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…