Twenty-nine of us filed into the clothing bank at Denver Rescue mission. We were there to help DRM tear down an old room set up and organize clothes. But first, we were told to pick out a pair of pants and a shirt. This would be our uniform for the next four days, with no option for showering. The room that seemed so huge and full of possibilities just a few moments before that announcement seemed to shrink as all of the ladies glanced at the single rack of women’s pant options. Fashion needs downgraded to what-can-we-actually-fit-into needs.
The next day we began our morning at Zion Baptist Church, a 149-year-old African-American church. Everyone was dressed to impress, with beautiful matching hats to brightly colored dresses and suits. We slid in with our backpacks and “homeless” clothes, ever so aware of how we stuck out in the sea of worshippers. The people were the sweetest and most welcoming and went out of their way to talk with us and get to know us. It is amazing how self-consciousness still lingered in my heart, even in the midst of such welcome.
Outside of the church, we were given a packet of information for a scavenger hunt and told to fast and give away our lunch. As we walked to the nearest bus route to get to our neighborhood destination, our small group of five began to feel the heat. Even in a white t-shirt, the sunshine bore into my skin as we continued walking and waiting to catch different busses. Our scavenger hunt was all about finding resources available to people in need, and it was a lesson in opening our eyes to understand where people come from and why they do what they do. Homeless people spend an average of 3 hours a day in line, we were told. I believe it – just waiting for busses over the course of the day took at least an hour and a half! We were told to pick up cans and research how much money a recycling center would give us. Less than a dollar per pound of cans is minimal compared to the work involved, especially when hauling those cans means several bus rides across town. We were told to research minimal cost of living in Denver verses minimum wage. The stigmas in my heart began to melt.
My natural reaction is to judge and say “Hey, why don’t these people want to change? Can’t they see that all they need to do is get a job and move on with their lives? Look at all the resources available to them!”
Yes, there are resources. But the number of beds available compared to the number of people that are homeless in Denver is astounding. And the rules and regulations and the heart behind some of these resources feel like binding red tape. And even if someone is offered a leg up, do they have the basic resources to really follow through with the job interview or the ability to pay for that rental situation? How can compassion even bloom in these scenarios?
Compassion is more than emotion. Compassion is propellant into action. I still fail at this, and my heart grapples for how to really respond to need. Do I really trust God to one day make all of this right? To partner with Him and do my part? What is my part anyway?
Another time on our scavenger hunt, we stopped at Safeway to fill our water bottles. As we walked to the back of the store, people slid to the sides of the aisles to let us pass. As we entered the restroom area, a family with a young 6 or 7 year old girl was waiting too. With wide eyes she stared at us and pushed her body to the back wall. When it was her turn to use the restroom, she walked past us, holding her nose. Shock raced through my veins. And then shame. How often have I judged by clothing? How often have I stopped to not understand? How often have I placed labels on people? Too many times.
On our way back from the scavenger hunt that Sunday afternoon, I sat next to a small little guy. He was surrounded by several very full bags and he was wearing many layers of clothing. He also could barely focused his crack-strained eyes. I asked him if he was hungry or thirsty and when he emphatically said yes, I gave him my lunch. This opened the door for a small, guarded conversation. He has been in Denver for three years (the same amount of time he has been dating his girlfriend). I inferred that he is now only 12 or 13 years old. His voice hadn’t even changed yet. And if he isn’t directly homeless (I am pretty sure he is though), his parent(s) definitely do not know where he is or what he is doing as he solo cruises the Denver bus system. Injustice rages in my heart this time. How can we as a society allow this to happen – how can we give 12 year olds this option to be on the streets? Yes, I understand a lot of teens run away. But where is the breakdown happening between getting them home or finding them a new home for them? And where does this breakdown happen in me? Would I make room in my family and fight for such a child as this?
I came home from Denver with bigger questions and wider eyes. I expect to see this city very differently from now on, not just as a place where I take my family for entertainment and fun. I expect to see angels on corners and realize that God is meeting vast needs, and yet there are still so many more. I recognize that my clothing and appearance have not only covered my skin, but also my heart. May I see with deep, penetrating eyes and not the quick glances (and the forgetfulness) of being busy.
My big take-a-ways from the trip:
– Ministry is simple. We conjure it up, elevate it, make it prideful and then expect many rewards. This weekend, I was reminded that there are no such rewards. God asks us to simply open our eyes everyday to the world around us, and be His hands and feet, and let the Holy Spirit comfort through us.
– I really do have time. I have believed so many lies, that my responsibilities are too great and my heart is too burdened to reach out.
– I have been walking in fear – fear of learning about homelessness first hand, fear of being moved to act by compassion (and not just resonating with those emotions).
– I am better together. When I worked on this missions trip with my Live One Life group, a discipleship group that has been meeting for the past two years, community flowed out of us and became our strength. We were able to move with one heart and one love. And we get to do life together still.
Matt and I waiting for a bus together