didn’t come back.
Some of us might assume that Rob or Joan and Cliff just don’t belong in church. Or that they aren’t ready to make a real commitment to God. The fact is, they are as ready as any of us to be right with God. But connecting to a community of God’s people isn’t as easy as being welcoming. We need to be the right sort of culture, as well.
Everything we do has to do with culture, including our worship. How we sing (if we sing), the style of prayer, the order of service, the clothes our people usually dress in, the way the pews or chairs are arranged—all of this communicates our cultural viewpoint. And as we have said before, many of the poor have a different cultural viewpoint than their middle class counterparts. Many of the poor walk into a service and they can’t pinpoint what it is, even if the people are welcoming or happy to see them, there is something uncomfortable about the proceedings.
The answer Anawim came for this is to have a separate worship service for the homeless and mentally ill who otherwise wouldn’t come to church. We believe that the homeless should be able to worship the King who was homeless in a manner that the homeless feel comfortable. The mentally ill should worship the Lord who was called insane and demon-possessed, and be able to interrupt sermons with their immediate needs, even as Jesus allowed interruptions. The poor should be able to worship the One who gave up his riches to become poor. The outcast should worship the one who was forsaken by all.
We are attached to our cultural forms of worship, so we wonder why the poor should have a separate worship service. It is the same issue as our youth—why should they have a separate meeting? What about our local Hispanics or Vietnamese? They know English, why can’t we worship together? We recognize the cultural issues are different enough to not think twice about their own worship times. Even so, the poor have cultural issues that need to be addressed by the poor, or at least those who have the poor first in mind.
Some tips to creating a separate worship space for the poor:
Go to where the poor are
Go to a homeless shelter, a food bank, a day shelter or a free meal and hold your worship there. The closer you hold the worship to the benevolence service, then the more are likely to come. If there isn’t a service for the poor in your immediate area, use your facility to establish a meal and then bring worship into it, once the benevolence is established.
Worship liturgically but flexibly
The context of the worship should seem casual. Sit in a circle, on folding chairs that can be moved, or around tables. All involved in the worship should dress in shabby clothes—if someone wears a tie, ask them politely to take it off so the others won’t be uncomfortable J However, keep the worship pretty structured. Follow the same pattern of worship every week. (Our pattern is: Lord’s prayer, two songs, a long scripture reading, two songs, teaching, prayer from the congregation.) Within that pattern, give people the opportunity to share what God is doing or to ask for prayer requests. Allow others to share songs, or to read (or quote) Scripture. Keep music simple—we sing acapella or with a guitar only.
Don’t Give Up
At first it may seem that an opportunity to worship isn’t something people are interested in. Probably people are working on trusting you. Make sure folks understand that you are there for the long haul, and not just a short-term project.
Take recommendations of how the worship can be better. Give the poor an opportunity to lead a portion of the service, or to help structure the service. If the entire service ends us being led by the poor, all the better. If you want to integrate the worship into your “normal” worship, do it on terms the new congregation accepts and appreciates. You may be beginning the new church, but it is their church, and they should be comfortable in their own worship.
If you’ve been following along, I have been encouraging all churches, everywhere to minister to the poor. For many churches, but not all, this means inviting all kinds of people into their facility, of all faiths, and some with no real faith at all. Let me tell you, when we welcome anyone and everyone into our holy place of worship, we get some interesting situations.
Some, without thinking, have blasphemed God in our sanctuary.
Others have attempted some sexual activity in worship areas.
And there are a few who have shown no regard to church authority, yelling at them, cussing them out, even threatening to hit them.
This kind of activity is not the norm, but it happens. And some church members, when faced with this, are deeply offended and want to punish such offenders severely.
In a recent book by Jonathan Haidt*, a professor of political psychology, he lists out a number of ethical norms that all people share. There are a few, however, that he separated out because people look at these ethical standards so differently than others. A couple of these are the ethic of sanctity and the ethic of authority. To have a value of sanctity is to say that there are some places or actions that are holy in and of themselves. The value of authority is to say that authority is granted upon certain people, and this authority must be recognized and respected. However, there are many people in our world today that do not hold to an idea of a sacred space or sacred action, and they may mock or do distinctly unholy actions in a place we consider deserving of reverence. Also, there are many people who consider authority as something to be earned, not granted, and so an authority is one who acts as an authority ought to act and they will then deserve respect.
It is interesting that Jesus seemed to take the idea of sacred space in a different way than most of us. The temple was a sacred space, but this meant that it needed to be open to the whole world. When the High Priest packed the Court of Women and Gentiles with money changers, Jesus drove them out, saying, “My house will be called a house of prayer for all the nations.”(Mark 11:17) It is holy for the sake of the whole world, not just those who have been set aside as sacred.
Jesus also held a different view of authority. While he didn’t disagree that a person could have authority handed down to them, the authorities that took on his name were not to take that authority for granted. The authorities appointed by Jesus are not to take on high titles, but instead are to act like servants to others, to be the most humble of all. ( Matthew 23:8-12; Luke 22:25-27)
The one most deserving of respect is God, the Creator and Father of all, Lord of Heaven and Earth. Yet this very God of gods grants respect to us all, by giving us the ability to make our own decisions and to hold authority on earth that is really His own. Even if we misuse His authority, He does not take it away from us. God asks for worship and praise, to thank Him for the never ending gifts He grants to us. Nevertheless, when some are ungrateful to Him, He never takes away the sustaining rain. When some speak of Him in an evil way, He never withholds his grace of food or life. Even to the most disrespectful and wicked He continually sustains. (Matthew 5:45; Luke 6:35-36)
Even so, we must welcome people to be respectful of our place and authority, but not punish those who do not give it. If we have offered food, assistance and love to all those who need it, then we should not take our ministry away because some have not offered respect. After all, we are the servants of Him who was despised by all so that He might save all, the one who taught us: “Blessed are you who are persecuted.” (I Peter 2:23; Matthew 5:11)
Some things to remember in our ministry to the poor:
Worship is to be offered, not demanded
Worship is a matter of the heart, not of action. We should never require worship as a payment for eating or other kinds of service. But we should always offer worship to the poor, giving them the opportunity to give thanks to the Giver of food and life.
Remind people of sacred space
We should not punish people for not respecting our sacred space, to take away the free gift of God because they disrespect the place where God dwells. Rather, we should gently remind people that the space they are in is holy and we should act with reverence, in as much as we are able (or remember).
The poor are constantly demanded of, and it doesn’t help them or your relationship with them to demand respect. To obtain respect from the poor, we must earn it. We must speak with gentleness, we must listen to them and understand their needs. We should go out of our way to meet their needs if we have the resources, and display sincere love for all. Then we will never have to ask for respect, because it will be given gladly.
*I highly recommend Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Religion and Politics.
A blog entry from July, 2011
Last Friday was my last day in leadership at Sunnyside Coffee House. My church would still be a part of cooking and serving food, once a month, but my bi-weekly visiting and praying with and serving the mentally ill and homeless of SE Portland is over. For now.
I was pretty sad about the whole thing. We cooked and served spaghetti (fresh basil and beef in the sauce, which was great) and then stood up to lead prayer. I announced my leaving and that Mark Woodson would take over. Many people clapped. Now, Mark Woodson used to lead the coffee house years before, so it was probably just joy that he’s coming back. But it felt like a slap across my face. I’ve regularly worked twelve hour days for these people, making sure that had enough to eat and stuff to take home. I’ve worked hard at creating a place of peace, so people would feel safe coming in, where there used to be people yelling and obnoxious shouting almost every week. I’ve been threatened, yelled at, cleaned up overflowing toilets, cleaned out a back storage room full of mouse feces. We have prayed people’s healings in, we had two weddings there, we showed movies, laughed and loved together. And I was deeply shamed at the rejoicing of my leaving.
At that point I remembered a story of Francis of Assisi. It’s pretty long, so I won’t quote the whole thing, but the summary is Francis saying, “Perfect joy is serving and suffering for your brothers only to have them reject you.” You can read it all here: The Perfect Joy of St. Francis
I said to myself, “Well, I guess no good deed goes unpunished. I just need to chalk this one up for eternal reward.” I was being pretty self-pitying, really.
As the evening wore on, it was clear that it was two of us: Styxx and myself, cooking and serving and cleaning for the hundred or so people who showed up. It’s a big job, but we were experienced and knew what we were in for. Pretty soon we had a number of people come up and thank us for the food, “This is some of the best food I’ve had.” Wow. Many times people would come and complain about the free food they received. This was different. A couple came up and asked, “Could you use some help?” and I honestly replied, “Yeah, we should could.” They came in and helped serve seconds to folks as I went into the men’s room to mop up an overflowing toilet.
In another twenty minutes, others, who did not ask to help, voluntarily wiped down all the tables, put the chairs up and swept up. Behind the counter, the couple cleaned up the counters and stove. All this work probably cut an hour off of Styxx and my evening.
A bit later Joline came up. She’s an older Native American woman who’s lived on the street for many years. She wasn’t doing well tonight. She was either a little drunk or sick or just depressed. She said, “Thank you for all you’ve done. Here’s what I have.” And she put in my hand her last eighty cents.
At this point I realized that Francis was wrong. Perfect joy isn’t being rejected. Perfect joy is working to build community where there was none before. Perfect joy is seeing people act like Jesus, especially those whom people say could never be discipled. Perfect joy is seeing God at work.
Buster didn’t really like me. I was new to the homeless scene and while he appreciated the food on occasion, he knew I was there to “save people’s souls” and he thought that I was as much use as a fourth leg on a tripod. But what most of the homeless know is that a middle-class pastor is a connection to the outside world, and sometimes that connection is necessary. And this day, Buster really needed me.
It must have been serious because I didn’t see Buster very often. He had a long trek, perhaps two hours, to get to the church, but he was there. After taking a breather, he approached me and said, “We need to talk.” I was a bit mystified because Buster had never needed to “talk” to me before. He talked about me, or at me, but never to me. So we stepped aside into my “office” (the middle of a field) and he said, “It’s about Bill.”
Ah. Bill was Buster’s camp-mate and drinking partner. Bill was an older gentleman, with an emphasis on the gentleman. He was always polite and kind, if a little self-absorbed. He had often showed up to church sober, only to have a seizure in the middle of the service. Over the year I knew him, Bill was gradually losing his sight. At first he was losing his night vision, but it gradually became worse so that Buster was leading him to wherever he needed to go. And after a month this, Buster needed to talk to me about Bill. This can’t be good.
“He’s going crazy. He’ll wake up in the middle of the night, screaming. And he’s always talking to people who aren’t there. He’ll wander off and fall. I’m afraid he’s really going to hurt himself. Could you get him into a hospital?”
“What kind of hospital, Buster?”
“He’s crazy. He needs to be taken care of.”
“Well, I can’t put him in a hospital, but maybe I could talk to him and convince him to go to a hospital to get checked out, and they could make their own decision.”
“Sure, that would be great.”
So I got the directions to their camp (behind-the-store-down-the-street-end-of-the-cul-de-sac-behind-the-wall-next-to-the-ditch) and agreed to seek Bill out at about 8 in the morning.
It took me a minute to find the camp, but the directions were quite accurate. At the end of the wall were three tents, next to the ditch. I did typical camp ettiqute, calling out “Hello!” before I reached the camp.
No response. That was odd because Buster said he’d make sure Bill was there. Perhaps Bill was still asleep, so I approached each of the tents, calling out his name. After that got no response, I called out Buster’s name. Nothing.
I wandered a bit further out. I saw a neat pile of camping gear to one side. Frankly, they kept a nice camp. No piles of trash, and the bathroom spot out of sight. That’s pretty good for a couple alcoholics. My respect for Buster deepened. He really knew how to live on the street. Keep a low profile, keep your camp neat, be polite to neighbors and they’ll leave you alone. And he was helping Bill all day, every day for months. He was rough-spoken, but a good man.
But I was still mystified. Perhaps Bill insisted to go with Buster. I looked around once more and then I saw.
About twenty feet away from the tents was a concrete ditch. And at the bottom of the ditch was a body, face down.
I climbed down the steep walls of the ditch, and shook the body. “Bill… Bill?” Nothing. I turned his face. Yep, it’s Bill. His lips were pale. His face was cold.
I climbed out of the ditch, pulled out my cell phone and dialed 911. “I think my friend is dead. He’s at the bottom of a concrete ditch.”
A half hour later, after his death was confirmed, a police officer came up to me and said, “You don’t look good. You’ve never done this before, huh?” I hadn’t. It wouldn’t be my last time calling in the coroner.
I looked up then and saw Buster walking up, seeing me and all the emergency services activity and looking confused. I went to him and just said, “He’s passed away, Buster.” For the first and last time, Buster and I held on to each other, needing the others’ support.
A few days later I called the coroner and asked him how Bill had died, wondering if he had wandered in the night and hit his head. “William didn’t die right away,” he said. “Although he hit his head, he didn’t have any internal bleeding. He died of hypothermia.” He froze to death on the concrete in the middle of the night, just far enough away from the tents that no one could hear him calling.
Buster met me later in the week and handed me a phone number. “This is the number of Bill’s sister-in-law. His family is back East. Could you give them a call and let them know?” Of course.
I call her and try to gently tell her the news. “So Bill was in Portland?”, she asked. Yes. “And he died of hypothermia at the bottom of a ditch?” Yes. “Good. After what he did to this family, he deserves whatever he got. You can be sure that I’ll let the family know and they’ll be happy about it. I’m sure he’ll go to hell. Thanks for your call.” And she hung up.
I have no idea what Bill did. I know that he spent some time in prison for it and ran across the nation to escape the shame of it. I suspect it was the shame that caused him to drink and to wake up in the middle of the night screaming, talking to people who weren’t there. I’m not sure, but that’s what I think.
But Bill was mourned in Portland, if nowhere else. We held a small memorial service. And I know that the traditional homeless mourning ceremony was also held—his friends gathered together, scraped up money for a beer each, and they each poured out their beer on the ground in memory of their friend. A drink and grain offering in memory of the dead.
May God have mercy on his soul. For few had mercy for him on earth.