Living and Loving on the Margins

Peachtree and Pine is a bit of a notorious corner in downtown Atlanta, primarily because of the homeless shelter—by the same name—that occupies it. Walking alongside homeless men, women, and families has been part of Renovation’s story (and mine) since our pre-launch community service beginnings, but moving to our new home at 120 Ralph McGill put us exactly two blocks from this corner. As you might imagine, it has fundamentally affected the frequency of our interaction with homeless people in Atlanta. Brother’s will hang out in the bathroom of your building, during the worship service, and ask for money! (True Story)

We have been moved into deeper waters with this change, and have had to consider what our role in this city is with respect to this population of people. We’ve also had to consider how we should instruct Renovation’s members on how to engage well, both redemptively, and wisely.

If you believe that the church is God’s redemptive agent in the world, as we do, then you have to do the same. You have to ask the question: How are Christians supposed to engage with homeless men, women, and children or even just the poor of their communities? It begins with a conviction that you are called to do so. We all share that call.

Pastors and leaders, you MUST TEACH those you lead how to do this well, so that they are not hurt or taken advantage of, and so that they do not further injure, though their efforts be well intentioned, some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

When you accept the scriptural mandate to love those on the margins, then you’ll need some clear ways to do it well.

Below you’ll find what I hope are a few helpful lessons I’ve learned along the way.

1. These are people. God’s image bearers, and as such they should be treated with love, kindness, dignity, and respect. Even if they are disrespectful to you or themselves, show them the gospel in the way you respond.

2. But for Grace, there go I. We are not better than them because of our physical, mental, or emotional state. In fact, we may be worse off if we are the least bit self-righteous.

3. Do NOT give to pan-handlers. I have failed at this many times, but actively try to not do it. You can do so much more for someone by inviting them to be a part of your community. It will benefit them more to come, hear and see the gospel and the implications of it by how we love and serve them, than it will benefit them to receive a couple dollars. Just giving money usually only proves to assuage our conscience.

4. Homeless men and women need to be taught basic skills to re-enter and thrive in society. This requires time investment and reprogramming. Sure, giving them a meal and a means to keep warm is good and right, but it will only sustain them for a day, a week at most. Getting them connected to a Church/organization that can teach them how to function in society, if successful, could sustain him for a life time. Connecting them to the Atlanta Mission is an incredible opportunity to do so in my city. I imagine your city has something similar.

5. Many of them have stories of a life before.  Insert: drugs, alcoholism, spouse leaving/cheating, job loss etc. Ask them to hear their story, and you will most often gain their hearts.

6 Many people living on the streets suffer from mild to severe mental illness. Finding creative, non-governmental ways to serve this population is vital to the renewal of any major city, including your own.

7. If you feel safe doing so, when someone tells you they are hungry, invite them to dine with you at a nearby restaurant rather than sending them off with a few dollars to “buy food.” If they are truly hungry, most often they will go. This is a great time to share your life and the gospel. (1 Thessalonians 2:8)

8. There are entire homeless families. Love and serve their children, and you will find a straight path to their parents hearts.

9. In order to determine if they are hustlers, call other local churches, missions, and social organizations to find out if they know those you are walking with.

10. In some cases there is a measure of entitlement, as though they are owed what they are asking you for. Overcome this with the love of Christ, and the gospel. Do not display impatience or anger.

There is little that brings greater joy  than seeing someone restored spiritually, physically, and culturally. Though there is much I am still learning, knowing these things has helped me a great deal in loving the poor, marginalized, and homeless, as well as they will allow.

Any thoughts on these? Let’s chop it up in the comments…

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  1. I’ve found Bob Lupton’s thoughts helpful. If you haven’t read Toxic Charity, it’s worth the read. He’s also a fellow Atlanta resident.

  2. Number 7 on your list is particularly interesting to me. Breaking bread together is a deeply spiritual act. Nourishment for the soul happens there at the family table so the act of sharing a meal is more than just assuaging hunger pangs for a few hours.

    When was the last time that we can say we shared a meal with a complete stranger, whether homeless or not? I’m ashamed to say it has been a while for me.


  3. Amazing balance! Submitting a very challenging task to the Lord. This has amazing advice. I know I’m hurting most by giving these precious people money, but I hate when I can only buy them food or talk for a few minutes. I want to love at least a few of them more deeply (genuinely inviting some into community) and encourage others to join me.

      1. very heartfelt, informing and spiritual. I am so in agreement. I yearn the day I’ll be able to join my group with outreach. As you know, and I thank you for your prayers, I am going through a debilitating time right now with my cervical spine issue. My surgery was postponed the first time because of low sodium. I has been re-scheduled for Sept. 3rd. The specialists are telling me I will have 8 to 9 mos. down time, but I’m trusting in God. My heart is working for the Lord in the communities. I feel that downtime will be hasten all thanks to God.

        Please continue to keep Mother in prayer and love to all the precious saints.

  4. I dug this blog. I strongly agree with everything you said. I do want to add a caveat to no 3 which stems from believers at Renovation and other churches listening/heeding to the voice of the Spirit as they engage them. Begging to be filled by the Spirit before engaging them is a wise thing. Listening to the Spirit as we dialogue is crucial. So while there’s extreme wisdom in not giving to panhandlers, I’d also include there is godliness in doing so if the Spirit leads one to do just that.

    As usual, keep writing and blessing us readers, phi.

    1. Steven, I don’t disagree. I’m probably assuming the Spirit, since I’m talking to Christians. Great catch. There have been very few times, though they have happened, when the Lord led me to give someone money, but it was usually after the meal I mentioned in #7. Appreciate you my g. I’ll keep writing as long as the Lord see’s fit to make it useful.

  5. Good Morning! Thanks for the blogpost. Really helpful. Will be sharing with our discipleship fam. Just checked out Atlana Mission and I am drawing a blank on an organization that mirrors that in Detroit. Would you happen to know of any in Detroit or should I just google and research and go from there? Thanks!

    1. Good morning, doc! Appreciate your encouragement. I don’t know of any in Detroit, but I’m sure I can find out. Google might be quicker than me, but I’ll make some calls any way and see what I can dig up.

  6. Great article Leonce! The only point I would challenge is #3. Generally this is wise but so many of those on the street truly have need. Getting them connected to a caring church is ideal…but if the Spirit nudges your heart to give…DO IT. I try to bring with me local food vendor coupons and give them one of those. Plus many cities have lists of where to go to get meals or free health care–that is another tool to use. But the biggest thing we can do is ask them a question: tell me about yourself and your journey? Shows dignity…Good article.

  7. Seriously…I appreciate this post so much! I serve in a church in Williamsport, Pa that broke off of the Salvation Army, and focuses much of it’s attention to homelessness and hunger prevention. Having been involved for close to 10 years, I have learned and grown into the truth that you’re sharing here. Most people, even with good intentions, can be unfamiliar with homelessness and then are misguided in their attempt to help. Anyway, this post is DEFINITELY needed and communicates some of the lessons that only my involvement has been able to teach me. Thanks again for writing and continuing to push ahead to LOVE the homeless in your community by doing what is best and not just what assuages the conscience.

  8. Hey Leonce–such great thoughts. One point I’ll put out there for your response: I was taught a long time ago by a homeless ministry I worked with the same you say in #3–don’t give to panhandlers. I lived by that for a while. It forces you to know the resources in the community and be able to connect people to them. However, there are problems: 1) there will always be more panhandlers than you have time to connect. 2) Mt 5:42 is always just ringing in my ears and doesn’t come with a condition. So I have come to the point where I don’t think those two things (sharing the gospel and engaging relationally/giving a few bucks) are necessarily mutually exclusive. After all, people living on the edge are just trying to scrape by (especially if they have significant mental illness). Your thoughts?

    1. Zach, as I said to Steven, I think trusting the Spirit in those moments is vital. If God leads to give money, always obey God. If we’re honest though, most of us (me included) have given money because we didn’t want to do the hard work not because we were overwhelmed by homeless people. It’s just easier to give away $5 than it is to give a guy a ride to the shelter, or hear his story over a meal.

  9. Hello!! My husband and I have been ministering to the homeless for probably a year now in one of the suburbs of Memphis. We have found most of these people we have encountered just want to be heard. We tried to establish a relationship with them over several months of making P&B sandwiches and just going to find our “homeless friends”. Definitely important to establish a relationship so they will trust you When you Do talk to them about spiritual matters. One incident stands out in my mind….we were in our car one evening chatting with a guy named Mike who has been on the streets for some time! He was definitely a veteran of the area. As we were leaving and his was devouring his vegetable soup we made him, he asked us our names and said “I’ll be praying for you Brandon & Shelley!” As we drove off Brandon looked at me and said “Wow, who would have thought that we would have the homeless praying for US!”❤️ They are someone’s son, daughter, brother, sister, friend and it is our responsibility to treat them as such and love on them without enabling. Tough to do but through prayer God will pave the way!! Great read Leonce…as always God bless u and your ministry!!😊

  10. Great points to chew on. For several years, I lived directly across the street from Woodruff Park, arguably one of the most notorious areas in downtown Atlanta for panhandling. I personally wish there were more conversations to openly discuss and expand upon your comments on mental illness. I wish churches were leading these conversations. Many churches still seem largely silent on the topic of mental illness even though it affects roughly 1/4 of the U.S. population. I’m not sure why that is…but I pray for conversations to begin. I imagine a number of people are experiencing homelessness due to severe mental illness and lack of adequate care. How do we determine the Church’s role in caring for the needs of those suffering from mental illness?

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