Tuesday, February 06, 2007

A Church Home for the Homeless

What a novel concept. Church not merely as a place for the homeless to get basic life services, but church as a worship experience for the poor and homeless. The story is in this morning's NY Times. Here's the link--http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/06/us/06homeless.html?th&emc=th

This is a story about taking church outdoors because the homeless and street people often will not come inside a church for worship. The remarkable thing about it, is that it is working. Sponsored mainly by Episcopal Churches in various large cities, they are taking the singing, homilies, and Eucharist to the streets. And interestingly, people are lining up to participate. It appears that if you will go to them and show up in a environment where they are comfortable much can be accomplished when it comes to the poor, the homeless, the addicts, and the prostitutes.

Tony Campolo tells a story about when he was in Honolulu to do a Christian event, and late one night could not sleep. So he goes to the local greasy spoon at about 3 a.m. The waiter has a dirty apron on, and Tony orders bad coffee and a doughnut.

The overweight waiter who is also the owner slaps it on a plate and then wipes his hand on his apron. Not long there after all these women come into the place. Its the local prostitutes. They sit on either side of Tony, some 8 of them sitting on stools and they start talking as if he is not there. The one to his left is named Agnes. The girl on his right is ragging on Agnes and teasing her. Agnes makes the mistake of saying that tomorrow is her birthday. "No big deal" says the other girl, "we all have them." Agnes says "Yeah, you're right no big deal. I've never had a birthday party anyway." Eventually the girls get up and leave.

Tony asks the owner--

"Do those girls come in here every night?"

"Yep", says Marty the owner, "why do you ask?"

"Well, what would you think about having a birthday party for Agnes tomorrow night right here, same time? I'll go get the cake in the morning."

Marty calls he wife in the back-- "Hey Louise, this guy thinks we should have a birthday party for Agnes... what do you think?" Well turns out they both think its a nice thing to do.

Marty says to Tony: "No way are you buying the cake. I'm making it."

"Fine" says Tony, "I'll get the balloons and stuff."

Well the day comes and goes, and Tony shows up at 3 again. They decorate the diner, and out comes a nice sheet with Happy Birthday Agnes on it and lots of candles. These girls are all in their late 30s and 40s. Sure enough they show up at 3:30 sharp, and Tony and the owners say "Surprise Agnes", and start singing Happy Birthday to you, and bring out the cake.

Well, Agnes is stunned, having never had a birthday celebration before. Marty says " Blow out the candles."

Tony interrupts and says "Wait, if you don't mind I'd like to say a prayer first for Agnes." And so he does--- thanking God for Agnes life and saying that she is a person of sacred worth created in God's image.

There is an awkward pause, and then Marty says again "Blow out the candles and cut the cake." But Agnes is crying and says, "Could I wait just a bit on cutting the cake? I'd like to take it down the block to my Mom's and show it to her first."

"Sure," says Marty, "It's your cake."

No sooner does she leave then Marty says to Tony, "Hey I didn't know you were a minister. You didn't tell us you were gonna get all religious. What kind of church do you serve?"

"A church where prostitutes are welcome", says Tony.

"Nah", says Marty, "There's ain't a church like that, because if there was I'd go there. I'd feel welcome to.

"Honest" says Tony, "You could come to my church, Jesus loves everybody and accepts them and starts with them where they are."

Well, turns out Tony is right. There are some churches where the homeless and the drug addicts and the street people and the prostitutes are all welcome. But sometimes you have to take it to the streets to serve them and help them worship the only God there is-- who is their God too.


Anonymous said...

I love it!

yuckabuck said...

I'd forgotten the Campolo story- We really need people like him spurring us on to good works. The highlight of my time at Geneva College was his visit there in 1991.

I'm reading a book about a guy who holds church services for the homeless under an interstate bridge in Texas. His group is called Mission Waco and the church is called.. well, Church Under the Bridge, of course. The book is Trolls and Truth by Jimmy Dorrell.

Ruud Vermeij said...

I'm involved in church services for the homeless in my town.
The Salvation Army has a Service Center here, where they can stay during the day and wash their clothes and so on. On sunday afternoon there is a church service of 1 hour. (So it's indoor, but not in a church building. It is very much in their own environment.) Some of them are participating (setting up the sound system, playing a guitar.) During the week someone organizes a Bible Study in the same place.
People of various denominations are involved in these services. Sometimes it is very noisy and people walk in and out during the service. But most of them come to meet the Lord!

Ben Witherington said...

"And the goats will say, when did we see you naked and not cloth you, or hungry and not feed you, and in prison and not visit you?" The King answered: "Inasmuch as you have not done it to the least of these, you have not done it to me."

Maybe we could have a whole new theory of church growth, one not tied to targeting upwardly mobile middle class people? Maybe we should in the first place go after the least, last and the lost, those who we can't extract money from? Maybe God would especially honor a self-less approach to evangelism, kind of like Jesus' approach during his ministry? Just a thought.


Unknown said...

There is a 20-minute film called The Least of These which tells a modified version of this story (crediting Campolo as the source). It's nicely done, with low cheesiness.

Find it here

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing this awesome story with us! This is a perfect example of the Love and Grace of Jesus Christ!!

BC said...

When I was in third grade, our pastor told a story about telling a homeless man that he could not come to worship unless he showered first. That bothered me then, later I felt i agreed with the pastor. Now I feel ashamed that we feel this way as a church. What could be an accepting reason for turning away the hurting, the sick, the hungry?

John Lunt said...

A friend directed me to this post. Thanks very much for posting in. I'm involved in a simple church downtown with the homeless. I've been amazed what God will do if we just get past our own preconceived notions about what church is and how it has to function.


Bucky said...

Thanks Dr. W. This story always touches me deeply. Some of us are trying to create a Ministry Center in Chattanooga, TN where the street people and prostitutes will find love and freedom. We just need about $4 million to purchase the facility. I'll let you know when we get it.

Irenicum said...

Wow! Thanks so much for posting this. You reminded me of the 3am donut shop and diner times I had in NYC getting to know some of the coolest people you'll ever meet. I miss that. Some of my favorite memories are from those places and times.