Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers,
for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.
Just across from the fragrant French café, she ensconces herself on a bench under a sheltering canopy of trees. Billowing layers of dusty black cover her substantial, queenly form. A rusty shopping cart piled high with detritus and leaf-littered blankets leans against her rickety throne. She picks up a wrinkled newspaper, but her eyes travel up to the passersby rather than down to the faded words. She scans the sea of faces floating by on the dappled sidewalk, searching for something.
Whatever it is she’s looking for, she finds in mine.
“Excuse me, dear,” she beckons, in a low, genteel voice. “Could you spare any change?”
Though we’ve long since moved on from our temporary dwelling in Westwood Village, The Queen still haunts me sometimes. I wish I’d gotten to know her better. She was one of scores we encountered there, living in community with other residents of L.A.’s college-town neighborhood: UCLA students, medical professionals, yuppies, immigrants, millionaires. And the denizens of the streets. For the most part, we all got along pretty well. I just made sure I had plenty of “change” before I walked to the drugstore.
In Los Angeles, it’s hard to keep one’s head in the sand about the growing problems of hunger and homelessness in America.
As I’ve said before, if you have to live outside, southern California’s not the worst place to do it. The ‘unhoused’ are everywhere here. Even in Culver City. There are huge colonies in affluent Santa Monica, camped out across from luxury hotels. Droves downtown. I imagine there are even some brave souls who camp out in parks in Beverly Hills.
It’s easy to objectify “them.” Put them all into a safe little category. Separate them from “us.”
I am fascinated by their stories.
Once, I was eating solo at the Subway in Westwood, sitting outside on the sunlit sidewalk patio. A rumpled gentleman approached, and inquired whether or not I might be able to help him acquire some lunch. After his purchase, he came back outside and asked if he could join me. There were no awkward pauses in the meal-time conversation between strangers. Without my even asking, his story poured out. He told me that he had taught some kind of esoteric science at UCLA before a series of calamities landed him in his current circumstances. Or so he said. Or so he thought.
It didn’t matter.
He was making a point:
I used to be an “us,” like you.
I’ve lived a fairly sheltered life; been protected from many unpleasant realities. It came as a shock to discover that there are more than 500 homeless people living in my hometown of Athens, GA. Home to the University of. Site of history, hospitality, art, music, culture.
There’ve always been a couple of pan-handlers downtown. I confess to having stereotyped them as drunks that don’t want to get too far away from the downtown bars.
But this is unprecedented. There are communities of people living under bridges.
In my backyard.
What does it have to do with me?
Back in November, I posted a piece called “Restless.” I wrote, “I feel like I need to be doing more with my life in the time I have left.”
There were several factors playing into that.
One of them was the impact of reading Katie Davis’ book Kisses From Katie. I’ve known of Katie’s ministry for a while, and occasionally check her awe-inspiring blog. But the book totally blew me away.
In a nutshell… she is a young woman who gave up “everything” to embrace life as the adoptive mother of 13 girls. In Uganda. At age 21. And started a ministry called Amazima. Amazing doesn’t begin to do her story justice. (And, no, she’s not crazy.)
I came across a video of her on YouTube that struck me to the core.
She’s just a baby. Twenty-two now, I guess. She was describing her reaction to this type of comment, which she must receive a lot:
“Wow. You are so lucky that you found what God wants you to do with your life.”
Her response (verbatim):
“I kind of look at those people and think, why I didn’t find it, it was just in the Bible. And as someone who calls themselves a Christian, then it is very apparent that you are to love the Lord with all your heart and then you’re to love your neighbor as yourself. And myself doesn’t want to be starving and so I don’t want other people in the world to be starving.”
Later in the same video clip, she reminds me (us):
“Jesus does not ask that we care for the less fortunate, he demands it. When calling ourselves Christ-followers, caring for orphans and the desolate and the widow is not an option, it’s a requirement.”
Out of the mouths of babes:
The simple truth.
(If you have time, here's the video clip.)
(If you have time, here's the video clip.)
Last fall, this phrase kept hounding me:
Peter, Kim, do you love me?
Then feed my sheep.”
“But how? Which sheep? Spiritual food? Or Food food? Send more money to third-world countries? Or try to write more inspiring blog posts? What difference does one (slightly pathetic) person make in the big scheme of things, anyway? What if my motive is just to make me feel better about myself, what if…”
Somehow, I sensed that this meant I needed to use my hands for more than just writing out another check.
I think many of us are overwhelmed by the constant barrage of tragedy that streams forth from the nightly news. Natural disasters. Wars. Atrocities. Famine. Poverty. We have become immune to much of it because of the sheer volume. It’s not our business, anyway.
There is a sense of detachment and futility. The problems of the world are so huge, and I am so small. I’ve got enough problems of my own. Enough tragedy.
When I first started getting the directive to feed some sheep, my initial reaction was to question my motive, my ability, and my relative insignificance in the Big Picture.
(This does nothing but lead to suffocating inertia, by the way.)
And it is my business.
I am reminded of the interchange between Scrooge and the ghost of Marley, his former business partner:
“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob.”
“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing his hands again. “Mankind was my business! The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forebearance, and benevolence were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”
As Katie reminded me, if I call myself a “Christ-follower,” then caring for those less fortunate is not optional; it is required.
It’s there in black and white.
Opportunity came knocking.
I jumped at it. Leapt at the chance to obey.
I don’t always do that.
But this time was the right time.
The Bigger Vision, an overflow winter homeless shelter, had finally… against many obstacles… opened in Athens.
My friend Mary and I drove down to the wrong side of the tracks and served “Shepherd’s Pie” to a group of grateful folks who filed in seeking shelter for the night.
Sheep feeding other sheep. Sharing what we’ve received from the Shepherd.
Those sweet people graciously allowed us the privilege of serving them. They gave us that gift.
We felt blessed, humble, and grateful.
In our house, we have a lot of doors that are supposed to disappear into the walls. “Pocket doors,” they’re called. Much of the time, I feel like a pocket door that’s gotten off the track. I’m not functioning the way I was meant to function. I’m not in the groove. Not doing what I’m supposed to be doing.
But in the physical acts of preparing food and transferring it onto a plate, I felt fulfilled. Full. They ate; I was satisfied.
Because I was doing what I was designed to do.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’ Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’” (Matthew 25:34-40)
We are all the least of these in one way or another. The ground is level at the foot of the cross. We are all... in some way... needy and hungry and lonely and longing for something more. Incomplete. I believe that under the
right wrong circumstances, we are all capable of absolutely anything.* The saints are still sinners.
Each time I walk past someone sleeping on the sidewalk, I remind myself:
But for the grace of God, there go I
…there go you?
*Well-known Bible Study teacher Beth Moore's own sister was living under a bridge two years ago. To read her incredible story, go here: http://blog.lproof.org/
|Barbara and Richard Anderson, indomitable team behind The Bigger Vision|
| A warm place to sleep.|
Katie Davis reminded me that God can use one person to make a difference. If you live in the Athens area, and would like an opportunity to serve or donate, contact The Bigger Vision, http://www.biggervisionshelter.org/
(Thanks for taking the time to read such a long post!)